Monday, December 13, 2010

Beneath the Land of the Dragons

Komodo National Park
Lush reef of Cannibal Rock
In 2001 I took my first trip to dive the spectacular reefs of Indonesia, within the heart of our planets coral reef biodiversity. It was an 11 night trip aboard the Pelagian through the islands of Komodo National Park. I had the good fortune to dive with the late Larry Smith, probably the greatest dive guide and spotter in Indonesia. He pioneered much of the diving in Indonesia and trained many of the local guides. It was an experience that opened my eyes to some of the best diving on our planet. The following is an account of my first foray into the magical islands of Indonesia and photos taken on a Sea&Sea Motormarine II EX with Kodak E100VS film. 

Island Time

It was early morning as we descended along the steep reef slope, down to the gradually sloping bottom at around 100 feet. The sun was rising at our backs, beams of sunlight, danced across the coral wall, as we parted a thick curtain of Bannerfish and Pyramid Butterflyfish. It was just another glorious morning out in this remote cove of Horseshoe Bay, in south Rinca Island. The ocean was glassy and all around there is not a soul in sight, except for those on our live aboard. I do remember another live aboard anchored off, somewhere behind Cannibal Rock, but out of sight out of mind. I’ve somehow lost track of what day it is, but out here time stands still, or at least until you find it’s time to head back to port…which I’m sure is not for a few more days! That I know.
Soft Coral
Rush Hour, but not on the 405

A slice of fresh baked bread in the toaster and a shot of espresso brewing in the coffee maker, outside the morning sun is heating up. I’m standing here in my trunks and t-shirt, with a hat to cover my bed head, eagerly awaiting another amazing day. One of our hosts comes by to take my breakfast order, which will be awaiting us after our first morning dive. Between the Mi Goreng (fried Indonesian noodles) and the amazing Eggs Benedict and everything in between, breakfast made to order becomes a test of our decisiveness.

After our usual dive briefing on the stern of the ship, we suit up in anticipation…What weird and amazing creatures will we find today? Soon we leave on one of two dive tenders from the main ship, to whisk us off to the dive site. But today, after reaching the southeastern edge of Horseshoe Bay, our group led by Larry Smith decides to break from the other group to do an “exploratory dive”. The seas are unusually calm in the exposed outer edge of the bay, which is usually pounded by the currents and swells of the Indian Ocean. Today, we are given an opportunity to explore an uncharted reef.
Crinoid on Soft Coral
So as we descend to the bottom, through the beautiful dance of color by a school of Bannerfish and Pyramid Butterflyfish, we watch a pair of Emperor Angelfish, playfully chasing each other around a coral bommie. Just beside them is a large Barramundi Cod standing his ground and keeping a close eye on us. Soon, we are engrossed in our search for the unusual macro critters this region is famous for. We are unaware that our dive guide has taken off momentarily to scout out the area…but are soon reunited with our very excited and wide eyed dive guide, Larry, who urges us to follow along. We move south to a sand channel, which was a resting spot for numerous reef sharks, just moments before. But we are just a little too late to see them. However, as we looked out to the open water, we notice a huge shadow just out of clear sight. As we approach, we realize this is an undersea pinnacle, which rises to within 20 feet of the surface. We excitedly move on to explore the uncharted pinnacle. As we round the corner to the exposed side, we are met with a profusion of marine life. Graceful Spotted Eagle Rays cruise by as two different species of Barracuda patrol the open ocean in large groups. Occasionally we see a Dogtooth Tuna speed by while a huge Napoleon Wrasse surveys the reef. We watch, in sensory overload, as a Green Sea Turtle glides by, just below us. Schools of Anthias and other colorful reef fish hug the healthy coral slopes along the pinnacle. On closer inspection of the reef, we find a pair of nudibranchs performing a mating ritual. A tiny Sageani Crab moves in and out of the crevices of a huge purple Barrel Sponge while a Moray Eel peeks out of the coral to check us out. There is action everywhere, and before long, I find my computer entering the caution zone and my gauges reading low on air. My roll of 36 exposures has been long gone and it is time for a safety stop before returning to the dive tender. 
School of Anthias in a field of Staghorn Coral

Back on the tender, the air is electric. Larry exclaims something to the effect of, “Man, you guys! This place is gonna be legendary! I can’t believe we never knew this spot was out here.” It was an amazing dive and we were most likely the first people to have ever explored this spot!

Such is the diving in this remote area of Indonesia known as the Komodo Islands; where each dive holds the promise of new found treasure in the rare marine life. And new, world-class dive sites can be discovered at any time.

