14 September 2019.
The twisting, otherworldly landscapes of Komodo National Park make this pocket of Indonesia a dream to explore, but for keen divers, it is the underwater world that conceals the region’s true treasures.
Here, the Pacific and Indian Oceans collide to create a perfect storm of raging currents and nutrient-rich waters that reward visitors with a veritable explosion of marine life.
Striking walls of vibrantly coloured corals house entire worlds of macro life, kaleidoscopic swirls of curious fish appear right alongside turtles and sharks, but perhaps best of all is the chance to see a manta ray whirling majestically overhead.
Pair that with vivid green hills that cascade into pristine turquoise bays and you’ve got a pretty spectacular way to spend a day out on the water. Really, it’s no surprise that this place is regularly listed among the best places to dive in the world.
Diving Komodo National Park is something special, a world-class underwater experience that will have you coming back for more, day after day. From the best time of year to visit to how much a dive trip here is actually going to cost you, here’s everything you need to know before diving the stunning Komodo National Park.
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In Komodo National Park divers are spoilt for choice with around 40 different dive sites split across three main regions – North, Central and South.
While all are incredibly beautiful, each offers something slightly different, be it beautiful corals, a miniature world of vibrant macro life or swarms of the big stuff. However, as the seasons shift, so does the weather, making conditions in some regions unfavourable. The central sites are usually visited all year round, while North and South are only accessible at certain times of the year.
North | Anchored off the northern tip of Komodo Island, this region is home to some of Komodo’s most current-affected sites (if the surface water is churning enough to be named ‘The Cauldron’, this may give you some idea!) making it more suitable to experienced divers. Expect to see plenty of beautiful corals and small reef fish, but really this area is famous for the wide array of larger species you’ll encounter. Visibility is often the best here too.
The northern sites are usually only visited between April and November as, during the rainy season, this area is exposed to strong winds and waves making it largely unsuitable for diving at this time of year.
Central | The central sites are largely clustered around the north of Rinca and east coast of Komodo Island. This provides plenty of sheltered sites that are perfect for beginners as well as fast-paced drift dives. This area is also home to the famously nicknamed ‘Manta Alley’ where the main manta cleaning stations lie. The region is very diverse with a number of spectacular coral walls and gardens accompanied by plenty of macro life and a plethora of larger pelagic species.
These sites are able to be visited year-round, though are usually best during the dry season.
South | Upwellings bring much colder water to the south along with an abundance of marine life, though the area is particularly famous for its diversity of small critters. Opposite to the north, the southern sites are hit by large waves during the middle of the year making them best visited around the rainy season from October through April when visibility is also best.
Really, you’ll have an epic time diving Komodo National Park at any time of year, but if you’ve got your heart set on visiting a specific location or want to give yourself the best opportunity to spot manta rays, there are certainly a few things to consider when planning your trip.
Manta Season | Peak season for manta rays in Komodo National Park is between November and February which also happens to be the height of the rainy season.
The good news, however, is that there’s still a pretty good chance to see them for many months outside of this period. I arrived in late May and was lucky enough to see these graceful creatures on every single day I went into the park and on one occasion sat watching a group of half a dozen as they danced around each other.
Best Diving | You can certainly dive Komodo all year round, but the best time for you really depends on what you want to see. If you’re a keen macro lover or photographer, you may prefer to visit the southern sites which means planning your visit around the wet season, while if it’s the ultimate excitement of Komodo’s currents that you crave, scheduling your trip when conditions are best up north might be the better option.
The central region is visited year-round so sites like the famous Batu Bolong, generally said to be the absolute best of the bunch, will almost always be accessible. February is generally considered the worst time to visit and is best avoided as bad weather causes many trips to be cancelled.
Overall Experience | In general, the best time to visit Komodo is between April and early June or September and November. This is when the tourist crowds have yet to arrive or have already begun to dissipate following the summer rush, the sea is calm, the weather is at its best and you’ve still got a good chance to see the mantas.
