This past year traveling around Southeast Asia I've experienced a breadth of organized group tours: the good, the average, and the ugly. For solo-travelers and couples, hopping on a boat with strangers is often a more affordable way to gain access to island and water-based destinations than renting a private boat.
Maybe at the end of the year I'll do a ranking off the best and the worst tours in the region, but for now I want to talk about a particularly good day tour we took with Red Whale in Labuan Bajo. We found Red Whale through word-of-mouth (a good sign if any). It was recommended to us by a couple who were staying next door to us at Le Pirate Boatel. The tour included six stops with a group of around 12 people. The experience was so good that it came as no surprise to me to later find out that Red Whale has a rare and coveted 5-star rating on TripAdvisor.
In addition to serving as a mini-review of the experience, I hope this will offer an overview of some of the main sights and activities in the Labuan Bajo area. Let's begin!
After being picked up directly from our boat (one of the perks of staying at Le Pirate Boatel) the first stop on the tour was Padar Island. This unique island is known for it's three different colored beaches featuring white, black, and pink sand. The main thing to do here is hike up a long series of steps to the viewpoint at the top of one of the island's hills. Since I was still sore from a more strenuous hike in Nusa Penida, I actually didn't make it all the way to the top. However, the stairway leading the up the hill is littered with little spots to hop off for a photo-op. I stopped at the second-to-last viewpoint and when comparing photos with Julius, who went all the way to the top, it didn't seem like I was missing out on much. Actually, where I stopped had the added bonus of being a little less crowded.
It also seemed like our tour with Red Whale arrived before the island started to get crowded. When we were hiking up there was only one or two other groups on the mountain, however on our way back down to the beach we passed by many more groups heading up to the viewpoint.
Padar Island Pink Beach
There are actually many pink beaches in the Labuan Bajo area, the most popular one being a pink beach on Komodo Island, where most of the tour operators go. Red Whale's tour consciously opts for the pink beach on Padar Island instead (the one you can see in my photo from the viewpoint) because it is a lot less crowded than the one on Komodo. When they told us this at the time of booking the tour, in my head I was kind of like 'yeah, right'. I figured 'less crowded' meant 'still crowded' but I was pleasantly surprised to find that we actually had the pink beach all to ourselves when we arrived. The handful of people you can see in the background of my pictures were all on the same boat as me.
The beach is pink because of a red coral (pictured above) which breaks off with the waves, eventually turning into sand over time. You can easily find a few of these larger chunks of these alien-looking coral hanging around the shore. Aside from marveling at the fact that you're on a pink freakin' beach, the other thing to do here is snorkel in the shallows. I really enjoyed the snorkeling here as there were tons, I mean tons of fish in in such a small area and it wasn't far out in the ocean or too deep, which sometimes makes me nervous.
After the pink beach we headed to Komodo Island, one of the biggest attractions in the area. Komodo Island is home to the Komodo dragon, the largest living lizard species in the world. Aside from Komodo Island, Komodo dragons can also be found on Rinca island. However, we were told that on Rinca island the rangers provide food to the dragons. This increases visitor's likelihood of seeing a dragon since they all hang out near the visitor's center for food, however, I personally feel better about the fact that on Komodo Island they do not feed the dragons and leave them to their own natural hunting patterns. The downside is that there is no guarantee that you will see a dragon, especially in the dry season since the natural spring that all the animals typically hang around (and the dragons hunt around) has dried up. When we arrived on the islands, the guards definitely made a point to lower our expectations, telling us that we'd be very lucky if we even saw one dragon today.
I don't know if we were truly lucky or if they purposefully try to lower your expectations in order to exceed them later, but we saw not one but three dragons total on our trip. The first and largest we saw was laying in plain sight by the dried up spring. As a group we decided to go on a medium-length hike and then found two other slightly smaller dragons hiding in the bushes. It was really cool to not only see these creatures up close, but learn more about them. One of the facts that stuck with me is that recently Komodo dragons have resorted to eating their hatchlings as a means of population control as their natural food supply has been waning over the years. Only the fittest of the baby dragons are able to escape and survive.
Another neat aspect of the guided tour on Komodo Island is that two of the three rangers who accompanied us on our tour were women. They were also not much taller than me, so I was really impressed that they were not afraid to potentially fend off these creatures that were bigger than them!
The included lunch can make or break or a tour for me. So often these provided meals are average at best; watered down to be more appetizing to the lowest common denominator. So I'm actually very happy that I get to enthusiastically say that Red Whale's provided lunch was actually pretty great. It was probably the second best tour-provided meal that I've had so far in Southeast Asia. Even more impressive is that it wasn't even fresh when we ate it!
