Anemone heaven at Anemone City
Alor is the largest island in an archipelago of over 90 islands in southeastern Indonesia. The island is an underwater photographer’s dream—with endless reefs full of anemones, brilliant muck diving, and a place where local children don handmade, wooden goggles. It is also probably one of the best places in the world to see the holy grail of fish, the elusive Rhinopias. As with the other great dive spots in Indonesia, Alor lies within the Coral Triangle, home to more coral species than anywhere else on Earth.
The islands of the archipelago, collectively known by divers as Alor, lie between the borders of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The currents created by these two oceans contribute to the region’s fantastic biodiversity. The world-class muck diving is a definite draw for photographers visiting Alor. Inside Kalabahi Bay, divers have the chance to witness the weirdest and most wonderful critters on any photographer’s wish list. On Pura Island, black sandy slopes provide even more muck-tastic sites, while Beang Abang Bay is a very special spot where black sand stretches across a massive bay.
A divemaster studies a weedy Rhinopias
Robust ghost pipefish at Beang Abang Bay
Walls and reefs with the potential for pelagic sightings are also part of the diving experience in Alor. The contrast between the black sand present at most dive sites and the colorful soft corals, sponges, turnicates, and crinoids, make the walls and reefs magical places to photograph. Some of the southern areas of Alor can have cooler thermoclines, though the visibility is usually excellent.
Topside is worth a mention as there is a wonderful land excursion that takes you to visit a traditional Abui tribe. There is a very small community of Abui people keeping their traditions alive. The wonder begins as soon as you arrive at the village as you are greeted by bow and arrow wielding villagers dressed in warrior clothing. After they welcome you into their community, they introduce guests to another group performing what is known as the lego-lego dance. As the ladies in the group dance, their brass anklets make a wonderful jingling sound—a highlight for any photographer on an Alor trip.
Abui tribespeople in Alor
Diving in Alor
Mucky Mosque is a muck dive site inside Kalabahi Bay. The jump spot is marked by a mosque—hence the name. Good muck sites are a photographer’s playground as they usually have an immense number of subjects to shoot. Frogfish, Rhinopias, mimic and wonderpus octopus, pipefish, tiger shrimps, ghost pipefish, squid, flamboyant and crinoid cuttlefish, nudibranchs of all varieties, seahorses, fire sea urchins with Coleman shrimps and zebra crabs—all have been seen here.
Anemone City is mentioned quite a few times in this photographer’s guide because it’s a truly special place. The entire reef stretches along the south side of Pura Island and is literally covered in anemones—it’s simply incredible. It is a very unique place that photographers will not be able to experience anywhere else in the world. In fact, it is so unique that scientists are studying the phenomenon. Be sure to keep an eye out for traditional fishing cages lying along the reef. They provide a bit of contrast in the fields of anemone.
A weedy Rhinopias poses for the camera at Mucky Mosque
Situated on the north side of Kawula island, Tanjung Bacatan is perhaps not really part of Alor, but it the dive site is included in most liveaboards’ Alor itineraries. There is a picturesque bay overlooked by Lewotolok volcano, and the dive site is on the outer edge of this bay. It makes for an awesome drift dive.
The site starts off as a sloping reef, quickly dropping to a deep wall. Along the wall you can find pink squat lobsters relaxing on large sponges, beautiful sea fans providing a hideaway for pygmy seahorses, and a very special critter—the dragon shrimp—can be seen clinging to whip corals.
Further along the site, you’ll encounter a large plateau. This is a good spot to stop and look out into the blue. Eagle rays, gray reef sharks, schools of jacks, and huge napoleon wrasses have been spotted here. In the shallows, giant bommies covered in Christmas tree worms and swarms of anthias are a photographer’s delight. If you are really lucky you might catch a glimpse of a thresher shark or sunfish.
Anthias schooling over the reef at Yan Village
- Where: Alor is part of the Lesser Sunda chain of islands that runs from Bali through Komodo and Alor and all the way to the most eastern islands of Tanimbar.
- Language: Indonesian is the official language taught in schools but hundreds of other languages are spoken in Indonesia. English is becoming more widely spoken in some well-visited areas, but elsewhere it is very limited. Many resorts and liveaboards will have some crew who speak other languages such as French, German, Spanish and Italian.
- Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR) is the national currency. Credit cards can be used in larger hotel and restaurants, sometimes with a credit card charge. Some resorts and liveaboards will accept US dollars, Euros and Australian dollars.
- Time Zone: UTC +8 in Alor.
- Water Temperature: In the northern areas, it is warm all year round, ranging from around 79°F (26°C) to 86°F (30°C). In the southern areas, it can be 71–77°F (22–25°C) with cooler currents and thermoclines that can be as cold as 68°F (20°C).
- Air Temperature: Alor’s weather is warm all year round, usually over 80°F (27°C). It may feel cooler in the evenings especially if you’ve been in for the night dive and the water is cold.
- Diving Experience Level: All levels can enjoy the diving in Alor. Some experience of diving in current is recommended for diving in the Pantar Strait. When muck diving, buoyancy control is very important to prevent stirring up the silty or sandy bottom.
- Photography Experience Level: Buoyancy control is essential for any level of photography underwater. Muck dive sites are usually great places to practice macro photography in calm conditions. Bigger cameras in current can be harder to handle.
A dragon shrimp clings to a whip coral at Tanjung Bacatan
Underwater Photography in Alor
Alor’s dive sites seem to suit Rhinopias. Divers consider them the holy grail of fish because they are geographically restricted to very few places in the world and are also very difficult to spot on the seafloor. In Alor, you have the chance to see both the paddleflap Rhinopias (Rhinopias eschmeyeri) and the weedy Rhinopias (Rhinopias frondosa).