What could be better than spending your days in a constant loop of eat, dive, chill, repeat, where afternoons are whiled away sprawled out on the sun-drenched deck, hanging with your boat mates in anticipation of yet another blazing sunset on the water, cold drink in hand of course.
If you’re planning to spend a few days diving in Komodo National Park, chances are the mental tug-of-war between doing a liveaboard or a series of day trips has already begun.
A liveaboard is essentially the ultimate kind of dive experience, but they also make an already bloody expensive hobby, a whole lot more expensive. If you’re struggling to decide, there are definite advantages to both experiences depending on what you’re after.
The undeniable benefits of going on a Komodo liveaboard are that you get to be the first at the dive sites, have the option of night dives, have far less travel time each day and, as one instructor put it, all you have worry about is diving and eating. Compared to liveaboards elsewhere in the world, those in Komodo are also among the most affordable you’ll find while still offering fantastic service in a world-class dive destination. Plus, the thought of having endless time to chill on board and be able to catch every sunset and sunrise washing across these spectacular landscapes sounds like an absolute dream.
On the other hand, dive day trips are a fair bit cheaper, allowing you to put that money toward a whole extra day or two of diving, or save it for later in your trip. They also leave your evenings free to do what you please in Labuan Bajo, whether that’s gorging on barbecued fish at the market, catching the sunset from Amelia Sea View or taking a much-needed nap in the hostel hammock.
Ultimately, I decided to go with the day trip option, promising myself I’d be back one day (this paradise is only a few hours from Australia after all), and immediately signed up for a full extra day of diving with the money I’d saved on the liveaboard. No regrets!
For someone travelling on a higher budget or on a bucket list trip, I wouldn’t hesitate to go for the liveaboard.
So, How Much Does Diving Komodo Actually Cost?
Komodo Dive Day Trips | A full day of diving, including three dives, all equipment, lunch and snacks will set you back around 1,800,000IDR (€115), plus Komodo National Park entry fees which are currently 275,000IDR (€18) per day (July 2019).
Most dive shops charge around the same rates and offer a discount of 5 to 10% for each extra day that you dive. It’s also possible to do just two dives a day for a reduced rate.
Komodo Liveaboards | Liveaboards in Komodo cover a huge range of budgets depending on the length of the trip and the facilities of the boat. Prices start from around €500 for a 3D/2N trip (so around €160 per day) and soar well into the thousands for longer and more luxurious expeditions.
If you’re still undecided on the liveaboard vs day trip dilemma when you arrive, it’s possible to find exceptional last-minute liveaboard deals online, sometimes up to 50% off, which could be the clincher. Along the main street in Labuan Bajo, many dive operators will also have a blackboard with their upcoming departures listed and you can score a moderate discount (around 15%) by walking around to see who has spaces available. As always, be sure to choose a reputable company.
Who To Dive With In Komodo?
Thankfully, Labuan Bajo is home to a number of fantastic dive shops and so, provided you do your research, you should end up with a top-notch crew.
I spent an excellent few days diving with the wonderful team at Uber Scuba and would highly recommend them. They operate two dive boats during high season as well as a liveaboard, all of which have a spacious top deck with bean bags plenty of both sun and shade to while away your surface internals. A delicious veggie lunch (seriously, the pumpkin curry is to die for!) is included, as well as snacks throughout the day, and of course, all dive equipment was well-maintained and in good condition. The team were also excellent, giving thorough briefings with a focus on environmentally responsible dive practices.
That said, Labuan Bajo also has a community of dive operators (DOCK) with a strong focus on high safety standards, supporting the local community and the environmental conservation of Komodo National Park. In practice, this means anything from zero-tolerance for disturbing marine life and encouraging the use of reef-safe sunscreen, to supporting cleanup and waste reduction initiatives around town. By choosing an operator within this community, you can be sure you’re not just getting excellent service but also supporting responsible and sustainable practices within the national park.
Strong currents | If you know just one thing about diving Komodo, aside from the incredibly rich marine life, it’s probably that the place has some crazy currents – powerful tidal shifts, churning surface streams and a wild mix of up and down draughts. For the most part, this means fun and fast-paced drift dives where you simply need to surrender to the current rather than resist, but there are a few sites where strong down currents need to be factored into any dive plan and where an experienced and responsible dive guide is essential.
