Editor’s Note: The author’s cruise in East Nusa Tenggara aboard the Seven Seas liveaboard was awarded for her winning image in the Wide Angle Unrestricted category of the 2017 Our World Underwater International Underwater Photography and Video Competition.
A lively reefscape at “Watu Balu,” a wide-angle photographer’s paradise
As I boarded the plane to begin the long trip to Indonesia, I knew I was about to embark on an exciting, new adventure, but what I didn’t realize was how amazingly diverse the experience—and how immaculate the reefs—would be. The “East of Flores” trip aboard the Seven Seas liveaboard includes several remote islands between Flores and Alor and features numerous dive sites that are both completely unspoiled and unknown to most divers. In additional to spectacular diving and snorkeling, we also had the opportunity to visit several fascinating villages and some breathtaking beaches. In all my 13 years of diving around the world, this would turn out to be the best-organized dive trip I have ever taken—and the finest liveaboard I have ever experienced.
After arriving in Maumere, the main town on Flores, we were picked up by the friendly and outgoing cruise director, Karl, along with several crew, who quickly grabbed our bags and shuttled us to the waiting liveaboard. The Seven Seas is an impressive traditionally built Buginese schooner, custom-designed to accommodate up to 16 guests in eight air-conditioned cabins with large public areas over three decks. As a photographer, I really appreciated the large camera table on the spacious dive deck as well as another working area inside the dining area with several outlets to charge all my gear. If that wasn’t already enough, there were additional global power strips in each stateroom. I was also pleased to find a roomy area to store our dive gear and dry our swimwear. To top it off, the upstairs dining and lounging area was a fabulous way to finish the day with a glass of wine, the sunset, and then dinner under the stars.
My dive buddy enjoys being “split” at Komba Volcano
After a checkout dive and steam into the night, we began our real adventure the next morning at Adonara Island. The highlight of the area was “Ipet Drop-off,” a dive site that’s a wide-angle photographer’s dream and similar to the current-swept dives I had experienced recently in Fiji. The ridge was covered with hard and soft corals, giant sponges, anemones, crinoids, and so many clouds of fish they were hard to see through. As I swam with my camera along the drop-off, I was overwhelmed by the incredible density of fish life and had a hard time deciding which way to point my camera—not a bad problem to have at all. I was happy with my decision to bring a fisheye lens to capture as much as possible of the beautiful scenery. We were treated to several whitetip sharks, eagle rays, dogtooth tuna, giant trevally, a large zebra shark, and massive shoals of anthias.
The next morning, we woke to an amazing sunrise over the gently smoking Komba Volcano, situated in the Banda Sea, northeast of Flores. As the sun came up, it lit up the face of the volcano with intense yellow-orange light, providing us with the rare opportunity to capture stunning images, as we were also the only boat in the area. A few of us had requested to be dropped off to snorkel in the blue right in front of the volcano, an excellent chance to capture some nice over-under shots. Shortly afterwards, we did two dives towards one tip of the volcano known as “Alice In Wonderland,” which featured healthy hard corals contrasted against black sand in shallow water. There was abundant marine life in the area as well as the nearby drop-off, which housed large sea fans and a diversity of fish life.
Another spectacular reef scene at “Watu Balu”
Our third morning kicked off with a visit to Lamalera Village, home to one of the last traditional whaling cultures anywhere in the world. The inhabitants maintain a 400-plus year-old ritual of hunting whales with handmade wooden harpoons. Exempt from the international whaling moratorium, the people use all parts of their catch for their sustenance. Whatever one’s feelings about the hunt, it was fascinating to learn how these people live and practice their ancient traditions. After lunch, we dove a beautiful wall nearby that was covered with hard and soft corals, sponges, anemones and abundant marine life.
My personal highlight of the trip happened on day four. We anchored at “Watu Balu,” a small rocky islet by Rusa Island that houses one of the healthiest hard coral reefs I have ever laid eyes on—as well as the most fish I have ever seen in one place! In the shallows, there is a short wall adorned with sponges and then a ledge with massive, perfectly stacked table corals teeming with clouds of anthias. Not only are there wall-to-wall corals but there are literally wall-to-wall fish between the corals!
Then, as you descend a bit deeper, there are numerous bommies and coral heads also encompassed by millions of anthias and other fish. A few members of our dive group also spotted a wobbegong shark and a large mola mola, but I was literally stuck to the coral heads with my camera like a piece of Velcro, so I managed to miss them. We were lucky to have quite calm conditions, as this site has a reputation for having strong currents, but it’s important to remember it’s the currents that bring in the fish that make this site so spectacular. And the cherry on top? Watu Balu happens to be located right opposite a spectacular talc white sand beach—the perfect venue for sundowners.
A huge shoal of anthias lights up a stunning reef
A diver inspects the otherworldly soft coral trees of “Alcatraz”
Our next stop was Pantar Island, and a unique dive site called “Alcatraz” featuring giant pink soft coral trees that reach approximately three feet in height and are spread throughout a field of white sand embedded with garden eels. Dropping down on these strange corals was like descending upon a foreign planet. There’s also a large wall covered with giant black coral trees, sponges, anemones and a beautiful crack towards the surface with tons of yellow corals.
