In the last week of my Indonesian adventure, I spent Thursday to Sunday floating around Komodo National Park, chatting with my new friends, eating, napping on the top deck, and scuba diving four times a day.
Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its namesake: the three main islands that make up the park are full of komodo dragons. But the true wonder of the national park lies beneath the surface where miles of picturesque reefs thrive. Komodo National Park is an archipelago of islands that are scattered between the convergence of the Pacific and Indian ocean, where currents provide nutrients in abundance. Komodo is also part of the Coral Triangle, which is one of the densest areas with marine biodiversity in the entire world.
I’d also read that liveaboards were a fun way to lump together diving, transportation, eating and sleeping and found a cozy catamaran through the Komodo Dive Center called the Mastro Aldo. Since the start of the liveaboard my scuba family enjoyed a few days of sunshine, great food, and diving in spectacular coral reefs before Dom, our cruise director and most experienced dive guide, announced that we would be diving the famous site Crystal Rock.
He briefed us at our 5:30am breakfast table on the Mastro Aldo where the mixed group of us were sleepily fumbling through tea and coffee, sweet bread, and green bananas. The lot of us represented 4 continents: a warm and affable French mother and father traveling with their charming 18 year old daughter, an Austrian architectural renovator traveling with her cute and goofy son, a polite but quiet South Korean man, a hilarious couple of Germans who live in New Zealand, and me.
“We’ll be rock climbing under water,” Dom said. “If you try to swim away from the rock you won’t get anywhere, just tire yourself out. So absolutely climb on the rock. You’ll save energy using your muscles to pull with the rocks than you will kicking and swimming. If we get down and the current is strong then we will work towards the front because this is where the sharks are gonna be.”
“We might see white tipped reef shark if the current’s strong or if we get lucky might see grey reef shark. Always look to the big blue. That’s where the big stuff is.”
We shimmied up our wetsuits, hefted on our oxygen tanks, and checked our gear before getting onto the two speedboats full of our crew and dive guides, flipping on our fins, and waited for Dom’s signal. I dove with the French family, and we waited for Dom’s count before back rolling off the speedboat and into the sea.
“1! 2! 3! Go!”
The first thing I noticed was how dark it was. The sun had not risen yet in the ocean. I could barely see Dom, he was descending so much quicker than me. I had to descend fast so I wouldn’t get pushed back by the current and separated from the group.
Down, down, down we sank.
The current was stronger than anything I imagined. I kicked and kicked and went nowhere. I was behind Dom and Laure, my roommate and dive buddy was the sweet French girl who we’d sung happy birthday to the night before, a single candle lit on an Indonesian chocolate cake sprinkled on top with, to our surprise, a sharp white cheese. I struggled to stay close to her fins.
Dom turned around and waved at me to come closer. I kicked hard, my breath short and heart beating faster than it felt like it should have been. I reached forward and Dom’s hand clasped mind, pulling me to where he’d lodged a sea hook into the rock. I held on, feeling the current push my body back and waited.
Dom wedged his fins into the rock so he was stationary and pulled out a long metal reef hook. He looked out into the deep blue and slammed the hook into his back up regulator, fondly known to divers as an “octopus”.
The sound came as a shock. About ten feet away from us was a scattered throw of bannerfish, ray-finned with flashy white, black, and yellow stripes. The sound instantly perturbed them. As Dom slapped the hook onto the regulator it clanged and with every clang the fish began to bow down, closer and closer to the rock as if obeying a command.
Dom switched hands and got out a torch flashing the light into another swarm of tiny blue fish I couldn’t name that clung together in nebulous formations of 1,000 or so fish. Where Dom flashed the light the fish swam around it in a split second reaction. Dom flashed the light into another swarm that instantly cleared and there it was. A three meter (six feet) long grey reef shark hovering along the cusp of the rock. I watched in total awe. The shark arced the rock, listening to the sound before swimming on.
After attracting a few more reef sharks my group found that we’d blown through a good bit of air fighting through the current and made our way back towards the back of the rock where there was less current and we could safely ascend and return to the Mastro Aldo.
