Komodo Family Trip

The Seven Seas News - August 2012

Our Komodo family trip July 2012

Just back from a great Komodo trip with family and new friends, the company was fantastic, one other Dutch family, the Huismans, and a group put together by Sonia Goggel. Ken and Olga, Mary, Veronika and Susan. All very relaxed divers with a great positive attitude to everything that was offered. Willem and Lia Huisman brought their two lovely kids, John and Marcha, and they fit right in the daily routine of French toast or one of the other 10 options for breakfast (!), snorkeling, drawing fishes and dragons, lunch, snorkel, beach play, snorkel, dinner, games or movie, sleep and do it all again at yet another beautiful part of Komodo. Karly got a last minute to fill a single remaining bunk and this completed a pretty perfect group for this journey. Most importantly, the diving at some of the sites actually exceeded my expectation and memory. Specifically the dives at Tatawa Kecil, Banta and Pengah kecil. On top of that we had a BIG surprise at manta alley!

Banta is just outside the komodo national park. Seven Seas moored in the half crater left after what must have been one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of Indonesia after Tambora. The dive at Tanjung Rusa needs some good planning and a good understanding that here will be current especially around the actual Tanjung, which you can deal with if you stay very near the reef and keep your depth. We jumped in on the inside of the crate after having checked that there were no swirlies as those make it all complex, down current we don't like! And even the new and inexperienced divers in the group were fine. On the inside of the crater, the reef comes down almost straight and slopes only slightly near the bottom. There are plenty good critters on the wall but especially the "waterfalls" of fairly basslets shimmering in the sun against the reef were just mesmerizing. At the very point you get sweeped around the corner by a strong current, when the current allows you to slow down after some adrenaline seconds, you find yourself in a beautiful coral garden with lots of different coral heads, stretching for a long way and with the midday sun on it, it was just beautifully colorful. The second time we started the dive on the outside of the crater and continued that long stretch, which turned into a nice bright reef with all sorts of critters.

Castle Rock the next day was as good as I remember it for the fish life. We started at dead slack tide, which meant that there were not too many fish on top of the site when we rolled into the water. However we had some very exciting close encounters with a good size grey reef shark, it swam back and forth just about 10 m from us so that we could get a good look at this awesome fish. I find that grey reefs look more like real sharks. There were plenty white tip reef sharks around, but when you see a grey, it's more impressive. When the current started to pick up, the first giant trevallyes showed up, some were black, which is always a good sign that some feeding action will happen. One trevally tailed the grey reef for a while and when they both swam over a large school of bat fish I wished I was a good photographer and had a camera in hand, but I have that picture in my head now. Swarms of blue fuseliers showed up, they started to ball into a huge school and Karly was completely in the middle of the school, then we saw her then we didn't. Another school of blue fin trevallies joined, first time I saw them together in such large numbers, often you will find 3 or 4 hunting together, now there we at least 30 in one school! The trevally went in and out of the school of fuseliers like a well rehearsed ballet performance. We did our safety stop off the top of castle looking down at tons of fish.

Then the minister of tourism, visiting Komodo on a private trip, came by to talk about the recent stories of illegal fishing in the park. Her sons also keen divers, they also liked the specialties of diving in Komodo and with the head of komodo national park in her group we talked about the importance of enforcing the zonation plan with daily patrols, combining the fleet of patrol vessels and floating ranger station with under-cover civil-clothing fishing boat surveillance. Jos made the point how important it is to enforce the entire zoning plan. Local communities in Komodo have not historically depended on the reefs for their fishing as they operate bagan lift nets for squid and small pelagic since decades. If the fishers from outside Komodo can also be kept at bay, the park can support preservation of the diversity inside the park for tourism purposes and fisheries replenishment in the areas around the park for additional livelihoods benefits. The Seven Seas crew many of which come from the Komodo region is also frustrated as they see the tourism business, which is growing steadily in labuan bajo, threatened. Pai our captain said, the tourist come here for nature experiences, not for beer and parties such as many in Bali, if the reefs are empty and damaged they will not come anymore and we should not go the way of Bali with just parties and fancy hotels. We hope that the minister can do something, she clearly is a really engaged very knowledgeable woman, caring a lot for the marine environment for which Indonesia is so famous.

Next I went along with the kids who snorkeled in Gili Lawa Laut bay, while their parents did a scuba introduction lesson. The afternoon dive at fish bowl was going to be my choice dive of that day. It was an absolute hit again, as usual. At the entrance of the channel in the white sand, hundreds of garden eels dance their rhythmic dance as they pick their food out of the water column. I wonder what the unwritten "privacy" rule of distance is between them, as it appears that they are mathematically dispersed over the sandy bottom in some raster. Drifting with a mild current, we see leafy scorpionfish and a big angry looking stone fish amongst the hundreds of colorful bommies, some completely packed with glass fish. So keen to see the fish at what I call the chimney, I urge daughter Eva on to forget about macro photography for the remainder of the dive, and we let the current pick us up and push us into the base of the chimney. Above us, the hundreds of fish, mostly different species of trevallies and snappers and rudder fish, scatter temporarily. As we settle on the rubble substrate at the base, they come back into the chimney and provide a splendid Javanese shadow puppet show, with their different shapes as black silhouettes against the afternoon sun. Turning over some of the rubble with our fingers, colorful wrasses come and pick the algea off our hands and the freshly exposed rubble bits. They come so close that Eva takes a couple more close-up shots of these crazy patterned wrasses and we get ready to go up through the chimney. Exhaling we go up and through the bright orange soft corals while checking the school of sweet lips on the left, the horse eye trevallies on the right, avoiding a sea snake underneath, and letting the current race us over the shallows into the coral garden on the other side. Exhilarating and a great fishy dive!

