Trip Report: Komodo

2010 Ocean Art winner, Bettina Balnis, shares her recent adventure to Komodo aboard SMY Ondina.
By Bettina Balnis

Dive Adventure: Komodo

A report from the land of dragons and volcanoes

by Bettina Balnis


It was not my "first lesson in life," but my winning picture of skeleton shrimp in the 2010 Ocean Art Competition offered an amazing opportunity to me to experience new and fantastic diving lessons.  This was to be my first time going to Komodo. Wow! I heard a lot of stories before about Komodo; cold water, strong currents, sharks, mantas, and so on.

SMY Ondina

I was very excited when I departed this past September from Frankfurt to Denpassar.   From Denpassar I took a domestic flight to Bima.  Once there, I was picked me up at the airport and I went on board SMY Ondina to start the safari named, “Dragons and Volcanoes."

Main points of the route were Bima, Sangeang, Gili Lawalout, Nusa Kode - South Rinca, Komodo Strait, Palu, East Maumere – Flores.

Underwater photography aboard SMY Ondina

For my underwater photography adventure, I used the equipment listed below.

  • Nikon D80 in a Sealux underwater housing with an inon 45° viewfinder
  • Strobes 2x Inon Z 240, 1x Nikon SB800 in a Subal housing
  • Pilotlamp Supgear
  • Strobe arms and accessories from Mikedive Germany
  • Lenses:


Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F11, ISO 100 at 17mm.


There is a prepping and equipment area at the back of the boat which is very big and comfortable. Each diver has an assigned place with number and a basket. In the dry zone there is a storage area for electronic equipment and three charging slots for charging batteries, etc.  At the very back of the boat there is extra place for rinsing cameras and storage room for camera equipment. There is also a large desk to assemble and disassemble the cameras. Extra towels and extra baskets for the cameras are always there.

The crew of SMY Ondina is well experienced and educated, they always know what to do and how to help. I was very happy when they repaired some of my broken accessory parts of my underwater housing.

Also, the dingy drivers do a very good job. They were always are at the right place at the right time, and they know how to handle the equipment of each diver. I had no worries to hand over my camera to them.


Diving aboard SMY Ondina

Ella and Abraham were the dive guides onboard. They are very friendly and have extensive knowledge of the diving and they know the dive spots very well.  The "dragons and volcanoes" tour offers different kinds of dive sites, from the expected strong-current dives to those without any kind of current, and even muck dives.


Bethlehem (Bima)

The first dives at Bethlehem were more or less relaxing check-out dives. A perfect start to the safari, surprisingly large amount of muck subjects. Unfortunately I did not take the camera with me! There was not enough time to assemble the housing before diving.  We didn't waste anytime to do this dive, as we hopped in the water just two hours after we arrived onboard.


Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F10, ISO 100 at 10mm.

Shot Gun (Gili Lawalaut)

Of course the highlights of a Komodo dive trip are the sites with strong current, though I have to admit that I do not like current that much. But, I never felt unsafe on this trip or had to fight against the current.  Shot Gun at Gili Lawalaut is maybe the most exciting place.  According to the name, the current picks you up all of the sudden and - boing - you are really shot through the water.  A new feeling and new lesson for me – very amazing because sharks and mantas floating next to me, moving very quiet and elegant.  At this moment I loved the current.  The dive spots around Gili Lawalaut are special. Also playing dolphins under water suddenly appeared. What a pleasure to watch them!


Manta ray at Karang Makasser. Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F8, ISO 200 at 14mm.


Karang Makasser (Komodo Strait)

A quite shallow dive of 13m (43ft) but also with strong current is Karang Makassar.  Mantas are circling around and swimming in a formation. Fantastic.


South Rinca

The dives sites around South Rinca are different. There the water was only 22°C (72°F). I was happy with my 7mm suit, so I managed to do four dives that day. I was the only one! Also the water is more green at this area.  Nice landscapes and reefs with a lot of corals, feather stars, anemones, and nudibranchs.  A swarm of barracudas was waiting at the corner of one reef.  Turtles were coming very close to the divers.


Sea turtle at South Rinca. Sigma 18-55mm lens, 1/100th, F14, ISO 250 at 18mm.



On our way to Maumere we watched a film by Danny van Belle. The film was about critter life at Lembeh.  One topic was the special Lembeh pigmy seadragon which has been spotted only at Lembeh Strait.  Arriving at East Maumere, we did the first dive at Gosung Puluhari. This is an interesting macro dive site. At the end of the dive, Abraham was calling me. He had found a pigmy seadragon in a small coral cave. Wow! We just saw the film and then to find the same seadragon at Komodo?!  We all were very excited. It looked really similar like the critter in the film. At home I looked at a book by Debelius. I think the critter we had spotted was not a seadragon but a needle pipe seahorse. Ricard is doing some further studies about this at the moment. I am curious to hear the results. This day was again a lesson for me – Komodo is not only a shark and manta area – but also a critter area.  Everybody was very happy that day.


Needle pipe seahorse at Maumere. Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F20, ISO 100.


Upside-down jellyfish near the beach at Maumere.  Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F18, ISO 100.


Maumere was the end of our tour. It is a typically muck diving area.  One spot also has a wreck at 17m (55ft). Close to the beach, many upside-down jellyfish can be found. I have never seen them before – very funny. Also the gobies are very huge at this area and not too shy.  Sea cucumbers with five or more emperor shrimp are crawling on the ground. At the seagrass area, I found seven different kinds of ghost pipe fishes.  A perfect end of the tour.


Emperor shrimp on a sea cucumber. Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F18, ISO 100.


Land-based tours

Most of the days we did three day dives and one night dive.  Besides all of the great diving, SMY Ondina offers several land-based tours.  It was very interesting to walk on the different beaches and climb mountains to have a nice view of the surrounding landscape. Ella and Abraham, and also Ricard, the manager who was onboard for a week, told me a lot of background information about this special environment and also about the people who live there. This was a nice opportunity to explore the other wonderful aspects of Komodo.

Komodo National Park visitor's center.


A pair of Komodo dragons on the beach.



Over-looking the gorgeous landscape.


About SMY Ondina

SMY Ondina is a nice wooden schooner, and has a romantic flair.  Ricard showed me the photo album about the building of SMY Ondina. A lot of work went into building her, but the results are wonderful. The cabins have mostly three beds, one double bed and one single bed upstairs. The bathroom is comfortable and spacious enough.  Indra and the kitchen crew always cook excellent food, served at buffet. Special requirements like vegetarian meals are accommodated as well. In my opinion, the desserts are the highlight of each dinner.  For the evening entertainment, there is a wide selection of videos and DVDs onboard.



The last evening we had a sundowner cocktail at beach of Maumere watching the SMY Ondina with full sails. What a nice boat, what a great moment. It was time to say goodbye and to make the last photos.  The right moment to reflect the last eleven days and to make the decision to come back to Komodo.

I want to thank the owners Ricard and Enrique who sponsored Underwater Photography Guide's 2010 Ocean Art Photo Competition, which gave me the opportunity to experience my first "Komodo Lesson in Life.”


About the author

More about Bettina Balnis and her underwater photos can be found at her website.


Further reading

Dive Adventure: SCUBA Diving Tofo Beach, Mozambique

Trip Report: Tioman Island

Choosing the best macro lens for your underwater photography

Choosing your next destination

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