Journal archives for September 2015

September 05, 2015

Scuba diving in Tulamben and Komodo, Indonesia

I’m back from my fifth dive trip to Indonesia. This one was again organized by Josh & Liz of Undersea Productions. While the main event was a liveaboard in Komodo, several of us started at a resort in Tulamben on Bali. For the first time getting to the South Pacific, I flew east via London and Singapore, rather than west via California and the Orient. It’s almost exactly the same distance either way, being about as far away as you can go on earth from New England.

On arrival in Bali, a driver from the resort picked me up for the three hour drive to the resort. Scuba Seraya is a very nice place on the north-east coast of Bali. Accommodations are bungalows or villas, very elegantly appointed in the Balinese style with really nice outdoor bathrooms. All meals were at the open-patio restaurant in the resort, as there are no other options close by. The menu was varied enough with both Indonesian and western items to be fine for a week.

This part of the coast has black sand beaches which slope down quickly, and no natural harbors or protection. There are no piers or wharfs. For our boat dives, the crew transferred our scuba rigs and cameras to the boat moored just offshore, then we did a surf entry and short swim to the boat in our wetsuits with just our fins and mask. The first couple of days the surf was up, making the entries and exits quite challenging, though the crew were there to help. The diving was mostly muck diving on the black sand, though there were a few areas of nice reef as well.

We saw lots of great muck creatures: octopuses, cuttlefish, ghost pipefish, frogfish, scorpionfish, ribbon eels, and many others. Peacock mantis shrimps were common and very brave, scurrying across the sand and not hiding from us. There are many unusual shrimps on the crinoids, sea pens, and urchins. We also dived the wreck of the U.S.S. Liberty, where there were many larger fish too.

This was my first dive trip with my new camera, a Canon 7D mark II, in a new Aquatica housing. On receipt of the housing a couple of months ago, I thought that the vacuum system was defective and called the dealer Backscatter, who insisted that it was fine and I wasn’t using it correctly. I never got a satisfactory response from them. Sure enough, finally diving with it, I had a lot of trouble with the vacuum system. It took a lot of effort to set up the housing before a dive and achieve a vacuum, and most dives it no longer indicated that the housing was properly sealed before the end of the dive. I emailed Backscatter from Bali about this, and now they admitted that it was defective, but there was no field repair that I could do. So I used the housing without the safety of the moisture detector or vacuum system. One dive early in the trip when it indicated that the housing wasn’t sealed properly, I left the camera behind and just brought my other camera, a tiny Panasonic Lumix point-n-shoot that was good to 50 feet without a housing. Though it is a much less capable camera.

Three people from our group were already there when I showed up. Someone else arrived the next day, and two more the following day. So there were seven of us for the last couple of days of diving. Over four and a half days of diving at Scuba Seraya, I logged 13 dives and took 2,152 photos.

For the second part of our adventure, it was back to the airport (in a middle of the night drive that took half the time it took us during the day) where we met up with the rest of the sixteen of our group for the hour-long flight to Bima. The dive staff were there to meet us and handled all of our luggage and put us in several waiting cars for the short drive to the docks, then a ten minute boat ride our to the ship anchored in the middle of the harbor.

The Arenui styles itself as a “boutique liveaboard” and is certainly the nicest boat I’ve been on. It’s a 135 foot wooden phinisi, finished in recycled wood, mostly teak from old Balinese houses. The interior is gorgeous in carved woods and handmade brass and bronze fittings. Four of the cabins are on the lower deck, and four on the main deck which also has the roomy salon/restaurant and the dive prep area. The upper deck has recliners in the sun, the “sky restaurant” where we ate dinner most evenings, and the shaded lounge with recliners where the massage therapists also worked. Did I mention that they have two massage therapists aboard, and you can sign up for message any time you want?

The food was generally very good, and there was a lot of it. The “small” breakfast was available very early, with baked goods, fruit, yogurt, cereal, etc. After the first dive, the “large” breakfast was served. They took orders earlier for eggs however we wanted plus a few other choices, and put out a buffet with fruit, fried rice or noodles, hash browns, more baked goods, and other goodies. Lunch was served buffet style, always with several choices often including a soup. One day lunch was Mexican food with make-your-own tacos/burritos and they did a pretty good job on that. After the third dive a snack was served that always had both something savory and something sweet. The fourth dive was either a twilight or a night dive. Dinner was usually a plated four course meal of an appetizer, a soup, an entree (choice made at lunch time), and dessert, and served upstairs rather than in the salon. Coffee, tea, and soft drinks were free; beer and wine could be purchased. This was my first liveaboard with a wine list, rather than the choice being: “red or white”? However, the side vegetables were always the same and got monotonous, and the fish was frozen rather than fresh and sometimes overcooked.

As is typical for liveaboard diving, at the end of a dive you can surface where ever you are, and a tender will come pick you up. They have really nice dive tenders: fiberglass boats each with eight wooden seats and tank holders. The dive staff managed all of our gear, including masks and fins. We just had to put on our wetsuits and board the skiffs when they were ready. On return after the dive, they even handled rinsing and drying cameras. After years of being trained to be self-reliant as a diver, it’s actually difficult to relinquish that much control, though after a few days everyone came to appreciate it. They would even help you out of your wetsuit after the dive if you wanted that. We divided up into three groups, and each had a local dive guide on every dive. We scrambled the groups each day, so everyone got to dive with everyone else, with each of the guides, and spend time being first or last in the water. Dives were nominally 70 minutes long, though usually without limit (my longest on the trip was 84 minutes). The guides were excellent critter spotters. The cruise directors, Lisa and G, did not work as dive masters, though they were occasionally in the water with us.

