27 June 2007

Komodo's Natural Fascinations

The Jakarta Post, June 26, 2007

Thousands of flying foxes lingered in the sky; fishes of various colors swam languorously in blue sea water; while small waves rippled through mangrove trees on a tiny island. In the background, speedboats and motorized boats, mostly ferrying foreign tourists back to their hotels that afternoon, charged through high waves between white-sanded islets dotting the park's marine water.

As the sun sank deeper into the sea, some flying foxes came closer to the passing speedboats. "Catch me if you can," they seemed to tease.

Welcome to Komodo National Park in West Manggarai regency, East Nusa Tenggara province.

You would be forgiven to think the 1,817 square kilometer park in the heart of Wallacea has nothing more but the Komodo dragon (varanus komodoensis) to offer. After all, most tourism books and promotional leaflets have focused on the endangered species.

The truth is, while the unique dragon remains its main draw, the national park, established in 1980, is pregnant with fascinating natural attractions -- and watching roaring flying foxes is just one of them.

Next time you come to Komodo National Park make sure you tell your guide to drop by a mangrove islet off Rinca village so you can see thousands of flying foxes migrating in droves.

The birds usually leave their caves on Rinca Island at daybreak for the mangrove island, where they spend the day sleeping. They fly back to their caves at sunset to look for food.

The routine voyage becomes a unique fascination as the birds fly back and fro, up and down, in roaring sound before perching on mangrove trees or heading back to their caves. If you happen to leave the place just shortly after dusk, some flying foxes would fly next to your speedboat -- traveling with you for half your trip home, as if to see you off.

A similar spectacle is found at a mangrove islet off Komodo village, where you can watch flying foxes dangling on mangrove trees during day time. If you are an adventurer, negotiating high waves on the way to and from Rinca and Komodo islands, where the endangered Komodo dragons are mostly found, is another thrill in the park, particularly if you hire a speedboat.

Hold tight and be ready to get wet when your speedboat cruises through successive walls of waves. The waves normally do not exceed one meter in height, but are enough to drive your adrenalin especially if you are running the speedboat at a high speed.

One advice, though, hire an experienced skipper familiar with the routes and the characteristics of the park's sea current to avoid bumping into submerged rock mountains.

During the northwest monsoon season from November to February, for example, the waves in the northern end of the park tend to be larger than in the southern end, while during the southeast monsoon between June and August, waves in the southern end tend to be larger than in the northern end.

Waves tend to be largest in the July, which may be too dangerous for small boats to travel. On the way to and from Rinca and Komodo, you would pass by small limestone islands -- so many it's tempting to think each visitor to the park could enjoy an island each.

Most of the islands appear like hills rising majestically from the sea, some with long white-sanded beaches. The islets are generally young, oceanic volcanic islands that are constantly changing by rising, eroding and subsiding into the sea. Privacy and serenity are guaranteed here -- no people live on those small islands, making them ideal places for your personal retreat.

The deep tranquility is broken only by small ripples of waves smashing into the islands' pristine white beaches. Go to any point in the park's marine area and chances are you would find yourself challenged to a race by rare or endangered marine animals.

There are around 1,000 species of fish in the park's water, including endangered and rare species such as dugongs, whales, dolphins, turtles and a number of other protected marine animals. Dolphins and whales make their presence felt by throwing themselves into the air, trailing behind your speedboat or motorized boats or just swimming in front.

An experienced skipper knows exactly where and when whales or dolphins usually appear. The real treat of your trip to Komodo National Park is perhaps its numerous diving and snorkeling sites scattering all over the park. Putri Naga Komodo (PNK), a private company in charge of managing the park since 2004, has identified at least 41 diving and snorkeling sites in and around the park.

Each diving and snorkeling site offers unique sightings and a different experience. (See diving and snorkeling sites in Komodo National Park) One of the frequently visited diving sites in the park is Pantai Merah on Komodo Island. Diving in Pantai Merah, or Pink Beach, you would find a great variety of fishes and a good selection of curious critters including leave scorpions fish, blue ribbon eels, crocodile fish and many more frolicking around colorful coral reefs.

