Komodo Island, the Lost World Was Found

Sitting in a torrent of activity where the Pacific pours into the Indian Ocean, Komodo Island is home to a multitude of marine life. Simon Rogerson dips his fins in two worlds.

Amazing things happen when two oceans meet. At Komodo National Park in Indonesia – a relatively small stretch of sea around the famous ‘dragon island’ – cool upwellings from the Pacific are forced into relatively shallow water and then flood into the Indian Ocean. The area which sees this massive movement of water is marked by a few volcanic islands which conspire to create some of the most powerful and unpredictable currents on the planet.

It’s a remarkable place – a hothouse for evolution and home to an incredible array of marine life. Of the 500 or so coral species found in the Indo-Pacific, Komodo has 260. It harbours more than 1,000 species of fish and 70 species of sponge. Acre for acre, it is one of the most diverse coral reef environments in the world.

My journey began on the 42m Kararu, a traditional rigged sailing vessel which serves as an extremely spacious liveaboard. It operates from Bali, 160 miles to the west, but the journey to and from Komodo is punctuated by dive sites which are fascinating in their own right, and serve as a build-up to the world-class diving at Komodo and its neighbouring island, Rinca. My host was the boat’s co-owner, Tony Rhodes, a Brit with an easy manner and a knack for spotting near-microscopic animals.

On an early dive at a site called Mentjang Wall, we were finning along in mid-water when Tony suddenly swooped down to the reef. I followed, squinting at the scrappy patch of coral to which he was pointing. At first nothing, then I could make out a tiny brownish nudibranch (of the Flabellinidae family). He had seen it from 10m away! Suspicious, I wondered if he had sneakily placed it there when I wasn’t looking, possibly inspired by Donald Pleasence’s similar trick in The Great Escape.

As I was to discover, his spotting skills were quite genuine. While there are plenty of sizeable creatures to marvel at in Indonesia, the area does tend to attract divers with a penchant for the diminutive. These are rich seas, and there is a perpetual battle for space on the reefs. After just a few days, your eyes become familiar with the environment, so that semi-camouflaged critters begin to reveal themselves. Professional dive guides become finely attuned to this sort of diving.

Komodo National Park comprises the seas around the islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar, and some smaller islands. It’s a two-wetsuit trip: on the northern side of the islands, the water is warm, and most people dive comfortably with the thinnest of skins. Cool, nutrient-rich upwellings prevail on the southern side, where 5mm suits, hoods and gloves are the order of the day.

These islands act like a dam, holding back the warmer Pacific waters, which are then forced through various straits, creating a pressure void along the park’s southern side. This allows cold water from the Sumba Sea to rise up, effectively replacing the water removed by the currents at the surface. With the cold water comes a bloom in phytoplankton, forming the basis of Komodo’s super-charged food chain. It is a very, very special place indeed.

The results of these crazy upwellings are best experienced at Horseshoe Bay on Rinca’s southern side. These are the most crowded reefs I have ever seen, but the payoff is low visibility caused by all those nutrients suspended in the water. Horseshoe Bay’s famous site is a pinnacle known as Cannibal Rock (named after a monstrous Komodo dragon seen eating one of its own kind nearby), where dense swathes of black, yellow and red crinoids jostle for space.

It’s a great place to test buoyancy skills, because crinoids stick to neoprene like glue; any contact whatsoever and you’ve got yourself a hitchhiker. Once, after taking head-on photographs of an implacable lizardfish, I looked down to find I had picked up two featherstars complete with clingfish and crinoid shrimps – a whole ecosystem! I guiltily set them back on the reef.

Just outside Horseshoe Bay is a fascinating site known as the Great Yellow Wall of Texas, renowned for its soft corals. Visibility here was reminiscent of British shore-diving standards, and the coral polyps were all retracted, so I hardly saw the reef in all its glory. Still, I could appreciate the sheer intensity of the place. Nestling among the crinoid forest were some fascinating animals, including brightly coloured sea apples, a spectacular member of the sea slug family. Tiny hawkfish nestled between the fronds of soft corals, while gobies darted around their tiny territories.

Night dives were even more atmospheric. The currents sweeping over Cannibal Rock were too much to cope with after dark, so we searched for night creatures in the shallows. At first glance, the sandy expanses were devoid of life, but a closer inspection revealed a wealth of nocturnal drama. Octopus each the size of a child’s fist moved over the sand, extending their tentacles into tiny holes as they hunted for suitably small prey. Every now and then, they would retract their foraging limbs in pain, having received a nip from some hidden sand-dweller.

Inshore sites often serve as nurseries. I saw lots of tiny fish, including juvenile oriental sweetlips (flapping wildly like some out-of-control bumblebee) and a rockmover wrasse complete with protruding unicorn’s horn. Photographers found the night dives to be the most productive of all, and some would sacrifice an afternoon dive to be alert for the evening.

The best night dive took place beyond Horseshoe Bay on a sandy slope near Banta Island. The site has a particularly cheesy name – ‘It’s a Small World’ – which nevertheless hints at the macro wonders which have made it their home. I dropped in and descended 10m to what looked to be a lunar landscape, devoid of life. The gritty sand billowed briefly into the water column as I landed on the sea bed and looked down to see a skeletal face leering back with utter contempt.