Because Josh & Liz chartered the entire boat, they could make requests for the itinerary rather than just follow the usual one through Komodo. And they asked for a lot of muck diving and tried to get us into interesting habitats rather than just coral gardens. Our first day’s diving was in Bima Harbor, which had a lot less trash than other places I’ve done that kind of muck diving, with a lot of great critters. Octopus, frogfish, sea horses, flamboyant cuttlefish, pufferfishes and fire urchins were some of the creatures here. Plus lots of nudibranchs on every dive throughout the trip. The next day at Bubble Reef streams of bubbles rise out of the sand from volcanic activity while many reef fish were about including slender hogfish, several fusiliers not often seen, plus many others. At Crystal Rock and Castle Rock, we used reef hooks to hold our place in strong current while watching giant trevally and sharks fish among the huge schools of fusiliers and anthias. We were very lucky at Batu Bolong, a pinnacle in an exposed channel that rarely allows easy diving: the current was slack enough that we could swim all the way around, visibility was good and we were the only boat there.

One morning we did two dives at Manta Alley, where there is a manta ray cleaning station and they are often seen feeding as well. Sure enough, we had ten mantas there on the first dive, hovering at the cleaning station or swimming circles around each other. Halfway through the dive, I hear someone tapping a tank off to the side to get our attention. I swim a bit in that direction, and see something that I can’t make out at first. Then I realize, it’s a Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, swimming towards us out of the blue. This prehistoric-looking seven foot fish swam very close to me before turning and disappearing out into the blue. I managed to get some really good photos of it before it disappeared, and was very lucky as only about a third of us even saw it. But on the second dive at this site, again there was tapping, and this time everyone was much quicker to react. We moved away from the mantas to discover that the mola was on a cleaning station at 95 feet, where it stayed for ten minutes while everyone was able to get good looks at it. This was really exceptional, as they are rarely seen in Komodo and several of us (including one of the dive guides) had never seen one. My photo was sent to a mola researcher who tracks individuals by their spot patterns. This was not one that she had seen before, and I get to name it. I’ve suggested Morrisey in honor of my friend Rob who died a week before this trip.

One morning most of us went ashore for a hike on Rinca instead of a morning dive. There local park rangers took us around and told us about the island and its animals, especially the Komodo Dragons. We saw more than a dozen dragons, and got within 12-15 feet of several of them. While they are quite dangerous, a stout stick is enough to fend them off if you are alert. We were there during nesting season, so mostly just saw males, while the females stay in the brush guarding their nests. We also saw monkeys, deer, and several kinds of birds, including my first megapodes.

One afternoon we were told that they were having trouble with the nitrox system which produces oxygen enriched gas for our scuba tank fills. We would be diving on air the next day while they had replacement parts sent over from Bali. It took them two days, but they got the nitrox working again. In keeping with their full service style, they had two staff test their nitrox fills, and just passed around a clipboard with the measurements for us to initial. We were told that we had the option of measuring it ourselves, but none of us took them up on that.

For the first time on any of these trips, I came down with a stomach bug which gave me four days of stomach aches and diarrhea. I skipped one dive at the beginning before deciding that I could manage this and continue diving. Four other people also got sick during the cruise, but it might not have been the Arenui’s fault, as all of us had also stayed at Scuba Seraya a few days previously.

My biggest problem on the cruise came on day seven (of eleven) when I flooded my camera. We were diving a pinnacle in heavy current, with instructions to make our way as quickly as possible to sixty feet deep on the lee side of the pinnacle. I got down and out of the current, and then tried to turn on my camera, but it wouldn’t work right. That’s when I noticed water drops on the inside of the housing. I immediately signaled to the dive guide that I had a problem and was going to surface. Because I was already so deep, I had to spend three minutes doing a safety stop before surfacing. During that time, hanging on to the top of the pinnacle in a raging current, I watched the housing become more than half full of sea water. It became very heavy and hard to manage in the water. On surfacing, I got the attention of a skiff and passed up my camera. At this point I knew it was a total loss and there was no point to rushing back to the ship to open it and dry it. So I had them drive me back up-current and went back down to join the group for the rest of the dive. Later inspection showed that the camera and lens will never work again, and the housing itself will need a full overhaul. Luckily insurance will cover the cost, though I lost the use of the camera for the last 4 days of diving. It is not clear if this was user error or a hardware failure, though I suspect the vacuum system which had never worked right and is one of the few things that could cause it to quickly fill rather than just a slow trickle. For the rest of the trip, I dived with the little point-and-shoot that I had brought, which did get me some photos, but was very frustrating because of its limitations.

Unlike some liveaboards that ship you off early the last morning with just a cold breakfast, we had a leisurely morning with the usual hot breakfast to order. The crew had washed and dried all of our dive gear, making packing easy. They shuttled us and our luggage to the Labuan Bajo airport with plenty of time, and assisted our check-in. No one had to pay excess luggage fees for that flight in spite of published limits and some of us with three checked bags.

Overall it was a great trip, well worth a third cruise in Komodo as we saw new creatures and dived new sites. And I’ve got a new favorite boat in Indonesia which I’ll be on again in January for my next trip. On eleven days of diving on the Arenui, I did 35 dives (skipping only two that were offered) and took 3,733 photos.

A selection of photos from Tulamben are at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157658181250261

Some photos from Komodo are at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157658205182565

Posted on September 05, 2015 11:51 by maractwin maractwin | 2 comments | Leave a comment

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