Dancing with dragons - Komodo Islands
I was embarking on a dive adventure on the new 40-metre S/Y Philippine Siren to the Komodo Islands – a real-life Jurassic Park in Indonesia, where the crew go onto ‘dragon watch’ to ward off hungry Komodo dragons which sometimes climb aboard, joining guests for breakfast. Skipper Frank Van Der Linde and his crew have had to push a few off the stern.
One evening, Frank’s partner, Rung, went ashore to see the Komodo National Park rangers about port clearance. The paperwork done with the harbourmaster, she asked the rangers ‘What should I do if I see a dragon’? ‘Run’, they replied. Four stairs down from the rest room, Rung was staring head-on at a Komodo dragon. She jumped onto a bench top, then a chair. As the dragon reached the chair, she jumped onto a table top. The dragon leapt from each to each, and Rung screamed as loud as she could ‘help, help, help’. Two minutes later a man came out with a long forked stick and held the dragon back. She had 500 metres to run - screaming ‘Frank, Frank, Frank’ all the way. Frank thought she had been mauled, but Rung gasped she was only chased, like in the movie Aliens.
I first became interested in the Komodo Islands, granted UNESCO World Heritage Site Status in 1991, when I was diving in Indonesia’s Spice Islands. I asked a lady named Marlene, who had dived widely in Asia. ‘What is the best dive you have ever had’. She pondered briefly and said: ‘Cannibal Rock. It’s the best dive on the planet!’ I quickly slotted it into my ‘must do – best places’ list.
Some months later, skipper Frank Van Der Linde called with news there was room on his new 40-metre yacht, the S/Y Philippine Siren, and it was sailing to Komodo. I was soon flying to Bima, near Flores. We were now loading 16 adventurers onto the S/Y Philippine Siren, together with food, crew and, most importantly, copious amounts of beer for ten days. ‘If you can drink all the beer I have on board in ten days, I’ll shout you a free trip’ said Frank. With two girls from Switzerland, a Belgian family, a British family, two New Yorkers, a Bavarian and two guys from Tokyo and the Philippines, we were in for some good laughs.
Let’s do the Cannibal Rock
This ridge between Rinca Island and Nusa Kode Island in the southern Komodos rises from 30m and pushes deep ocean waters to 3m of the surface, and it is only 100 metres from shore. The reef is constantly swept by currents, is absolutely covered in crinoids, nudibranchs, tubastrea coral, anthias, grey frogfish, blue, mauve, yellow and orange anemones, sea apples, crocodilefish, and hundreds of juvenile yellow sea cucumbers. Cannibal Rock is a macro photographer’s paradise, and you will want to keep going back for more. In any one patch there are starfish, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea fans and all the rare critters – pygmy seahorses, commensal shrimps, gobies, frogfish and amphipods. My advice is to do several dives here with the 60mm macro lens – and perhaps some super-macro for the blue amphipods. I cannot help but rave about this super-rich dive.
Shotgun – what a blast!
The mere mention of this site conjures a big blast, and this is exactly what this dive delivers near the end, but there’s a whole lot more to it. Shotgun is a pass between two islands named Gilli Lawa Laut and Gilli Lawa Darat. Where the pass narrows and the seafloor shallows, divers get shot-gunned – or more like ‘shot-putted’ - up and over the reef at great speed. It is a lofty sensation as you are picked up by the current, thrown upward, then spat out into deeper water on the other side. Divers are dropped in well out front of the pass, and start by drifting slowly over white sand and bommies covered in vibrant soft corals. This is a prime spot for wide-angle photos where you have soft corals in the foreground and divers with blue water behind. Why, you could fill a stock photo library with colourful underwater shots from this place. As the current picks up and the pass converges, you end up in a spot where there are two channels going off to the left. Here the walls are covered in sponges and there are fish everywhere – black snapper, trevally, drummer and nurse sharks.
