Reflections on Komodo

Image: SVII-S diver swims through a school of Lunar Wrasse as he finishes the survey at Batu Bolong, a site known for its dangerous currents.


UNESCO World Heritage Site

The initial drive to protect the region of Komodo was to protect the “living dinosaur” that makes these arid islands home. In 1986 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve that now encompasses all the biodiversity of the area, marine, terrestrial and cultural. We have wrapped up our work in the Park for now and the team is back in Australia just beginning to sort through the thousands of images that we collected during our survey.


Komodo is an incredibly diverse destination, very sparsely populated with diving conditions that vary from the cool, plankton filled waters of the south, to clear, warm colourful seas in the North, depending on the season in which you visit. We experienced shallow, black volcanic slopes with sands literally warmed by the active volcano that they circle. Hot gasses filtering through the reef create curtains of small bubbles on the dive site. The occasional rumble from deep within the Earth’s crust and the unusually warm seas are another reminder of the magma wells that lurk just beneath the rock.


Abundance and bidiversity of marine life

It is not just the sheer variety of marine life that impresses but the abundance too. Not just one or two of each species but schools of fish and multiple pairs of iconic species, like Angelfish, living in close proximity. On most sites there are clouds of Antheas and Damselfish in the shallows amongst the schools of herbivores. There are multitudes of Wrasse, Idols and Butterflyfish, Clown Triggerfish around every corner. Hunting Trevally cut swathes through feeding schools on the reef edge and aggregations of Snapper and Batfish form on the turn of the tide. On the reef slopes, fields of soft corals and hydroids and meadows of seagrass provide habitat for an assortment of unusual critters.


Deep in the South we visited a very special site known as a meeting point for Manta Rays, both Reef and Pelagic. As the current raged through a reef pass we saw many dark outlines of giant Manta feeding on the surface, their fin tips sticking out of the water. It was an incredible sight. In April, the waters are green with plankton and chilly even with a 5mm wetsuit on. Here we spent a couple of hours in the company of these incredible and very curious giants. The highlight was time spent in the surf zone at the end of our last dive when the rays cruised past repeatedly in single file, again and again, eyeballing us and uncurling their cephalic fins in a kind of greeting.


Strong currents promoting coral health and complexity

Komodo is justifiably famous for its currents with masses of water channelling through from the Indian Ocean to the Flores Sea. In the South East monsoon season the flow can reach eight knots. During our trip the ships Captain had to time vessel movements with the tide or we might have gone backwards through some narrow channels. This is great news for coral health but brings it own set of issues for divers, especially ones pushing around large camera systems! When you see schooling fish hiding amongst the reef structure and not feeding in the current you know it’s a strong one. When your bubbles defy the laws of physics and cascade down into the abyss it can be very dangerous for divers. On some of the sites we planned to stop in the current but were simply unable to find any substrate without life on to hold onto. 


The reefs of Komodo are also remarkable for their complexity. The closer you look, the more detail you see. It all seems infinite. A Mantis Shrimp scurries for cover holding its bright orange eggs to its chest. Nudibranches crawl, perfectly camouflaged, looking for ascidians to feed on. Animals pulse with glowing circulatory systems. Tiny red isopods, smaller than ants, cluster on sponges. In every anemone you might find a variety of shrimp and other symbiotic life, on every coral branch, a small crustacean. Bright blue starfish are draped over the whole scene. It is a riot of colour and life. Fingers of fluorescent coral poke out beside magnificent anemones and giant pink brain corals burst from the reef slope. There are massive barrel sponges the size of a man, fields of Staghorn, bright blue living sponge sculptures and clusters of seasquirts of every colour. Even the dead corals have been colonized by encrusting algaes. Every piece of real estate is spoken for.


Creating a baseline record of the reefs

So we leave Komodo after a week of this visual feast.  We are completely blown away by the diving and fatigued by the physicality of pushing the camera system through the currents. However there were sites that we visited both within the Park boundaries and on other islands that showed heavy damage from what looked to be dynamite. We heard stories of sites being fished with this destructive technique in the off-season. We photographed areas of reef that had been reduced from beautiful coral gardens to algae covered rubble. There were also the usual stories from long-term residents of how things were in the good old days. This just goes to show how important it is to create a concrete visual record of these reefs so the health of an area can be measured in real terms and not just on first impressions. During our two week survey we completed 29 dives on 23 different sites from Bali to Komodo, took over 16,500 photographs and spent a total of 25 hours underwater.


We would like to thank Reto Schlaepfer, our Trip Director, for helping us to dive our equipment on all these notorious sites through a combination of impeccable timing, and his huge personal experience diving the wicked currents of Komodo National Park. The fantastic crew of S/S Adelaar also went out of their way to help us achieve our mission.