Realm of the Dragon | Komodo Islands

When people think about travelling through South East Asia, you generally think they are talking about Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. But we often forget places like Indonesia, which hold a multitude of exotic destinations and diverse cultures. Its hidden beauty and unique inhabitants is what entice thousands of travellers to its shores each year. More specifically, travellers hauling large amounts of equipment, from the farthest reach just to experience what lies beneath the mysterious Komodo Islands.

Flying into one of the largest towns in Flores, Maumere situated approximately 800km east of Bali, I got my first glimpse of life in the region. Like in many parts of Asia, getting around is a matter of necessity and not necessarily a luxury. Small motor scooters lined the streets and moved around in a somewhat organised chaos. The larger vans transporting people from one destination to the next would honk their horn indicating for those on a scooter, now was the time to get out of the way. Good thing the port from which I was embarking was only minutes away from the airport, as I was certain that it was only a matter of time before I witnessed my first accident.

As we approached I could see a flurry of activity around the trading port. Ferries and local ships tied to the dock awaiting an array of cargo and passengers. In the midst of massive shards of metal was a picture of a bygone era. The ship was timeless, a cross between and old wooden sailing ship and a Balinese trading vessel, this Traditional Phinisi Schooner was spectacular to say the least. Upon closer inspections I could see the boat not only had character but a luxurious sense of style and comfort. Hand crafted wooden design, sturdy twin masts and large open decks that you could tell had stood the test of time. It screamed adventure on the high seas at its finest.

No sooner was I given permission to come aboard, than the trip leader decided that we should don our gear and get in the water. The agenda was to be a night dive under the pier. Later on I found that this was due to the port authorities making it difficult for us to leave and insisting on checking and rechecking paperwork, so we had some time to kill. I did find it strange at the time that the customs officials were moving around the boat with their families in tow as if it was a tour. But I was in no position to question their methods.

A night dive under the Maumere pier was my first taste of diving in Indonesia. After a long day, I wasn’t too excited about jumping in the water where all the local ships docked. But I never miss an opportunity to experience something new, so this was not going to stop me. I was certain the dive was not going to live up to my expectations of what diving in this part of the world was meant to be. I was sceptical that I wouldn’t find anything more than old cans, broken bottles, tires or remnants of an underwater junk yard.

I hit the water, an extremely comfortable 27 degrees and with torch in hand proceeded to follow the other beams of light into the depths. As expected, there was a lot of junk, but there was something more, a myriad of macro life teeming below. Lion fish, stone fish, nudibranch, cleaner shrimp and cuttlefish to name a few. Soon the images of junk subsided as I explored this underwater world. Further along two ship wrecks housed an eclectic range of fish and soft corals. I was excited about exploring these living organisms. Not far from the wrecks I could see the towering pylons that held the massive jetty together, an eerie sight as a flicker of light from the surface amongst a concrete labyrinth of dark was the only thing between me and what was emerging from the abyss.

Fish darted out from behind the structure, squid dazzled by the light, streaked towards the surface. It was a dance of light awakening the underwater creatures of the night. I kept thinking to myself that in one dive I had seen more critters than most dive trips I had been on over the years. Ironically I did not have the camera with me to capture the multitude of life but it was still a good memory nonetheless.

I was eager to find out what my journey to Komodo had to offer if this was the first day I knew the adventure was only beginning and the stories I would have to tell would be varied and unique for all the places I would visit along the way.

The crew consisted of about 22 people and would greet me each day with a smile and upon return to the boat after each dive with a ‘High Five’ to congratulate us on a dive well done. The one thing about diving on a live aboard is that you very rarely have to lift a finger. The staff takes care of your dive gear, your meals and your general well being. Our dive masters Nyoman and Bawa were experts in finding all sorts of marine life and didn’t hesitate to tell me what the perfect photo opportunity was and how it should include them as the subject matter. But what could I say, they are so positive and eager to please that I knew it was one of those things that I would remember most about the trip.

In between dives we are fed substantial amounts of food I can only assume to keep our energy levels high for the dives ahead. But I really didn’t think I was going to lose any weight on this trip, because I definitely wasn’t dispersing too much energy on any of these dives. But I guess it was only the beginning of the trip and who knew what was in store.