Sunset at Jimbaran Bay, Bali
The Land Of Dragons

Komodo is situated about 300 miles east of Bali, but when you arrive, you feel like you have stepped back in time. Gone is the lush green tropical landscape, to be replaced by a rugged and primordial topography. The area seems almost prehistoric…a perfect place to find dragons. The pristine quality of this area is due to the fact that the arid volcanic islands are almost inhospitable. With so few people inhabiting these islands, the land and seas remain mostly untouched. This is one of the driest areas of the Indonesian archipelago and little vegetation thrives here. On the surface it doesn’t appear that much can survive. However, this is where the worlds largest Monitor Lizard, the Komodo dragon resides. These prehistoric creatures grow to over 10 feet in length and pack a deadly bite. But with the safety of a park ranger, this is the only place in the world where you can experience these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. The Komodo dragon is found only on the islands of Komodo, Rinca and a few small outlying islands. Today, there is said to be less than 3000 Dragons roaming the wild, which is why these islands are now protected and designated a World Heritage Site. Besides being home to such rare creatures, this region holds another wonderful secret. 
Komodo Dragon

Considered by scientists to lie within the center of our planets marine biodiversity, Komodo may well be within the heart of this bio-rich zone. Straddling two distinct ocean realms, the warmer waters of the Flores Sea to the North and the colder, deep waters of the Indian Ocean to the South, Komodo is a place where these unique ecosystems collide. Governed by great tidal fluctuations between the two seas, the channels between the islands can experience ripping currents. These currents often appear on the surface of the ocean as fast flowing rivers. The currents wash in nutrients to bathe the reefs with sustenance, and blend together the diverse marine life between the north and south. The plankton rich waters can result in less than perfect diving visibility at times, but at the same time, is the basis of the lush marine ecosystem that thrives here. From the bizarre macro critters hiding within the pristine coral gardens to the giant Manta Rays and Whale Sharks, which frequent the area, the reefs’ around Komodo are an explosion of color and life. 
Manta Ray

1, 2, 3 OK, GO!...and a backward roll into the blue…

Being so far removed from civilization, and lacking any infrastructure for land based diving operations, liveaboards are the only way to go, to dive this region. The diving around the Komodo Islands is simply incredible. The opportunity to discover rare creatures, witness unique behavior or to even see regular favorites in large numbers on any given dive is very good. I could say I saw something very unusual or never before seen or not known to me, on every dive. I’d like to think this is saying something. 
Zebra Crab in Fire Urcin
Over the 10 days of diving we found over 7 different types of pipefish, from the Ringed Pipefish, the Mushroom Coral Pipefish to the leafy Robust Ghost Pipefish and Ornate Ghost Pipefish. We even found one variety we were unable to locate in any of the guide books. We also found some very unusual creatures like the Inimicus Devilfish, which crawled around on the sand on tiny “legs” protruding from where its pectoral fins would be. Anyone dismissing evolutionism for creationism would be severely challenged by watching one of these guys. Just as curious was the Pegasus Sea Moth. We had wonderful photo opportunities such as the tiny Zebra Crab within the colorful spines of a Fire Urchin or a squadron of huge Manta Rays which paraded by at Manta Alley, one posing for pictures at a cleaning station. Komodo is also known for its huge array of Nudibranchs. The shapes, sizes and colors seemed endless. One of the best spots for Nudibranchs was on the black sand reef of Mentjang Wall, off of Sangean Island, a volcanic crater that erupted as recently as 1998.
Xenia Coral
Generally the reefs in the north harbor healthy gardens of hard corals, while the color and diversity of the south and its profusion of soft corals and colorful crinoids was stunning. The dive trip typically begins in the north off of Satonda Island just off the northeast coast of Sumbawa. From there you can dive Banta Island, Sangean Island and the northern spots around Komodo, before moving toward central and south Komodo. Several days are usually spent on the legendary reefs around Horseshoe Bay in South Rinca Island, before heading back up the channel between Komodo and Rinca. 
Night diving here is not to be missed! I’ll say it again… Night diving here is not to be missed! With Komodo being a macro heaven, the numbers of unique critters to be found at night are mind-boggling. On one night dive in Horseshoe Bay at a place called Pipe Dreams, we found huge colorful soft corals and crinoids of every color blanketing the reef in Technicolor. We found large Basket Stars with arms unfurled. Hiding within the gray arms, were tiny pink shrimp seeking refuge. We found several Ornate Ghost Pipefish, as well as juvenile Sweetlips, and tiny Squat Lobsters and Crinoid Shrimp hiding within the feathery arms of their host. All but 3 of us opted out of this amazing night dive. Another photographer and I and our Divemaster were treated to one of the most colorful night dives I’d ever experienced.
Bobtail Squid

On another night on a nearby reef we found several Mandarinfish, some in mated pairs. During one night dive off Padar Island, at a spot called “Over There”, which several unfortunately opted out of as well, we were again overcome with more amazing critters. A Snake Eel, rare Tozeuma Shrimp in Black Coral, Ornate Ghost Pipefish camouflaged in a bright pink Soft Coral, Bobtail Squid, Inimicus Devilfish, Scorpionfish, Frogfish, Decorator Crabs, Soft Coral Candy Crabs, Zebra Crabs and lots more, all on a single dive! Have you ever seen a Stargazer? There was a spot off of Satonda Island where they appeared to be commonplace. Once more…night diving here is not to be missed! 
Lush Soft Coral and Crinoid Garden
Be prepared when you dive this region. The water temps can vary widely from a balmy 86 degrees in the north to a chilly 77 degrees or less in the south. A 3 millimeter full suit w/ a hooded vest worn on occasion proved sufficient for the varied conditions we encountered. Be aware that the diving here is not for the inexperienced. Currents can rip and finding yourself in a 2 or 3-knot current is not unusual. But know that the diving is well planned out and safety is always the primary consideration. Dive sites are chosen according to conditions and quality of the dive site, and diving in the exposed areas is generally done during a slack tide and properly managed for safety. Previously planned dives may be aborted for a calmer, more protected spot, when currents are unmanageable. This was the case when we intended to dive GPS Point off Banta Island. Then there was the high adrenaline drift dive on Batu Bolong, where a very carefully placed reef hook was a necessity to stop and watch the action. Generally the days schedule went something like this: Eat, dive, Eat, dive, eat, dive, relax, dive, eat, sleep and repeat. A soulful rhythm!
Diving Horseshoe Bay on the Pelagian
An Oasis of Luxury on a Vast Sea

