Liveaboard diving is a totally immersed diving experience. A boat is filled with people who love diving and the routine is dive, eat, sleep, dive, eat, sleepâ€¦for days. We wake at 6:30, dive at 7:00, eat breakfast, dive at 10:30, eat lunch, dive at 14:30, snack, dive at 18:30 (in the dark, with torches), eat dinner, sleep and do it all over again. Liveaboard diving gives wonderful new meaning to â€œsame shit, different dayâ€.
Choosing my liveaboard dive trip was an adventure in itself. Bunaken? Raja Ampat? Komodo? Which operator? Do they have dates that work? Are they full already? How much do they cost? After much internet trawling, sending emails and making calls, I decided upon diving Komodo with Blue Dragon. I often use travelfish.org when I travel in Asia and posted a quick note to check out other travellersâ€™ knowledge. That was when I learned Blue Dragon 2, the newer vessel, had sunk six months ago.
I was gutted. What to do? Do I go diving with a company whose boat sank, or do I book with someone else? I sent Emil an email saying I had just learned of the sinking and wanted to ask him some questions about safety on board and the gear I would hire. At this point I was so glad of all the things Iâ€™ve learned in the last two years from my friends at Chelsea and Fulham Sub Aqua Club. I was glad of my Sports Diver training and that I knew which questions to ask. I was glad that I know how to take care of my kit and myself underwater and donâ€™t need to be lifted and laid like I used to, with tropical commercial diving and boat boys who did everything for me. Thank you BSAC (and Dave Bennett), for teaching me how to be a diver.
After my conversation with Emil, where I learned Blue Dragon 2 went down in a seven-knot gale and everyone got to safety, my instincts were to book. So I did.
We boarded on Sunday after an early flight from Bali, sorted our kit, had tasty food, began to get to know each other, and did our check out dive with teeming fish on one of the most beautiful coral walls Iâ€™ve seen since Fiji. â€œItâ€™s nothing special, just the check out dive,â€ Gusty, the dive manager, said. My expectations of diving Komodo ratcheted up several notches.
Next morning, I dived with manta rays for the first time. I watched two mantas at cleaning stations swoop and dive for ten minutes as cleaner fish fluttered like adoring birds across their wings, flipping up and returning to feast on nasties as the manta glided gracefully in its fishy bath. Swimming with eight manta rays before breakfast is the best Monday morning I have ever had. A couple of days later, as we dived Makassar reef again, I saw 21 manta rays and the closest I got was about a metre from its wing tip as one manta swooped past. I was lucky to see black manta rays, very rare, and began making up stories about how they had been using the manta force for ill and turned black on their undersides. I think there may be a story to develop thereâ€¦
In south Komodo, we got in a bit of muck diving â€“ my first experience of rummaging through rubble and sand to find odd underwater critters. My favourite moments from these dives were watching a bob-tailed squid squirt ink, change colour and dart to safety, and a delightful juvenile sweetlips, about the size of my pinky nail, shake its ass like a latin dancer in a pink polka dot dress.
One of my favourite dives was a three-knot drift dive where we were carried by the current across a spectacular coral reef that unfolded like a Pixar movie. I surrendered to the current, spread my arms, pretended to be a manta ray and flew across the top of brightly coloured soft corals and beautiful hard corals.
On my last dive, I found a huge anemone and had a long chat with Nemo, bidding him a fond farewell and telling him Iâ€™d be back before long. He sends his love to my blog readers.
There was no diving for the last 20 hours on board as most divers were booked on an early flight back to Bali. This is when we went to see the famous Komodo dragons on a one hour hike through the forest. My nitrogen laden muscles struggled to pull me round the hike and that was when I decided Labuan Bajo would be a time of rest and relaxation as opposed to mountain climbing and exploring. Later that afternoon we were scheduled to go and see the bat cave. Gina, Mimi and I lounged on our deckchairs and agreed we were going to skip it – my legs couldnâ€™t take another hike that afternoon. Then, as the sun set, off in the distance, tens of thousands of bats began streaming out of a cave on a nearby island. From our deck chairs, we watched the most beautiful sunset and batsâ€™ waxy wings fly over the boatâ€™s rigging as the sky turned sunset pink to orange to deep red to blue to inky black. I watched the stars appear and imagined a seamstress in the sky stitching sequins onto a goddessâ€™s ball gown one by one. I had a lopsided, dreamy grin on my face and if it hadnâ€™t been for the call to dinner I might still be in bliss on that deck chair now.
Blue Dragon is a budget/backpacker standard liveaboard. The dive gear was serviceable, but not new. There were a few cockroaches on board (but just little ones, and I stopped noticing them after the first day). The standards are not western, but this is Indonesia, and they were safe. The boat had everything we needed for a comfortable liveaboard dive trip, including good showers to rinse the salt after each dive. The only time I ever had to wait for a shower was when Yao was in there singing his heart out.
I was bowled over by the crew. They poured their hearts into making our trip wonderful. On the first evening, I asked if my berth could be sprayed for bugs. He was in there for 15 minutes cleaning my room and spraying every nook and cranny, leaving it utterly spotless and bug-free. On our last night, back in port at Labuan Bajo, we hit land for ATMs and a bar. When we got back to the boat, a bit peckish, they rustled us up a snack of noodles and egg to deal with our late night munchies. Risky, the chef, and his team kept a boatload of hungry divers very happy with tasty fare.
My fellow divers really made the trip – Jouni, my Finnish dive buddy, Gina and Mimi from LA, and the rest of the gang from Malaysia and Hong Kong. Thank you all for making it such a brilliant trip â€“ it was so great to meet you and share tremendous diving.
I have adored diving Indonesia – 22 dives and a whole lot of joy. As I sit here in Labuan Bajo, nursing an ear infection, remembering those dives puts a dreamy smile on my face. I can’t wait until my next Indonesian dive trip. Who’ll join me to dive Raja Ampat next year?
JacDaly’s photostream on Flickr.