Komodo East of Java
Divernet
Aboard ship, life is luxurious. Down below, the marine life is out of the ordinary but the dive guide carries a magnifying to locate exciting little creatures with big, big names. No life is spotted at the site called Marks Sharks, so why does it become the most talked-about dive As John Bantin observes, people are the strangest species

DID YOU PHOTOGRAPH THE TAENIANOTUS TRIACAN asks one of my fellow passengers aboard mv Pelagian.
I missed that one, but werent those Tridachia crispaqa colourful offers another.
I saw several Nembrotha purporeolineata, chips in a third.
I am beginning to feel daunted by the combined intellect of my companions. I know few animals by their Latin names, and these people are enthusing about stuff of which I know nothing. I keep my mouth shut - unusual for me. I dont want them to find out how little I know.
We are near Rinca, the island next to Komodo. If you want to find it on the map, go east from Bali and stop before you reach East Timor. This is a land of active volcanoes, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. When Mount Tambora last exploded, it made Krakatoa look like a damp squib.

running out of places
This is an expensive trip. The 10 passengers cosseted in the unashamed luxury of mv Pelagian are mainly well-heeled Americans. There is Dr Mike from Indiana; enigmatic Roger, retired from special operations with the US army; Robert the Chinese expert, resident in Hong Kong, with his partner Sandy, a staff writer from Time magazine; Bill, the federal auditor and discoverer of the million-dollar toilet, a celebrated case of government over-spending; and Scott from Silicone Valley, a double for Sgt Bilko. The two cool Canadians, Bob and Dr Rob, seem strangely British by comparison.
All of them are expert divers. They have become expert through the experience built up by doing countless dive trips to all the best locations in the world, places most of us only dream about. Indeed, Bill is running out of ideas for where to go next, having already been to so many places twice.
Weve been diving Cannibal Rock, named after a Komodo dragon which was spotted nearby with another dragon half-swallowed. These beasts, large predatory lizards the size of crocodiles, will eat anything, even one another.
I casually glance over to the beach, where weve attached some fish-heads to a tree as a lure. A family of wild boar are scavenging beneath for the bits we dropped. Komodo dragons will chew up the family if they get the chance. They will lie in ambush but can spring into action, jumping as much as 6ft to bring down even a water buffalo. A dragons saliva is toxic enough to kill you. We wear shoes when we go ashore.
Minke whales at the bow, calls a voice, and ones giving birth!
Relieved that our subject has not been called by its Latin name, I listen as our two doctors give us the benefit of their combined expertise. That pink thing is not a baby, states Dr Mike. Hes a paediatrician, so he knows what hes talking about. Those whales are mating!

strong currents
We are moored in Horseshoe Bay, the bowl of an ancient volcano. Separated from Komodo by the Lintah Straits, Rinca is one of the eastern outposts of the island nation of Indonesia. Here the tropical waters of the Flores Sea meet cold upwellings from the Indian Ocean. The current in the straits can be strong enough to stop the vessel making headway against an unfavourable tide.
These are the worlds most prolific seas, with so many species that undescribed ones are discovered on a daily basis.
The hard corals seem appear unaffected by El Ni–o and the reefs are tight-packed with soft corals and all manner of invertebrates. Bright red sea apples, extending their soft tendrils triffid-like, are everywhere.
Ghost pipefish are almost common. There are frogfish that look like crabs; nudibranchs that look like something from Salvador Dalis most colourful dreams; devilfish with chickens claws that look like nothing on Earth.
Its a macro mans dream. The water is full of nutrients. The penalty one pays as an underwater photographer is poorer-than-wanted visibility - a wide-angle photographers nightmare.

sponge fancy
No one is interested in the large Spanish dancer I photograph during a night dive. Its too ordinary! I covertly photograph a large barrel sponge to which I have taken a fancy. I would not want to reveal such modest tastes to my co-passengers.
Larry, our guide, is in his 50s and from Texas. He has a bull neck, a beefy body, and talks like a cowboy. Time to saddle up and mosey on down to the dinghies, he drawls.
His briefings are short on detail but drawn out in delivery. Why does it take 20 minutes to tell us its going to be a fun dive around a BFR (a big f****** rock), with currents from mild to wild and, yes, there will be marine life I expect him to say well all meet up later at the OK Coral! In his black wetsuit, he looks like a shiny black pebble - or perhaps another BFR!
It seems contradictory that Larry is obsessed with the smallest forms of animal life. He gets his rocks off looking at pygmy seahorses less than a quarter the size of your pinkie fingernail. He adores skeleton shrimps.
During one dive, he shows me a mushroom coral crawling with what look like long, white worms. They have snake heads and are very active. I show them in turn to Dr Rob.
Larry later insists that they are not worms but fish, and Dr Rob confirms that they were gross. Im glad Im not alone in that sentiment.
As we surface after one dusk-dive, Anton, the second dive guide, excitedly calls out that he has found a stargazer.
I drop back down with Larry, who uses a chopstick to entice the creature out of the sand. Its not a stargazer, its a stonefish. A BF stonefish! I go back to Pelagian to reload my camera.
Larry improvises a marker in the black volcanic sand with his safety sausage and a lead weight.
We return, and he entices it out again. Its ugly. Larry, not a pretty-looking man, has serious competition in the beauty stakes. Then we find a stargazer, so I photograph that too.

