HERE THERE BE DRAGONS!

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I GUESS WE SHOULD JUST SUSPEND the international bidding process for the 2010 Darwin Games and award it by acclaim to the tiny Komodo Islands in Indonesia. Unless you are blessed with the dubious mental process of a mud turtle on a frosty fall morning, most of us can quickly intuit that dealing with a Komodo dragon on its home turf is not a bet we should put the mortgage money down on. I am always taken aback by the rather colossal indifference to potential harm displayed by some folks when confronted with even a small specimen of this dangerous reptile.

Take, for example, the scene I witnessed a few years ago on Komodo when a German couple decided that the best way to get some dramatic photos of this apex predator was to tie a dead fish to a 10-foot piece of line and toss it in the path of a foraging nine-foot male. As with so many of the competitors in the unofficial annual Darwinian self-elimination rituals, it must have made some sort of perverted sense when whatever collision of wandering brain cells they possessed collided briefly… in what passed for a synapse of semi-coherent thought.

Usually these musings are followed by some derivation of these famous last words:  “Hey, Bubba, watch this!”

Or in this instance, “Achtung, Dieter, vatch dis!”

Let me note here that an adult Komodo dragon can weigh in at about 300 pounds and easily outrun a deer over the first 50 yards or so. They are more or less about the size and agility of the average NFL linebacker. Only meaner. And probably more intelligent. They are also skilled pack hunters who are adept at collectively stalking prey. All in all, this is not the animal to practice your survival skills against. Especially when I think we have already made it clear that in a battle of wits, the Germans were decidedly unarmed.

I had been nursing a rare ear infection after three weeks at sea when we anchored in the crescent bay of Komodo. My guests had gone off with one of the able ranger guides to hike into the interior of the island to catch a glimpse of some dragons known to congregate on a high plateau. I stayed behind and rose a couple hours later to take my coffee by the stern rail of the expedition vessel that had been my home for almost a month as we cruised down from the west side of Papua through the Banda Sea and on to the Komodo islands. I was placidly sipping the dark Indonesian brew and getting ready to summon a launch driver to take me in to the island when I noticed a sizable dragon slip out of the jungle growth and begin a stroll down the sandy shore.

Great, I thought. Here’s a nice chance to photograph these formidable beasts with no one around. I quickly grabbed a camera body and 200mm lens and waved one of the crew into the launch with me. We eased up to the beach quietly and I locked Mr. Big into my viewfinder. Through the lens, I could nearly count his teeth and I squeezed off a few frames before he suddenly stopped to raise his head and sniff the air intently.

Like reasonable Boy Scouts who wanted to live until their 13th birthdays, we had elected to make our landing and approach the dragon from downwind. But tumbling headlong in his direction, from upwind, now came the aforementioned Hansel and Gretel adorned in their latest safari khaki outfits from Abercrombie & Fitch and brandishing a rather shopworn, but pungent, fish-on-a-rope.

The dragon must have briefly pondered just exactly how stupid these humans could be… but he swiftly discarded the thought and simply charged. The last time I saw anything that big move that fast was when Lawrence Taylor made a decidedly hasty exit from a drug test at the New York Giants pre-season football drills around 1994. Taylor would have been proud of his successor, though, as he closed the short distance to his German Happy Meal with powerful strides.

The chubby tourists came to the sudden awareness of their imminent mortality and, miraculously, made the only possible correct decision to avoid starring in their own tragic version of Jurassic Park. They turned tail and ran into the ocean screaming at the top of their lungs. That act alone didn’t save them. But they dropped the fish carcass in the dragon’s path before slamming into the water like a pair of jettisoned Atlas rocket boosters. Distracted by the easy fish snack, the beast stopped to gulp it down knowing the main entree was cornered just off the beach up to their armpits in the ocean.

Clearly, the Teutonic Twins also did not know that dragons swim… quite well actually.

As their scaly adversary limbered up for a morning session of his best Olympic breast stroke technique, we reluctantly decided to render assistance. While my Indonesian boat driver ran for a ranger, I distracted the dragon from a distance with a few shouts while brandishing a sizable piece of driftwood. His attention diverted and he began a slow but deliberate pace in my direction, leaving me more than a bit conflicted about the success of my intervention.

