Alor: Indonesia's Secret Gem
Indonesia is an undisputed scuba diving haven, with a vast archipelago comprised of dive destinations catering to every taste and budget. If you poll divers on the best Indonesia dive destinations, names like Raja Ampat, Lembeh, Bali and Ahe are bound to be at the top of the list. But many feel that Alor has a resident Mola Mola population sighted more frequency than in Bali, macro subjects every bit as interesting as those in Lembeh, reef conditions that are arguably on par with Raja Ampat and possible whale sightings at any moment. How is it that such a highly rated dive location be relegated to an afterthought among scuba divers?
One plausible reason could be that information about Alor remains hard to find on the Internet. Most info comes directly from local dive operators, which some might view skeptically until they have actually dived there. Dive operators paint an interesting picture on rustic accommodations offering intermittent access to electricity - an essential lifeline for underwater photographers. This perception of Alor sounded exactly like the place that I thrive on, so I decided to head south and check it out myself. (Disclosure: I “cheated” and dived with the only dive operation out of Kalabahi, the only urban oasis on Alor, so I had 24 hour electricity for all my camera needs)
Alor has been on the scuba diving radar for longer than one expects, and a significant moment on my Alor adventure was to be able to meet the man who discovered Alor’s riches more than 18 years ago: Donovan Whitford. While running a dive operation in Kupang, West Timor, Donovan ran exploration trips around the Nusa Tenggara Timor Islands (which incidentally encompass Komdo). On one of these trips to the area around Alor Island they reached the southern part of the Pantar Straits and ended up staying for the rest of their expedition. Donovan has been organizing trips to Alor since then. The Pantar Strait, which is in between 2 islands collectively termed the Alor Archipelago, has yet to be fully explored. On every return trip there are new sites to dive, recently discovered by the locals.
If you thought traveling to Raja Ampat was tough…
I’m lucky to be based in Singapore, the undisputed hub for traveling within Southeast Asia, and there are flights aplenty to the Indonesian capital Jakarta, which has the best connections to Kupang - the only gateway to Alor. Even then, reaching Alor will take 2 days of travel, as one reaches Kupang in the evening and flights to Alor only depart in the earlier half of the day. But at least that flight is only 45 minutes!
Kalabahi Bay is a long and narrow bay, flanked on both sides by mountains. The boat takes about an hour to get across the bay, which would be a good chance to catch a quick nap before the first dive, however the resident pod of dolphins and juvenile yellow fin tuna keep you awake with their daily duels. Alor is essentially an extinct volcano jutting out from the ocean, and all the dive sites in Kalabahi Bay are muck dives in black sand. The bay plunges to more than two hundred meters, which tricks whales into entering several times a year.
The abundance of soft coral strikes the diver when entering Kendi Bay and gives the site its name. Pause before getting in close to scout for macro subjects, because you might come eyeball to eyeball with one of the enormous Longspine Lionfish that use Kendi Bay as a resting spot between nocturnal hunts. Some of these lionfish are estimated to be as long as thirty centimeters! And while this is a great muck macro spot, the lionfish offer great Close Focus Wide Angle photo opportunities for those armed with mini dome ports.
Fire Dartfish. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F14 and 1/250s. Tamron 60mm. Note: All Photos shot with Nikon D600.
Synchronized Feeding by Porcelain Crabs. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105VR.
Harlequin Sandperch. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F3.5 and 1/320s. Nikon 105 VR.
Muck diving sites are generally stereotyped as “deserts” relatively devoid of coral compared to their white sand counterparts, but this muck dive promises to debunk that stereotype. A gentle slope that evens out at twenty meters, the site filled with pink soft coral for most the dive. On one dive Murphy’s Law caught up with me when I learned my macro lens was set on manual with no focus gear, so I decided to enjoy looking for new critters on the dive, seeing species new-to-me like the Harlequin Swimming Crab and the Yellow Sea Cucumber. Rare nudibranchs are often found as they come out to bask in the sun, with crustaceans lurking in almost any crevice you care to look into.
Yellow Spotted Anemone Shrimp.. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F32 and 1/250s. Nikon 105 VR. Subsee +10 Diopter.
Needle Cuttlefish. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F22 and 1/160s. Tamron 60mm.
