Macro-enthusiasts who consider targets such as Rhinopias rare sights might have to think again if they spend any time around alluring Alor, says MICHEL LABRECQUE
EXPLORING REMOTE CORNERS of the world often requires complicated logistics, but we hope the rewards will repay the efforts. Many people have visited Indonesia’s top destinations such as Bali, Raja Ampat, Lembeh or Komodo, but fewer have dived Alor and its surroundings, even though it’s a muck-diving paradise, perfect for macro enthusiasts.
I chose Arenui to dive this destination. Built in traditional phinisi style, this liveaboard was made using 12 types of recycled wood, and such attention to detail defines it. Carvings depicting Indonesia’s history can be found everywhere onboard.
At 20sq m and with a spacious bathroom, my cabin turns out to be bigger than many hotel rooms. On Arenui each room represents an element of Indonesian culture, and I am in the Legong room, inspired by a famous Balinese dance.
The check-out dive, at Serbete reef off Flores island, provides an opportunity to adjust camera gear and buoyancy. But as every photographer knows, choosing a macro lens is inevitably the signal for large animals to start passing by.
As soon as I submerge, a good-sized shoal of bumphead parrotfish comes close and stays for at least three minutes. What a miss! Later on in the dive, a blacktip reef shark swings by.
They’re good to see, but for now I have to turn my attention to smaller creatures. Nudibranchs of all sorts are abundant on this itinerary and always an easy find. After only 15 minutes, I have also managed to shoot skeleton shrimps and an orangutan crab.
The scenery is a delight. Visibility must be at least 20m and the easy conditions allow for a relaxed dive that ends 75 minutes later. The dive-guides are generous of their time – you never feel pressed to get out of the water.
Back on the boat, the staff unload all the equipment and camera gear. While the deck-crew rinse and dry my camera with compressed air, I focus on a second breakfast. Life is hard in Indonesia!
I switch my lens for wider opportunities as we are diving again at the same dive-site, but inevitably the bumpheads and sharks stay away.
Still, the soft and hard corals, sponges, seafans and crinoids make for pretty images, and I spot a pair of Tryon’s risbecia so big that I can get a decent image even with my 200mm dome-port.
AT KAWULA ISLAND we visit three dive-sites over the next two days: Tanjung Waiwowang, Takat Prau and Padang Pasir. Muck-diving is now in full swing, so the choice of lens is easy. The shallow dives and slow pace allow for very long bottom times.
Yellow-spotted anemone, bubble-coral, algae, squat, mushroom-coral, Anker's whip-coral, seastar, marbled, magnificient anemone, anchor-coral and the classical emperor – these are just some of the varieties of shrimp alone that I see. I soon lose count of all the different creatures to be seen on a dive.
Alor is the focus of this route, and we spend four days there, but it isn’t all about muck-diving.
The first two dives are at a site named Anemone City, off Pura island. On the descent, numerous jellies are floating in the water column, and you don’t need to wait for darkness to see them flashing with bioluminescence.
This is only a teaser for the real show. As I reach the bottom, the sight is astonishing. The floor is covered with anemones of all sorts and colours. Outcrops are populated with soft corals.
Our four small groups ensure that we dive in uncrowded conditions and cover plenty of ground. During surface intervals, dive-guides exchange information on what they have seen and the location of good finds.
This is how we learn that another group has spotted a wobbegong, for example, and I can’t pass up the opportunity of photographing this carpet shark. It takes us half an hour to find it, hidden in a crack, but it is worth the search.
Another unusual experience awaits us on the northern coast of Pura, where kids wear home-made swimming goggles made from wood and glass bottle-bottoms to freedive from their dugout canoes – great for photographs.
We return to the main purpose of our trip. Careful inspection of the seabed reveals minuscule flounders, waspfish, sand-divers, numerous shrimps, hermit crabs, sand perch, a hairy frogfish, a Napoleon snake-eel and a blue dragon. It’s a productive afternoon.
Light snacks await onboard. I need to ingest more calories because the long and repeated immersions are draining my energy levels. A delicious local dish is up for grabs, and then I just have to wait for dusk to settle in for the daily night-dive, and see the species that leave their daylight hiding-places to hunt and feed. We’re itching to be back under water.