It is suitable for beginners | All this talk of currents is enough to make any newbie slightly terrified, and while many online guides seem to suggest Komodo is not suitable for beginners, there are plenty of protected dive sites with little to no current and shallow patches of reef that are absolutely spectacular and perfect for divers just starting out. Of course, experienced divers will be able to enjoy the more challenging sites, but beginners certainly won’t miss out.
Consider the full moon | The lunar cycle is not something I ever give much thought to, but in Komodo, a full moon or new moon can make an already strong current even trickier to navigate and may mean some of the more current-affected dive sites are completely off-limits during this lunar phase. If you’re short on time and want to get the best out of your dive trip, try to avoid visiting at these times of the month.
There are plenty of dive schools | Research is always paramount when choosing the right dive operator, but you’ll be glad to know that Labuan Bajo is home to a number of reputable shops. As I mentioned, I would highly recommend Uber Scuba and would happily dive with them again, but depending on the type of crowd you’re looking for, you’ll find plenty of highly-rated operators in town.
It’s easy to reach | Despite feeling a world away from the frenzied streets of Bali or Jakarta, Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park, is actually exceptionally easy to reach, but more on that below.
Is gear included? | Often it is, but not always, especially when it comes to liveaboards. If you’re trying to stick to some semblance of a budget, it’s also a cost that will add up quickly over several days.
Be mindful of your plastic consumption | Indonesia has a huge issue with waste management and despite sitting on the edge of one of the world’s most pristine and biologically rich ecosystems, Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park are sadly not immune to the inundation of plastic waste that affects much of the nation.
As visitors, it’s imperative that we all do our part to limit the waste we produce and not contribute to what is already an uncontrollable tidal wave of trash. Simple, manageable day-to-day changes like bringing a reusable tote bag instead of taking plastic bags, asking for ‘no straw’ when ordering a drink and carrying a reusable water bottle with you (there are plenty of places to refill around town) will make a world of difference over time.
Leave enough time before your flight | Many people come to Komodo National Park with a very quick turnaround time, sometimes just a day or two, but if you’re diving, be sure to schedule in enough time between your final dive and your flight. It’s recommended to wait at least 12 hours after a single dive and ideally at least 24 hours after multiple dives on consecutive days. For day trips, the final dive is usually finished by around 2 p.m. so it would still possible to fly out late on the following day.
Low season is really low | I’m a huge advocate for travelling out of season, especially to areas suffering from over tourism, but in Komodo National Park things remain relatively quiet for most of the year outside of the peak tourist rush in July and August. Even in late May, many dive and tour operators were struggling to fill their boats. This is not necessarily a bad thing but may mean you have fewer options.
Underwater camera | Seriously, you’ll want to capture every single second of life beneath the surface, whether it’s the incredible macro life, a chilled-out green turtle munching on coral or a giant manta soaring inches from your head. The Olympus Tough TG-6 paired with the underwater housing is an excellent choice of compact underwater camera system with a number of specialised settings for underwater and macro to help you capture fantastic stills and video. The camera alone can be used to 15m while the housing extends its depth capabilities to 45m. It also supports external flashes and lens accessories for more experienced photographers.
Reusable Water Bottle | Please don’t contribute unnecessarily to the piles of discarded water bottles that already lie scattered about Labuan Bajo – use a reusable one instead! There are plenty of places to refill your bottle around town – just look for the Trash Hero posters. I use these ones from Klean Kanteen and Mizu.
Reef Safe Sunscreen | If you’re travelling all this way to visit one of the most beautiful pockets of reef in the world, chances are you don’t want the chemicals in your sunscreen to destroy it. Honestly, I’m still trying to find a brand of reef-safe sunscreen that I love, but these are a few that are recommended: Stream2Sea, Sun Bum Mineral, Tropical Sands and Blue Lizard.