I considered my own escape routes fairly quickly and concluded that there was still sufficient time to beat feet to the safety of the boat if necessary. So, like any good photographer, I raised my telephoto lens and briefly reveled in the photo op. The dragon filled my viewfinder and I was merrily firing away when he suddenly vanished. I paused to look over the camera and realized that I had now taken two giant steps into the gene pool of village idiots myself. The dragon was racing at me, teeth bared, dripping drool past a diabolical smile worthy of a Mississippi county sheriff nailing a damn Yankee driver in a speed trap.

I opted for an intelligent, but undignified, retreat just as one of the park rangers appeared with a long wooden staff and gallantly intersected the reptile causing him to stop in mid-blitz. If he had smitten a rock with the staff and water flowed forth I could not have been more impressed. As far as I was concerned, Moses lived. The dragon altered course up the beach, Hansel and Gretel were plucked from the sea, and I put forward my best attempt to affect a professional nonchalance as I gathered up the litter of my camera gear previously abandoned. And all this before breakfast…

––––––––– THE VOYAGE –––––––––

We were into the second half of a month-long voyage across the eastern Indonesian archipelago from Sorong back to Bali. Previously we had explored the Raja Ampat islands, transited the historically significant Banda Sea island group, and once again dropped in on the amazing sea snake aggregations off tiny Gunung Api.

After two weeks at sea covering nearly 1,500 miles, we pulled into Maumere harbor for re-provisioning and to disembark some guests while welcoming a new contingent of divers as we resumed our voyage across the north side of massive Flores Island and into the famed Komodo islands. Along the way we visited a remarkable traditional whaling village on a remote island largely removed from any hint of modern civilization. Sperm whales are still hunted from a primitive fleet of small boats variously powered by sails, oars and even an occasional outboard motor.

We spilled ashore for a visit, landing in a strong swell on the black volcanic sand and were treated to the disturbing sight of whale meat drying in the sun from a wood lattice. Like most divers, the thought of whales being killed was repugnant to us but we swallowed hard and tried to reconcile the subsistence existence the villagers eked out from their traditional hunt. The good news was that in spite of their vigorous efforts, the harpooners rarely managed to kill more than six to nine whales annually. But clearly the entire village economy was based on whaling for food, oil, and whalebone carvings sold to the handful of outside visitors that stopped by a few times a year. We declined to purchase any crafts made from whale bone or ivory but a unique selection of batik fabrics and other local arts lured many of our group.

We continued our route down the north coast of Flores diving along the way and entered the legendary Komodo islands a few days later. The Komodo region is now an Indonesian national park and under fairly stringent protection from outside fishing or other harvesting of indigenous wildlife. It’s a remarkable resource of staggering marine life populations and some of the most interesting terrestrial and bird species to be found anywhere. The Komodo islands are located smack dab on the infamous Wallace Line, named after Darwin collaborator and naturalist scholar Alfred Wallace. Most experts agree that this area hosts the largest biodiversity, both underwater and on land, of any place in the world.

–––––––––––– THE PARK –––––––––––

An almost palpable sense of anticipation sets in just by crossing into the Komodo islands. Largely uninhabited save for a small fishing village on the main island of Komodo, these islands are starkly beautiful and wonderfully diverse. A brief stroll down a deserted beach allowed two guests to discover completely intact Nautilus shells larger than I’d ever seen in any museum exhibit. They were simply tossed up on the sand in perfect condition by a recent storm.

Several of the northern islands offer protected anchorages in long-dormant volcanic calderas framed by brilliant sand beaches. The diving in the immediate area is nothing short of spectacular with shallow coral gardens and meandering reefs sloping off into the depths. A wide variety of dazzling tropical fish species swarm indifferently among our divers and visibility can exceed 150 feet in the warm, clear water. A short ride by dive launch accesses a series of pinnacles and sea mounts that offer off-the-scale marine life populations including mantas, huge schools of pelagic tuna, curious turtles and growths of sea fans and other gorgonians that can exceed 20 feet in height.

As photographers, it’s a bit overwhelming. Faced with some of the finest coral growth, fish species, and invertebrate subjects known to exist on the planet, the hardest decision we had to make before each dive was whether to opt for wide-angle, mid-focal length or macro setups. Frequently divers would settle in on a single coral head or pinnacle and, mesmerized by the marine life, would hardly move for an hour or so.

