DIVING IN 28°C WATER on a gorgeous coral wall, why am I wearing a 7mm wetsuit? It feels all wrong, bulky and constraining compared to the 3mm I would normally wear for such dives. Almost too warm at times, and it’s a hassle to peel on and off in the boat.
My hosts Max and Lauren at Alami Alor had pre-warned me: “A 3mm suit is fine for the muck-dives and in the shallows, but for some of the wall-dives as we go deeper you’ll want a 5mm suit or even a 7mm if you feel the cold.”
Max and Lauren both wear good 5mm suits for everything.
I considered bringing my old 5mm and a 7mm shortie jacket to pull on over it, but conscious of baggage weight and wary of freezing my nuts, I worked out that a 7mm one-piece weighed less.
For comfort and convenience I had also packed a 3mm so that I could shed neoprene and lead on warmer dives. The two suits combined came out about the same for baggage.
Where Max knows in advance that a dive-site will be warm, I wear the 3mm. But so far, for the potentially cold sites, it has remained warm and I feel overdressed.
After three days of 7mm morning dives on walls and caves in Pantar Strait, the channel between the islands of Alor and Pantar, then 3mm afternoon muck- dives in Kalabahi Bay, I’m starting to wonder.
Then we head further south along the coast of Pantar to a site named Crucifixion Point, after a trio of crosses on the headland. A wake of tidal overfalls heading out from the point shows where strong currents meet, fighting for control of the strait.
Tucked in behind the point the water is calm, a safe starting-point for the dive.
The water feels cooler than the 28° norm, but only marginally so. It’s pleasant to cool off a little after the hot sun. Then we hit 15m and the cold bites.
A turbulent mixing layer is both visible and tactile. I can reach one hand out to warm water and the other into cold, like filling a bath before mixer-taps were invented. It marks the dividing line between shoals of small fish above and roaming pelagic fish below.
A banded sea-snake snuffling along the reef has more sense than us divers, and won’t go any deeper. By 25m it is down near 18 or 19°. Now I know why I’m wearing the 7mm suit and, if staying long at depth, could have appreciated an extra shortie hooded jacket too.
Max heads out and a little deeper; perhaps he can find a thresher shark that could tempt the rest of us to join him. But no luck today.
I hope I haven’t scared anyone with descriptions of cold water. For most dives in the channel we may notice a refreshing degree or two’s drop in temperature at depth, but nothing extreme.
What makes Alor unsuitable for raw beginners are the currents, but these are what bring a density and variety of marine life, from tiny nudibranchs to blue whales, the biggest animal there is.
We regularly see these from the boat, blowing and diving, never closer than 100m or so. Dolphins are a little easier to approach, but still wary of boats. They rarely ride the bow or surf the wake.
The Alor archipelago is the easternmost section of the volcanic island chain that stretches back to Java. Alor is one of those places to which dive-guides in the know in Indonesia book a trip to when they get a week off.
That’s how Max and Lauren discovered Alor and chose it as the place to set up their own small resort. It’s how Ben, who I bumped into at the airport and guides for another resort, discovered Alor. It’s why Didier, usually a liveaboard dive-guide and also a guest at Alami Alor, has brought his daughter to dive here.

COOLER WATER FROM THE DEEP is forced shallower in the channel to mix with the warm surface water and provide a rich environment for marine life.
Coral coverage on the walls is unspoiled, and so dense that it can be difficult to get a good camera angle on the macro life, of which there is plenty.
It’s a dilemma on every dive. Wide-angle for the big scenery and chance encounters, or macro for the critters? Some photographers would dive with two cameras, but the unpredictable currents would make that a liability. I just take Max’s advice and then adjust it based on what I have already shot.
At Wolang Caves a wide-angle lens proves the right choice for the cave scenes, but I could have gone with macro for various shrimps in the crevices and a blue ribbon eel sticking its head out of a rubble patch.
At the Great Wall of Pantar there are known gorgonians with pygmy seahorses. Other photographers may consider me perverse, but I deliberately opt to stay wide-angle and photograph others looking for the tiny macro subjects, but that is an aside to the amazing overhangs of soft corals and sponges.
It’s one of those dives where I just wish I could have brought a rebreather with me to stay longer and go deeper.
On Red Sand Wall I do it the other way round with a macro lens. The name refers to the colour of the beach and a small patch that runs out across the reef. The rest of it is a wall with deeply cut ledges.
My plan is partly for the frogfish Max promises me and delivers (twice), partly for the nudibranchs and shrimps, and partly for the second dive at Solem Bali Black Sands, a muck-dive off the main village on Pura island with devil scorpionfish buried in the black patches between small corals.
This is the only muck-dive we do outside of Kalabahi Bay. The usual diving pattern is a two-tank boat trip out in the channel in the morning, back for lunch, then a muck-dive in the bay in the afternoon or as a night dive. If any time is left, there is shore-diving on the Alami Alor house reef, which provides a bit of everything.
With a night dive planned for later I slip in at low water – hardly the best time for the house reef, but it’s the only time-window. It starts with mandarinfish and mantis shrimps under the jetty, then descends to sloping black sand with small coral outcrops. As well as all the little stuff there is a good population of small-to-medium reef fish.
The local village has, in consultation with Max and Lauren, declared the reef along the front of the dive-centre a no-fishing zone, marked by red flags at either end of the rocky beach.
Kalabahi Bay is like a fjord, the volcanic one Slartibartfast did after he had finished with Africa. We even get a sea-fog just after sunrise in the morning.
The inlet cuts into the west side of Alor for 20km, 2km wide and 90m deep. If it was 3km longer it would have met up with another bay on the east side of the island and made the town of Kalabahi into a separate island.

