Seven Seas with Ili Wariran - by Karl Klingeler

The Seven Seas News - October 2014

Komodo to East of Flores - a 3 week adventure on the Seven Seas

Trip Report by Lida Pet
Photos by Lida Pet, Karl Klingeler and Craig Kirkpatrick
Videos by Jane Rovins and Linda Johnston.

The area that we would explore lies within the center of the Coral Triangle, a world-renowned marine biodiversity hotspot encompassing 1.6 billion acres (approximately half the size of the United States) at the confluence of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Coral Triangle region is a global conservation priority, providing habitat for 76 percent of known coral species, over 3,000 fish species, and numerous species of marine turtles, cetaceans, and sharks. The area's vast marine resources are critical for both economic- and food security; they sustain the lives of more than 130 million coastal residents and supply global markets, providing a range of goods and services that include wild-catch fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, coastal protection, and transport.

Our journey starting in Komodo and going east aligns with a string of large and often active volcanoes - part of a true Ring of Fire. Komodo is famous for its stunning dive sites, the large island of Flores is known for its excellent coffee, and the lesser known remote islands of Lembata and Alor host small human settlements who still sustain their remarkable traditional cultures and artwork. Some of the smaller islands are just inhabited by seabirds.

Booby Bird on the Seven Seas
This booby took a nights rest at one of the ropes of the Seven Seas rigging. Boobies like this are known to inhabit the small bird islands that are mere pinnacles in the Banda Sea such as Swanggi and Gunung Api. Tuna fishers roaming the same waters have reportedly started to catch these beautiful birds as they sit exhausted from their feeding and make easy targets. Islands such as Pulau Manuk are dubbed Pulau Ayam or chicken island, and unfortunately the current breeding population status of these birds is now uncertain.
Komba Volcano
Komba Volcano spews lava, smoke and rocks every 10 to 20 minutes. The sound coming from the innards of Mother Earth is hard to describe and instills respect and awe for this display of the power of nature.

The natural exchange of waters in this part of Indonesia brings a wealth of nutrients, drawing whales, dolphins, rays and sharks. It is also a spawning area, nursery ground, and migratory pathway for valuable commercial species such as tuna, groupers and snappers. The large variety of coastal and marine habitats around all the islands, has allowed biodiversity to explode over hundreds of years and the number of coral species and fish species has been recorded by scientists as extremely high.

The local coastal communities make a humble living limited by the relative dry climate, and working the bare lands for some simple vegetables - corn and different legumes - and they do some animal husbandry. Most men from coastal settlements engage in fishing and they use a myriad of different fish gears, some of which have served their communities well for hundreds of years.

The women on the eastern islands are quiet weavers of Ikats which have gained appropriate fame for their remarkable intricate patterns and their continued use of traditional dyes made from different roots, bark and other natural products.

Women at Aboi tribe with their weavings

Komodo National Park - the first week

Komodo National Park was established for its Komodo dragon, but since nearly 20 years now, the diversity of marine life has started to lure foreign and domestic tourists. The strong currents in Komodo support the rich diversity of the reefs, as they create upwelling of the colder nutrient rich deep water to the surface and provide a natural resiliency against some impacts of climate change on the coral reef ecosystems.

Komodo Dragons
Manta

Over the years, the management of Komodo National Park, led by the Indonesian National Park Authority and supported by The Nature Conservancy has seen important periods of effective protection of the reefs from destructive and illegal practices such as dynamite and cyanide fishing.

Supported by a park management and zonation plan, designed with support of TNC through extensive consultation with local communities, the implementation of management should be a standard affair, with sufficient financial resources - both from national government budget as well as from user fees through the park entrance tickets. Unfortunately, as local government and park authority assumed their respective roles around the management plan, effective management has suffered. It appears that the development of dive and related tourism is one of the most significant reasons that some of the reefs are ranking amongst the world's top dive sites.

Our trip started from Labuan Bajo on the westernmost tip of the island of Flores. I always love going to Komodo as it's reassuring to know that we will have some guaranteed amazing and fishy dives. After diving here yearly since 20 years, there is still not a single dive where I don't see something new and exciting.