The northern side of the Komodo islands lies in the South Pacific Ocean and is blessed with water temperatures typically in the 82-degree Fahrenheit range and are remarkably clear with hardly a trace of particulates. Visitors from late May to November can expect nearly flat calm conditions with little, if any, rain. It’s the perfect season for diving. But as the Indonesian seasons change, the effects of the alternate monsoon winds bring unsettled seas, cooler water and reduced visibility. The marine life remains unchanged but be prepared for harsher conditions if you visit out of season.

One of the more surprising phenomena of the park region is encountered as we cruise south. Moving only a distance of four miles from the tranquil warm water of Komodo brings our vessel to a choppy area of rocky islets known collectively as Manta Rock. This marks the entrance to the southerly Indian Ocean and already the water temperature drops nearly 10 degrees. Visibility also drops in the nutrient-rich waters that attract a huge population of mantas. It’s out of the dive skins and 1mm suits and into 5mm of rubber for many as our group rolls into the foamy seas. The 72-degree water is markedly colder than our morning dives but that is quickly forgotten as a series of large specimens soar over our position. Several mantas with wing spans in excess of 20 feet hover above us actively feeding, oblivious to the divers.

A group of five mantas come into view and sweep down over the rocky drop-off with mouths gaping. They parade in a pattern of east/west patrols and we are treated to a constant parade of rays frolicking in the cool waters. As we ascend, they follow us and skim just under the surface, feeding and keeping an inquisitive eye on us as we switch to snorkeling gear and continue the encounter. We identify over 20 individuals and everyone arrives back aboard with fantastic images and lasting memories of what may be the best manta dive to be found anywhere. This will be tough to beat.

Relaxing after four dives, my host and ship owner Tony Rhodes starts his briefing for our next few days of diving on the south end of Rinca Island that now takes us fully into the Indian Ocean. There’s little question that conditions have changed as we approach the entrance to Horseshoe Bay. As we crossed between the demarcation of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, strong currents swept through the narrow passes causing a drop in actual sea level of nearly one foot. Imagine the effect that only one foot of vertical height might have when massed across miles of the two oceans’ intersection. It’s a wild ride that renders some sites undivable except at slack tide. A shifting savannah of wind zephyrs between the high mountain peaks and the water color shifts from the clear deep blue of the Pacific to a subdued malevolent green, betraying none of the vibrant reef structures beneath. Visibility can drop to 15 feet or so and the temperature can dip to the mid-60s.

Why, you may well ask, would we subject ourselves to such conditions? Because Rinca’s south bay hosts what most experts concede is the finest macro diving anywhere. The protected anchorage beneath Cannibal Rock affords us easy access to the teeming reef at its foot.

Renowned diving explorer Burt Jones named the site back in 1992 after beginning a hike to its summit, only to be turned back by the incredible sight of a large Komodo dragon devouring a smaller of its species from a high ledge. Burt returned after the dragon departed and noted what looked to be a lengthy ledge and reef formation just under the bay’s surface. Due to the reduced visibility, no one had noted its existence previously from the anchorage.

Since the reef was only a stone’s throw from his vessel, Burt, and partner Maurine Shimlock, geared up to see if a usable dive site might be found. They hit the jackpot and forever put Rinca on the map for serious underwater photographers all over the world.

My first dive here was on another trip with Tony Rhodes in late April 2002. Burt and Tony were my guides. I’m a committed warm water diver since making a promise to myself to avoid the cold after freezing my ass off diving with whales in the Gulf of Maine and exploring the north Atlantic’s deep wrecks back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the combination of youth and an amazingly hyper-active bladder allowed me to ward off the chill of that region. Now I do my best to avoid any liquid that drops below 80 degrees unless it is contained in a glass with an appropriate amount of restorative liquor. Packing is easy for me: three dive skins.