The dive schedule ran like clockwork, an 8am, 11am, 3pm and night dive were what we aimed to fit in everyday, but it was always dependent on what part of the islands we were near and how good the weather was on the day. The first dive site was in a place called Raja Island and was a spectacular wall of coral and sea fans climbing up the side of the wall creating an extrusion of colour and shapes. A huge number of fish swimming around the structures only highlighted the beauty of the reef and how pristine this area had managed to remain.

I have always loved being in the water with large marine animals but I had a new found appreciate for the macro world. There are countless critters in this part of the world that represent a range of different species. I found myself becoming more intrigued by each dive. I guess when you have people that know what they are looking for it opens your mind to all the things that can be experienced beneath the waves.

We were on a tight schedule to get to the Komodo islands as this was where we were promised some of the best diving in Indonesia. But I was also excited to see the mysterious Komodo Dragons that ruled the Islands with their fierce reputation. I knew there was more to see but I was hoping an encounter with a prehistoric lizard would be adrenalin pumping.

Another day, just on the edge of the Komodo National Park boundary, saw a number of interesting dive sites. We explored an area called Sobayan between two small Islands. The water was a sapphire blue and the visibility was ideal for a morning dive. Gigantic parrot fish grazed the coral like cattle and the odd turtle would glide by in no real rush to get anywhere. A spotted stingray decided to take a sneak peak from beneath it’s crevice but just as quickly scurried back in to its hiding place.

As the sun went down the large creatures made way for the nocturnal scavengers that peruse the ocean floor. Shrimp, crabs, squid and other night dwellers were performing their evening ritual of cleaning and searching for food. Beams of light all focussed on the smallest of small creatures. However the lights also attracted a number of other unwanted visitors. The water was crawling with microscopic worms or shrimp like creatures that were taking a bight out of me as I ascended to the surface, wherever the lights appeared so did these little vultures. It was like someone had thrown a swarm of mosquitoes on my neck and they were enjoying the buffet of soft tissue. The obvious thing to do was turn of the light, but floating in pitch black in the middle of the ocean is not always a wise move, no sooner was I at the surface and our trusty crew were there to rescue me from the carnivorous critters. I lived to fight another day.

We headed south into the Komodo National Park, I was excited to be here and was hoping for a rare treat. Little did I know that when I woke the next morning not only were we in a new location but we had made anchor only 50 metres from where three Komodo dragons were patrolling the beach looking for food I suspect, and any food source would do. After our first dive we took the tenders across to the beach for a closer look. And these 3 metre, 70 kilogram, prehistoric lizards did not hesitate to come and investigate our intrusion on their beach. Approaching with some pace these ancient looking creatures with sharp claws seemed to show no fear. For a first encounter I was quite impressed with their overwhelming presence. But I knew we would get another opportunity to get up close and personal with these living dinosaurs again soon.

Finally, a night dive before dinner would wrap up day four in Komodo. Ironically the thing about night diving is that you are usually looking for the smallest critters under the cover of dark, with nothing more than a torch in hand. Definitely not an easy task, I was used to looking for big creatures in crystal clear waters during the day. But I had started to adapt to this routine and was eager to participate, well at least to extent of looking at some fascinating creatures in this micro cosmos.

We were heading south towards the port on Komodo Island to register the boat and do the paperwork required to enter the National Park. This was our opportunity to check out what was on offer in these parts while waiting for the go ahead to proceed further into the National Park. Upon our arrival we were greeted by a number of small boats with at least 20 people trying to sell wares and handicrafts, they literally climbed on to the rails of the boat and eagerly awaited our return from our scheduled dive.

This morning was the day we were set to do the Dragon walk on the main Island of Komodo (Loh Liang). We were scheduled for an 8am tour which consisted of a guide taking us for a walk around the Island. As we walked up to the information centre we were immediately confronted by three lazy Komodo Dragons and a large number of long tail Macaques. Rogue monkeys that roamed the island causing havoc. We started our walk up a path towards the top of a hill, and no sooner were we on our way when we had to make way for one of the Islands resident predators walking down the same path. There was not even a second thought about who had right of way as we urgently got out of its way. The dragon continued down the path peacefully and we continue our search for more dragons on other parts of the Island.