It is called Pantai Merah because of abundant destroyed red coral reefs washed ashore. Until recently fishermen would come to fish in the area using destructive methods such as blasting and bombing. These which methods destroyed coral reefs there. Such practice has ceased thanks to rigorous law enforcement and a growing awareness among local fishermen to preserve the coral reefs.

Pantai Merah is also an excellent snorkeling site. There is a very good dive to be found around a small area of reef and a steep rocky wall, which is visible from the surface at low tide. It is also a very good night dive site and can offer excellent macro-photography opportunities.

Waters surrounding the islands in the park are also known to have a high diversity of marine life considered to be some of the richest on the planet. It's not at all surprising the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the park in 1986 as a World Heritage Site as well as a Man and Biosphere Reserve.

The park is home to at least 253 species of hard, reef-building corals which are scattered over an estimated 17 square kilometers. According to PNK, there are three different types of reefs in the park with fringing reefs, which grow along the edges of shorelines of land masses and islands, making up the bulk of it.

Most islands in the park are fringed with coral with patch reefs and seamounts also found in the park. Patch reefs are stand-alone reefs in areas with a shallow bottom -- they do not rise up past the surface of the water. They are mostly found in north-eastern side of Komodo island.

Seamounts, on the other hand, are submerged pinnacles encrusted with coral reef and there are a number of these types of reef around Komodo. Seamounts are a favored area for pelagic fish to congregate. If you decide to dive or snorkel in the park's marine area you must be accompanied by a master diver and even your master diver has to be guided by a local master diver who knows the sea's characteristics.

While the waters directly surrounding islands in the park are only between 30 and 100 meters deep, the Komodo National Park has some of the swiftest currents on the planet -- in fact they sometimes resemble a raging river. The park forms a bottleneck passage between two large deep bodies of water -- the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south.

During the rising tide, a vast amount of water moves south to the north, and during the falling tide, from north to the south. As the number of north-south water passages is very limited, an enormous volume of water is forced to travel through the park's narrow passages at a rapid rate, creating some of the strongest current in the world.

The good news is the strong currents and up-welling transport nutrient-rich waters throughout the park's marine area and support a wealth of diverse marine life. So although dangerous for divers, the strong currents ensure the existence of some of the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. Once of diving and snorkeling, you can drop by either Rinca or Komodo islands, where you are likely to be greeted by Komodo dragons, the park's ultimate attraction.

During a recent visit to Rinca, for example, our entourage was welcomed by a baby dragon hiding in a small cave near the gate leading to the information office. Trained guides are already ready to bring you around.

And finally, the world's heaviest living lizard comes hand in hand with the islands' ideal places for trekking. Along one of the most scenic walks in the world, you're likely to see Timor deer, wild boars, water buffaloes and wild horses.


Diving and snorkeling sites in Komodo park

While the Komodo dragon remains the ultimate draw of Komodo National Park, numerous diving and snorkeling sites in and around the park are equally fascinating. The following are some diving and snorkeling sites you cannot afford to miss when visiting the park.

1. Batu Saloka: Is part of a cluster of unchartered rocky islets and reefs off the point of Tanjung Saloka. The westernmost islet is an excellent dive spot, although it is very prone to currents and swell. The terrain is very dramatic. Some of the types of marine life you are likely to encounter include the Napoleon wrasse, big groupers, snappers, turtles, sharks and giant trevalies. The best time to dive is during low tide.

2. Letuhoh Reef: Extending south from Tanjung Letuboh, the reef offers some of the best big-fish diving in Komodo park. Big potato cod, gray reef sharks, eagle rays, turtles, dogtooth tuna and snapper can be found on this reef. The best time to dive is during a falling tide.