These boxed, almost bento-style meals were prepped beforehand and distributed after leaving Komodo Island. At the time of booking we got to choose what kind of protein we wanted (I opted for beef, which I can attest is a good choice for meat eaters). While the meal comes with a dollop of sambal, one of the crew members also brought some homemade sauce (I think it was bumbu but I'm not 100% sure) which he shared with the group. While it may not look like the most beautiful meal in photographs, it was actually really good and my beef was actually appropriately spicy!
The next stop on the tour was Taka Makassar, a tiny, crescent shaped island surrounded by shallow waters. The water is so shallow that most adults could even walk over to the next island over without needing to swim. The whole island is only around 50 meters long. The sand on the island is also partially pink. It's not as deep of a pink beach as the one on Padar Island, but you can definitely see some pink tones mixed in with the white sand.
There is also some pretty dope snorkeling next to the island. It's another one of those places where I was surprised at the sheer amount of fish in such a shallow area. Here's a crappy photo I took with my phone in a cheap plastic sleeve:
Honestly, this island was one of my favorite stops of the day. Small islands give off that "private island" feel and this one was no different. It really felt like a little, hidden slice of paradise, especially with how clear the water was. It was so clear that on a sunny day you can clearly see your own shadow underneath you.
The next stop was the one I had been most anticipating the entire day: the opportunity to see and swim with manta rays in their natural habitat. We had tried to do this at the Manta Point in Nusa Penida, but it ended up being a complete fail because the water and waves were so rough, the water was so deep and hard to see in, and we were not given life jackets. Hot Tip: Even if you don't need a life jacket to swim, wear one anyway in order to conserve your energy so you can actually enjoy looking at stuff in the water.
Anyway, our Manta Point experience in Labuan Bajo ended up being much more successful. Unlike Nusa Penida, all the small islands around Labuan Bajo help break up the waves so the area around Manta Point was tranquil and not nearly as deep, meaning we could see the sea floor below and all the pretty coral and fish in the area. When we approached the area there were already several other tour boats there— this was one of the few places on the tour that actually felt a bit crowded, especially once we were in the water. The guides told us to jump in immediately once they spotted one of the mantas and after doing so it didn't take long for me to spot the manta underwater— I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I kind of had an eye for it and was able to track it easier than Julius. At first it was mostly just an outline I saw, but after catching up to it I was able to see the manta quite clearly and it was incredible. We followed the manta for awhile, just watching it glide across the ocean floor and eventually a second manta ray even popped up for awhile. I don't have any pictures because I don't really have a waterproof camera, but I'm honestly kind of glad I didn't because I felt like I was able to truly be in the moment and focus entirely on following the manta and seeing it with my own two eyes.
As an added bonus we even saw a small sea turtle swimming around on the ocean floor— which was also my first time seeing a turtle in the wild. Overall the experience was really relaxing and pleasant for me, however the only downside is that at certain points when I was following the manta it would suddenly get very crowded because there were so many people in the water. We were given flippers which made swimming quite effortless but I guess some people decided to go without and their kicking and splashing in the water would sometimes obscure the manta and make it hard to see. It was a little annoying but at least it wasn't like that the whole time.
Our last stop before heading home was Kanawa Island. Honestly, this island was the least exciting of all the stops we made during the day but it was kind of worked out because swimming with the Mantas was both physically taxing and also mentally stimulating, so it was nice to go somewhere low-key to decompress and not feel like you were missing out on anything. The island has a circular beach and shallow seas with a bunch of bright orange starfish scattered about. Honestly, the beach was a little rough because it was super rocky. You can even see how rocky in the photos above. I forgot to bring my waterproof sandals off the boat with me onto the beach which was a big mistake. Seriously, walking across this beach felt like walking through a minefield of legos, which made it a little less chill.
Julius opted to just sit higher up on the beach in the shade (where we found the little crab pictured above) and I decided to chill further out in the shallow water where it was less rocky. Even though Kanawa Island wasn't the most exciting, I was kind of glad that we didn't go straight home after Manta Point and it was nice to get an extra island squeezed into the tour.
I would highly recommend the Red Whale island tour to anyone visiting Labuan Bajo. For one, it's pretty rare for a tour like this to go to six different places so I felt like we got a good value out of the tour. I also felt like 12 people was a good amount of people for a group tour. It felt more intimate than other tours we had been on, but less awkward than the group tours where it's been just us and one or two other couples. The Red Whale boats are also quite clean and cute looking— with an iconic red color and a sun deck on top. The guides were a little less extroverted than some of the ones I've encountered on similar tours in Thailand and the Philippines but they were by no means unfriendly— and one of them truly had an eye for photography and was always volunteering to take photos of the various couples amongst the group. Red Whale can be easily reached through WhatsApp if you want to book a tour in advance, or you can easily walk to their office near Labuan Bajo harbor to book in person.