It was a stargazer, a voracious lunge-predator whose stealth is rivalled only by its monumental ugliness. It buries itself in sand right up to its eyes, then waits for a suitable morsel to happen along. Ambush predators don’t like being seen, and this one looked up at me with undisguised disgust as I gently fanned the sand away from its fearsome features. Eventually, the indignity of being exposed in this way proved too much; it launched itself off the sand and sped off into the darkness.

I enjoy watching other divers at night. Despite the best intentions of the buddy system, there is something about the combination of shallow, current-free sites and diving by torchlight which internalizes the diving experience. Divers retreat into themselves, their attention focused chiefly on the thin column illuminated by their lights. I hovered behind a professional videographer, Roger Munns of Scubazoo (the film-making outfit based in Southeast Asia) fame, who had found a handsome red frogfish – okay, ‘handsome’ isn’t a word often associated with frogfish, but we’re talking ‘eye of the beholder’ here, okay?

As he trained his video lights on the frogfish, the brightness attracted a small food chain. Driven by some inexplicable urge, tiny worms massed around the lights in writhing density. They in turn attracted the attention of some cardinalfish, which foolishly took the frogfish to be a lump of coral. They were soon disabused of this notion as the predator extended its jaws and sucked a hapless cardinalfish into its maw.

This super-gulp is too fast to see. Later, watching Roger’s footage on an iBook laptop, we studied the lunge frame by frame. You see the frogfish give a dainty little leap, and there is a slight blur around its mouth as it takes the fish, but the movement itself is too fast even for a professional-quality video recording in slow motion mode. Viewed at normal speed, the frogfish twitches slightly and the cardinalfish simply disappears.

In addition to illustrating the efficiency of the frogfish’s feeding mechanism, this episode revealed to me the depth of the cardinalfish’s stupidity. The ‘not exactly quick on the uptake’ survivors kept returning to the lights, and the frogfish enjoyed a further six courses while the cardinalfish doubtless wondered where all their companions had gone. By the time I had sidled in to photograph the frogfish, it was noticeably bulkier and appeared to have a case of the hiccups.

Providing a contrast to Komodo’s macro dives is a great manta site off the island of Langkoi, a busy little channel where the graceful rays can be seen feeding on plankton-loaded water. Langkoi’s mantas are among the biggest I have ever seen, some even approaching the legendary 6m mark.

It was a pleasure to dispense with the hood and gloves when our boat Kararu returned to the balmy sites of the north. Here, I was presented with dizzyingly clear water and some classically beautiful reefs. There were plenty of reef fish, but I saw little in the blue, despite the preternatural clarity of the water. Occasionally, schools of barracuda, jacks or bannerfish would appear, but there were no sharks or tuna. This is the case across much of these islands, where shark-finning has decimated reef shark populations over the past decade. Illegal shark fishing and even dynamite bombing still takes place in Komodo National Park, despite its protected status.

Still, conservation efforts at Komodo – reinforced by the presence of tourism – have succeeded in preserving vast tracts of reef. These reefs have an additional importance which transcends the pleasure they give divers. The coral here is especially resilient to the effects of coral bleaching caused by factors such as global warming and El Niño. This is due to the upwelling effect of cooling water from the depths of the Sumba Sea.

Marine biologists believe that as coral reef systems continue to be lost, it is places such as Komodo that will replenish and re-colonize devastated habitats elsewhere in Indonesia and the wider Indo-Pacific. The same currents which make life so difficult (if entertaining) for divers, carry coral larvae beyond the national park to places where reef space is available. In this sense, Komodo is a mother among coral reefs, and one we should all cherish.

• Simon Rogerson dived with Kararu Dive Voyages. Charters are available for trips of different duration, but the standard Komodo tour takes 11 days. Trips to the remote reefs of Alor and Rajah Empat are also available. For further information, contact UK agents Divequest on 01254 826322 or check out Kararu’s website, http://www.kararu.com.

The world’s easiest wreck dive?
No diver should visit Bali without diving the wreck of the Liberty, a First World War-era cargo ship which lies off the beach at the village of Tulamben on the nortwest coast. The Liberty grounded itself on this beach after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942, and stayed there until 1963 when the Agung volcano exploded, pushing her into the water and splitting the hull in two.

Today, the wreckage sits on black volcanic sand at a diver-friendly 27m, providing a home for a prodigious amount of marine life. It pained me not to include the Liberty in DIVE’s recent rundown of the world’s best wrecks, but the truth is that this is a wreck dive for divers who don’t like wrecks.

The structure of the wreck is undeniably impressive, but the resident marine life steals the show. There is a school of jacks which regularly form the classic spiral shoaling formation, and tame reef fish abound (they’ve been fed, and approach divers with feverish enthusiasm).

The wreck is coated in coral, and sought-after macro subjects such as the pygmy seahorse can be reliably found. It has to be one of the world’s best shore dives, but what makes it so ludicrously easy is the presence of a local co-operative which charges a small amount for access to the shore, then carries your BC and cylinder to the entry point.

What makes all this slightly shameful is the fact that the co-operative is made up of local women, most of whom are slightly built and less than five feet tall! They can carry two sets of kit at a time for the ten-minute walk over the pebble beach! On their heads!

I couldn’t bring myself to let them carry my gear, but my guide warned me that it would be seen as unforgivably patronizing not to let them do their job. So, I hobbled over the beach behind my petite kit-bearer praying to the Balinese gods that no one would recognize me.

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