The Seven Seas News - November 2012
Exploring the Deep South of Komodo, October 2012
Trip Report by Mark Heighes
During the month of October, the South East trade winds that blow relentlessly across Eastern Indonesia start to ease as the transitional period begins before the winds change to the North West. While the dry season comes to an end and the wet is about to begin (with "wet" being relative of course, in Komodo), the cool, murky and nutrient rich waters of the south are flooded with warm clear currents. The underwater world down south changes rapidly during this time. Its inhabitants start preparing for the changing conditions as the new season approaches. This is a great time to make observations on behavior and witness unusual events in the marine environment here. For many species of reef fish this is the beginning of the spawning season, when some fishes form dense aggregations and display color changes, territorial behavior and of course the act of spawning. This is also my favorite time to explore the Indonesian seas.
In 2010 during our first 24 day trip dedicated to exploring the Forgotten Islands (in the South Eastern Banda Sea) we planned a trip with Nancy McGee to explore and gain a greater understanding of the southern regions of Komodo and it's neighboring islands. So I guess you could say that I have had 2 years to think about the areas I wanted to visit and exactly how we are going to go about it.
The first ingredient we need for a successful expedition like this is a group of like minded guests with a sense of adventure and a willingness to make most of any situation. Nancy could help out there and as usual she was keen to break new ground, just as we did on the first Forgotten Islands trip 2 years ago.
A capable boat and crew always helps, especially manning the dive tenders as you are never certain of what's going to happen during exploratory dives or exactly where you might end up surfacing. Another handy ingredient is to have a good plan A, with plans B and C up your sleeve. If one gets to plan C it's probably time to get out of where ever you are and cover some distance overnight, to another location.
On October 7, 2012, Nancy and the guests arrived in Labuan Bajo, the now not so sleepy village which is the gateway to Komodo. All luggage is intact and on time. The boat and crew are ready to go and the excitement of a voyage into the unknown is contagious. We sailed for a nearby island for a checkout dive and then on to Komodo to do a day of diving on some old favorites and very fishy sites. We then repositioned the Seven Seas and anchored near the northern entrance of the notorious Molo Strait, off the small village of Rinca.
Early the next morning at first light we would make our dash south with the turning of the tide and transit the passage with the Seven Seas for the first time. Molo Strait is a very narrow passage between Flores and Rinca. The tidal flow in the passage reaches speeds of up to 14 knots creating massive whirlpools and cross currents that can has smash vessels against its rocky shores. To complicate matters even further the passage it has a small island situated right in the middle.
The passage has claimed the lives of many seafarers in the past, attempting to take the short cut to the south to save about 35 miles. Only last year a cargo vessel carrying rice lost control, hit the island, and went down taking the lives of 3 crew members who were reported to have been sucked down in a whirlpool and never seen again. We awoke the next morning after a somewhat restless sleep to find our predictions were correct and had a gentle push through the narrows at the onset of the falling tide. It is all about timing in Komodo...
By 7 am we had dropped anchor and I was off scouting for suitable locations. We were in an area that is only accessible during favorable weather conditions and it didn't take long to find a productive site. By 8 am we were underwater breaking new ground in an extremely rich marine environment.
It's actually easy to tell when you are diving in a place that has never been dived before. The fish are absolutely terrified and dash for cover at first sight of the strange creatures with shiny metal cylinders, hoses everywhere, a wall of bubbles spouting out, brightly colored fins, and one eyed appendages that have lights and flash from time to time.
We had 3 great day dives and a good night dive all in new sites and the group agreed that these new sites are all keepers. The only let down for me was the visibility, however that did not worry anyone else in the group as the macro photography was excellent. October is just the beginning of the North West season and there can be still a lot of plankton in the water. All the soft corals were out of course.
The weather conditions were still good so the next morning we pushed out further to the south east along the coast of Flores in the hope of finding better visibility in deeper water. After passing some formidable looking coastline with high current and steep cliffs we entered a protected area and found an anchorage behind a headland that looked promising for exploration. The water was clearer and about midway through the second dive a gin-clear warm water current moved into the area.
Here we discovered quite an unusual location. The first two dives had us witnessing some very strange behavior. The first was a ribbon eel free swimming. I actually followed the eel for 20 minutes trying to figure out what it was doing. It seemed to be feeding like a sea snake foraging for food. Next thing I noticed was several Spotted Morays laying around in the open and totally exposed. One particular individual was lying on its side and as I swam by it lifted its head, looked at me and then put its head back down casually, just like a lazy dog would do. I had never seen a Spotted Moray in Komodo and we were still relatively close to our regular dive sites. It was almost as if we had crossed some sort of boundary.
Shortly after, to my horror, I saw what I thought was a blue spotted ray eating another of its kind. But after some observation I realized they were mating. Meanwhile somewhere behind me Tommy and Irwan our spotters were having a field day and there was a lot of tank tapping going on. Forty five minutes into the dive most of the group had only moved about 50 meters from the entry point. Not me, I was off on my own, striding ahead, to cover as much ground as possible and creating a dive profile that someone of my experience should be ashamed of.