This time, Castle Rock in the North of the Park performed perfectly. Just at the start of a slack between tides, we went down and were met by large schools of fusiliers encircling us at about 10 m depth. It was super exciting to be in the middle of such a school when the packs of trevally started hunting through it.

I could not see Patrick and Jane who were hanging less than 10 meters away from me because they were completely surrounded by fish. It's like a shock wave that you feel resonate in your body when the black colored jacks all of a sudden go into high-gear and hunt some fish down. White reef sharks and Napoleon wrasse all join in the feast and it's a wild feeding frenzy for just about 10-15 seconds. Then relative tranquility returns for some 10 or so minutes only to start all over again.

Moving deeper down, we spotted 2 medium sized grey reef sharks and many of the large groupers which were displaying mating and spawning behavior. I saw a pair of Plectropomus areolatus meet up in full spawning coloration - with strongly pronounced white patches and articulated line patterns on their shiny bodies. During the next 30 seconds, they swam up twisting and circling around each other in some slow motion tango dance and only a few meters from the sea surface they released eggs and sperm. This was taken away immediately by the surface currents ripping over Castle Rock into the pelagic water zone, to form embryonic larvae and settle as tiny baby groupers a few weeks from now on some other reef in or near Komodo National Park.

A new dive, or rather an extension to the well-known "Fish Bowl" dive, turned out to be a great new find. "Fish Bowl", between Gili Lawa Laut and Gili Lawa Darat has a rather large reef extending deep into the channel. While Jos dived it some 15 years ago as part of the work by The Nature Conservancy to help the park authorities develop the protected area zonation and management plan, he did not remember it well.

We started the dive as usual on the western side of the channel enjoying the beautiful coral bommies covered in little cardinal fish and surrounded by hundreds of sand eels in the white sand. After enjoying the schooling snapper and drummers in the "chimney" we swam through the actual "bowl" where we met with a large white tip reef shark. Soon we had to move closer to the surface as the current pushed us over the little ridge. Exhilarating! We spotted some manta rays next to us as we drifted by at high speed and were spewed out some hundred meters further on an expansive and beautiful patch reef. As the current receded, Craig and me floated slowly over the reef which was packed with soft corals and sea fans and I saw yet more groupers gathering to mate and reproduce.

On the way south we dived Batu Bolong, which I had only snorkeled the past few years and we circled the impressive rock formation in full. Cannibal Rock in Horse shoe bay was again a stunner and wearing double dive suits, hoods and gloves, all of us spend our full dive times taking in the colors and diversity of some of the weirdest critters in Komodo.

There were not a lot of other boats around so we were lucky to have access to most of the remaining mooring buoys in the park, but the availability of good mooring buoys clearly needs to be improved. Some 10 new locations for moorings were recently identified based on the patterns in use of anchor sites by the various types of tourism vessels around the areas of Pantai Merah (Pink Beach), Loh Buaya (Rinca Island), North Komodo and Manta Reef. Later in October, installation of these new mooring buoys and upgrading the old ones has been scheduled by the park authority. We hope that the authority will engage the dive industry in regular checking and cleaning of the moorings going forward.

As we started hiking up Gili Lawa Darat, it was wonderful to see how the recent beach clean-up by local tourism and dive operators indeed made the beaches look as they should, clean and pristine and hearing that a total of 1800 m³ was collected earlier this month from beaches around Labuan Bajo, it did appear that there was slightly less plastic and waste on some of the more remote beaches as well. We had some great late afternoon beach walks with little Patrick finding us the biggest hermit crabs.

Traveling East - The second week

Leaving Komodo National Park and traveling east overnight, the sea was smooth as a mirror. We woke up from shouts by the crew over big pots of dolphins and other black fish. One pot turned out to be Cuvier beaked whales. Normally so very shy, they swam in front of the Seven Seas bow for a few seconds but once we all had scrambled our cameras together they moved just at the edge of our vision and boat reach. We had surprised each other with that special encounter and all onboard felt we had entered a new chapter of our itinerary.

I found the entire area around Alor really special. While the land is dry and the volcanoes quite active, there is something very mellow and friendly about this area. The land excursion from the main town of Kalabahi to the Aboi community, local market and the small museum is perfect for purchasing some traditional handicraft artwork and to capture some of the beautiful people and local atmosphere in pictures. The dances and ikats of the Aboi tribe tell old stories of life in their very simple and traditional settlement.

