I have always wanted to be where I’m sitting right now, this very second. If you’re a diver, a marine biologist, or just someone who gets excited about the sea, then right here, right now as I type these words….well, this is very much the place to be. I am bang centre of the triangle of diversity, or the golden triangle as breathless marine biologists occasionally refer to it.
As I glance out of the window I can see a stark, barren island a few hundred metres away, scorched and flayed by the sun. On the volcanic hillside there are one or two bushes clinging onto life, their shallow root systems seeking every drop of moisture, trunks twisted and tormented by a lifetime of thirst. Closer to the shoreline a different story begins to emerge, with green forests of mangroves clustered along outcrops, dipping their toes into the sea, their roots creating a complex matrix of life that traps sediment and sand, slowly extending the peninsula on which they stand inch by millennial inch. But the shallows tell the real story. You don’t even need to put your face beneath the surface – the water, as clear as Evian, whispers and chuckles into barren coves, it’s secret revealed in the form of the most vibrant coral reefs on the planet. Let your eyes stray from the limestone cliffs and white beaches, glance towards the sea, and you see a giddy mosaic of life.
I’m sitting on a boat anchored in the shallows off Komodo Island in Indonesia, a global gem if there ever was one. For the last fortnight we have been diving the reefs that surround us, a patchwork of nearly 600 hard coral species and 1,500 different types of fish. Half of the known species of soft coral on the planet lie beneath the wooden hull of this boat, and several thousand species of mollusk inhabit every nook and crannie of every outcrop. As well as the wonder of small things, this is also the land of the giant. The 1817 km2 of the Komodo National Park is home to the largest lizard on earth, the Komodo Dragon – a 2.5 metre beast that has a bad attitude and “issues” with all things mammalian. It looks out over sea channels that play host to another behemoth – the giant ocean sunfish. This is the largest bony fish in the world, and even on this land of superlatives defies description. It is fourteen feet from fin tip to fin tip, weighs a colossal 2.5 tonnes, and lays 300 million eggs, more than any other vertebrate on earth.
In our anthropomorphic way, we imbue tropical reefs with all manner of poetic qualities. We rave about their delicacy and beauty, but the reality is slightly more prosaic. A coral reef, where space is at an absolute premium and protein a valued commodity, is actually a ferocious ecosystem, where only the fittest prevail. Very few animals that live on a coral reef die of old age. Death is generally violent, frequently lingering, and involves being leisurely consumed. If you could hear a coral reef, the predominant sound would be arguing, punctuated by the occasional b-movie scream. If you’re a wee fish, or even a big one, life is brutish and short. As well as cataloguing the undeniable beauty of the reef, I wanted to tell the tale of the other side during my short visit. My home for this trip is the liveaboard dive vessel “The Arenui”, a traditionally built Indonesian vessel crewed by attentive, smiling staff for whom nothing is too much trouble. It is our magic carpet through a land I have dreamt about for decades – a boat created from recycled wood recovered from all over Indonesia. It creaks and rustles when underway, singing a unique song drawn from the archipelago itself. My travelling companions include Tam, which just so happens to also be my new wife – we were married two days before leaving for the trip.
Joining us on Arenui are fourteen American divers. I’m on the trip as guest lecturer (never let it be said that I don’t know how to show a girl a good time – a romantic break with fourteen total strangers). I hate to generalize here, but it is a great pleasure to share the vessel with the Americans, and a contrast to so many other nationalities of dive groups (I can feel myself descending into very hot, racial stereotype, cliché’d hot water here but will write on regardless). As tends to be the characteristic of the American traveller overseas, they are courteous, thoughtful, respectful, early to bed, and early to rise. We’ve had soulful guitar music under the Indo Pacific stars from Texan Beth, thought provoking conversation with Californians Mike and Kim, laughed long with Juan and Kristin, and exchanged colonial banter from Dennis and the irrepressible Harry (78 years old and still nailing very dive). It is an extraordinarily lazy stereotype to speak of checked trousers and baseball caps, and as such to say that the opposite is true hardly seems worth writing. But I’m going to say it anyway – I can’t remember a bad trip with a group of American divers. They’re so goddam nice. And you know what, after all is said and done, “nice” goes a long way.
But enough philosophising – back to Komodo. I really do love this place. Island networks always have a unique fascination for any traveller, each with an identity of their own, but – on a personal level anyway – Komodo has set a new standard. The barren nature of much of the terrestrial environment has it’s own stark beauty, and anywhere that mountains plunge into sea is always special, but this experience has been not quite like any other. It’s something I’m struggling to put my finger on, some indefinable quality that goes beyond the diversity of the reefs and the magic of the vessel – exploring these islands is like traveling in both in distance and in time. It is a trip back to the days when coral reefs were largely untouched, when the shoreline was undeveloped, and when giants stalked the land. Which leads us neatly to the Komodo dragons. Seeing them was a strangely surreal experience, as we all trooped ashore under the guidance of our crew, were handed over to the park rangers, and duly spent the next hour walking amongst dinosaurs. It raised some interesting questions for me, the primary one being – can it be classed as a “wild” experience to walk on manicured paths, a gaggle of twenty people, being shepherded by attentive guides throughout? Of course it can’t, but there (so close you could almost reach out and touch them) were the dragons. Jurassic Park made real, a reptilian apex predator who doesn’t give a jot about the trappings of tourism, who only knows of predator and prey (and we fall unequivocally into the latter category, an uncomfortable and unfamiliar mammalian sensation for the modern western traveller).
Some ancient instinct stirs within you when you view the dragons, one that tells you this animal can move like lightning, and that the eye staring back at you is calculating angles and terrain, looking at your escape routes, judging your proximity, and coldly assessing your ability to turn and accelerate away from a lethal rush (we come under the heading of “poor” in the latter, particularly as our rivals in this category – buffalo and deer – don’t as a rule wear flip flops). There is the juxtaposition within all of this that the Komodo dragon relies entirely on us, that without tourism it would probably be long gone. Such noble environmental munificence from us is of course entirely wasted on the animal itself – it’d gnaw on my bony behind without a second thought, spitting out floppy hat and Ray Bans before ambling off to have a little sleep in the shade. The fact that I’d paid a park fee to support it’s protection would be largely lost when compared to the fact that I’d also make a fairly decent lunch.
Back on “The Arenui” we turned our attention once again to the diving. You can tell much about the quality of this by the names of the sites. Or, more precisely, whether the actual diving experience lives up to the names of the sites. Frequently “Shark Bay” actually means that some ancient traveller saw a shark there in 1876, immediately shot it, and there hasn’t been one seen since. But this is not the case in Komodo. Crystal Rock really does shimmer and pulse in the equatorial sun, and Castle Reef really does look like a fortress of relentless marine activity. Cannibal Rock is a reef scene of bewildering diversity and predatory action (although the name springs from action on the land, as one Komodo dragon tucked into another as naturalist Burt Jones surveyed the site for the first time). Manta Alley is indeed an alley, and it’s chock full of mantas. Lisa and “G” (Guido, Geraldine, Gus? I never found out) were our splendid cruise hosts throughout, and they were entirely laid back about the mantas, so completely assured that they would be there on cue performing for the punters. I’m not sure there’s another site like this anywhere – a dive where you are 100% assured of action, day in, day out, regardless of the tide or the time.
We dropped in, glanced down, and there was the first manta, an elegant ambassador to welcome us to our seats. It turned – follow me ladies and gentlemen – and led us down the reef wall. Hunkering next to a large bommie, over a patch of sand that was pretty much the precise shape of a crouching underwater photographer (no co-incidence I suspect), I watched as the mantas whirled, twisted, and soared above and around us – a celestial display team riding eddies and harnessing currents. After an hour I ascended towards my safety stop, inevitably rising through the flight path, with one manta (the farewell ambassador perhaps) banking so close it defeated my fish eye lens. I will never forget it as a moment, as a dive, as a sensation. This is a long trip, and there is a temptation for one extraordinary site to merge into another. I must confess, even as a marine biologist who is supposed to have a deeper appreciation of these things, this has happened to me to a degree.
I am sated with wonder, replete as yet another teeming mosaic is laid out before me. Indeed, as I type these words I can glance up and see the two dive tenders bobbing over a distant reef – I have skipped the morning dive due to “ear trouble” (that greatest of all fall backs for the lazy diver), but actually to take a step back from it all, to try to appreciate just how special this is. And of course to simply sit in the sun and write it all down (one of life’s other great pleasures). Before bidding you farewell (the breakfast gong has just gonged, resulting in Pavlovian salivation and a sneaky urge to get to the table before the returning divers do), there is one other dive that stands out for me – one that goes beyond even mantas, frogfish, eagle rays, leaf fish, and multi-coloured animals that God created whilst cackling wildly, possibly drunk, and thinking “This’ll never get through quality control, but sod it I’ll make it anyway”. I had heard great things about the twilight diving here, with one dive book describing it as “the best night diving destination on the planet.” That book is unequivocally correct. For a place with a reputation based on giants, there is real wonder in the small things when the sun sets. The muck dive we did at Bima was, hands down, the best night dive I have ever done. It even had a pop at the champ, becoming the young pretender in the “number one dive ever” category. The dive itself – an array of scuttling, absurd, giddily attired animals going about their nocturnal business – belied the fact under cover of darkness death is only a snap of a claw or a whip of a tentacle away. Down here, under cover of the gloom, the choices are entirely binary. If your venom, camouflage, claws, or speed is up to evolutionary muster, then you live. Show a moment of weakness, a chink in the armour of natural selection, then you die. At night the tiny wee wild things have responded to this situation with gaudy defiance. The ghost crabs, the harlequin shrimps, the blue ringed octopus – their lives might only be a brief flash in the pan, but they seemed determined to make it a bright one. I was smiling through my regulator, strobes firing and motor-drive whirring. It was a momentous dive, simply momentous. This is a special place, and Arenui a special boat. My time here is drawing to a close, but as I leave I know that come what may I will return to the archipelago of Komodo – a land of reptilian giants in the day, and vivid, tiny, scuttling gems at night.