Recently I completed my divemaster training at Blue Marlin Komodo. For the most part it was a fantastic experience, and I have no regrets, but I couldn’t help noticing that, for a small town, the hotspot of Komodo’s dive centres – Labuan Bajo – gets more than its fair share of drama.
I first heard about Labuan Bajo in a post by a friend of mine – Adventurous Kate – who was shipwrecked while taking a five-day Komodo dragon spotting boat trip across from Lombok. After arriving in Flores’ port town, I couldn’t imagine anything so eventful happening to me. I was wrong. In just under eight weeks, there were enough far-fetched events to make the storyline of an Australian soap seem like everyday life in comparison.
Komodo National Park is known for its currents, but usually you can prepare for them by checking the tides and planning your dive accordingly. Do enough dives in Komodo, though, and you’re probably going to have one or two unnerving experiences, because, sometimes, the sea has a mind of its own. That’s not to say it’s particularly dangerous. If you listen to your briefings and follow instructions, there’s little chance of an accident, but nothing quite prepares you for when you’re hovering motionless checking out a moray eel and suddenly the current sweeps you in its arms and threatens to pull you down to the ocean floor. Nowhere else in the world have I ever had to grip the reef wall with both hands while watching my exhaled bubbles get sucked down into the deep instead of rising joyfully to the surface. Thankfully, the moment passed and I only had one more experience like it, but it was a pertinent reminder that the sea is much more powerful than we are, and that safe diving practices should always be respected.
REAL RESCUE SCENARIO
Fast forward about an hour from the insane current experience and our dive group was preparing to do a drift dive as part of an Advanced course. Our instructor counted us down and everyone flopped into the water in a back-roll negative entry. The drift started to carry us immediately, but it was only seconds before we noticed something was wrong. One of the girls was still on the surface and blood was gushing from her head. Thankfully, it wasn’t as serious an injury as it could have been, but she did eventually receive five stitches. It turned out that one of the other students had hesitated and hit the other one with her tank on entry. We had to provide first aid, search for the other dive group’s bubbles, recall them by banging repeatedly on a tank and rush back to shore so that she could receive medical attention. It’s important to note that this incident was in no way the fault of any of the Blue Marlin crew. All students had been fully briefed on the entry procedure. It was just another reminder that, even with safe diving practices in place, accidents do still happen sometimes. I also can’t commend our instructor highly enough for the level-headed way she dealt with the situation.
DEATH OF A DIVER
By far the most traumatic experience during my time on Flores was witnessing search and rescue bring back the body of a diver who had drowned at one of the local dive sites. A divemaster trainee friend and I were busy unloading tanks from our boat when the ambulance requested a clear route to the end of the pier. Crowds of locals had gathered to spectate and local news crews were milling round. We never did hear the exact circumstances under which it happened, but it is believed that the 27-year-old Singaporean girl had limited experience and should not have been allowed to visit a dive site with such challenging currents. For the number of divers who pass though, Komodo does not have many fatalities, but it’s important to dive within the limits of your ability and to choose a professional centre like Blue Marlin who pride themselves on detailed briefings and safe diving practices. Some of the dives in the region are only appropriate for experienced divers. There are plenty of fantastic dive sites with little or no current so there’s no reason for people to push their personal limits.
About midway through my dive course, I treated myself to a night out in L Baj. There’s one nightclub called Paradise and it’s the only place to be seen on a Saturday night. After making my way back to my shared house I was accosted by a local man with a crazed expression on his face. He followed me onto my property and tried unsuccessfully to assault me. I managed to get away and locked myself in my room. Unfortunately, my windows didn’t close properly and he opened one from the outside, put his hands through the bars and pulled my curtains aside. After I ignored him for some time, he got bored and left, and I put it down to drunkenness. However, the next morning he returned and did the same thing. He even watched me get dressed before I ran to the dive centre to ask for help. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, he was waiting on my street when I walked home later that night. Luckily, I only saw him one more time after that, but it was enough to make me carry pepper spray from then on. I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off visiting Labuan Bajo. For the most part it feels extremely safe (and these things can happen anywhere in the world)…but its a reminder that people should have their wits about them and not take any unnecessary risks.
ARRESTED DIVEMASTER TRAINEE
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, towards the end of my course, one of my friends – a divemaster trainee from one of the other dive schools – suffered a psychotic episode while checking out of his hotel. He punched the hotel owner, escaped to the airport, was arrested and handcuffed, escaped from the police car, was recaptured, and eventually ended up in hospital after a brief stint in the local police jail. Photos of him appeared all over the local news and it was gossip of the town for days. Thankfully, he recovered and his cousin came to chaperone him home so that he could receive proper treatment.
AGGRESSIVE KOMODO DRAGONS
Anyone who isn’t familiar with Komodo dragons might be forgiven for thinking you’re not allowed to get that close to them. In reality, all that separates your group and the dragons as you trek through the countryside is one local guide with a forked stick. After an incredible experience watching two gigantic adults tearing apart and devouring a deer carcass, we’d seen enough to know we wouldn’t want to be the object of their hunger, but as we made our way back to the ticket office, three large dragons came bounding around the corner straight towards our group. Our guide was quick on his toes, distracting them by shaking a hat on the end of his stick. Thankfully, they all followed him, but he really had to sprint to keep his distance, and he was gone for about five minutes. During that time, the rest of us were left to wonder what would happen if any more dragons might decide to pay us a visit. Apparently this kind of experience is not too common. Usually, the dragons hang out in a big group near the ranger station and lie still as tourists take selfies, but perhaps I was destined for an adventurous time from the moment I set foot in Labuan Bajo…!