Some of Alor's fishers' target tunas with hook and line and troll the entry to the bays with their colorful boats in the afternoons, while others fish around Fish Attracting Devices anchored in the deep blue. Others place bamboo traps on the reefs, and it is surprising how little damage these traps sustain to the coral. The few trapped colorful fish however, do not make up a very big meal.

There are lots of dive and snorkeling sites around Alor and the variety in habitats and underwater geography is just amazing. We dived one site that was fully covered with different species of anemones, stretching out for hundreds of meters and jam-packed with little fish. One of the wall dives just 20 meters from one of the villages was a soft-coral and sponge heaven. I cannot remember any other dive of the past 20 years so filled with different sponges, all shapes and colors, growing on top of each other. As Carolyn did her first open water dive with instructor Karl, her pink dive suit color-coded perfectly with the other crazy colors on the reef! The deeper part of another of the Alor reefs had us swim on top of some 20 eagle rays elegantly moving in formation past Linda and back and forth along the deeper part of the reef.

As expected, in the mornings and afternoons we saw large pods of black fish. Several hundreds of dolphins, melon head and false killer whales apparently play and hunt together and they especially love swimming along the bow of the Seven Seas or the speed boats. All excited now, our group made a plan to move to deeper water the next day and try and find the Sperm whales that this area is so famous for.

Approaching the 2000 and 3000 m ocean depth lines, some of us spotted some possible whales but the spouts were few and far between. We moved around the various GPS weigh points where Seven Seas had been lucky during previous trips and while we saw a Sail fish surfacing and smashing the water in an encircling movement to "bowl-up" a big school of bait fish while its mates swam deeper below, we did not get anywhere near the whales until after lunch.

But then everything changed. As we got into the speedboats with snorkel and camera gear at the ready, we immediately found a pot of orcas! First we thought that the blackfish were pilot whales but we all screamed when we saw a female jump out very near to place herself between us and her calf. The white mask was unmistakable, and while some of us were trying to remember whether it was a good or bad idea to jump in the water with orcas, Alex was already hanging off the back of the speed boat and came face-to-face with an orca in the next 5 seconds! Hearts racing, we then spend the rest of the afternoon in a relatively small area moving between small groups of sperm whales that were slowly moving around, where the females would take turns looking after the calves who would stay near the surface as the others would deep dive to catch and munch on large squid.

Photo by Craig Kirkpatrick

The moving slowed down even further near sun-set as the whales started 'logging' and we could get really close to groups of 4-8 huge whales. This was the moment to try out something new and Jos and me stepped into a kayak and paddled slowly out to one of the groups of logging whales. Not at all disturbed by us, we came in touching distance and quietly I slipped into the water and inched my way closer to the 3 whales. They looked at me and very slowly slipped a bit deeper moving quietly away from me. Too dark at that time for my point-and-shoot camera we decided to try that again the next day.

The second day we did a dive first assuming the whales would be diving a lot to feed in the morning and just after lunch we saw groups of whales indeed staying longer at the surface. Trying the kayak-trick again, we managed to get closer and closer to the whales and this time with the sun still high, I managed to take some photos up close and Craig sat first row to an amazing display of a sperm whale breaching very closely to us 3 times!

It's hard to describe the experience, the photos barely do it justice. It's scary, exciting and awesome all at the same time to slide in the water next to the largest predators in this part of the oceans with nothing between you and these 9-15 m beasts but a small underwater camera.

Sperm Whales
Melon Head Whales

The young whale tried to figure out what I was and swam slowly towards me with its head slightly tilted. The mother or auntie that was closest to me, moved slowly out of the way and let me come real close to the youngster. Not sure where the large female was, but getting her bubbles from underneath, I slowly drifted towards the others and heard Jos say "watch the tail, watch the tail" but there was nothing I could do, I was too close to move my legs and completely out of control of my movement. Then both remaining whales, just slid a bit deeper and all I could do when they were out of sight, was cry. From relief and from having had this unimaginable experience and contact with these magnificent sea creatures.