jumping bean
I wish I had a macro camera. I have not taken great interest in macro work before, but here so much of what there is to photograph is tiny. I dont think Ill learn all the Latin names, however.
I spend my time positioning my camera dome port 10cm from such animals as scorpion leaf-fish, and get images of a scorpion leaf-fish in a landscape with glassfish.
A pink frilly frogfish is almost impossible to see in my viewfinder, even at this range. It suddenly sees itself reflected in my dome port, and turns into a jumping bean. My fellow-divers, waiting patiently and equipped for macro, are unimpressed as it shoots off through midwater and hides deep in a coral head.
I hear Larrys underwater hooter. He has found something exciting. I join him, ecstatic beside a fan coral.
I can see nothing. To my amazement, he pulls out a large magnifying glass, and I see through it some minute skeleton shrimp. I am armed with a camera with a super-wide-angle lens. Later I joke that some people have larger animals living in their pubic hair! He boasts that everything is smaller here - he has been away from Texas too long.
I hear Larrys hooter again and decide to ignore it. He comes at me through the murk and drags me somewhat unwillingly with him. We ascend to 6m, where the water is suddenly gin-clear.
Five enormous cuttlefish, each one a good 60cm long, are mating and laying their eggs.
By now they have a big audience of divers, but the cuttlefish have no shame. Each female flashes promiscuous messages across her body to the pale male so that he fertilises each egg before they delicately position them securely in the coral. We watch fascinated, but I have no film left.
I return to the boat for reloads of both film and air. Larry and I return to the water. I get the pictures I want.

trap the shrimp
We passengers spend most of the time on board laughing at ourselves. We think it ridiculous that 12 adults should lie on the seabed in total darkness for 38 minutes during a night dive, waiting for flashlight fish to appear and do their formation dancing.
On this occasion, I find myself lying over the burrow of a mantis shrimp.
I dont relish the idea of taking one on the chin from this pugilist of the crustacean world, which has a punch so fast you cant see it coming.
I stick my torch, redundant in the darkness, down its hole.
Eventually Tinker Bell and her friends dance around us like an enormous swarm of fireflies. Once someone gets impatient and turns on a torch, the flashlight fish beat a hasty retreat to the safety of their caves. We must be sad, spending an evening this way!
Diving in this part of the world is either in protected bays full of nutrient-rich water, without much current but with reduced visibility, or out in the blue and subject to the will of the ocean.
Equipped to take wide-angle photographs, I relish the idea of the open sea.
GPS Point is such a site, a low sea-mount teeming with all manner of life, from big tuna to the tiniest nudibranch. We need to do our safety stops drifting out in the blue.
The rocks at Gilli Laura Laut mark a point of confluence of two powerful currents. It is known for aggregating grouper when there is a new moon, and there is. We expect to see sharks, too.
We drop in 200m upcurrent and drift easily along the reef. At 33m we come across a good-sized grey reef shark caught up in a large abandoned net. It looks forlorn, very beaten up.
With the Shark Trust in mind, I take pictures. Dr Rob examines its teeth, putting his hand in its mouth.
We drift on to the corner. Thousands of oriental sweetlips rest on the bottom, with schools of batfish out in the blue.
I take a few more pictures, but the current is picking up fast. I make my way up the hill, picking and choosing my spots to rest in eddies. I get to 9m and congratulate myself on my skill. Everyone else seems to be hanging on there with their reef hooks.
I find a quiet corner and float weightlessly, photographing a lionfish doing the same. I know that, once Im out of this protected spot, I will be at the mercy of the twin streams now roaring from each side. Drifting in the blue for a safety stop, if the boat misses me Ill be in Japan in no time!
I check that my surface flag is still securely attached to my tank, and go. Everyone is quickly recovered by the anticipating dinghy drivers.