I’d been enjoying the bath-water temperatures in northern Komodo when Tony moved us into south Rinca overnight. I awoke to a blissful anchorage and a warm breeze fluttering the sun deck. Tony and Burt, quietly donning full 7mm suits and hoods, had decided that the water temperature was a little surprise that I could discover on my own. Rolling off the launch in my dive skin with camera in hand, I was surprised to experience a choking sensation in my throat. I quickly figured out that the obstruction was caused by the spontaneous withdrawal of my genitals into a higher and better-insulated region. I decided that coughing was out of the question lest I jettison the obstruction and thus qualify for inclusion in the Vienna Boys Choir at a decidedly late age to be singing soprano.

I managed to follow the giggling pair to the bottom and Tony gleefully displayed his computer’s readout confirming a water temp of 58 degrees! Swallowing forcefully I managed to relocate my manhood somewhere between my chest and bellybutton, figuring that was about as anatomically correct as I could hope for in those conditions. Still belching guffaws at my discomfort, Burt swam off and took up residence with his macro rig on an adjacent coral head.

I gasped a few breaths from my regulator and seriously considered aborting the dive to defecate ceremoniously in their bunks in a wanton act of revenge. But the ensuing years since my youth had ironically blessed me with just enough natural “insulation” to allow me to tolerate the cold. The bottom was alive in all directions with the most abundant population of hard coral, soft coral, waves of tropicals, nudibranchs, fire urchins, sea apples, pygmy sea horses, Coleman shrimp, cuttlefish, and things I couldn’t even identify without a reference tome. I doubt if I moved more than four feet during that entire first dive that I managed to stretch out to nearly 45 minutes before entering the zone of hypothermia. My greatest satisfaction was outlasting my two treacherous guides who surfaced a few minutes earlier.

I’m sure they expected a torrent of verbal retaliation but I was speechless, both from the cold and a dose of “shrinkage” of epic biblical proportions. Once I was able to independently confirm my gender again with a hopeful grope that yielded a withered mass roughly 10 percent of its original size, I too was carried away in the babble of excited conversation as we all celebrated the endless subject matter of this amazing site.

The following dives and subsequent years saw me well-armed with thermal protection, and I’ve spent hours in awe of the explosion of life that Cannibal Rock showcases. There is more stuff to see and photograph here in one dive than a lifetime spent in the Caribbean. And I learned that timing my visits so as not to arrive before late May affords a more pleasant water temperature usually in the low 70s. This is a site that will leave serious photographers slack-jawed at its subject matter. Don’t miss it.

This is also a great place to see dragons. Every time I’ve visited we’ve seen them come out of the jungle and patrol the beach. Early morning excursions, more often than not, reveal a pattern of dragon tracks scarring the unblemished sand and disappearing into the bush. There’s also a resident population of deer, pigs, and monkeys that come out to visit and stare balefully at the ship anchored only a few score yards from their beach.

Initially, naturalists did not understand that the dragons were accomplished swimmers and could migrate between the islands with impunity. A dragon that killed a local inhabitant in the early 1970s was tagged and exiled across the deep channel to neighboring Flores. After a brief period on the larger island, he swam back and resumed residence. It is now understood that dragons move freely among the islands establishing habitats solely dependent on the food and water resources. And with protection of park status, their population is showing slow but steady growth.

A census taken in 1985 placed the count at roughly 1,400 individuals. Four years later they had grown to 1,700 and by the early 1990s the dragons had spilled over 2,000 on Komodo alone. Rinca is believed to host about 800 in number and an unknown population has migrated to Flores and set up shop on the island’s west end.

They are unquestionably a serious predator that must be treated with considerable respect. But with a modicum of common sense, the dragons can be viewed in the wild with an acceptable degree of risk. One should not venture inland without a guide, and be suitably armed with a long stick to ward off initial curiosity. During the dry months, the dragons are less active and many tend to congregate by a few well-established stream beds and water holes soaking up the sun between kills. A well-fed dragon can be approached carefully and shows little interest in man. Nonetheless, all the villagers on Komodo have built their houses on stilts but a handful of slower inhabitants along with an inventory of goats and pigs still get picked off annually. It’s no place to develop a limp.

On our last trip to Rinca, a dozen of our group decided to climb Cannibal Rock between dives. They were thrilled to be greeted by a mid-size dragon that came cruising down the beach as they returned. He kept his distance and everyone was afforded the chance for some great photos. The bell went off for lunch and all but one gentleman, Jim Prier from Canada, boarded the launch to return to the ship. He elected to stay on the beach and procured a hefty stick as protection. When the dragon headed off down the beach, Jim followed at a discreet distance and I watched him vigilantly from the ship’s deck. I was not terribly comfortable with a single guest on the beach but the boat boys related his insistence at staying ashore.