Sitting on the boat railing in my dripping bathing suit, the Mastro Aldo hummed to the next destination in the park while I chatted with Felix, a rambunctious 22 year old Austrian, about our early dive. He didn’t seem as wowed as I was but still seemed to enjoy it.
“I thought it was awesome!” I enthused. “I’m really hoping to see more sharks.”
I explained how when I was a student at UCSB and learning to surf a boy who I shared many surfing companions with was attacked by a great white shark, shattering my love of surfing until Indonesia. The experience haunted my nightmares for years. Even when I lived in Boston, 3000 miles away from the site of the attack I dreamt the same dream almost nightly. I’m swimming in a vast ocean and a shark is keeping up just beside me and I am waiting for him to attack. The shark changed in size and color; sometimes it was a grey shark, sometimes it was a black shark, sometimes it was a bare boned skeleton shark, but always the same dream. I’m swimming and the shark is going to bite me at any moment.
I had told of my hopes to see a shark to Wayan, my surf instructor and new pal before leaving Bali for the liveaboard in eastern Indonesia. I thought he might laugh and say something like, “But it’s not the same shark that killed your friend…not even the same species!” But instead he nodded as if he understood and said, “You make peace with nature.”
Yes. Something like that.
After a big breakfast of roasted tomatoes with salt and pepper, eggs, hash brown patties and, strangely, chicken nuggets, Dom briefed us for our next dive on the top deck.
Our second dive of the day would be at Castle Rock, which would be in a similar site in a similar current, potentially even stronger and the same guidelines would apply. Descend fast and hold on.
I was pumped.
We back rolled off the speedboat in our three groups and plunged into the depths, speedily equalizing our ears to adjust to the pressure and dropping to the face of the rock to hold on.
The current beat down like a hand pressing me back, blowing water into my mask and howling in my ear. It was like being on a mountain during a windstorm, only we were 20 meters (65 feet) underwater, clutching onto a giant rock covered in gorgeous bright corals with anchored hooks and gloved hands to stop from blowing away.
Dom had clipped his sea hook onto his waist buckle so that it pulled from his center of gravity so he could stand up, the rest of us divers clinging on behind him while he stood akimbo, thrashing his sea hook against the water bottle, making giant cracking and crinkle sounds.
The sharks began to appear. I first saw them out of the corners of my eye. White tip, white tip, white tip, I counted. First they came from the left but then I noticed some to the right. They closed in around us, drawn in by the sound of Dom’s water bottle. The strangest thing was feeling the monstrous current on us while the sharks approached, slow and steadily going against the current completely unwavered. I glanced at the divers on the rock to my right, they too were in the same positions, clutching and gripping on, the current blowing their heads back, eyes watching out for sharks.
And they came. One, two, three, five, ten, twelve, fifteen. I lost track. There were three grey reef sharks, nearly 2 meters (6 feet) in length and fuller than the white tipped sharks. And they all were pointing at Dom.
“They’re very smart. They think it’s a fish at first then once they find out it’s not they go away. I do it quite often so I try different sounds to keep attracting them,” Dom had explained after the first dive.
They were so beautiful, so dignified and serene. Their eyes were strange, curious and wide, but their intrigue drew them in closer and closer so that Dom could have touched one if he reached out. It was one of the most spectacular displays of nature I’ve ever seen.
“Oh, Sasha, it was awesome! There were loads of shahks! Heaps of ‘em!” Isabell, the German Kiwi, raved to her boyfriend who had sat out the dive due to ear problems once we got back to the Mastro Aldo. It was true. There had been so many sharks I could not keep track of them. As soon as one appeared there was another one just beyond it, in the distance, forming a perfect arc around Dom.
When we got back even Dom was cheering and I was thrilled to hear the most experienced divers saying ‘Now we’ve had two awesome dives I’m good to go!”
I was so lucky to have such a wonderful group of divers to practice my diving with. I began the liveaboard with only 4 logged dives and finished with 17 and much of my comfort was from the service of Dom and his crew as well as my amazing companions.
I ran into the South Korean man at the airport after the liveaboard. Lee spoke very little English and had struggled to keep up in the conversation all weekend but when we talked about the boat he said, “That current. Castle Rock. I cannot forget all of my life,” with a sense of wonder in his eyes.