Komodo National Park
The volcanic island of Komodo (along with Padar, Rinca and an archipelago of smaller islands) is a part of Komodo National Park, an area that was founded in 1980 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The national park was formed to protect, and is an eponym of, its most famous denizen--the mighty Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world's largest and most dangerous lizard.The islands are located in one of the most arid regions in Indonesia and their rugged volcanic hills are blanketed in a mix of prickly shrublands and savanna grasslands, with a smattering of forest here and there. The highly irregular coastlines of the islands consist of a multitude of inlets and bays with fantastic beaches that are divided up by high headlands that fall steeply into the sea. The islands are also part of the coral triangle and the waters that surround them are some of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet.Komodo is a very hard place to describe, as words just seem to do no justice. Just have a look at the video above instead and answer me this, how does one not get lost in reverie when immersed in such idyllic surroundings?
Think of Labuan Bajo as a temporary launching point, or just a place to head back to for a night's sleep. The small town is dusty and grimy, and the one-way street that cuts through the town is lined with throngs of tourists that flit back and forth from the (more than twenty) dive shops to the warungs and over-priced bars that are scattered along the stretch. The street is fairly narrow and the traffic can be fast and reckless at times, so be wary.There are several options that you can take to head out to the island if you do decide to use the services of one of the dive shops, but bear in mind that all the options will require the following additional payments:
- National Park fees of IDR150k per person, per day, from Monday to Saturday; and IDR225k per person, per day, for Sundays and public holidays
- Area Tax fee of IDR50k per person, per day
- A mandatory guide (one guide for every five people) fee of IDR80k per guide, when hiking on the islands
- Camera fees are IDR50k per camera and IDR150k per video camera
- Diving fees of IDR25k per person, per day, if you go for a dive trip
- Snorkeling fees of IDR15k per person, per day, if you go snorkeling instead
Alternatively, you have the live-on-boards (LoB). The one we took was called 'Sea Safari VII', a purpose-built, and very large (37.5m long and 10.65m wide) ironwood schooner. The yacht resembles a traditional Indonesian two-masted sailing ship called a 'pinisiq', and is equipped with 14 air-conditioned cabins with private bathrooms spread out over its three decks. There are plenty of amenities on board, including a restaurant, a lounge, and a camera station for underwater cameras. Aside from the standard safety and navigation equipment (GPS, radar, VHF radio systems, satellite phones), ENOS systems are also available. This was quite comforting for us especially since a diver had gone missing just before our trip began.
Currents tend to be very strong in the waters of Komodo National Park as the region is a part of the Indonesian through-flow, where warm, tropical water flows from the Philippines and through the Flores sea before being forced through the 'gaps' of Nusa Tenggara (Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores) to the Indian Ocean to the south. These 'gaps' are the Lombok Strait (between Bali and Lombok), the Ombai Strait (between Alor and Timor), and the Sape Strait (between Sumbawa and Komodo), where the shelf drops down to hundreds of metres.The waters around Komodo also receive a lot of nutrients from the much colder water from the Indian Ocean to the south. This water flows up in the form of upwellings, where deeper water that is highly rich in nutrients collides with the continental shelf and is forced to rise to the surface. The nutrient-rich water increases the numbers of zooplankton (such as shrimp and krill), which in turn attracts large filter-feeders like the manta rays but also drops the visibility. These nutrients give the area a staggering diversity of marine life, with thousands of species of fish and hundreds of species of coral. Once you get into the water, it is easy to see why Komodo National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.The combination of the warm Indonesian through-flow and the cool Indian Ocean upwellings, create two very distinct marine habitats in Komodo National Park that are separated by just a few kilometres: the northern tropical area which has an average water temperatures of 27-28 degrees C and a visibility of 25-35 meters, and the southern temperate area which has an average water temperatures of 23-24 degrees C and a visibility of 7-18 meters. The sheer number of irregular islands around the park also create smaller channels that the strong currents can flow through. This creates plenty of opportunity for exciting, yet relaxing (but potentially dangerous), drift dives.
Interactive Location Map
My Top Three Dive Sites
1. The Cauldron (a.k.a. Shotgun)
2. Castle Rock
3. Batu Bolong
Not only does Komodo National Park offer calm and colourful reefs that are absolutely teeming with fishes, but the strong currents also tend to attract larger filter feeders and other chondrichthians (cartilaginous fish such as rays and sharks). The plankton-rich oceanic upwellings also cause an explosion of other marine life, especially invertebrates.