MINUTES AFTER SUBMERGING, I’m photographing a scorpionfish and a devilfish. In the sand I see something very small moving. I use my powerful lens coupled with dioptres to pick out a bobtail squid trying to bury itself.
A few metres away, a coconut octopus is feeding on a small fish it has captured. The dive ends with the sighting of a wunderpus, similar to the mimic octopus but without the white margin on its tentacles.
After several days doing four long dives daily you start to get chilly, even in 28°C water and especially after a night-dive, but as soon as you set foot back on deck, the pampering begins.
A steaming hot facecloth is handed to you. Once out of your wetsuit, a hot towel is draped over your shoulders and you’re handed a cup of hot chocolate.
Your only task now is to enjoy a copious dinner served on the upper deck while a warm breeze caresses your body.
A visit to Alor would not be complete without visiting the dive-sites of Mucky Mosque and the newly discovered jetty Beang Abang, cohabited by a variety of crabs – zebra, magnificent, hydroid decorator, spotted porcelain, boxer and anemone hermit to name but a few.
The oddities don’t end there. Warty, giant and other frogfish are in evidence, but the prized find is a juvenile painted frogfish about 1cm long.
Ribbon-eel adults display a yellow line along their blue bodies, while the juveniles are plain brown.
From one dive to the next, we spot countless types of nudibranch and flatworm in various phases of their lives – mating, feeding, laying eggs, even practising cannibalism. It’s impossible to remember all the names, and every night I check the numerous ID books in the library against my photos.
Diving from a liveaboard could be seen as missing out on Indonesia’s cultural experience, though you can always do that in the days before and/or after your diving experience.
Then again, you can take advantage of being in a remote location – while close to Kalibahi, for example, we visit the village of Takpala for a glimpse of the Abui tribe’s lifestyle as they perform their traditional dances and songs.
Then we’re travelling back to Kawula island in the hope of seeing lava flowing down the side of its active volcano, which has been known to blow every 15 minutes. We find that it’s been quiet since last November, but the view of the smoking mountain, Komba, provides a memorable backdrop for dinner on deck.
WE STOP IN LEBA LEBA BAY on our way back with Tanjung Waiwowang again on the radar – and I now know that anything can show up there.
The first creature I encounter is a robust ghost pipefish. Later I hear our guide screaming with joy into his regulator – he has found a mototi octopus! Like all cephalopods it can change colour in the blink of an eye, but this little guy is easily recognisable by the single large electric-blue ring on its side.
For the afternoon dive, I switch back to wide-angle. We encounter schools of striped catfish which, when they move together, resemble fireworks.
At around 25m a giant frogfish lurks. And at the end of the dive, in the shallows, I spot a few squid. I look up to the large rope holding the wharf in place and am not surprised to find an immaculately white cluster of squid eggs hanging on it. Below me are countless anemones, home to all sorts of anemonefish.
Many divers consider those unusual members of the scorpionfish family, Rhinopias, the holy grail of muck-diving. On this trip we break a record and identify at least 15 individuals – yellow, red, orange, purple, pink, paddle-flap, weedy… With such luck, I’m happy to say that I can’t consider them rare any more.
After a few muck-diving adventures, you start to build a wish-list of things still to see, and let your guide know about it.
Joni worked in Lembeh for 15 years and has bionic eyes. Name a species and he’ll find it on the same dive.
At the end of our trip, I am still searching for a pygmy seahorse, and mention this to Joni. It’s close, but in minute 99 of the very last dive he finds a Denise’s pygmy seahorse.
I carefully take a couple of frames, to avoid stressing the animal, and head for the surface.
You don’t have to compromise to visit magnificent, remote and uncrowded places. On the last night, after a four-course dinner, a glass of fine wine in hand, I look up at the starry sky.
Already I’m dreaming of my upcoming trip to Komodo on my new home away from home.
GETTING THERE: Fly into Indonesia via Jakarta or Denpasar in Bali. The latter is best for the connecting flight to Maumere on the island of Flores, where the boat departs. You will be given a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Arenui is a 43m motor yacht that takes a maximum of 16 guests. Nitrox is available. thearenui.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, though April-June is reckoned a good time to visit. The rainy season lasts from January to March. Water temperature ranges from 24-28°C.
CURRENCY: Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES: The two-week Alor/Komodo cruise next May costs from US $7670pp (two sharing). Return flights to Bali from UK from £450 – regional flights are usually under £100 return.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel