Chasing Coral in Komodo

Where dragons hunt and currents fly…

I sat, eyes closed, surreptitiously breathing in one nostril and out the other, an exercise resurrected from a long-rusted yoga practice. The pilot of the small motorboat sped toward Batu Bolong, a rocky pinnacle in the Flores Sea that had been described moments before by our dive guide M. as “the most dangerous and the most beautiful dive site in Komodo National Park.” My gut was as uneasy as the sea.

“Are you meditating?” A fellow diver interrupted my inner flight from panic.

I opened my eyes and laughed, “Sort of. After that briefing, I’m a nervous wreck!”

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Briefing board before a dive at Batu Bolong

And I had just come from Ubud, Bali where the streets are filled with soul searchers and the cafés are awash in a din of enlightened chatter. It seemed the only thing to do: plumb my inner spirit for the gumption to jump off the boat.

My boat mate said, “You’ll be fine!”

“Well, I’ll be stuck to M. like glue anyway.”

Before traveling in Indonesia, I knew Komodo National Park only as the place that dragons live. And the park is home to Varanus komodoensis, giant lizards that slyly hunt and ferociously eat other creatures… when they are hungry. When they are sated, they lie fatly on the beach, posing for photos by gawking tourists. Or so I hear. I didn’t actually see the dragons while I was there, a spontaneous decision that involved a beast of a different kind… a man at port.

But that, my friends, is a story for another time…

Komodo National Park
Komodo Island

Komodo is much more than an enclave for its namesake and (mostly) terrestrial dragons; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve renowned for its unique marine diversity. The park is in part of the Indonesian archipelago where the Pacific and Indian oceans converge. Tides from both seas rush through straits and around an abundance of islands, from sizeable landmasses like Komodo and Rinca to pinnacles jutting just above the surface like Batu Bolong.

The resulting currents require diligence underwater and enough courage to jump off the boat, which as a nervous novice, I was having trouble mustering. Those same conditions, though, feed a beautiful ecosystem rich with coral and fish. And that was exactly why I was there.

I started my travels in Indonesia on the northeast coast of Bali. I had come from New Zealand, where I had been trekking, to crash a friend’s dive vacation. Instead of the usual Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, I carried only a loose plan to explore at whim until my 30-day tourist visa expired. From the northeast coast I traveled through the rice-terraced villages of Bali’s central hills, into artsy and expat-ridden Ubud, across the sea to the funky Gili Islands, and back to Ubud.

During my time underwater, I was delighted by the colorful diversity of Indonesia’s marine life—from sassy clown fish to fluorescently plumed nudibranchs, punch-packing mantis shrimp and intricately camouflaged scorpion fish. (Photos below by Timon Bogumil.)

Sadly, I also saw stretches of ocean floor carpeted with coral rubble—remnants of once thriving reef systems. I was told that some areas had been affected by severe tropical storms, but much of the damage was attributed to decades of blast fishing, a technique in which fishermen employ explosives to stun or kill fish. I headed to Komodo chasing rumors of expansive, unbroken reefs thriving with life.

Getting there seemed easy enough. One can reach the small port town of Labuan Bajo on Flores, a primary access point to the park, via air from Bali’s main hub of Denpasar. Tickets from local carriers like Lion Air can be purchased with little hassle online… unless you wait until the last minute and choose the option to pay by ATM.

This may seem obvious to the savviest of you travelers, but you can only pay for an airline ticket in Indonesia by ATM if you have an Indonesian bank account. Yes, duh. But I thought, ‘Oh that’s convenient,’ and I clicked. Hours later, after several phone calls, a few jogs around town, and a late afternoon downpour, I handed a wad of soggy cash over to a clerk at the Bali equivalent of a 7-Eleven, which as it happens, is another method of buying a plane ticket locally.

As glorious as the coral was said to be, I had heard mixed reports about dive operations in Labuan Bajo. Without a solid recommendation, I was left with online reviews and gut instinct. I chose a shop  that seemed lively and responsible enough and signed up for three nights on a no-frills boat about 2.5 hours away from the steaming port.

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The port town of Labuan Bajo

The following four days of diving were filled with a great deal of awe, a touch of terror, and loads of fun. My first experience at Batu Bolong was all of those things in one…

Batu Bolong is one of Komodo’s best-known dive sites because of the diversity of life teeming around the pinnacle. To dive at Batu Bolong is to be a tourist in a bustling fish metropolis. Of course, all that life is fed by speedy nutrient-filled seas, so just like navigating New York City at rush hour, you need to have your wits about you. You can’t just drop in and float around lolly-gagging at sea creatures.

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Batu Bolong, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Thus my search for inner calm. When it was finally time to venture in, I was feeling ready enough. Then I rolled backwards off the boat right into a thermocline, the shocking cold of which ruined my hard-won even breathing.

Unfortunately there was no time for more yoga. I had to descend before the surface current carried me away. Distracted by the cold and the rush, I failed to equalize the pressure in my ears, and they squeezed painfully, a sign that further descent could rupture a drum. I paused, kicked up a tad and tried again. But I had to work hard to maintain my position in the water, and I was breathing so fast I started to panic. (If you’re a skilled diver, remember kindly that I was still a newbie.)

Looking down, I saw M. a few meters below with his eyes on me, and the rest of the group underneath already at depth. “This is it,” I thought, “It’s go deep or go home sad.” So, I tried a newly learned trick to open the back of my throat and finally felt the pressure in my ears release. At most, it was an extra 30 seconds, but with the cold and current it felt like forever.

The scene below was vibrant and stunning–so much coral, so many fish!

M. led us down and then up the pinnacle in a zigzag pattern signaling changes in direction and depth to avoid potentially hazardous currents. In one spot, he gathered our group and signaled something about the current and the rock that I didn’t understand. One of the other divers nodded, swam away from the cover of the rock and was propelled around the side of the pinnacle.

I thought, “Uh-uh. No way.” Then I looked at M. He gestured that we would go together. I nodded and with a few kicks and a push of current we flew around safely.

I came up from that dive with a big grin on my face. It was what I most hoped to see in Komodo and worth the battle with my neurotic demons.

Staying in Komodo National Park

I was, technically, an advanced diver when I arrived in Labuan Bajo, but diving in Komodo was unlike anything I had experienced. While I was thankful for the training I had, I was even more grateful to be with an excellent local guide and patient fellow divers who were just as pleasant out of the water as they were in it.

That trip was also brimming with Indonesian hospitality and love of food… from little breakfast before big breakfast to “cheeky snacks” in the afternoon and biscuits and tea between dives on the excursion boat. It was lovely in that way.

I wanted to stay longer in Komodo, but my visa was expiring and I had more to see… New friends raved about diving in the Philippines, and off I went. I explored Malapascua, Dauin, Alona Beach and the pristine mecca of diving Tubbataha, where a whale shark swam over my head. Afterward, I returned to Indonesia for a wonderful week on North Sulawesi.

Then it was time to head back to the States for some time in my other “real life.” But I eventually found myself dreaming about Asian coral fields and the incredible creatures that live there. Before I really knew it, another trip evolved… a trip driven by an invitation from friends, news about a dive convention, a rescue course on my to-do list, and rumors about another lush underwater paradise that have been whispering in my brain since I first heard the words “Raja Ampat” from a diver’s mouth in Komodo.

Yep, I’m off chasing coral again.

Check out my Instagram feed (@sayloraway) for the latest updates. Hope to see you there!


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