Could I say my stay aboard the M/Y Pelagian was nothing short of perfect? Well though, nothing is “perfect”, this was pretty damn close. Every aspect of operations on this liveaboard, from the accommodations and amenities, to the meals and the diving were very well thought out. The Pelagian is 115 feet of diving luxury. As you enter from the stern, you are taken in by the comfortably furnished, well decorated; teakwood and brass appointed lounge area. There is a TV w/ VCR/DVD/CD, within a well-stocked teakwood bookshelf, with excellent reef guides as well, to keep you busy between dives. A coffee/espresso maker and a refrigerated wine cabinet, with beer and soft drinks as well, are always available when you need a hot or cold one. Meals are served buffet style and can be eaten in the main lounge/dining area, the stern area or on the upper deck, where there is also a gas barbecue grill for those special Indonesian barbecues. The kitchen is large and well thought out. There is a large freezer to keep the boat well stocked during each trip. The Pelagian has a huge fresh water reserve of over 20 tons and a freshwater maker to provide plenty of water for the duration of the cruise. Each stateroom is roomy and comfortable, with individual controls for air-conditioning and en-suite bath. There is ample closet space and shelves for belongings. The Pelagian carries 12 guests in two standard, three deluxe or one master stateroom. She was designed as a world ranging yacht with a fuel capacity to cover 8000 nautical miles and is a perfect way to experience the diving around these remote islands. Diving aboard the Pelagian is amazingly well thought out and is planned and executed like clockwork. The compressor on the upper deck provides air down to the two individual dive tenders on each side of the ship to fill the tanks. The twin engine tenders, powered by Honda engines whisk the group off to the nearby dive sites. All gear remains aboard the tenders during the dive trip, so there’s no lugging around of gear. There are two large freshwater rinse bins for cameras, computers and dive lights. There is also a large camera room with worktables, storage area, charging station (110 and 220 volt) and E-6 processing. There is a computer on board to send e-mail, with satellite phone connection. Though you probably want to get away from it all, it’s good to know you can still stay connected if you need to. 
Manta at a cleaning station

Above all of the physical attributes, one of the Pelagian’s greatest strengths is with its crew. The friendly crew will go out of their way to ensure the finest diving experience you can desire. The diving is hosted by Larry Smith. Once you dive with Larry, you will quickly realize it doesn’t get much better. With extensive knowledge of the area and an unquenched enthusiasm for diving, Larry makes each dive a wonderfully enlightening experience. For you photographers out there, Larry has knowledge and understanding of the habitat, and an uncanny ability to find those prized subjects to fill your slide tray. Diving with Larry was truly the difference between just having an amazing dive trip in an incredible and diverse environment, and coming away with a renewed appreciation and understanding of the ocean realm. Larry truly rekindles and fuels the passion for diving.

The Charts
View of Mt Agung, Bali

Getting to Komodo is an adventure, though not too, too difficult. To reach the Land of the Dragons, you must start out on the Island of the Gods. The trip starts with a flight to Denpasar, Bali. You should plan your arrival a least one night before departing from Benoa Harbor for Komodo. Kuta or Sanur are recommended places to stay within proximity of the harbor, Kuta, being the touristy party place and Sanur the quite, comfortable alternative (my choice after a long flight). An afternoon departure will have you steaming along the East Coast of Bali, past Mt. Agung and over the coast of Lombok, with sunset views of Mt. Rinjani, before turning in for the night. Early the next morning, after crossing the north coast of Sumbawa, the dive adventure begins at Satonda Island. Lying in the shadow of Tambora, the site of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history is Satonda Island. With each passing day, the diving seems to get better and better. And just when you think it can’t get any better, somehow it does! The 10 days of diving includes one half-day trek into Komodo Island to come face to face with the Komodo Dragons as well as other native wildlife. Be prepared to bargain with local artisans for their crafts at the park headquarters, to bring home unique gifts for friends and family.

A trip to the Komodo region to dive aboard the Pelagian is a feast for your senses and magic for your soul.

Update: Pelagian is now owned and operated by Wakatobi Dive Resorts and cruises are scheduled in the Wakatobi region of the Tukang Besi Archipalago.

 In Memory of Larry Smith
Zane, Me, Larry


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