It is impossible to walk around Labuan Bajo without someone trying to sell you the Komodo Island, Pink Beach Snorkelling and Padar Island tour. But that was good for us because we had just arrived, and were on the hunt for our first excursion into Komodo National Park. Our plan was to tick off some of the hotspots first, and then focus on dedicated snorkel trips for the remainder of our stay.
After speaking to various tour guides, we realised that the boat size and itinerary was pretty much standard across the board, so there wasn’t much point in us shopping around. But we did a lot of haggling, and ended up getting the trip for a good price.
Our first trip into Komodo National Park
At 5.30am the next morning, we found ourselves outside the tour operators office ready to begin our adventure. A group of us waited patiently as the sun began to rise, the call of prayer echoing through the valley. Eventually we made our way to the harbour, where we were ushered into a small wooden boat already half full of people.
There were around 12 of us in total, including two crew. Two benches ran either side of the galley, so not particularly comfortable for an entire day, but at least the boat had a cover so we were shielded from the sun. We soon realised (after two hours at sea) that the Komodo National Park is massive. Nick and I had previously talked about kayaking out to some snorkel spots, but we soon learnt that this was unlikely option.
The waters are so vast, and the ocean stretched out in front of us endlessly. Komodo’s landscape is stunningly beautiful. It’s baron and uninhibited, serene mountains like giant mole hills rise from the sea. No wonder dragons still exist in this land, it’s like jurrasic park. The boat chugged through some crazy waters. There is no rhyme or rhythm to the motion in Komodo. Some patches were flat, whilst others looked like whirlpools. It was completely mesmerising.
First stop, Padar Island viewpoint
Eventually we reached our first stop, Padar Island. Padar is a small island located between Komodo and Rinca, and is famous for its jaw dropping summit view over the park. From the top, you see three beaches each with different types of sand – Black, Pink and White. This involved a fairly steep but beautiful hike up the mountain which took around 40 minutes. Some parts were a bit slippery, but overall it was pretty easy. In fact we saw many Indonesians climbing in flip flops.
We were quite surprised by how many people were already on the mountain especially as we hadn’t really passed any other boat traffic along the way. So my only regret was not getting there earlier. However our spirits weren’t dampened, as the reward for the climb was worth it. The view from the top is absolutely spectacular. Looking out over the Park did not feel real. I knew Komodo was remote, but I was taken aback by this expanse of raw natural beauty, and nothing else. It was truly breathtaking.
Second stop, Komodo Island and the Dragons
Our second stop was the elusive Komodo island. It took us another hour or so to reach, and on arrival we were shocked to see a huge cruise ship in the bay. Something so modern looked so out of place in this alien landscape. It is a worrying sign of things to come, as Komodo is set to be the next big tourism boom for Indonesia.
As we approached the land via a long pier, we saw a man being stretchered off the island. Had someone been attacked by a Dragon or was this just heatstroke?
We were allocated a guide who took us on a gentle trek around the park, and there is a choice of three routes. Our group chose the mid length route, which I would recommend as the trek itself wasn’t that scenic, and scorchingly hot. Anyway the dragons are the main event.
The guide had a big stick which one can only assume was to protect us from any curious dragons. Although after seeing the man on the stretcher, it didn’t fill us with much confidence! As we reached the watering hole, there they were. Five prehistoric creatures in all their glory, panting away in the dust. We stayed for a while just watching them and got pretty close, but as soon as one of the females started hissing and strutting around we made a quick exit.
Final stop of the day, Pink Beach Snorkelling
For months prior, I had drooled over dreamy images on Instagram of Pink Beach. In pictures the sea always looked so calm, the sand so peachy and the beach so empty.
We dropped anchor around 100 metres from the shore. There were half a dozen boats, a fair few of people relaxing on the beach and snorkellers in the shallows. Looking at the sand, I was struggling to make out the shade it is known for, which was a bit disappointing.
However the water beneath us was clear and sparkling and I could already make out pristine soft coral from above the surface. We couldn’t wait to get in for some Pink Beach snorkelling.
Sudden ferocious currents swept us away
We were aware that Komodo had a reputation for strong currents, but the water looked calm from above and the boat crew didn’t give us any cause for concern or general instruction. Everyone was jumping in the water, so we followed suit, and I felt more than confident donning our new Mares Avanti Quattro fins.
Underwater, the visibility was astounding. Colourful corals swayed and we were surrounded by fish. Already five minutes into our snorkel, our minds were blown. In an attempt to avoid the boat traffic, we swam to the right of the beach.
All of a sudden I was aware that everything beneath me was moving very fast and we were drifting. The current was dragging us further to the right, out to sea, away from the beach and our boat.
Nick saw the panic on my face, and told me to kick as hard as possible. I was no longer in control of my body, and the water was gushing against my face. It felt like someone was spraying a fire hose at me and I bit down on my snorkel. Nick is a strong swimmer, and I could see we were getting further apart as I was being taken by the current. He drifted back to grab my hand and pull me closer, but it was near on impossible in the conditions.
I was in full on panic mode. We’d experienced some currents in the Maldives before, but nothing could have prepared us for this. My heart was pounding and I struggled to catch my breath. I pushed myself as hard as possible but my legs were cramping. I genuinely thought I was going to get swept out to sea.
There were some rocky outcrops to the side of the beach which Nick said to aim for. Somehow we made it, and we clung on for dear life, despite the current still ripping. We clawed our way onto the beach, and my legs were like jelly. I couldn’t believe what had just happened.
As boats do not anchor on Pink Beach, we still had to swim back but not a bone in my body wanted to get back in the water. Thankfully there was no current on our swim to the boat, and before I knew it we were safe and seated, and en-route to Labuan Bajo.
Back on the boat
Everyone on the boat was calm and happy, clearly they’d not had the same experience as us. On the way home I was a bit of a wreck, the experience really shook me up and I was just so grateful and thankful that nothing terrible had happened to us.
It’s clear that the area we snorkelled was not safe. One of the boat crew should have advised on which parts to avoid before we jumped. It is irresponsible that the tour operators don’t do more to inform guests of potential risks or any form of safety briefing. From the top, all was so serene and beautiful, but looks can be deceiving.
We were lucky, we had diving fins designed for fighting currents, and are both experienced snorkellers. But if someone less equipped had been caught in those currents it would have been a different story.
It was unfortunate that our Pink Beach snorkelling experience had been tainted, but it just goes to show how quickly things can get out of control if you enter unknown waters. It was a valuable lesson to learn, it has definitely made us more concious and careful snorkellers.
In hindsight, I’m glad this incident happened at the beginning of our trip, especially as we were about to embark on our private snorkelling liveaboard adventure in some of the most remote parts of Komodo.
If you want the best price possible
Try to book your excursion the evening before, no earlier, thats when the tour operators want to fill up the last places on boats. Operators will do their best to accommodate you, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be left high and dry! Also, it’s a lot cooler walking around Labuan Bajo after the sun goes down.
We paid 300,000 IDR per person which included lunch and national park fees. The only thing it didn’t include was the cost of a guide to see the dragons on Komodo Island. This was split between everyone on the tour.
Have you been on this tour, or experienced intense currents during Pink Beach snorkelling before? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!