I was astounded by the amount of decapod crustaceans that I saw, especially on the night dives. During the day, those that are camouflaged tend to remain still and only move around to feed at night. One type that never failed to impress me, with their fantastic shapes and colours, were the decorator crabs. These crabs were always seen equipped with different 'costumes', as they wandered around the reef decorating their carapace and legs with sponges, anemones, and hydroids (and occasionally even dead fish!) from their surroundings. The crabs do this by breaking off coral and attaching it to the 'hooked setae' on their bodies, something that is not too dissimilar from velcro.
The corallimorph decorator crab (Cyclocoeloma tuberculata), is just one species that does this--what is referred to as "adventitious concealing coloration"--and seems to have a penchant for mushroom anemone (Discosoma spp.). The anemone in question is usually shaped like a flattened disc and tends to be brightly-coloured due to the symbiotic zooxanthellae in their tissues. One fascinating thing to note is that decorator crabs have been found to 'recycle' their decorations during the moulting process. It does this by removing the decorations from the old exoskeleton that it has shed, and transfers them to its newer, larger one.
These decorations are not only used as camouflage but also as a deterrent. Hydroid spider crabs (Hyastenus spp.) for instance, have commensal relationships with hydroids and are often found completely covered in hydroid polyps. Upon contact, cnidarians like these discharge their toxins via explosive stinging cells called nematocytes, thus ensuring that predators are kept at bay.
The order of crustaceans that the decorator crabs are a part of, the decopods, has tens of thousands of species. This huge number also makes the order extraordinarily diverse, both in shape as well as size. From the small, 5cm-long, decorator crabs, you have the even smaller, 1.5cm-long, bubble coral shrimps (Vir philippinensis) and whip coral shrimps (Pontonides unciger). The latter are often found on long strands of whip coral (Cirrhipathes spp.) and have colours that match their host, making them fairly hard to spot. They can often be found in pairs, with the females being almost twice as large as the males.
Another tiny decopod, also about 1.5cm-long, is the pink hairy squat lobster (Lauriea siagiani). These creatures are actually not lobsters, but are crabs that are sometimes referred to as 'fairy crabs'. These crabs are usually found on giant barrel sponges (Xestospongia testudinaria), but, unlike the whip coral shrimps, are a lot easier to spot because of their bright pink-purplish colour and the long white hair that completely covers their bodies. There are plenty of other crustaceans that can be found around the reef, but not all of them are decapods. Stomatopods, like the peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) can also be frequently seen scuttling around the ocean floor.
Masters of Camouflage
Decorator crabs aren't the only marine creatures that are masters of camouflage. In fact, the cuttlefish seems to have perfected the art. These voracious predators are able to observe their surroundings and not only change their colours accordingly, but are also able to manipulate sections of their skin called papillae in order to match the physical texture of the surface that they are imitating. These changes of colour are not only used for the purpose of camouflage when hiding or sneaking up on prey, but also to mesmerise their prey when the colours are flashed repeatedly. Male cuttlefish have also been observed imitating females to increase their chances of mating!
Cuttlefish move around by jet propulsion--sucking in water via the gills and expelling it through a funnel called the hyponome. These hyponomes can be aimed in different directions which allow the cuttlefish to control their direction of travel.
Another type of marine creature that is famous for their colouration are the nudibranchs, which are a group of marine gastropods that are occasionally referred to as sea slugs. The colouration on nudibranchs is aposematic, meaning that it serves to warn predators of either their distaste or toxicity.
Flatworms tend to also be brilliantly coloured--like the aptly-named Persian carpet flatworm (Pseudobiceros bedfordi)--and can sometimes be mistaken for nudibranchs. They are not molluscs however, and belong to a completely different phylum called 'Platyhelminthes'. Flatworms are hermaphrodites, meaning that they have both male and female reproductive organs. When they mate, they 'fence' with one another using their penises in an attempt to stab any region of the other's body. They then inject sperm into their opponent to fertilize it, in a process that is referred to as 'traumatic insemination', whilst trying to avoid being fertilized at the same time!