I decided to snorkel the next day and as the divers where below us on Batu bolong and Pengah Kecil, together with the kids we find ourselves in a colorful aquarium, filled with basslets, giant trevallies, a shark, turtle and lots of wrasses and parrot fish. The hard coral cover at both sites is breath taking, at Pengah Kecil I was relieved to see several juvenile napoleon wrasses and at Batu Bolong there were a lot of adult size groupers! The most amazing animal behavior of this first week however, was the egg laying by a giant cuttle fish. She was not at all worried by the fact that about 8 people were looking at her every move, and instead went about her task laying an egg every 3 minutes or so, carefully placing them in a branching coral. Fantastic to see how the animals go about their normal lives as they don't feel threatened by divers here.

The night dive at Wainilu was so rich with critters that we could not agree whether we had seen 8 or 10 or even more different frogfish, as it was hard to keep count. Sonia had dived the site during the late afternoon and seen mandarin fish and picturesque dragonets, while she also observed the funny walk of the frog fishes, 6 out in afternoon day light! At night we saw harlequin shrimp munching on a sea star, bobtail squid, devil scorpions, I saw 4 different snake eel species and in my count we saw 11 different frog fishes. They are the cutest critter if you like funny faces (and funny walks!). When hunting, they sit quietly with their angler out that waves a little bit of fluff as bait. I would not have seen some of the frog fishes, if they did not display this, as they otherwise blend in so well in the coral and seaweed. Another one caught my eye as I thought it was tumbling down the reef slope, hilarious to watch. Wearing two suits over another and a hoodie it was easy to stay out the full hour. At the end of the dive we turned off our torches and made "fluo-angels" in the water, with the fluorescence shooting off our moving arms and legs. It was like a show of underwater fireworks, a very appropriate ending to a great night dive.

Tatawa Kecil used to be my favorite dive site when we first came here in 1995, but the reef had been damaged 5 years later, around 2000, so I stopped diving it cause it was just too devastating to remember what used to be there. Over the last decade however, many colorful coral colonies started to come back and hard coral is growing so fast in these rich waters, that these have almost completely covered the North Eastern site of Tatawa Kecil again. Great reports by Rod Salm over the years made me want to dive it again. It's truly a stunning dive with the overhangs at the west site, and the huge coral boulders build up on the northern point, which marks the start of a coral garden so colorful and so packed with angel fish, butterflies, damsels and basslets, that its dizzying to look at. I just had to stick to one position and hang there quietly for 30 minutes to take it all in. This is a great way to see how the different fish use the reef and interact with each other, as they do all the time. The group of black snappers from the western side, followed us to the northern point when the current picked up and they were hanging very near me in the current and were soon joined by trevallies and schools of fuseliers. Again an exhilarating dive and so fantastic to see the new growth of hard corals.

At Manta Alley, we would do two dives and even as the water would be so cold, we suited up excitedly as chances to see mantas were good. Karl in his dive briefing did not want to jinx it though and only referred to the "big black animals starting with an M" but he jokingly referred to the chance to see a mola mola... What a laugh I had underwater when we did not encounter one single manta for the first part of our dive, but instead swam with the largest mola mola for 10 full minutes from the moment we hit the water. Amazing! The animal was SO large, this fish is SO oddly shaped, and yet SO gracious. At the end of the dive, we did see several mantas as well as a large hawksbill turle, and the reef with it's schools of yellow snappers and large bumpheads and millions of red basslets was just stunning as well. The second dive turned into a snorkel with little Laura, and at German flag we swam with 6 mantas for a long time, and again at manta alley we saw another 6 or 7 below us, fantastic! It could not have been better, never mind the cold water. Onwards Seven Seas went to Padar where the group dived three sisters and we went to some of the beaches, and played a great game of volley ball on Pantars' pink beach until the sun went down.

My last dive of the trip was again at Pulau Pengah Kecil, I think it is now my most favorite reef site in komodo. When we entered the water we had the last of the upwelling water with lots of food in it, and all the basslets, damsels and lots of slender wrasses were out in the water column, feeding frantically. Swimming through swarms of them down to only 12 meter for the rest of the dive, we saw a herd of large bumphead parrots, lots of nudibranchs, a sea snake, a hawksbill turtle stoned high from eating some sponges, crocodile fish and just stunning hard coral formations completely cramped in between soft corals, giant clams, sponges and what not. Incredible fans and soft corals right up to the surface on this site. For me the best way to end the trip, on a high with lots of fish and an amazing variety of corals and colors!

Lida Pet-Soede
WWF Coral Triangle Program Leader
July 2012

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