Small Is Beautiful, Too
Pantar Island is also the home of “Beangabang,” a world-class muck diving site. As a wide-angle photographer who doesn’t even own a macro lens—but rented one specifically for this trip—I was more than a little apprehensive about finding and capturing images of such small creatures. My concerns were unfounded, however, as our dive guides were so skilled at locating the countless unusual critters throughout the first dive that I found myself wanting to quickly get back in for a second to photograph more of these strange aliens that I had never seen before. In just two dives, we encountered two seahorses, a juvenile yellow frogfish, a coconut octopus, two snake eels, a baby yellow filefish, multiple porcelain crabs and anemone shrimps, tons of clownfish, and several other animals I didn’t even recognize!
A shrimp at the eye-popping muck site of “Beangabang”
A seahorse strikes a regal pose at “Beangabang”
If that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, when we surfaced, there were numerous kids on the beach in front of their village throwing balloons up into the air. Although I didn’t have a land lens at hand, I quickly snapped a few photos through my dome port. These happy children seemed to be everywhere we went and seeing them so carefree just before sunset was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
The next morning, we arrived at South Pura Island, in the Pantar Strait, and ready to dive “Anemone City”—a city of Clark’s clownfish residing in the biggest carpet of anemones I have ever seen. Indeed, there are so many anemones that some don’t even have clownfish! Choosing my fisheye lens, instead of the macro, in order to capture more of the scenery, I spent the dive in the shallows admiring the endless parade of anemones and clownfish swaying in the current along with a variety of other fish, sponges, and corals.
A diver explores the impressive wall at “Solong Bali”
Split Shots and Scorpionfish
After lunch, we got to snorkel with the exuberant children of the Solong Bali Village, another big highlight of the trip for me. I chose to snorkel rather than dive because I wanted to capture some over-unders of the kids with their homemade goggles below the surface and the hand-carved wooden boats above. I got to interact with many of the children, and it was a real treat to see some of the boys demonstrate how they fish with handmade wooden spears. After almost two hours, I reluctantly climbed into the boat—I could have stayed all day, playing with these fun kids! That afternoon, we were treated to another spectacular wall dive at “Solong Bali,” which was densely covered with corals, giant sponges and anemones, and accompanied with abundant marine life, excellent visibility, and lots of overhangs with fish hiding inside.
Two local kids wearing homemade goggles enjoy getting their photograph taken
A young boy demonstrates his spearfishing technique
The next morning, we embarked on a four-hour land excursion to Alor, including a visit to the Aboi Mountain Tribe. The people, whose ancestors were headhunters, maintain long-established traditions including elaborate dancing and singing rituals, which they performed for us. They also demonstrated how to chew the betal nut and asked for volunteers from our group, but we all quickly realized the limits of our bravery! After returning to the ship, we strapped on our tanks at “Mucky Mosque” in search of the elusive Rhinopias. Within minutes, I heard one of the divemasters, Irwan, banging on his tank as he had already found a greenish-orange one sauntering along through the algae. If this wasn’t enough, we also found two peacock mantis shrimp, which was on my to-see list!
We were now reaching the end of the trip and I imagined we had probably already hit the best sites, but arriving at North Lembata Island on day nine, I was delighted to wake up to another impressive volcano—Ili Wariran—surrounded by stunning reefs. I elected to start the morning snorkeling the shallow reefs, as opposed to diving, to capture some nice split shots.
A snokeler shares an over-under shot with the Ili Wariran volcano
Later that day, we dove “Baeatan Wall,” which can be considered a wide-angle or macro site. I decided to use my macro lens one last time in search of a pygmy seahorse. It wasn’t long before our divemaster, Erol, spotted a beautiful red pygmy seahorse, but it was so tiny that my ill-considered attempts to use autofocus resulted in some lovely sharp images of its gorgonian home instead! It only occurred to me later that manual focus would have been a better plan. We also saw banded pipefish, ornate ghost pipefish, hairy shrimp, skeleton shrimp, and whip coral shrimp—plus reef fish species too numerous to count.
A sunburst adds drama to a beautiful reefscape
We finally reached the 10th and final full day of the journey, having made it back to Flores, but I wasn’t nearly ready for our awesome adventure to end. Anchored at Pulau Babi, we started the morning with a dive at “Deep Divers,” which wasn’t really a deep dive as we stayed between 40 and 80 feet where most of the marine life was located. Here, we did two dives, both of which both had excellent visibility, plentiful corals, swarming fish, and beautiful light. As a final farewell gift, I found two leaf scorpionfish at the very end of my last dive. One of the impressive fish was yellow and perched beautifully upon a table coral—as if to give me a proper send-off.
East Nusa Tenggara’s Technicolor reefs stay with you long after you leave
Author’s Acknowledgement: Thank you to Karl, our lively and accommodating cruise director; our captain Wahyu, who was always there to greet us after a dive and up all hours of the night commanding our ship; Big John, for taking us to his wonderful village; Yaya, the chef for such delicious food; the entire crew, who always had smiles on their faces; and to the rest of our group, who I enjoyed meeting so much.
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