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Gili Lawa Darat Hike
Sometimes divers decide to take a short break and go for a sunset hike instead. One of the best places to do this (probably second only to Padar Island) is on the island of Gili Lawa Darat. The island lies in-between Gili Lawa Laut and the north-east tip of Komodo island. Between all these islands, you'll find the locations of fantastic dive sites: 'The Cauldron' (a.k.a 'Shotgun'), between Gili Lawa Laut and Gili Lawa Darat; and 'the Golden Passage' (a.k.a 'Darat Passage'), between Gili Lawa Darat and Komodo Island. The Gili Lawa Darat bay on the southern side of the island provides shelter from the strong currents that can be found around the Komodo National Park, making it perfect for calm night dives and as a place for boats to moor (anchoring is not allowed here).
Since the corals are fairly healthy here (makes for good snorkeling conditions), and the start of the trailhead begins at the beach, you may on occasion find crowds of people. Unfortunately, the beach itself is full of rubbish both from those who discard them there, as well as from jetsam that has been washed ashore.
The trail itself forms a loop, with a steeper section that ascends straight up to a viewpoint (Elevation: 160m) that begins a little further east from the beach. The hike from the beach up to this point takes about 15 minutes. From there, the trail continues along in a counter-clockwise direction along a contour that eventually begins to descend back down to the beach. There is a junction before this however, that gives you the option of keeping right in order to head up to the cairn on the peak of Gili Lawa Darat (Elevation: 210m). It takes approximately 20 minutes to get to the summit from the first viewpoint. Both of these elevated vantage points truly showcase how barren the islands are during the dry season, especially when contrasted with the long white sandy beaches and the turquoise water down below.
The summit of the island offers the best views when sunset inevitably comes along. The twin-peaks of the Sangeang Api volcano (Elevation: 1949m and 1795m) lie far off to the west, and are accompanied by the much closer headland of 'Toro Batu Moncong'. As the sun sets behind the peaks of Sangeang volcano, the details begin to fade, and the silhouette of the volcano and its smoke plume seem as if they were cut out from the blazing sky.
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The myths and legends that were inspired by the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) are quite fantastic, and when you see your first dragon, it will be fairly easy to see why they are. The dragons are massive, and can reach up to 3 metres in length and can weigh up to 70kg. They appear slow as they lumber around in the midday sun, their tongues flicking in and out tasting the air (they can 'taste' dead meat from up to 8km away) as they carry their huge heft, but they can be frightfully fast when ambushing prey and are able to make short bursts of almost 20km/h. They don't take down their prey immediately though, and instead land a bite that is filled with venom.
It wasn't until 2009 that a researcher called Bryan Fry found that the venom rapidly decreases blood pressure as well as expedites blood loss. This in turn leads to a huge reduction in blood perfusion (shock), rendering the prey too weak to escape or to fight. This explains how the Komodo dragon can prey on much larger animals such as the Timor deer (Rusa timorensis) and the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis).
Komodo Dragons only have a population of approximately 4000 individuals, which means that the species is listed as 'vulnerable'. They can only be seen at two locations in Komodo National Park: Loh Liang on Komodo Island or Loh Buaya on Rinca Island. Local rangers stand watchful and vigilant at these locations and are armed with long forked sticks in order to keep the daring dragons at bay. The rangers will accompany you as you hike along trails of different lengths, and will not only point out the dragons that they spot, but also the huge pits that they dig when the females nest. Interestingly, it has been found that the females can also reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis, whereby they still lay eggs even when no males are present.
Another dragon can be seen here every night when the skies are clear of clouds. Each and every time we emerged from the water after a night dive, we were stunned by the magnificent milky way that blazed overhead. Scorpio was undoubtedly there too, its tail curled up towards Saturn, and Jupiter was fairly obvious off to the west. When looking over to the north however, the constellation of Draco could be seen cheekily peaking above the horizon.
Despite not being very bright, Draco is fairly easy to find. All one needs to do is to trace a line from the two pointer stars, α & β UMa, (the northern version of α & β Cen for the southern cross) on the rim of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) towards Polaris (α UMi) at the end of Ursa Minor. The first star that the line encounters (albeit a little to the left) is the start of the tail of the dragon. Draco curls around, and practically wraps around, the front of Ursa Minor before swinging its head back out, almost as if it were trying to avoid the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), maybe as a mark of respect since it was the first ever planetary nebula to be discovered.
One interesting thing to note about the constellation of Draco is that one of its stars, Thuban (α Dra), used to be the north pole star from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BCE. This is due to the slight and very slow 'wobble' of earth's axis (called precession), that takes 26000 years for one cycle to complete.
We might not be around when another cycle completes but the enduring legends of fire-breathing dragons could easily still be!