Crystal Rock and Castle Rock
At Crystal Rock near Gilli Lawa Laut, I swam up to the head of the current, where it first hits the two bommies. There are fusiliers being hunted in a small cave, and every big reef fish wants in on the action. There are giant trevally – big black ones – along with giant Maori wrasse, and a super-sized moray eel. There are also giant trevally hunting fusiliers mid-water. Our divers spot clown triggerfish, eagle rays, white-tip sharks and bull sharks. The trick with Crystal Rock is to swim to where the current hits the rock first – that’s where the action is! At Castle Rock, also at Gilli Lawa Laut, giant trevally and blue-finned trevally were hunting blue fusiliers, as were big-eye trevally. On the reef were emperor angelfish, surgeonfish and white-tip reef sharks.
Muck diver’s paradise
Bima Bay reminded me of that magical muck dive at Ambon dubbed the ‘Twilight Zone’. On the sandy slope of Bima Bay, there were gaudy fire urchins with Coleman shrimp and zebra crabs, cuttlefish, yellow seahorses, big flatheads, wolf eel, cockatoo waspfish and a sea moth. The rare and unusual critter list goes on, with yellow ornate ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, pipefish, spider crabs, transparent shrimps with white spots, and Ambon scorpionfish. In one small area there is an orange frogfish, black frogfish and spotted moray eel. John Tucker from Tokyo and I wrote up a quick critter list and noted over 21 rare and unusual critters in a single dive - a muck diver’s paradise!
Do you remember the scene from the Hollywood movie King Kong, where the expedition ship first sights the island where Kong Kong lives? Sangeang Island fits the bill perfectly, with black lava flows and jungle sides. There are three sizzling dive sites named Tecno Reef, The Estuary and Hot Rock at this active volcano. At Tecno Reef, hot water and bubbles trickle from vents on a black sand slope and the coral bommies are home to white leaf fish, gobies, bubble coral shrimps, panda clownfish and four yellow ghost pipefish living on black coral.
On a night dive in 10m of water, we spotted mimic octopus, spiky devilfish, sponge crab, flounders, moray eel and a stunning dragonet with gold eyes – a macro photographer’s delight. The Lighthouse at Gilli Lawa Laut is a drift dive with black snapper, many giant trevally and emperor angelfish – ‘galactic’, as my Italian dive buddy Fabio describes them.
Batu Bolong (hole in the wall)
This dive site is aptly named as the tiny island has a hole through it above water. The current absolutely rages around it. The RIBs dropped us off in the island’s lee, where we were sandwiched by the current on both sides. At 20-25m, there were big Napoleon wrasse, giant trevally and three white-tip reef sharks. We finished in the shallows where a gang of giant trevally hunted fusiliers. This is a good dive to see big marine animals, but do not wander off to the sides, or you will get swept away.
Pink Beach is at Pantai Merah near the Komodo National Park. It is one of the best dives for wide-angle photography, with bommies at 25m covered in crinoids and reef fish. Helmet gurnards spread their lovely pectoral fins over the sand. The Alley on the south tip of Komodo Island is famous for manta rays which visit the cleaning station. At first you will see one, then two, three, four - fantastic! The best moment was when we had four manta rays approaching – in two pairs. Bring your wide-angle kit for this adrenaline-pumping dive.
The crew were on dragon watch as soon as we arrived at Rinca Island as the dragons, obsessed with the smell of breakfast on the boat, have been known to swim and climb aboard the yacht. The crew took some food to the island for the macaque monkeys and wild boar. The wild boar and monkeys arrive first, and as the day warms up the dragons made an appearance. One of the dragons followed Rung, who was walking on the shore. Frank fell in the water trying to get the RIB off the reef as the dragon was getting closer. Komodo dragons have bacteria in their saliva that is quite toxic. Their hunting tactic is to bite an animal, like a deer or buffalo, and if they can’t bring it down there and then, they will eat it a few days later, when it has succumbed to infection. Komodo dragons live on five islands in central Indonesia. Komodo and Rinca Islands form the Komodo National Park. Known locally as ‘ora’, they are the world’s largest lizard, weighing up to 166kgs, and growing to three metres in length, with teeth 2.5cms long. Be careful near these well-equipped carnivores. The prehistoric Komodo Islands, with active volcanoes, super-sized dragons, raging currents and coral reefs teeming with bizarre marine life, is one of the world’s best diving destinations.
Sport Diver verdict
The diving around Komodo is the stuff of real adventure, and macro photographers will be in seventh heaven.