As we started down the hill towards a watering hole, we could see deer in the distance and dragons lurking high on the hills. Further into the creek we found a large water buffalo taking a drink and cooling down in a muddy bath. Around every corner we saw signs of life or were they just a food source for the dragons. The ranger mentioned that a buffalo had been attacked by a dragon and had taken 3 weeks to die. The dragons tracked the Buffalo until it collapsed and then they ate the carcass in a matter of days. They may only look like giant lizards, but the bacteria in their saliva can slowly kill you if you are unfortunate enough to get bitten.

We were now heading north where the water was warm and the reefs were quite healthy. We were eager to get back in the water after a long trek in the scorching sun around Rinca Island. This dive would prove quite spectacular with amazing tropical fish and an abundance of turtles along the reef. We had spent a lot of time in the south in search of small critters and now we were moving into an area where I was hoping to see Manta Rays and sharks.

I was told that it wasn’t the season for Manta Rays and we may not see them unless the currents were right and we weren’t in the right dive location. So you can imagine my excitement when, on a dive, known for its large schools of fish and soft corals, all of a sudden a giant Manta Ray with a 3 metre wing span came out of the blue right up behind one of my fellow divers. I could hardly contain myself and I headed towards this flying leviathan as it gracefully moved through the current. It was spectacular to see such an amazing creature up close. I literally followed this Manta for most of the dive and only discontinued the pursuit because I was low on air, but it was well worth the risk. It was the highlight of my day or even the entire trip. Once back on the boat I was speechless but with a smile on my face.

The sunset was exquisite as a red hazy sun slowly descended behind a volcano in the distance. The only lights that could be seen were the stars above and the flood lights on our boat below. The lights on the water often draw a number of small fish, blood worms and various other microscopic creatures. These tend to be a food source for other predators including larger fish. On returning from a night dive that evening, we were greeted by several Mobula or Devil Rays, which look remarkably similar to Manta’s only a lot smaller. They were skimming the surface of the water for food and made continued passes directly below our gangway. A group of seven rays would glide by below just breaking the surface as they took a mouthful of food.

I jumped in the water with my mask, snorkel and fins to see if I could watch this behaviour from a Devils eye view so to speak. It was amazing to watch the seven rays make a pass like a squadron of fighter planes, coordinated in an attack, but in this case it was a feeding assault on thousands of tiny creatures. I didn’t last too long in the water as the smaller creatures started to make their own attack on my bare exposed skin. So I decided to watch the rest of the action from the deck of the boat.

Muck diving is not really a term I had a lot of knowledge about until I came to Indonesia. I really got a good grasp of the concept in a place called Sangeang Island, which is a dormant volcano. The volcano is relatively inactive, but there are signs of volcanic activity below the surface. The black sand beaches around the island, was our proposed dive site. As we descended we could see streams of bubbles being expelled from the black sand below. The heat from the volcano deep below the surface was creating these hot streams of water. You could feel the distinct temperature change as I passed my hand across the stream of bubbles. It was another example of nature’s power.

The nutrient rich waters around the volcano have created an environment where fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods thrive. A place where the smallest of the small dominate the landscape. These types of places are ideal for night diving when creatures you would not normally find in the day are overwhelmingly present at night. On any given outing I came to expect sightings of octopus, decorator crabs, frog fish and many other rare species that I knew little about. It was like being in a marine biology class and seeing all the specimens alive and demonstrating their tell tale behaviours.

Over the period of my stay in Komodo, I came to appreciate night diving even more and looked forward to what we would find each evening as the sun went down. I had a few favourites that I was always eager to find including, octopus, crabs or shrimp in anemones, small cuttlefish and anything bizarre which I had not seen before, this however was most things but I was learning more about these tiny critters as each night dive went by.

Diving in Indonesia is about finding the small and interesting things that dwell beneath. I now had an appreciation for the multitude of different types of species and the diversity that could be seen in these waters. A whole new fascinating world had been open up to me and I wanted to tell everyone. The short amount of time I spent in Indonesia left me with one recurring thought, ‘I am inspired by the smallest of creatures living in the largest of oceans’.