FOR AFTERNOON MUCK-DIVES we begin with known sites. Ghost Town and Mucky Mosque are directly across from the dive-centre, the first marked by a school and the second by a mosque, arbitrary points ashore and up the black-sand slope.
Both are classic muck-dives that anyone who has been to Lembeh will recognise, and appear on the itineraries of passing liveaboards. A dive can sometimes go 15 minutes without encountering anything really interesting, and then we find several critters one after another.
Four kilometres further into the bay on the north shore is Pertemina Pier, the local oil jetty. After checking that no tankers are on the way in, we follow a cluster of legs down. They are covered in soft corals, sponges and oysters, so interesting critters must live among all that. The difficult part is finding them.
As a shoal of batfish winds in and out I take the easy option and descend to the dark slope. While the seabed beneath piers typically collects an unsightly mess of human trash, that very detritus provides homes for so many critters.

WE ARE SOON FINDING SEAHORSES, various shrimps, robust ghost pipefish and a range of more regular types of pipefish. Max, after searching some patches of orange sponge in water almost shallow enough for paddling, finds a cute orange frogfish for me.
Even snorkellers could see this frogfish if they don’t splash about too much – not that we have any snorkellers with us.
We return to the pier a couple of days later for a night-dive, something Max and Lauren haven’t tried before. We find a few generally nocturnal critters such as crabs and an octopus, plus many of the animals we had seen in daylight, some behaving very differently. One species of pipefish has aggregated into a writhing carpet of thousands of individuals.
This sense of exploration adds a dimension you don’t get at many developed destinations. In Alor there are still many opportunities to see some interesting geography, wonder “What would we see if we dived there?” and do it.
Continuing on the piers and muck theory, Max phones the manager of a pearl farm a couple of kilometres from the dive-centre, towards the entrance of the bay. It has a nice tatty-looking
storage platform on pillars at the edge of the reef, inshore of the pearl strings, used for storing heaps of pearl-farming paraphernalia.
The manager is quite enthusiastic about us diving beneath his shed. We are cautioned not to surface along the front edge, where his work-boats come in and out, but are welcome to tie up alongside and dive beneath and around it.
Built on the edge of a shelf of reef stretching from the shore, the sand is the usual coral-white. As well as the legs of the platform there are outcrops of coral and some old iron frames to anchor further growth.
But coral is almost beside the point as we hunt down nudibranchs, shrimps, squat lobsters and ribbon eels.
I spend the first 20 minutes with a helpful blue ribbon eel in just 2m. Another diver counts eight. I end up logging the dive as 10m, but that’s a bit misleading as I get past 5m only when
I head out to explore a bit further afield at the end.

HOW DO YOU NAME A NEW dive-site? Max desperately wants one he can call Nudi Beach. This one has nudibranchs, but is hardly a beach. The farm is owned by the PT Tom company. I am not sure of the spelling, which is just phonetic, but for the purposes of publication and my logbook I call the site Tom’s Farmyard.
We can see which name he gets most requests for when DIVER readers visit and expose the power of the press.
Another mucky exploration is at a site we can agree on calling Mini Wall, where the coast-hugging road has been cut into the headland and a retaining wall built below.
The exploration becomes another easy success. Are we good at picking new sites or just lucky? Or is it simply that you could jump in anywhere around here and get a good dive? Perhaps it’s all three.
It’s not just the muck-dives either – new locations in the channel also yield consistently good results.
But maybe I’m not so lucky. It’s my decompression day and, after waving the boat off in the morning, I next see the other divers at lunch-time.
They all have a story to tell, but elect that Sofia, the newest and youngest diver, should tell it. She is bubbling with excitement, so much so that Max has to coax it out of her.
“We went down the wall to 30m and it was so cold.”
“And?”
“We saw some sharks.”
“And?”
“We saw a thresher shark.”
“And?”
“It stayed with us.”
“And?”
“Then we went up to a shelf at 9m. There was a lot of current and we had to hold on.”
“And?”
“It all went dark, so I looked up and a blue whale swam overhead”
When you think about it, being at 9m directly below the biggest animal in existence doesn’t leave much headroom to spare.
“It was a male,” is Sophia’s last comment.
So that’s the story of the dive I missed. A final sunset boat-trip with a few beers to watch three blue whales swimming into the bay is a bit of an anticlimax after that.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Etihad to Jakarta, then took a chain of four domestic flights to Alor. You could fly into Bali followed by just two domestic flights, but you don’t get the Etihad baggage allowance. Excess baggage on domestic routes is only a few hundred thousand rupiah.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Alami Alor in East Nusa Tenggara, www.alamialor.com.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round.
MONEY: Rupiah (100,000 is about £5).
HEALTH: Nearest hyperbaric chamber is 650 miles away in Denpasar, Bali.
PRICES: Booking through Dive Worldwide, flights, 10 nights at Alami Alor with nine days’ diving, full board, transfers and overnight in Jakarta starts from £2545pp (two sharing), www.diveworldwide.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel