Red Whale Review: What it’s like on a day trip around Komodo National Park

red whale ii at pink beach padar island

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Are you planning to visit Komodo National Park in Indonesia and wonder what the operators and their tours are like? In this article, we talk about our experience joining Red Whale Dive Center on a day trip around the park. We decided to go with them, as their sustainability credentials stood out from the rest. Here is what we found.

If you want to learn more about Komodo National Park, its most famous residents and how to organise a trip that best meets your preferences, head on over to our Komodo National Park Guide.

And just in case you’re wondering: We paid for this experience ourselves (and we did not disclose at any point that we might be writing about the experience). So you can be sure that the experience we had is what anyone else is likely to experience too.

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Who is Red Whale Dive Center?

Red Whale is based in Labuan Bajo on the Indonesian island of Flores. With a fleet of modern speed boats, the company provides open/shared and private day tours as well as custom dive trips around Komodo National Park.

Pending demand/group size, tours of the park are conducted on

  • Red Whale I (suitable for up to 12 guests),
  • Red Whale II (fitting up to 20 guests) or
  • Red Whale III (which is used for smaller groups).

Red Whale I and III are semi-open (covered top but open sides) with benches along either side of the boat. Red Whale II has comfortable, forward-facing seats in an enclosed cabin (though windows can be opened). The two larger boats have a sun deck. There is also a toilet on board all boats.

Map of Accommodation, Points of Interest, Eateries and Transport

Below is a map of the recommended accommodation, points of interest, eateries and transport terminals/stops mentioned in this article.

red whale ii at padar island

Red Whale Dive Center, based in Labuan Bajo, has a fleet of modern speed boats suitable for up to 20 passengers

Why did we choose a day tour (with Red Whale Dive Center)?

What we did

We looked into the multi-day options, but couldn’t justify the price compared to day excursions. I get seasick very easily and wasn’t sure I would enjoy myself being on a boat for 2-3 days.

Given we had settled on doing a day excursion, we arrived in Labuan Bajo without a booking. That said, we had looked up a few operators with good reviews and contacted some ahead of time to understand what the availability would be like at the time of our visit. Upon arrival in Labuan Bajo, we visited the operators on our short list (and a few others) at their shops, talked to the staff and then decided to book with Red Whale Dive Center.

We paid IDR1,450,000 (plus National Park entrance fees of IDR300,000) per person at the beginning of September 2023.

The Komodo Island National Park entry fees are to be paid in cash and may be different at the time of your visit as a (further) increase has been in discussion for a while. Your tour operator will confirm the fees upon booking.

dive shops in labuan bajo

Labuan Bajo's main street (Jl. Soekarno Hatta) is lined with operators for dive and mixed activity tours into Komodo National Park

What stops does the Red Whale Day Tour make?

Our Red Whale Day Tour around the Komodo National Park had scheduled stops at

  • Padar Island – for a short but steep (out and back) hike to a viewpoint as well as snorkelling off Pink Beach,
  • Komodo Island – for a flattish, 2.5km loop hike to observe Komodo Dragons and their prey (especially deer and wild boar),
  • Taka Makassar – a sandbank with picture-perfect white sand and turquoise water (and some more snorkelling),
  • Manta Point – a cleaning station for manta rays and a good spot to see these gentle giants up close, and
  • Turtle Bay – as the name suggests, is a great spot to observe sea turtles (in a beautiful coral garden).

Each stop is unique and offers a different experience.

taka makassar

Apart from more well-known sites like Pink Beach, Manta Point or Turtle Bay, our day tour also included a tranquil stop at the Taka Makassar sandbank

What is included in the price of the Red Whale Day Tour (and how does this compare with other operators)?

Our Red Whale Day Tour included

  • hotel pick-up/drop-off in Labuan Bajo, We stayed at Mehara Hotel and would recommend it for 2 – 3 nights maximum.
  • a (certified) English-speaking tour guide (and Indonesian-speaking crew),
  • snorkelling equipment (mask, snorkel, fins) and life jacket,
  • snacks, fruit, lunch, water (tepid or hot for coffee/tea) and soft drinks.

Each guest on our tour also received a large beach towel and (reusable) plastic water bottle to use on the day. The price of the tour was at the top end of the day tours offered in Labuan Bajo.

rwdc crew with reusable water bottle

No need to bring water or a towel - we received both (and more) from Red Whale Dive Center

What was our experience on a day excursion to Komodo National Park with Red Whale Dive Center?

Komodo National Park One-Day Open Trip
Overall
4.3
  • Pre-Tour Communication
    (5)
  • Itinerary
    (4)
  • Equipment
    (5)
  • Communication during the tour
    (3.5)
  • Food/Drinks
    (5)
  • Safety
    (3)
  • Sustainability
    (4.75)

SUMMARY

Pre-Tour Communication

We contacted Red Whale Dive Center before we even arrived in Labuan Bajo. They were responsive to our queries (via WhatsApp and email) and provided a very detailed communication pack (as pdf) upfront.

Itinerary

Our tour largely adhered to the itinerary in the information pack. On the day, Manta Point and Taka Makassar were swapped around, which meant we went to the former one first (apparently to jump at the opportunity that there were fewer boats at Manta Point at the time). Unfortunately, we spent (way) too long at Pink Beach and left Turtle Bay earlier than scheduled, arriving back in Labuan Bajo at 16:40.

While we acknowledge that schedules can change based on the weather and other unforeseen circumstances, there are improvement opportunities that would (significantly) improve the customer experience. Here are our suggestions:

Start time
Upon arrival at Padar Island at around 7:55, there were already several (day) tour groups on the way up to or down from the viewpoint. The Red Whale Day Tour could start its day tour an hour earlier (the sun rises around 6:00), which would also provide additional time for a less rushed experience later in the day (more on that below).

Order of stops/activities
The order of our day excursion was: Hike, Snorkelling off the beach in calm water, Hike, Snorkelling off the boat in strong current, Snorkelling off the boat/at a sandbank (with some current) and Snorkelling off the boat (with some current). I skipped the snorkelling option at Pink Beach (our second stop), as I didn’t want to hike around Komodo Island (our third stop) wearing a wet bikini under my hiking clothes (an option to change between stops was not provided).

A better order for our tour would have been Padang Island, Komodo Island, Pink Beach, Taka Makassar, Manta Point, and Turtle Bay. That would have meant doing the two land activities first and then starting the snorkelling (from the calmest waters to the strongest current – to allow customers to get (re)acquainted with snorkelling in calmer waters before doing the drift snorkel at Manta Point). Getting the land activities out of the way first would have also meant avoiding hiking in the heat of the day.

Time at each location
The length of the stops at each location can also be adjusted:

  • 1h 15min at Pink Beach was (way) too long (30 minutes are sufficient).
  • 40 minutes at Manta Point was too rushed (1 hour is more appropriate).
  • 45 minutes at Turtle Bay was also too short (again, 1 hour would have been more appropriate).


Equipment

Our day trip was conducted on the Red Whale II. The boat was clean, modern and comfortable. The snorkelling equipment was also in good shape. I was even able to fit my mask upon booking (as I tend to have trouble finding one that fits) – it was marked with my name and on the boat the next day ready for me to use.

Communication during the tour

Red Whale Staff
Our guide André and the crew were fun to be around and talk to, and communication during the tour was adequate until we left Komodo Island.

When we reached Manta Point, André jumped in with a lifebuoy (and disappeared in the distance because of the strong current/the boat continued to move forward). The crew then shouted jump/jump to get all guests into the water as quickly as possible. It was never clear how long we were going to be at this particular spot, how many crew members with lifebuoys would be in the water etc.

It seemed the crew realised that we had much more time when everybody was back on board, and they shouted jump/jump again to get everyone back into the water for a second round (or if this was intended all along, it would have also been good to share that information with the tour guests upfront).

Given the strong current at Manta Point, a more upfront explanation would have been great to make it 100% clear that it is a drift snorkel with a strong current, the water depth is about 10 metres, crew members will be in the water and stay with the lifebuoys (this was only mentioned at the second “jump/jump”) and how long/how often we’ll be in the water. This information could have even been included in the information pack.

Likewise at Taka Makassar, a more upfront explanation would have been great, for example, where best to snorkel (there was also a current). The same holds for Turtle Bay. More information should be provided including: Is there a current (or not)? What is the water depth? Where is the coral garden? We only learned about the latter from others in the water.

National Park Staff
The National Park rules (at the time of our visit) stipulated one ranger per five visitors. Our group of 16 people though had (only) two rangers. The lead guide/ranger was a trainee and hardly ever spoke (at all). The English of the other (more experienced) guide/ranger was difficult to understand. Explanations during the hike were limited and basic (even when responding to very specific questions), thus we didn’t learn anything we didn’t know before. The National Park entrance fee is not cheap (and further increases are in the pipeline) – a better service should be provided in return.

We acknowledge that this is not in the control of Red Whale. But as the provider of the tour, Red Whale might be able to pass on feedback to the National Park Administration.

Food/Drinks

Food and drinks on our day tour were adequate and made sure we were well hydrated and had the energy needed on a busy day of outdoor activities:

  • Our tour didn’t include breakfast, but biscuits (in single-use plastic wrapping) and bananas were available (all day).
  • After our hike on Padang Island, we were served morning tea: delicious fresh fruit salad served in glass jars.
  • Lunch was served after our hike on Komodo Island. We were asked about our meal choice – fish or chicken (with a selection of cooked veggies, plain rice and fried noodles) – upon booking and received our (cold) meals in (reusable) lunch boxes. The meals tasted nice and were substantial. Specific dietary requirements can be taken into account with advance notice.
  • Drinks available during the tour included tepid water, hot water for coffee/tea and soft drinks in cans.

Apart from the cans and the biscuits, all food and drinks were served in/with reusable crockery and cutlery.

Safety

The safety on board was (sadly) a mixed bag:

  • We received brief (yet sufficient) safety instructions as we set off from Labuan Bajo, and instructions about (safety) rules above and below water were good.
  • Also appreciated was the crew considering the amount of boats at Manta Point.
  • Lifejackets were provided below deck in the small room at the front of the boat (only accessible through a small door), making it impossible to access the lifejackets if the boat were to sink suddenly. For that reason, the US Coast Guard advises that lifejackets be readily accessible and […] not be stowed […] in locked or closed compartments.
  • The crew needs to cater better for differences in customers’ abilities/confidence when it comes to snorkelling. At Manta Point for example, instead of providing clear instructions and/or tying lifebuoys to the boat so that (less confident) snorkellers could drift with the boat, the crew made scornful comments about customers who weren’t as confident in the water (a Chinese couple in this instance).

As mentioned above, we paid for one guide/ranger per five people but ended up walking with only two guides/rangers for our group of 16. The more experienced guide talked about the park rules at the beginning, but his English was very hard to understand. A big board at the entrance to Komodo Island with the park rules in different languages would be beneficial, as would be a greater emphasis on language training for the guides.

While not in the control of Red Whale, it would be great if they could provide this feedback to the National Park Administration.

Sustainability

Google reviews talked about the company’s sustainability approach, which was one of our key criteria. Upon speaking to staff, we learned that Red Whale Dive Center was owned by a Russian who’d been living in Indonesia for 15 years and that he employed only local staff. The staff we spoke to said they were treated well, paid fairly and enjoyed working for the company.

Our only improvement suggestions:

  • Instead of serving biscuits in single-use plastic wrapping, freshly baked goods (without wrapping) could be purchased from the bakery/market the day before or in the morning (as with the bananas) and kept in a Tupperware container.
  • And instead of soft drink cans, juice (freshly made that morning) could be served (in reusable jugs).

food and drink station on red whale ii

Red Whale Dive Center is doing pretty well when it comes to sustainability - now only the plastic wrapping and soft drink cans (in the ice box) need to go

Would we recommend a day tour (with Red Whale)/do it again?

The Komodo National Park is worth visiting. The sights included on our day tour were all different yet amazing. So, for the sights alone, we would do it again.

While we don’t have the comparison of a multi-day liveaboard, we felt that a day excursion by motorboat was sufficient (to see all the sights we wanted to experience). We also don’t have the experience of joining other day tour operators in Labuan Bajo on the same tour, so we can’t judge how well Red Whale Dive Center did in comparison to them.

The Red Whale Day Tour was not perfect, but we never felt like we didn’t want to be there or get off the boat/back to Labuan Bajo as quickly as possible. We hope Red Whale Dive Center will take our recommendations to heart and improve their day tours – to make them a safe, inclusive and enjoyable experience for all their guests.

rwdc crew at taka makassar

While our day tour with Red Whale Dive Center wasn't perfect, we would join one of their tours again (especially if improvements are being made)

What to pack for your trip to Komodo National Park?

Those who book their trip with Red Whale Dive Center will find a packing list included in the information brochure. For everyone else, here is a convenient packing list for your trip to Komodo National Park:

  • Hiking shoes
  • Flip flops or Sandals
  • Swimsuit
  • Swimshirt
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect Repellent
  • Dry sack
  • Cash (for the National Park Fee)
  • Phone/Camera
  • Go-Pro or equivalent (for underwater use)
  • If not provided by your tour operator: food/snacks and water (in a reusable bottle)

Where to stay in Labuan Bajo

With day trips starting (very) early in the morning and finishing in the late afternoon/early evening, you will need to book (at least) two nights in Labuan Bajo. Here are our suggestions for good quality hostels, hotels and apartments right in the centre of town.

NameProperty FeaturesTypePrice IndicatorBook Now
Bajo BunkhouseShared loungeHostel$Book Now
Komodo Suites Downtown24-hour front desk
Airport transfers
Hotel$$Book Now
Mehara Hotel Clean rooms
Central yet quiet location
Hotel$Book Now
Puu Pau HotelCoffee Shop
Certain documented environmental practices implemented at property
Hotel$$Book Now
Seaesta Komodo Hostel and HotelOutdoor Swimming Pool
Certain documented environmental practices implemented at property
Hotel$$Book Now
Sustainability Certification included as appropriate, but not validated. $ is USD50 and below. $$$$ is USD150 and above. A marks where we stayed and would highly recommend to our friends and family.
labuan bajo sunset

On a day tour, you will miss out on the sunset in the park, but the sunsets in Labuan Bajo are pretty spectacular too

Are you planning to join a day tour to Komodo National Park?

What other questions do you have that I haven’t answered in my review? And if you’ve been on a tour with Red Whale Dive Center, what has been your experience?

And before you go: If you liked my article and found it helpful, I would appreciate it if you could share it with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better: Leave a short review on Trustpilot or Google, which would help us further build our online reputation as a (trustworthy and helpful) travel and lifestyle blog.

Red Whale Review: What it\'s like on a day trip around Komodo National Park
Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.