The text message came in about 9 AM a few Sundays ago. It was too early in the day to receive bad news, and just early enough to ruin my day. Essentially it was a call for help issued by one of the day boat operators in Komodo National Park. It seems that despite the area’s status as a national park (and a World Heritage Site), nearly two decades of conservation work were being challenged by fishermen who had cast nets on two of Komodo’s most prolific reefs. Where were the authorities, where were the patrol boats that were supposed to stop illegal fishing within park boundaries? No one seemed to know.
A little background on Komodo and how it came to be one of the world’s premier dive destinations: I believe Valerie and Ron Taylor had already dived Komodo, but few other western photojournalists had been there when we went on our first exploratory dive trip in 1992. Back then Komodo was hard to access and the facilities were far below basic. The main reason we endured the first trip (and eagerly came back for more) was that Komodo is one of the few places in the world where divers can experience two very different marine environments. The northern part of the park borders the Pacific with it’s clear, warm waters and lush reefs. Southern Komodo abuts the Indian Ocean. The water is cooler, richer, and so packed with invertebrates and fish life it still amazes us even after more than 1000 dives in south Komodo.
During our initial survey we wanted to photograph the difference between the two habitats, and so we motored toward the southern border of the park. The wind was raging in the channel between Komodo and Rinca, the park’s two largest islands, but the current was with us and we persevered, finally reaching the large horseshoe-shaped bay that forms the southern end of Rinca Island. As the crew dropped anchor in the bay between Rinca and Nusa Kode, the smaller island that protects the bay on the south, we stood on deck staring at a magnificent primeval scene: Beneath a sheer cliff cloaked in green, three humongous Komodo Dragons strolled on the beach halfheartedly chasing macaques while wild pigs rolled in the soft sand near the surf line and a trio of majestic sea eagles soared above it all.
We took the dinghy to shore and followed a 2-meter-long dragon up a small hill on the western side of the cove. By the time we reached the top of the hill, our dragon had a smaller dragon halfway down his throat . We missed that shot, but did take a good look at the bit of reef that stuck out from the rock, already named “Cannibal Rock” in our minds, and decided to dive there first. For those of you who have dived in Komodo or follow polls of the world’s top sites, the rest of the story is history. Cannibal Rock is always at the top of anyone’s wish list. Komodo’s other sites are just as stellar: manta cleaning stations, fantastic critters, masses of fish, and stunning top side scenery.
Preserving Komodo’s underwater wonders has always been a bit of a struggle. The park is remote and has a very sparse local population so actually seeing fish poachers in operation is extremely difficult. Still, environmental NGOs and the Indonesian government persevered during the 1990s, and it seemed like a sizable dent was made in illegal fishing within park boundaries. Sites like Crystal Rock, once robbed of life, are now smothered in fish; packs of dolphins hunting around the Rock are frequently sighted by divers. Nearby is a site we call the Fish Bowl, where you can whoosh through a narrow canyon propelled by an untamable current passed uncountable species. If you hit it right, Fish Bowl is one of the most fun dives ever!
Nevertheless, illegal fishing still plagues several Komodo reefs, and everyone who loves this wild place is greatly concerned. For now, Komodo’s diving remains as spectacular as any place on earth, but this won’t last long if the authorities lessen their vigilant watch.
Keep booking trips to Komodo National Park, the diving and overall experience is off the scale, and your tourism dollars help fund ranger salaries and patrol boats. But please let park management know you are upset that even one fish poacher got away on their watch. The easiest way to protest illegal activities in Komodo National Park is to log on to the official site, www.putrinagakomodo.com. Then go to the contacts page and send an email of protest to everyone who is charged with protecting this treasure.