Ferry Harbor and Bus Station
Ferry Harbor operates as the only nautical gateway out of Alor, and the Bus Station is named for the sunken bus that was there for years until it was recently salvaged for scrap. Any dive at these places features the weird and the wonderful. Spanish Dancers are sighted very frequently at both sites, with the Ferry Harbor singled out as a great nursery, its large pylons and ample rubbish offering the perfect refuge. Sea urchins are huge; their long spines used for protection by juvenile devil fish and pufferfish. The silt at the bottom is as fine as it gets, so an errant whisk of a fin could mean losing sight of your dive buddy’s light even though he or she is just beside you.
Commensal Shrimp. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F4.5 and 1/320s. Nikon 105VR.
This site is very special, for its name is attributed to the first divers to enter its waters that day: my guide, dive buddy and I. Threesome is a classic muck diving site, its creatures well camouflaged among the black and well hidden under the nooks and crannies. Patience is the key here, for if you stay still long enough little movements seize your attention, and dragonets start to come out to feed. There are lots of shrimp and lobster to be found here, tending to stand their ground against the invader (you), allowing you time to plan and frame that perfect shot.
Bicolor Parrotfish. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F22 and 1/250s. Nikon 105 VR.
Coleman’s Phyllodesmium. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO400. Manual mode at F22 and 1/320s. Nikon 105 VR.
Sailing out of Kalabahi Bay and into the Pantar Strait, the underwater landscape changes dramatically. Diving the sites around the Pantar Strait revolves around a central theme: coral cover, fish life and more coral cover. Fed by incoming currents from the Indonesia Sea and the Pacific Ocean, visibility did not fall below twenty-five meters on any of the dives in the strait during my trip, at times reaching forty meters or more. All this, along with cloudless skies and a relenting sun, makes for some glorious diving. Below are some of the sites not to be missed.
My first taste of diving in the Pantar Strait was at a site called The Edge. Situated on the northeast of Ternate Island, diving at The Edge starts with a gentle slope packed full of soft coral down to ten meters and an abrupt drop off that plunges beyond one hundred meters. Strong and unpredictable currents here mean average individual coral sizes stay relatively small, but in unbelievable densities and varieties. There seems to be no end to this steep wall, and as the dive computer reminds you it’s time to leave, you ascend knowing this site has much more to offer. I thought I had seen complete coral cover blanketing a seascape, but that was before visiting Alor. This is one of those times where one has to have been there to really understand.
Photo left: Reefscape Photo-ops Galore. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F16 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm. Photo right: Fleeing the Scene. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F18 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
On the south side of Ternate Island lies Babylon, named after the overhangs on the wall, which feature combinations of hard and soft coral that inspired the name. Most of the action is between fifteen to twenty-five meters, and with thirty-meter visibility and a strong sun it is possible to be bathed in sun rays for the entire dive. This is a site where both wide angle and macro opportunities are abundant, as many nudibranchs can be spotted basking in the daylight.
Photo left: Coral Tower. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F16 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm. Photo right: Alor is sunburst heaven. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F18 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
This is the marquee site of Alor, for it promises a lot of big pelagics and large schools of fish. A submerged pinnacle starting at five meters and buffeted by currents most of the day, this is one site where local knowledge is absolutely crucial. Most liveaboards that make stops here do not have the best timing and the dive conditions aren't ideal. When the currents are ripping the waters surround the pinnacle resemble a druid’s cauldron, and even calm conditions on the surface bear no indication of the conditions below. Even when conditions are right to visit Kel’s Dream the anticipated pelagics may not be there. The risk is worth the reward because when you hit the jackpot it could be the best dive of your life. Here is what I saw on one of the dives:
- THREE 2-meter long napoleon wrasses
- A school of about 200 surgeon fish
- A seemingly endless train of 1-meter long rainbow runners (1 meter you say? One of the boatman caught one while we were diving below)
- Giant trevallies
- One fearless dogtooth tuna
Diving can get very good at Kel’s dream, but if the party doesn’t show up the pinnacle itself is a very great consolation, the coral cover and variety no less impressive than other sites. Macro is also pretty good with nudibranchs precariously hanging on and blennies popping out to have a look at the commotion.