It's kind of like a kid in a candy shop for the first time. Not knowing what's around the next corner under that ledge, how deep that cave goes or what's lurking inside. I actually have to keep telling myself to calm down as one seems to get an endless supply of energy darting up and down and swimming effortlessly into head currents that would otherwise have me exhausted and retreating on any other known location. The excitement of stumbling across uncharted wrecks and treasure always in the back of one's mind.
By the end of the day we had 4 more new sites logged and a list of places to check the next day but a stiff southwesterly wind was developing so we left and had a bumpy ride back to the safety of the previous night's anchorage. The next morning at first light we headed for South East Rinca. The southwesterly was generating some swell so it was plan B. I knew there was one good site close to a good anchorage that was flat calm In these conditions. Dragons on the beach and nobody else around as this part of the park is hardly ever visited by anyone but squid fishermen from Rinca village.
As it turned out plan B paid off big time. We found some cool places but the highlight was not discovered until 2 pm that day while i was out scouting for a location for our 3rd dive of the day. Earlier on that morning while scouting around for the first dive, I had noticed a few big mantas with beautiful white markings on their backs. They were scattered around and moving quickly so there was no use trying to work with them.
But at 2 pm the clear and gin clear current I experienced the previous day had kicked in again and been running for a while. It had pushed all the manta food up into the bay right next to the one we were anchored in. So the Mantas were all right next door and the best news was that they were not the Mantas we know so well here in Komodo, the Reef Mantas… These mantas were the little known Oceanic Manta. The biggest recorded wing span of an Oceanic Manta is 9 meters. That's wider than the Seven Seas. The mouth on an animal like that must be about 3 meters wide. Just to put it in perspective for you that's big enough for a snorkeler to accidentally go down in there sideways. That snorkeler could even have those long free diving fins on and still not touch the sides of the mantas mouth...
As a result of my earlier ramblings I was starting to feel a little exhausted, so I decided to skip the dive and take one of the guests, who was also giving the dive miss due to sinus problems, on an attempt to snorkel with the mantas. This was very successful. Not only did we get close encounters with the Oceanics but we also had a big school of the smaller pelagic Mobula Rays that fly in squadrons through the sea. They were breaking the surface in big groups, flapping around madly, and it looked like they were trying to leave the ocean and fly into the air. This was so good we decided to stay another day in the hope that we could get some good identification shots for the people that research these animals.
We awoke the next morning to find a big Manta doing loops of the bow of the Seven Seas. It was moving fast and not workable but this was a good sign. The animals were still around. Now we could only hope that they would perform for us again that afternoon. We found and dove some cool sites in the meantime. That afternoon the Oceanic Manta numbers were down from the previous day but the ones that remained gave us a spectacular show we would never forget. And moreover, the Mobulas had actually increased in numbers. Nancy and her brother Bill had a squadron of 30 to 40 around them while shooting an oceanic. Needless to say, everyone was ecstatic and shot incredible footage.
We ended the day with a great night dive and headed for the famous Horse Shoe Bay and legendary site of Cannibal Rock in South Rinca. Here we spent 2 fabulous days. We had the place to ourselves as most of the dive liveaboard fleet was by now crossing the Banda Sea on their way to Raja Ampat. This was just what we had hoped for of course. I'm not even going to try and list the cool stuff we saw, all I can say is that it was very productive for all the photographers.
After South Rinca it was on to South Padar where we went to dive a few favorite sites but the vis there was not good. In the afternoon we trekked across the island for sunset cocktails on arguably one of the world's most beautiful beaches.
The next day early morning we went trekking with some park rangers on Komodo Island and then moved south to Manta Alley for some Reef Manta action. After that the plan was to continue South West around Lankoi Island and then on to West Komodo in search of clear water. We found it and it was here that we experienced the most amazing water temperature variation I have ever experienced. It was 18 degrees Celcius on dive entry and 27 on exit.
That afternoon I found an incredible and very fragile hard coral garden which we revisited the next day to explore and photograph. Then we headed North and I revisited an area that I had surveyed 20 years ago but that was damaged at that time. Wow was I surprised. It was actually one of the most beautiful places we visited on the trip. Amazing how quick an area can come back if it's left alone.
We finished off the trip in style with more critters. Nancy had put in a request for Harlequin Shrimp. Tommy thought he might know where to find them so off we went. The first dive was unsuccessful. The pressure was on so we did another dive and Irwan found 2 Harlequins plus lots of other critters. It never ceases to amaze me just how good our dive guides are at spotting critters. What amazes me even more is the fact that they seem to be getting even better as time goes on.
There is no better way to end a trip than a sunset dinner barbie on the beach and a big thank you to all involved, great music from the crew band , excellent food and wine while making plans for what exotic locations we will be exploring with Nancy on her next trip. 1981 was the first year I visited Indonesia and started to explore the country's vast underwater world. I find it quite incredible that today I'm still doing the same thing as we continue to break new ground in an effort to learn and fully understand the hidden treasures that lay beneath the seas of this archipelago.
Do it first on the Seven Seas. Where we go, the others will be sure to follow...