Exploring New Sites - the third week

After the amazing encounters with the orcas and sperm whales, we felt much confident to slip in the water with these animals and snorkeled with a large mixing group of melon head whales, false killer whales and spinner dolphins. The anchor site in Kalabahi bay is a perfect starting point for this. Maurice was real lucky as he swam on the "highway" having several hundred blackfish speeding closely underneath him on their way out of the bay for a day of feeding.

We decided to explore some of the lesser known dive sites, most of which Mark Heighes and Jos and Benjamin Kahn had just discovered in the past year along the southern side of the large islands, with cold water. We dived at one of the best muck black sand sites in the region and spend hours marveling around weird critters and Lina and me marveled at some of the tiniest fiery red scorpion fish ever.

I loved the huge variety of different dive sites here, most of the reefs looking pristine with fantastic coral cover and large numbers of fish small and large. I especially liked the dive that reminded me of south Komodo, with large rock formations, but in this location, the rocks are 150% covered with live hard and soft corals, sponges and sea fans. As if that was not enough, our group found a good size wobbegong shark, such an unexpected find as we thought these sharks are limited in range to Papua and Australia. Overwhelming and just too much to take in during one dive.

Crazy critters
Wobbegong Shark

There were several of these dive sites along the south and they were all bursting with life, the sun on the reef made me dizzy and produced some fantastic photographs also when I was just snorkeling. The sea conditions were just perfect and we could explore different parts of the different dive sites, most of them were so expansive that depending on the current and tides, one could easily do 2-3 complete 60 minute dives at one place



 


After several days of stunning dives and beautiful sun-set scenery, we went up north and entered warmer waters again. Snorkeling with Alex in the mangroves and around a Fish Attracting Device got us some different experiences and pictures and a shallow dive in a sandy habitat resulted in some great encounters with leafy ghost pipefish, fields of swaying sand eels, and at least 3 different species of the elusive sand divers.

With several gigabytes of yet again different underwater magic, we decided to go back to Komba Volcano and explore it's underwater scenery during the day. What a surprise: the slopes are packed with some of the most mature hard coral colonies that I have seen fully intact since many years. Several hundreds of years old, the Porites spp and other coral bommies were larger than all of us lined up, and waterfalls of millions of little blue and pink fish streamed over the slopes - against the current and against us. Craig named one of these sites "Alice in wonderland" and indeed that's how we felt, made small in a huge miracle forest of old coral heads with a gazillion of fish and other creatures peeking up to us, not at all shy to examine us back. During lunch the crew managed to safe a turtle that was entangled in a discarded fishing net. Luckily the turtle was not wounded and swam away quickly when we released it.

The afternoon dive, got me face to face with a group of dogtooth tuna, the leader of them so curious that he came closer and closer to allow me some blue water pictures of its powerful and shiny bullet-like shape. With the clouds of those blue and pink fish streaming all around me, I saw its dorsal fin go up and within a nanosecond all the fish' power exploded as the tuna burst into the bait schools. I narrowly escaped being accidentally taken for a substantive meal! We came up with the roar and rumble of the volcano resounding through us and breaking the surface, we saw the most stunning white smoke and ash puff from the latest eruption of Komba.



Another surprising find was the shark ridge. The submerged reef sits between 10-18 m and has the highest density of reefs sharks that I have seen in Indonesia. Heavily targeted for their fins, sharks are a rare sight underwater, but here we saw many sub-adult black tips and a couple of adult and even pregnant white tip reef sharks. Sitting quietly in the sand next to one of their resting spots, we are in touching distance of these amazing animals. They are so fast and swimming straight up to me and swishing past me, I can't get my shutter to work fast enough but some of the pictures turn out alright. The other dives in the area near the underwater reef ridge also proved to be filled with sharks and rays. It looks like this area has not yet been found by the shark fishers and we hope that it can be turned in a formal protected shark sanctuary soon.

Not far from the dive sites we have cocktails on an idyllic white sand spit and celebrate Alex 60th dive, 50 of which were onboard Seven Seas during this trip.



As the sun goes down, we sip our drinks while tens of thousands of fruit bats quietly swish over our heads flying to Adonara and Flores for their nightly feeding and all I can think about is "the Seven Seas life is really very, very good".

Lida Pet
October 2014


» Click here to see what our guests had to say about this trip.



Komodo and East of Flores - The full video!

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