Sun protection | Most dive boats have ample shade, but between dives, it can far too tempting to while away your surface internal sprawled out in the sun. A hat, t-shirt and sunglasses (and sunscreen of course) mean you can still enjoy the sun’s warmth without getting completely fried to a crisp.
Swimmers | Obviously, you’ll need your swimmers. Two sets is best as the humidity means things take a long while to dry.
Warm clothes | With average temperatures well over 30 degrees, I never thought I’d be craving a jumper in Indonesia, but in the afternoon when the wind picks up and the clouds roll across the sky, having a warm change of clothes to change into after your dives isn’t a bad idea. Bring a dry change of clothes and a slight sweater, just in case.
Tampons or menstrual cup | Cramped boat toilets and periods are an awkward mix at the best of times, but coming unprepared could be a downright disaster. There’s not a great deal in the way of tampons in this small town, so I’d suggest bringing what you’ll need from home, or consider switching to a menstrual cup which will eliminate the waste all together.
You’ll be glad to know that while the diving may make a pretty large dent in your budget, there are plenty of affordable options for accommodation. For those seeking a touch of luxury, however, the spectacular setting makes it a wonderful place to splurge.
La Boheme Bajo | One of the best budget options in town so you can spend more of your hard-earned rupees on the fun stuff. La Boheme oozes that quintessential backpacker vibe and offers basic dorms, a number of affordable tours and plenty of chillout spaces complete with hammocks and bean bags. The onsite restaurant and bar also has excellent happy hour deals though the internet here isn’t great.
Ciao Hostel | A top rated-hostel with exceptional views across the bay, Ciao is a 10-minute walk from town and offers spacious dorms with fan or air conditioning, a gorgeous terrace area, tour desk and free shuttle to the airport and town.
Or search the full range of budget-friendly guesthouse here.
Mid Range + Luxury
Puri Sari Beach Hotel | Located 15 minutes from the centre of town, Puri Sari offers bright spacious private rooms, a pool, lush garden, private beach access and breakfast included.
Plataran Komodo Beach Resort | A collection of beautiful luxury Indonesian-style villas boasting beach access, an onsite restaurant and bar, spa and gym.
AYANA Komodo Resort | Cascading down the cliff towards the beachfront, this sprawling 5-star resort offers up stunning ocean views perfect for catching the sunset along with a full suite of services and amenities. Check its superb location in the shot above.
There are several ways to reach Labuan Bajo. By plane is by far the easiest and most convenient, but for those on a tighter budget or looking to take the more adventurous route, it’s also possible to arrive by passenger ship, a combination of ferry and bus or a multi-day tour from Bali or Lombok.
Flights | There are several direct daily flights from Denpasar (Bali), Jakarta and Surabaya (Java), Makassar (Sulawesi) and Praya (Lombok), as well as connections to all the main towns on Flores. Prices drop to as little as 700,000IDR (€45) one way on a low-cost carrier, even during high season, so try book your tickets a few weeks in advance to secure the best deal.
Pelni Passenger Ship | Pelni operates several services each month on large passenger ships departing from Benoa (Bali) and travelling either direct to Labuan Bajo or calling in at Ampenan (Lombok) and/or Bima (Sumbawa). Direct crossings take around 25 hours while those with stops can take around 7 hours longer. Prices start at 230,500IDR (€15).
Ferry + Bus | This option involves a series of transport changes and takes around 4 days from Bali but is the cheapest way of arriving to Labuan Bajo. First, you’ll need to take a ferry from Padangbai, Bali to Lembar on Lombok, followed by a minibus to Mataram. From there, it’s a bus to Bima on Sumbawa (with a ferry crossing), another bus to Sape and a final ferry to Labuan Bajo on Flores.
Multi-Day Tour | These trips make reaching Labuan Bajo all about the journey, allowing you to experience the magnificent beauty of Komodo National Park along the way. Some tours are geared toward the budget backpacker crowd, like Wanua Adventures, with prices starting at 230,000IDR (€145) for the 4-day tour, whereas others are Komodo Liveaboards that make time to explore the islands as well.