When visiting Alor, shrimp of all types and sizes should be added to your critter list. Bumblebee and harlequin shrimp are residents of muck diving sites in Kalabahi Bay, and tiger shrimps also seem to thrive across Alor. On one particularly busy day under a jetty, I spotted over 30 pairs of tiger shrimp!
Nearly all the dive sites have macro subjects. Even at the famous Anemone City, you can forego the wide-angle lens and focus on the inhabitants of the anemones. Here, there seems to be a high proportion of anemonefish with the terrifying tongue-biter parasite lodged in their mouths.
A tongue-biter parasite has replaced this poor anemonefish’s tongue
In terms of wide-angle subjects, your first stop must be to visit the children of Pura Island. The local children don homemade, wooden goggles as they plunge into the sea, straight for your dome port. You’ll also need that wide angle lens for the endless fields of anemones. Visibility is superb here, and the fields stretch literally as far as the eye can see.
Some dive spots have beautiful bays with black sand—great for muck diving—but at the edges of these sites the terrain becomes rocky and is interesting for wide-angle photography. Schooling anthias can be spotted fluttering over large Tubastraea coral. And be sure to keep an eye out for the colorful sea apple—a great subject unique to the southern part of this region. Thresher sharks and sunfish have also been spotted on early morning dives in Alor.
Two children from Pura Island peer over the side of their canoe
Underwater Photography Equipment for Alor
Alor has such a wide variety of photography subjects that you’ll want to have all of your gear with you. Compact cameras are useful here because you can capture a wide variety of subjects on every dive. For those that shoot with DSLRs, you’ll want to bring at least one macro and one wide-angle lens.
In terms of macro lenses, a 100mm or equivalent is a must for the tiny subjects. If you really want to fill the frame with the little critters in Alor bring a wet diopter. A 60mm macro lens could be a good option for Rhinopias or other medium-sized subjects such as giant frogfish. Of course, you can capture these larger fish with your 100mm lens, but you will have to back away a bit. As you do, be mindful of backscatter from the extra water between the lens and the subject.
For wide angle, the Tokina 10–17mm Fisheye (or a similar ultrawide rectilinear zoom) is great for the reefscapes and local children at Pura Island. Fisheye lenses can give you great shots of large areas but remember you will need strong strobes. Large strobes such as Sea&Sea YS-250s are a very heavy and bulky addition to your camera gear, but they are well worth the effort.
A close-focus wide-angle shot of a hermit crab
Underwater Photography Tips for Alor
Anemone City: At this famous site, try to stay around 10–30 feet for the best photo opportunities. This is usually a drift dive, and the currents are easier to handle at shallower depths. Visibility is amazing most of the time, so use the sun to light the reef. Try hovering slightly above the reef, pointing your camera down to get a unique bird’s eye view of the carpet of anemones.
A bird’s eye view of the field of anemones at Anemone City
Yan Village: Situated on Pura Island, Yan Village is the best spot to photograph local children. Make sure to ask your dive operator to arrange for the kids to be there during dive times—although it might cost a pack of noodles or a can of Coke per child! Even though you have the chance to see Rhinopias and other cool critters at this dive site, taking photographs of the children is a lot more fun. Don’t forget, even though they look like little, fearless fish, the littlest, cutest children can only dive down a couple of feet—so stay close to shore and hover in the shallows to get the best shots.
A child spearfishing using homemade goggles at Pura island
Kalabahi Bay: This bay has many great sites for night dives, and even though the water may be cooler here, a night dive is a must! These dive sites transform at night, and you will have the opportunity to see so many critters that you won’t encounter during the day. Be sure to bring a good focus light, and be careful with your buoyancy as there are a lot of sea urchins in the shallows.
Tiger shrimp hiding in a sponge at the Pertamina Jetty in Kalabahi Bay
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip to Alor
How to Get There: Flights to Alor can be made from Jakarta or Bali via Kupang. For liveaboard departures from Maumere, there are direct flights from Bali or flights via Kupang from Jakarta. Some of the airlines that offer domestic flights are Garuda Air, Lion Air, and Sriwijaya Air.
When to Go: Scuba diving in Alor can be done year round, though some muck critters might be a bit more prolific than others at different times of the year. The Alor-Pantar Strait is a major migratory route for many large south sea whales including blue, sperm, and humpback whales. August through November can be a good time to spot whales in this area, with September being the peak season for both sunfish and whales. However, sunfish can be seen any time of year—if you’re lucky and the water is cold. Large schools of pilot whales and dolphins also like to hang out in the strait.
Where to Stay and Dive: Liveaboards such as the Arenui and WAOW tend to be in Alor in April to June and again in August to October. This is because during this time of the year, liveaboard operators move between the major destinations of Komodo and Raja Ampat. Alor Divers and Alami Alor dive resorts offer land-based diving in Alor.
Money: You’ll want to exchange some of your native currency for Indonesian rupiah once you arrive. Airports are the best place to do this, as ATMs there are easily accessed. While US dollars and euros are usually accepted in resorts, and Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted in cities and tourist areas, having some local currency is always smart, especially if you want to purchase souvenirs at the Abui village.
Electricity: Outlets in Indonesia are usually 220V and fit two-pin round plugs. Double-check with your hotel or liveaboard to see what style they have, and if they offer adapters.
Entry Requirements: Citizens of most countries do not need a visa for stays less than 30 days, but be sure to check before you leave.
A fisherman in a picturesque bay overlooked by Lewotolok volcano