Crystal clear waters. Taken at ISO200 in ambient light. Manual mode at F3.5 and 1/1600s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
More than just fish life at Kel’s Dream. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F14 and 1/125s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
A channel that lies between the pinnacle at Kel’s Dream and Alor Island itself, it is called The Bullet because the water that gets compressed through pinnacle and landmass can get very swift, bringing along some big photo subjects. The site is a good backup if Kel’s Dream is not dive-able. It is the one place where hammerhead sharks can be reliably seen, which draws divers who will brave the currents. No hammerheads on my dive but a there were a couple of large black tips and turtles drifting with us. Do not just focus on the blue water on this dive, for behind you is arguably one of the prettiest reefs anywhere on earth. It has just the right balance of hard and soft coral with fish life so picturesque it might literally take your breath away.
Alor In A Nutshell. Taken at ISO200 in ambient light. Manual mode at F3.5 and 1/640s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
Xenia Soft Coral. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F22 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
One of the most southerly dive sites in the Pantar Strait, there is a swim-through at thirty-five meters that exits at twenty meters. Entering it at the right time means the sun dominates the view at the exit, lighting up the reef in a sea of sunrays and creating a somewhat ecclesiastical experience. The reefscape is unique from other sites in Alor, with reefs covered in kelp resembling a savannah, combined with dense coral cover and fish life so rich that at times the anthias block the view. This site is special personally, for while preparing for the dive a huge fin emerged from the water and seemed to wave at us. It was my first time seeing a mola mola sunning itself! It stayed on the surface for a good ten minutes before disappearing. Upon further investigation this appears to be common at the Cathedral, and there is an estimated population of slightly more than a hundred mola mola that inhabit its deep waters.
Photo left: Nowhere To Rest. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F14 and 1/250s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm. Photo right: Gorgonian Creativity. Taken with twin Sea & Sea YS-D1 at ISO200. Manual mode at F13 and 1/320s. Tokina Fisheye at 10mm.
Diving Alor – Not for Beginners
I have included this little section as a moral duty to divers that do want to go Alor. Diving in Alor is not easy. The currents can be strong and direction unpredictable, and there is never a dive in the Pantar Strait where the water is still. One can safely assume that any dive in the Pantar will be akin to Crystal Bay in Bali. Even in Kalabahi Bay while muck diving there will be a slight drift depending on the tides. Water temperatures can plummet at any time due to the expansive thermoclines that rise from the deep. To fully enjoy the beauty of Alor, divers must have a high degree of water confidence and safety equipment like a Surface Marker Buoy. A Russian instructor looking for somewhere exotic to bring his students scrapped the idea after one dive, so Alor is recommended for highly experienced divers.
Conservation Efforts in the Alor Archipelago
Commercial fishing, which has been so destructive to many other dive destinations in Indonesia, is not existent here. The main methods of fishing employed by the sparse population are hand lines and traditional underwater fish traps. This means that the fisheries are entirely sustainable. Overall conditions in Alor create an amazing rate of coral growth. Mr. Whitford relates to me a story about how an errant anchor from a tugboat created a one hundred meter-long scar on one of the reefs, and upon returning two weeks later the scar was almost unnoticeable. A tremendous recovery rate.
The area has been declared the “Alor Marine Park” by authorities, making it arguably one of the least visited marine parks in Indonesia, and we hope it stays that way.
Photo left: The Fishing Industry In Alor Photo right: Future Workers of the Tourist Trade
A Fish Trap
Alor: You Could Have a Change Of Heart, If Only You Change Your Mind
I knew from the outset that exploring Alor would be an epic adventure, and it did not disappoint. The journey there was filled with potentially crippling sagas, but thankfully the diving was epic. Alor has undoubtedly one of the most pristine marine environments with organized scuba diving in Indonesia. The absence of commercialism makes it relatively inaccessible, but I have a feeling it is precisely this halcyon environment that makes Alor such a wonderful diving paradise. On my final boat ride back to Kalabahi my mind advises that I should try my best to ratchet up the negatives and keep Alor to myself, but my instinct compels me to shout out, “Come! Come before the crowds eventually do!”
I Will Come Back
About the Author
Victor Tang is the founder of Wodepigu Water Pixel, an adventure dive company and photography consultancy with a nose for off the beaten track dive destinations. When not stranded on shore with other pursuits as a musician and TV producer, Victor is on the prowl around Southeast Asia searching for new pristine waters to explore. His sister will always tease him for taking an oath never to take a camera underwater again after his first try in Malapascua, but lately he carries a camera anywhere he goes.
Where to Buy
Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!
SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:
The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear
Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!
The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips
Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.