Updated: Aug 6, 2019
In November last year (2018) I was invited to join an 8-day dive trip in Komodo National Park organised by Jamie Allan from Dive Respect Protect. The tour was titled "Paradise Lost?" and the aim was to educate guests on the pressures facing the park, while enjoying world class diving. The purpose of this article is to share what I learnt on the trip and to give readers some idea about what to expect when choosing a sustainable, eco-conscious tour operator.
Komodo usually finds its way into every diver’s bucket list top 5 destinations. A UNESCO world heritage site comprised of a smattering of mostly uninhabited volcanic islands and underwater pinnacles wedged between two larger land masses, West and East Nusa Tenggarra and two giant oceans. The effect of this positioning is a phenomenal amount of water pushing rich nutrients from two directions through a narrow channel resulting in one of the most biodiverse aquatic environments on the plant. It widely known for its strong currents which delivers rollercoaster-like experiences through psychedelic coral gardens while having the power to simultaneously send your pants and face-mask flying in two opposite directions. Setting voyeuristic ambitions aside, these currents attract pelagic species in epic proportions and it’s possible to encounter almost any creature from hammerheads, dolphins, whale sharks to manta ray and oceanic sun fish on virtually any dive site in the park, if you're lucky enough.
Dive Respect Protect (DRP) specialises in organising dive tours to bucket list dive destinations but with a twist. They only partner with operators that are environmentally conscious and promote sustainable practices in their regions. Jamie who runs DRP was with us on the trip. We were greeted with packs containing a reusable water bottle, reusable straw, recycled plastic Trash Hero tote bag and a DOCK supporters tag which entitles members to a 10% discount with affiliated member shops and restaurants in Labuan Bajo. More on DOCK a little further on. We also received personalised DRP memorabilia t-shirts and reef friendly sunscreen. A warning for future DRP guests, being seen to use single use plastic in front of Jamie will produce a reaction you’d expect if you served a sashimi’d kitten to a vegan.
Apart from his noble vendetta against plastic, Jamie is a knowledgeable dive instructor, an enthusiastic host and proud Scotsman. For those partial to extortion, I have a video I can share of him thawing out in the camera bucket which contained warm water after being in the sun on deck – all because “Yer dinnae need a wetsuit in the tropics, ken.” On this note, while Komodo lies at a scorching 8-degrees south latitude the currents can cause rapid changes in water temperature, so you may start the dive in 27-degree water and finish it on a nippy 20-degrees. Having dived here before I decided to pack my 7mm suit, which for most of the time was over kill and subject to ridicule, but after 8 days of consecutive diving I was somewhat smug with this particular life choice.
The bit that makes a trip with DRP a extra-special affair is that they fill it with optional extras like beach clean-ups in tropical grade humidity (while the deer stood in the water because the sand was too hot for their hoofs) and educational presentations delivered via a portable projector on manta ray conservation, coral propagation or the inevitability of a mass extinction. These presentations were brief, informative and delivered after the evening dinner while sipping a glass of wine or cold beer. I found Jamie's presentations and anecdotal commentary during the trip to be highly enlightening and for me they made the experience unforgettable.
Enter Ed. Ed Statham is one of the owners of Wunderpus, the liveaboard that DRP specifically arranged for this trip. Ed has been operating in the park for almost a decade. He is a passionate, vocal and active advocate for sustainable practices on the reef.
Wunderpus is a member of DOCK which is short for Dive Operators Community Komodo. Their members (currently 16) have agreed to stricter guidelines to ensure that their operations are compliant with international best practice, and they commit to go above and beyond the required standards in the park. Be sure to check out their website to see the work that they are doing and support their affiliated members in terms of dive operators and land-based businesses in Labuan Bajo. Ed along with a number of other DOCK members have been systematically self-funding and maintaining moorings in the park to curb the effect anchoring on coral reefs have on our holiday pictures.
If you’re interested in a summary of all the sites we visited (and you should be) check out DRP’s blog. That said, I want to add that DRP and Wunderpus presented us with an extensive tour of the National Park. We began through the centre, heading into the western area for a few nights, then back via the iconic sites of the northern and central regions for a few days, making our way to the southern region for the last two nights. The central and northern areas of the park have all the well-known sites, but the western and southern areas are less explored by day trippers and also have unique stories to tell.
This is the magic of the DRP and Wunderpus alliance. Their aim was to treat guests to the vastness of the region. While the coral is in fantastic shape and we still enjoyed spectacular diving, evidence of illegal fishing is present. We came across steel long lines broken off on the reef. On the upside we got to pioneer a new night dive site which would give any macro photographer wet dreams for months. Hence we named it J-Spot after Jamie!
In contrast the southern region offered remarkable topography, shear drop offs into oblivion, slightly cooler waters and almost no commercial traffic. It really felt like the diving at the end of the world. Some of the sites we dived were only recently discovered and explored by Ed and his team - Dhollyn and France – two fantastic guides who have a ton of local experience. For our last two nights we docked off the south end of Rinca and sipped beers while Komodo dragons lay on the shores, absorbing the dwindling rays of the setting sun.
My last visit to Komodo was in December 2014 and so I had certain expectations returning almost four years later. Labuan Bajo has indeed grown a bit. Its residents have kept task loading while driving to minimum by introducing a one-way only road system. If you forget your wallet in a shop, you have to drive to the circumference of the town until you arrive back at your starting point. My first observation was a steep increase in additional dive shops who have nestled into the circular business district of this little seaside town. I think about 26 operators currently have a shop window. However, an unquantifiable number of entrepreneurs have successfully avoided the census by not having a sign. They offer budget experiences out of derelict fishing boats and let loose scores of novice tumbleweeds onto the pristine reefs.
Unfortunately, we came across one of these outfits underwater at the famous Manta Point. We witnessed dive guides actively encouraging their adventurers to grab hold and sit on the cleaning stations to avoid being swept along in the current. Manta rays need up to 6 hours of cleaning a day to keep their parasites populations in check and this behaviour deprives them of this health advantage. The festival of tangled selfie sticks, broken coral and insolence was briskly brought to an end by a Hawaiian on our tour group. While I filmed, he plunked them off one by one dispersing them into the current while their guide's mask fogged up in horror and shame. On the surface we took footage of their unmarked floating abomination and dutifully called in a misdemeanour report to the park authority.
Despite the traffic in the central regions, the truth is that Komodo still wowed me the way it did four years ago. It is encouraging to revisit a destination and not have that “ah, you should have seen this four years ago moment.” The strong currents and fluctuating water temperatures mitigate the impact of rising global average temperature and we should see healthy corals here well into the future. The park authority is trying its best to preserve the region for future generations. While we didn't come across any patrol boat during the 8-day trip, they apparently do motor around ensuring offences are kept to a minimum. DOCK is doing outstanding work and there are passionate people like Ed fighting every day to keep this area a paradise. Manta rays are highly migratory and scientific studies demonstrate that only protecting areas where they are known to congregate is an ineffective means to ensure their survival. To its credit the Indonesian government responded to this information in 2014 by creating the largest manta ray sanctuary on earth. It is illegal to catch or export manta ray in all its territorial waters. A refreshing approach from a government anywhere in world.
DRP and Wunderpus are running their next trip from the 17th - 23rd November 2019 and a limited number of spots are still available. The theme this time will be Paradise revisited and I'll not be missing this one either.