3. The Alley: Marked with large giant trevally, sharks, beautiful coral and a high diversity of other invertebrate life, this tiny collection of rock islands in the south of Komodo bay is a great place for snorkeling and diving. The site tends to be current-prone, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees Celsius at times.

4. Tanjung Loh Sera: There is superb diving all along the southern point of Loh Sera where you can see large pelagic fish such as dogtooth tuna circling off the point and around the pinnacles. Turtles, monster-sized giant trevallies, potato cod, malabar grouper, bumphead parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, manta rays and much more can be seen along the reef wall. Due to potentially strong currents, however, only experienced divers should attempt to swim in the pinnacles while beginner divers should stay along the wall.

5. Yellow Wall: Is an excellent day or night dive spot just inside the south-eastern corner of Loh Dasa Bay at Rinca Island. Considered one of the best snorkeling sites in Loh Dasami, Yellow Wall is the place to see invertebrate diversity, especially during a night dive. Walls are packed with an array of marine life and colors including colorful sea urchins, bright red sea apples, beautiful soft corals and a great variety of tunicates. Nighttime fish life include sleeping coral trout, cat sharks, many kinds of cardinal fishes and parrotfishes in their mucus cocoons, as well as sleeping turtles.

6. Boulders: Located on Nusa Kode, the boulders are a good night dive location. A torch is useful at this site. The dive begins with a forest of soft coral at 30 to 35 meters deep. Along the way to the boulders is a good location for finding fire urchins and Coleman shrimp. The boulders themselves display good coral, invertebrate and fish life. Quite often manta rays are also seen in this area.

7. Payung Island: It is an interesting underwater landscape with huge rocks. Fish and invertebrate life is diverse and there are big schools of surgeons and smaller yellow snappers (Lutjanus kasmira and L. Quinquelineatus). Rocky reefs are covered with soft coral gorgonians and feather stars. The southern and western sides of Payung Island offer the most interesting reef capes. Visibility is between 9.5 and 10 meters.

8. Tiga Dara: Tiga Dara -- literally means three sisters -- offers a pristine reef with excellent coral coverage and rich fish life.

9. Batu Bolong: A tiny rocky outcropping in the strait between Tatawa Kecil and Komodo Island, Batu Bolong is one of the top diving locations in the park, offering undamaged reefs thanks to strong currents and steep drop-offs that make it difficult for local fishermen to use dynamite and cyanide-fishing techniques. Sharks, Napoleon wrasse, giant trevally, dogtooth tuna, and rainbow runners are found in the area.

10. Tatawa Kecil: This small rocky islet southwest of Tatawa Besar island is an egret nesting site and a fantastic snorkel and dive site when the current is not too fast. Rocks, caves and beautiful coral gardens race the reef on the western side of the islet. Many coral reef fishes including large groupers, snappers, sweetlips, trevally and sharks can be seen. An amazing number of anthias swim among colorful fields of branching corals. Dugongs have also been spotted here and manta rays are often seen on the southern side of the island.

11. Castle Rock: Is a colorful dive with soft coral coverage. Clouds of anthias and schools of yellow-ribbon sweetlips are usually encountered while frogfish, moray eels and scorpion fish are also commonly seen. It's an excellent dive usually worth doing twice. It's called crystal rock because of the clear water surrounding it. The top of the site is exposed at low tide.

12. Darat Passage North: The slope is very rich in marine life and the sandy bottom at 15 meters deep is covered in garden eels. On the approach to the channel, turtles and schools of giant sweetlips that live in a grotto may be seen near the surface of the water. Parrotfish aggregate here to spawn annually around April. Sharks and batfish also reside in the passage. An excellent dive and good snorkeling can be found on the northern side of the channel between Gililawa Darat and Komodo Island.

13: Darat Passage South: Turtles can be seen on this coral reef. At 20 to 30 meters deep to the south of the point, many small coral trout, large schools of anchovies and small tuna and trevallies come in to feed in the bay. There is good snorkeling here, although a lot of damage has been done by bomb-fishing and reef gleaning.

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