weight loss
Back on Pelagian, Captain Matt wants to retrieve the net before it kills more animals. I offer to go with him and Aussie ships mate Zane. The others are doing a different dive with the pick-up boats, so we are going to risk diving without permanent safety cover.
In and down: to my horror, in that first moment I drop a packet of integrated weights.
I surface to see the dinghy roaring away. Im on the current and have no option but to dive.
Drifting on to a shallow point, I manage to get down and drag myself against the flow with my reef hook a distance of a couple of hundred metres along the reef, and down to where I find Matt and Zane with the shark in the net.
Matt is working furiously with a knife while Zane rolls up the net. Hes working to a different script. There seem to be hundreds of metres of it and he has no chance of completing the job. The current is getting too strong; its becoming impossible.

no film, no time
I take photographs. The shark is badly mauled from its thrashing to escape entanglement earlier, and its gills give off a cloud of blood, green at this depth. But its freed - its still alive! I cant wait to tell Dr Rob.
Matt shouts a warning to Zane. He doesnt understand, and cuddles the shark for the benefit of my camera.
The current is irresistible. I am low on air and have to go.
I reach the corner. This time it is teeming with sharks and grouper. I have neither film nor time - I need to ascend.
Now I have the problem of doing a deco-stop without my weights. I use the reef hook to control my ascent. The shallowest secure rock I can find is at 9m.
It will have to do. I dont want to be drifting on that current in the open sea without a pick-up boat. I stay until my air is gone, and then hurtle to the surface. The boat arrives on cue.
Matt is bobbing on the current, too, anxious to get back to Pelagian. He ran out of air in the blue at 20m, made a fast trip to the surface and wants to get on the DAN set as soon as he can. We look for Zane. Finally he surfaces, reporting that in that current and at that depth he was totally narked. He didnt have to tell us.
We might be three professionals, but the dive has gone totally wrong. The net has not been recovered and each of us has had a near miss. Matt breathes oxygen for half an hour as a precautionary measure. The sea has reminded us yet again of how mortal we are.
Manta Alley is another spot subject to some big currents. Divided by big rocks that break the surface and redirect the flow, you really dont know which way youre going to go when you break cover and head up.

diving with hats
The mantas like it here. Every diver has a close encounter except me - they never come close enough for me to photograph. I content myself with a marble ray. The dinghy drivers pick up all 10 passengers and the two dive guides from the disparate places where we end up.
On the surface, the water is boiling like a washing machine. Safety sausages and flags are essential.
Robert and Sandy plan for a nightmare scenario by diving with emergency rations, bottles of drinking water and hats in pouches attached to their tank cambands.
If we thought the current was strong, we have a surprise in store. The site called Marks Sharks is another of those Larry describes as a BFR, out in the Indian Ocean, south of Komodo. There are some big swells.
He anticipates that the current will be mild to wild but its a place known for shark action. Were going to raise the voltage a bit on this dive, he drawls during the briefing.
Most opt for the plan to stay at 20m and watch the show from there. Captain Matt, Dr Mike, the paediatrician good-looking enough to have his own TV soap, and I choose to be dropped further from the rock, and be washed back on the current so that we get the chance to go deeper.
We wait until the others have entered the water, and reposition the dinghy. Then its in and down as fast as we can go. In the helter-skelter of our descent, we scatter a school of large tuna and as they clear I see an integrated-weight packet hovering in the blue. It seems to be going nowhere, slowly rotating.
Matt sprints ahead and grabs it. It belongs to Dr Mike. How come he has got down here with us without his weights I glance at my computer. Were already at 40m, and descending.
Reaching this depth has taken only 10 seconds. Weve gone down faster than the packet of lead! I fully inflate my BC to slow me slightly, pull out my reef hook and bury it in a passing rock. Exhaled air bubbles down and away into the abyss.
Matt grabs the rock face with his bare hands and starts climbing grimly. Dr Rob calmly cruises by, and casually offers him a glove.
What is Dr Rob doing down here He opted for the 20m dive plan. I look around. Nearly all the other divers are here too, rock-climbing.
Were all in a massive down-current. The full force of the Indian Ocean is hitting the BFR and dividing three ways, left, right and down. Instead of being where the current splits, we have inadvertently chosen the downward flow. Its like Niagara Falls.

delayed bubbling
We each choose to work our way sideways. Soon we get out of the downcurrent and into one of the two sidecurrents. It takes us and whisks us round the corner, into the tranquillity of an eddy and an easy trip to the surface.
Some of us do safety stops out in the blue. We are surrounded by clouds of tiny bubbles. Champagne No, this is the air we exhaled earlier. Its been down to who-knows-what depths in the flow and is only now making its way back to the surface.
We see little wildlife during the dive, but the experience has my adrenalin pumping. Everyone returns to mv Pelagian excited and elated.
We survived. The dive plan Plans are the first casualty of war and the Indian Ocean won. This was probably the most talked-about dive of the trip.
Homo sapiens. See I know the Latin name of the most ridiculous animal found under water!

