Sunset at Horseshoe Bay
Sunset at Horseshoe Bay


THE NAME CANNIBAL ROCK GOES BACK ONLY A FEW YEARS, to when parts of Komodo were regarded as virgin diving and, though not inaccessible, certainly a challenge to visit.
Naturalists Burt Jones and Maureen Shimlock were with an early exploration team visiting the spectacular Horseshoe Bay at Rinca Island. On anchoring, they spotted a large Komodo dragon on the beach, and rushed ashore to photograph it.
Following it onto a rock plateau overhanging the bay, they found it consuming a smaller dragon. And while photographing the beast, they noticed
a reef close to the surface in the bay below. Diving it revealed amazing corals, fish life and unusual marine critters, so the site was named in honour of the dragon that led them to it.
UNESCO declared the unique Komodo National Park a World Heritage Site in 1989. Non-divers will have heard of the dragons, and most visitors are intent on seeing them and the other prolific wildlife. But many fail to realise that Komodo's richest treasures lie beneath the sea.
Alfred Wallace, the 19th century naturalist who developed the theory of evolution with Darwin, spent more than 10 years exploring the archipelago and discovered that Indonesia marks the meeting of two bio-geographic zones, the Oriental and Australian.
What became known as the Wallace Line runs north to south between Borneo and Sulawesi and then to Bali and Lombok. The Indian and Pacific Oceans meet at this point, resulting in perhaps the richest marine biodiversity on Earth. The Komodo National Park lies just 300 miles east of the Wallace Line, leading to the development of the most diverse reef systems.
There are often strong currents in the area. Sea level differs by 20-35cm between the Pacific and Indian Ocean sides of these islands, enough to generate a 'downhill' flow into the Indian Ocean. The islands strung along this area, including Komodo, act like a dam, blocking the warmer Pacific waters. Large volumes of water are squeezed between the islands to create strong surface currents running south.
These in turn suck up the relatively colder waters from the Indian Ocean, propagating the constant phyto-plankton blooms that support the marine eco-system.
This oceanic activity has other side-effects, less welcome for divers. Sea temperatures on the north side of the islands is invariably warm at 27-30?C and visibility good, but just a few miles away on the southern side you can encounter visibility more like the UK's, while chilly upwellings and thermoclines are common.
This depends on the season. The warmest time to visit is between November and March, but wise divers pack an extra neoprene vest and a hood, though many of the boats carry these to keep their clients comfortable.
Horseshoe Bay on the south side of Rinca Island is a short steam from Komodo Island. It's a sheltered anchorage behind the island of Nusa Kode sitting smack in the middle of the horseshoe, probably a flooded volcanic crater. The island has steep slopes with dense foliage that tumbles to a shoreline fringed with pale sandy beaches.
Cannibal Rock is a wide ridge of coral that rises from 35-40m to just break surface on low spring tides.
It's a classic multi-level dive. If a current is running you can choose the protected side, but it's often worth exploring into the current to see what the bigger pelagic fish are doing.
The top of the reef is draped with dozens of huge carpet anemones, each with a seemingly different species of clownfish - up to eight have been recorded here. The shallow area is full of ledges, small walls, overhangs and swim-throughs decorated with colourful corals and some amazing sea-fans in only a few metres of water.
Going deeper, you find a mixture of steep coral slopes and drop-offs before you reach a gently shelving seabed at the base of the reef. The density of the coral and invertebrate cover is overwhelming - there isn't an inch to spare!
On your first dive you suffer from visual overload. Your guide is constantly banging his tank to show you the next remarkable or unusual creature. Photographers must discipline themselves not to move on too quickly.
There are numerous 'stand-alone' species - frogfish, ghost pipefish, blennies, mantis shrimps, leaf scorpionfish, moray and ribbon eels and so many species of nudibranchs it is difficult to keep count.
Then there are the symbiotic species - almost everything has a partner. It's worth checking them all - from sponges to anemones, sea squirts, featherstars, sea urchins, sea-fans, starfish and even the nudibranchs - for symbiotic shrimps, crabs, squat lobsters, clingfish and tiny isopods that look just like ladybirds.
Rare species include the glorious but tiny Coleman shrimps that live only on one species of fire urchin, sometimes accompanied by zebra crabs, which are equally unusual.
Another tiny commensal species, the pygmy seahorse, is found on certain sea-fans, but even when your guide points one out it can be difficult to see, and even harder to photograph well at the high magnifications required.
It's easy to forget to look behind you into open water, but at the deeper elevations of the reef you will often see eagle and torpedo rays cruising by. Reef sharks are common but often missed.
The week before our visit a whale shark had spent hours hoovering up the plankton soup around the reef - why is it always the week before? Never mind, I would have had a macro lens anyway!
Other great dives nearby include the Yellow Wall of Texas (covered in soft corals), Grandma Bangs Bommies (a stunning series of coral heads), Banana Reef and Torpedo Alley, named for its mini electric rays. This is a regular night dive offering a mixture of muck and reef.
Night diving in Komodo should not be missed. Armies of decorator crabs emerge, some so burdened with their lumps of sponge, anemones or hydroids that they can barely drag themselves over the reef in search of dinner. Dozens of sea pens rise from the dark sand slopes and spread their arms for plankton.
It takes a keen eye to spot the tiny porcelain crabs, shrimps and gobies that blend with the colour of their host. Snake-eels peek out of the sand when you least expect it and minuscule bobtail squid frantically try to bury themselves when you play a light over them.
Lionfish and dwarf lionfish shadow you, waiting for the torch to reveal and freeze an easy meal. You must also be cautious with all these distractions, as stonefish and Inimicus scorpionfish are also common, and very difficult to spot.
All these are within a five-minute boat ride of the mooring. With so much variety, many groups end up spending most of their trip exploring Cannibal Rock and Horseshoe Bay.
Between dives, relax and absorb the spectacular volcanic scenery, watch sea eagles glide effortlessly on the thermals before plummeting on some hapless fish, and observe the Komodo dragons marching along the water's edge looking for an easy meal - or perhaps even considering each other for dinner!
You can spend a week in this area without seeing another liveaboard. One of the established departure points is Bali, although other boats originate in Flores or Sumbawa.
Komodo has been discovered but it is a long way from being developed - go now and discover this unique wilderness and astonishing marine life.


A small fishing boat is dwarfed by the volcanic lanscape of Rinca Island
A small fishing boat is dwarfed by the volcanic lanscape of Rinca Island
The notorious Komodo Dragon
The notorious Komodo Dragon
Giant frogfish.
Giant frogfish.
Sailfin blenny
Sailfin blenny
Zebra crab in sea urchin.
Zebra crab in sea urchin.
Glassy sweepers with diver.
Glassy sweepers with diver.
Silver chromis in red gorgonian.
Silver chromis in red gorgonian.
Bubble anemones.
Bubble anemones.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Denpaser in Bali via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta. Mark Webster flew with Malaysian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia.
DIVING: Liveaboards such as Kararu Dive Voyages' Sea Safari III usually leave from Bali, www.kararu.com
WHEN TO GO: Some liveaboards operate year-round but the best season is April-January. The wet monsoon ends around April and the following dry monsoon in November, when you find the best visibility and warmest water. Water temperature is 27-29°C, 18-25°C in the cold currents.
MONEY: Flights to Bali cost between£450-750. Sea Safari III rates are from US $275 (about£160) a night based on two sharing, with all meals and diving included.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.komodonationalpark.org, www.tourismindonesia.com