When our lone ranger reached almost exactly the halfway point on the narrow beach, a second and much larger dragon jumped out of the jungle and attacked the first. A violent struggle ensued and my guest stood enthralled by the action. I scrambled a launch to bring him back immediately, but before the crew could close the distance to the beach a third dragon now appeared from behind him and the trio began a methodical approach narrowing the distance to a completely unacceptable range. We were front-row observers to the dragon’s legendary skills as pack hunters, and Jim was shaping up as so much Canadian Bacon on the hoof when the launch plucked him to safety.

The Komodo islands offer an unending variety of diving from pinnacles and drop-offs to coral forests and a mind-befuddling array of invertebrate life that could occupy divers for months. The approach to the park from the west also affords some equally exciting diving around Banta Island and the towering volcanic island of Sangeang that reaches skyward to nearly 8,000 feet in height.

After eight years of repetitive long term visits, 15,000 miles by sea, and over a thousand dives in Indonesia, I will affirm that the diving will meet even the most jaded expectations. However, it’s important to carefully select the season and match that to the region you wish to visit to ensure optimal conditions. And some itineraries such as the voyage from Sorong to Maumere that covers the Raja Ampat islands, Banda Sea, Alor, and Wetar require considerable steaming time that can limit diving to only three a day. That’s a reasonable compromise considering the remoteness and virgin conditions that will be encountered.

If there is a single region offering the diversity of marine life and multi-cultural experience of Indonesia, I’ve yet to see it, and I’ve been around the block once or twice. You’ll love the diving, the fascinating terrestrial animals, and the cultural historical experience. With the truly virgin diving left in the world rapidly dwindling, I urge every diver with the time and budget to experience the wonder of Indonesia.

But take a big stick with you…

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5 comments for “HERE THERE BE DRAGONS!

  1. Bruce Versteegh
    March 21, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Bret – I first read this article in Fathoms a few years ago, and still laugh when I read your description of “Hansel and Gretel” and the lack of gray matter demonstrated by so many people in the presence of wild animals. I saw a Japanese family in Yellowstone take toddlers and trek across the meadow to get a “close up” with a bull moose, the idiots got within 15 feet with several of us yelling at them – I honestly believe the father was going to try and put a toddler on the mooses’ back for a picture; until the moose starting snorting and pawing up the ground and sanity returned. We are heading to Komodo this July – hopefully my attempts to capture a dragon picture or two won’t result in a Darwinian end to my uw photo career….Enjoy all your articles, and can’t wait to dive the south Rinca sites – hopefully any shrinkage will be temporary!!!

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  2. John Bantin
    March 22, 2010 at 6:53 am

    After five divers got separated from their boat and ended up stranded on a beach on either Rinca or Komodo, I was interviewed by the BBC to discuss the hazards they had faced including a Komodo Dragon that was stalking them.
    I got a letter from a listener saying I was very negative about Komodo Dragons – cuddly little things!
    Great description! Thanks Bret.

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  3. Bert Royden
    May 1, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I went to Yellowstone when I was a teenager, and the ranger told us that the most recent fatality caused by an animal in the park was when a visitor from Iowa encountered a bison. The bison was resting on the ground, and the intrepid photographer wanted a better pose, so he tried to get it to stand up. His method? He walked up to it and kicked it. Ut sementem feeceris. End of Iowan.

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  4. Mark Magers
    November 20, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Great story. Reminds me of the (German) tourist who decided sitting on a hauled out elephant seal at Ano Nuevo in California was a great photo opportunity. Until the seal responded with a bite in her backside.

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  5. Easy Ed
    February 16, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    I was with the legendary Larry Smith on Komodo after a magnificent two week dive trip through the Banda Sea more than a few years ago. Even the indefatigable Larry vetoed a plan to purchase a live goat and tether it to provide a land feeding frenzy foto fun fest. Still we got some good photos of the beasts with the assistance of the Moses staff wielding guides. I still treasure memories of that exceptional trip. RIP Larry.

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