EASY LIVING
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Some mature readers might recognise the graceful lines of the luxury motor yacht mv Pelagian. She started life as a state-of-the-art gin palace called Radiant, but you might recognise her as Fantasea II, first used by Howard Rosenstein in the Red Sea for luxury diving charters.

I often looked at her when she came in to Sharm el Sheikh but knew I could never afford to buy a holiday on her. She then regularly went down to Aldabra near the Seychelles. Its a long way, but that is the sort of journey for which she was built.

American Matt Hendrick bought her and, after an initial refit in Cyprus, drove her to Thailand for the finishing touches. Thats a lot further than Aldabra, and he did it without stopping. The range of the vessel, with her British twin Gardner engines, is around 10,000 miles.

Now Pelagian is immaculately restored to her former glory, with numerous improvements too. Her steel hull is 35m long and her high prow makes her ocean-going. The cabins are luxurious and owner Captain Matt limits her to 10 passengers at a time.

A cordon bleu chef is aided by two stewardesses and meals are varied between Thai, Indonesian and international. You can eat whatever you like for breakfast. There are more crew than passengers and they too have good facilities. Pelagians galley is bigger than the kitchen in my house, there is a dedicated camera room with individual workstations and lockers, and there are two professional ships engineers to keep everything in top condition.

The en suite toilets even have a freshwater flush - there is so much fresh water made on board that the crew can afford to wash the boat down with it every morning.

Two dive guides with two pick-up boats and drivers look after the diving. You never have to lift a finger.

Pelagian is an oasis of civilisation, perfect for viewing a wild world. One night we witnessed a million fruitbats, or flying foxes, commuting between the small island of Satonda and the trees of the much larger Sumbawa. The sun was setting and the sky became black with the creatures, many swooping closely past us, while we enjoyed an evening drink. Schools of spinner dolphin and two enormous sunfish seen basking at the surface on the return journey proved the cherry on the icing.

A trip on mv Pelagian costs around£2500 for two weeks from London including flights, depending on the type of cabin. There is always demand for the finest quality and the vessel is booked through 2001. Start saving for 2002 now!

Larry
Larry uses his magnifying glass to find skeleton shrimps
elephant
elephant ear sponge
Spot
Spot the crocodile fish
the
the well-camouflaged devilfish
Mt
Mt Tambora, one of the volcanoes in the Ring of Fire
the
the camera room on mv Pelagian
a
a Komodo dragon
sea
sea apples are everywhere
Anton
Anton finds the shark caught in the net
Matt
Matt uses his knife to free it
Zane
Zane gets narked. The shark survived!
Sponges
Sponges
hard
hard coral with crinoid
getting
getting ready to roll

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: The Indonesian archipelago stretches over a vast area, straddling the equator. Bali is a well-known holiday island with an international airport, and visitors from Britain can fly there with Singapore Airlines via Singapore to join a liveaboard. The islands of Sumbawa, Banda, Komodo and Rinca are situated east of Lombok and west of Flores. John Bantin travelled with Scuba Tours Worldwide (01449 780220, www.scubascuba.com), British agent for many liveaboards around the world. Other operators in the region include Explorers Tours (01753 681999), Aquamarine in Bali (0062 361 730107) and Symbiosis Expedition Planning (020 7924 5906).

DIVING: Diving is either in calm conditions where visibility is less good but the wildlife is a macro photographers dream, or in very strong currents where a reef hook is essential.

WHEN TO GO: May to December.

ACCOMMODATION: The islands are virtually uninhabited, so must be reached using a liveaboard dive-boat. Many liveaboards from other parts of Indonesia and the Philippines have retreated to Bali, where operations are safe, including my Pindito and my Baruna. Mv Pelagian is operated by Dive-Asia Pacific (www.dive-asiapacific.com).
language: English is widely spoken.

CURRENCY: Credit cards are not thought to be a safe method of transaction in this area, so take plenty of US dollars and Indonesian rupiah. There are money exchanges at Bali airport.

HEALTH: Malaria is endemic in Indonesia, though if you stay aboard a boat mosquitoes are not a problem. Consult your doctor well in advance of your trip.