Go with the flow

“Have you ever dived in currents before?” the instructor asked. We were in Komodo National Park, where the warm Indian and cooler Pacific Ocean collide. The conditions here make for epic dives, with bountiful corals housing a diverse range of reef fish, and the nutrient rich water attracting larger open sea species such as giant manta rays, white tip sharks and even dugongs.

From the boat, we could see a faint dark strip parting the water in the faint light of dawn. It was smoother than the water either side of it, and seemed to flow differently. It signalled that below the surface, a strong current was moving.

We had never dived in currents before, but my friend described it as riding an ‘underwater roller coaster.’ Once you were in the jet stream, all you could do was go with it. They move fast and can carry you for miles. However, divers have been known to end up far from their boat, so you must enter drift dives with care and have some prior diving experience.

We had our morning briefing, put on our kits and did our buddy checks. The small islands changed from dusky hues to become more solid as the sun rose. We were the only boat there, deep in the National Park and close to Rinca Island where the dragons live. One of the advantages of living aboard is that you don’t have to travel from the mainland for every dive, and the captain can avoid the other boats by navigating the dive sites depending on the tides or recent sightings of marine life.

The view from the Mastro Aldo boat

Tatawa Besar
We were heading to Tatawa Besar (Big Island) for our first drift dive. This site is shallower and during rainy season, there’s a good chance you’ll catch the manta ray coming through. We entered the dive site from the island’s small beach. This is a shallow dive, and ideal for those new to drift diving. The currents here are less powerful compared to Tatawa Kecil (Small Island) or Batu Balong.

The coral garden is located on a gentle slope that encircles the island, and is an ideal spot to see a dizzying collection of tropical reef fish. On our dive, we spotted a psychedelic Napoleon wrasse, the goofy but territorial Titan triggerfish, and a mystical horned unicorn fish.

Don’t mess with a triggerfish

The current was gentle and swept us slowly across the pastel shades of coral reef. We glimpsed both Nemo and Dory, with clownfish hiding in their soft anemone beds and Pacific blue tangs zipping back and forth. Cornet fish glided by with their long thin bodies, and a spotted porcupine fish with bulbous eyes followed our bubbles.

Looking out into the almost misty depths of the open water, a shadow formed into a shape. It was the first shark I’d ever seen on a dive. Two black tip reef sharks and one white tip patrolled the edges, then faded back into the water beyond.

A black tip reef shark

Batu Balong
The second drift dive was at Batu Balong, a site considered one of the best in Komodo National Park with rip currents pushing shoals of giant trevally, dazzling rainbow runners and dogtooth tuna. The strong currents and steep rocky outcrop of this site pose a challenge for divers, but the rewards are worth it.

From the boat, the rock pinnacle seemed small. The north side is shallower at around 27m, but once we rolled in, we found ourselves inside a glittering school of giant trevallies. As we descended further, silver changed to blue as tuna encircled us in a hypnotic display of flashing scales.

We continued round to the south side and found ourselves staring down the plunging rockface. Here, we saw giant sweetlips, dancing mantis shrimp and the unnerving stare of a moray eel. The fusiliers were painted in an assortment of pigments so vivid they could not be replicated on land. Beyond the shelf, it descends to a whopping 75m. Staring over the edge felt like gazing off the edge of the earth.

In my dive log, I nicknamed this site ‘The Aquarium’ for the sheer volume of tropical fish we saw.

A healthy reef with thousands of fish

Tatawar Kecil
Another site renowned for its strong currents, Tatawa Kecil offers divers with the chance to drift dive over soft coral and anemones to spot the resident pygmy seahorses.

We entered on a falling tide, aiming to exit on a rising tide. Two reef sharks emerged from the blue as we zigzagged down the rock face, fighting the current that tried to sweep us into the deep. They crossed our path a few times before disappearing into the haze.

The coral garden was abundant with pockets of life. Nudibranches with spots and stripes waved their funky frills. Moray eels poked their monstrous heads from cavernous rocks, their unseen bodies twisting beneath them. A grouper, almost as large as me, kept an eye on us as we floated on by.

More giant trevally shimmered past, riding the currents as they huddled together.

Makassar Reef
This site offered us a slow and gentle drift, but conditions can change quickly. Known as a shelving site, the shallow sea bed of Makassar Reef offers an almost martian landscape of craters and coral rubble. Here lies the ‘cleaning stations’ of the manta rays, and it is an ideal location to see these flying acrobats up close.

A giant manta ray chaperoned by a giant trevally

Although seemingly barren with mostly broken coral, you can find some larger clumps of coral heads (or brommies) with reef fish sheltering inside. We saw a white tip reef shark, so they were wise to find a hiding spot. Flitting between the surviving coral, we clocked Zap-coloured parrotfish, a deflated pufferfish and some punky batfish outlined in neon.

Then, the main event. Our dive master saw two manta rays flapping towards us and used a metal rod to twang her tank. Kneeling in the broken shards of coral, we gazed upwards as the manta rays flew over our heads. When you spot a giant manta ray, it can be a challenge to stay in one place before the current shuffles you away. With reef hooks, it is possible to hold yourself to a rock, but finding something to grip on to can be a difficult task. My divemaster ended up holding me as I threatened to skid off on my own.

Circling back, the manta rays were inquisitive and swam into our bubble streams. Two more joined the party, and flapped effortlessly against the current that was still edging us forwards. As their wings rose and fell, they twisted their bodies. Their lower flanks lit up as they flew towards the surface.

Dive Package Information
Company: Komodo Dive Center
Boat: Mastro Aldo
Website: https://www.komododivecenter.com/
Package: 4 days, 3 nights (other stays are available) with food and board
Diving equipment: Included, but dive computers available for extra
Group sizes: Small. We lucked out and had one divemaster for two divers!

Have you ever been on a drift dive? Where is your favourite place to catch a current? Let me know in the comments.

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