Komodo – Eye to Eye with Huge Lizards and Tiny Nudibranchs

The island of Komodo in central Indonesia, part of a cluster of small, dry islands situated between the big islands of Sumbawa, Sumba and Flores, is famous amongst nature-lovers for two reasons: for its Komodo dragons and for its rich marine life in the park surrounding it. I had always been aware of the super-sized lizards and the tales surrounding them, but not so much of the pristine coral reefs in the area. When two colleagues of mine came back from their trips to Komodo, they were enthusiastic about the diving, the abundance of coral life and the islands themselves. I therefore really wanted to visit the Komodo National Park and see for myself healthy and colourful corals, as well as the unique lizards on the islands.

Several airlines fly from Denpasar in Bali to Labuan Bajo on Flores, and I took one of them on July 11. Labuan Bajo, a small fishing town on the west coast of Flores, is the entry point for the Komodo National Park. It sees quite a hustle and bustle during the tourist season in July and August, when live-aboard vessels, divers and adventure-seekers like me visit the area – to my surprise, as I did not expect much tourism in the area except for a few curious herpetologists visiting the dragons… Four dive centres, a few guesthouses and hotels, restaurants and even internet facilities (with an unbelievably slow connection, though) were available in Labuan Bajo, and it looks as if more are to come. Compared to tourism hotspots on islands such as Bali or Java, however, Labuan Bajo was still a remote, undeveloped, charming little town with very cheap guesthouses and restaurants. Its inhabitants were mostly Muslim, lived in small, wooden houses and were obviously not used to seeing foreigners walking down their street. I was frequently greeted with “Hello Mister!” and involved in some strange conversations. The Lonely Planet had a short text about this phenomenon, which I not only encountered in Flores:

“Few places in Indonesia have so many ultra-keen English-language students desperate to help tourists in return for conversation practice. They pop up everywhere. This can result in delightful friendships or infuriating feelings of being pestered, depending on your outlook (and good fortune).”
Very often these constant greetings were tiring and even annoying, as I could never be undisturbed and by myself, and being a woman travelling alone “so far away from her husband” also didn’t help. But then again, I luckily never felt unsafe or got into a very unpleasant situation; the locals were mostly just curious or trying to be friendly – a different culture I just had to be aware of.

More to come...

Bali - Hiding in Retreats and Diving on Black Sand

Despite its charms to most other visitors, I had never really planned to go to Bali and much rather wanted to concentrate on other Indonesian islands during my summer holidays. Why? It just always sounded too busy and touristy to me, and I thought there wouldn’t be much pristine nature left, neither on land nor in the sea. After having spent two weeks there from the end of June to mid-July, it is now safe to say that I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Bali. The island is indeed beautiful, diverse in landscapes, great for diving and full of traditions. I am therefore thankful to my Palauan Neco Marine team, who recommended a few good places for diving to me and opened my eyes.
Denpasar’s airport is probably the most conveniently located airport in Indonesia and the busiest next to Jakarta’s. It served as my port of entry into Indonesia (flying from Koror via Manila), and from there I was hoping to get to the Komodo area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, all flights to Labuan Bajo near Komodo were full until about two weeks later, so that I was obliged to spend some considerable time of my holidays on Bali. I was not too disappointed about this change of plans, though, as I had deliberately kept my schedule very flexible and desperately needed to have some quiet times to myself, read and write and watch and sleep. The last few weeks at Soneva Fushi had been terribly busy, and Palau with its packed dive schedule and sights and sounds hadn’t quite given me the rest I was longing for. I therefore chose to take it easy for a few days and to first travel to Bali’s northwestern corner, where I would stay in one of Jubawa Homestay’s pretty bungalows in a village called Pemuteran. This area was said to be remote, with little tourist facilities, but spectacular reefs and a few other interesting dive sites. I very much enjoyed spending some time on my porch in the sun, chatting to some other travellers and catching up with my friends at home… until the hiking and diving bug caught me again and I felt restless to go out and put my head in the forest and water.

A lovely Hawaiian couple, Jean and Lou, staying in the same hotel was planning to go on a day hike in West Bali National Park on the next day, which I had hoped to do with someone anyway. We therefore agreed to take a guide together and were looking forward to each other’s company. The seven-hour hike in the park was quite strenuous but exposed us to some very fine rain and monsoon forests with lots of jungle inhabitants: grey macaques, a giant squirrel, a defensive wild boar, rainbow-coloured beetles and spiders en masse. If we had had more time, I am sure we could have found even more bizarre animals in this park. The drinks after the hike – Bintang for Jean and Lou and a non-alcoholic energy water for me, thank you very much – tasted so good! It was also great getting to know Jean and Lou and their views of the world, and should you ever read this: thanks again for taking me along!

Natascha was a great inspiration, too. She stayed at the same resort as I and dived with the same dive centre, Jubawa Divers. We started talking and soon found out that we both work in the Maldives: she as a dive instructor at a Four Seasons resort and I as a marine biologist at Soneva Fushi. We both knew common people there; small world. Natascha was crazy about diving, despite her diving routine at the resort, loved all small and hidden animals, especially nudibranchs, and had worked in places before that I was still hoping to see. We were therefore a good buddy team and spent a few days together on Bali. We started diving in two places, called Puri Jati and Secret Bay (Gilimanuk’s harbour), both of which apparently resemble the sandy bottom topography of the Lembeh Strait in northern Sulawesi. This was all new territory for me, and I was hugely excited when we found such weird and wonderful camouflaged creatures as dragonets, frogfishes, sand divers and snake eels as well as a few octopi, nudibranchs and shrimps on or in the dark volcanic sand. Perfect places for keen divers, photographers and biologists! Not so funny was, however, that I got stung by one of those black Diadema sea urchins while trying to get out of the shallow water. I cursed those long needles, as they broke off in my thumb and inflicted a pain that would take one month to disappear… Remedies immediately offered were fresh pee, papaya or alcohol. I chose the latter but should have maybe gone for the warm pee… The island of Menjangan close to the volcanoes of Java offered diving highlights of another kind: It was surrounded by some of the most beautiful coral reefs I had ever seen in my life! Lots of colourful soft corals, pygmy seahorses hiding in sea fans, ribbon eels sticking their head out of holes, and drop-offs that are steeper than in the Maldives. There was a lot to see and take photos of, and you are welcome to have a look at my photos in the Bali Underwater slide show. On a pinnacle and on an artificial reef in Pemuteran itself, Natascha and I went on a night dive with her dive instructor friend Hugo, and together we found “everything” – from all sorts of nudibranchs, sepias, decorator crabs and shrimps to electric clams, nettling anemones and delicate pipefishes. I was completely blown away by the area’s diversity of marine life!

After my week in Pemuteran, I took the public bus to Sanur in the south and during the five-hour journey met a lovely girl named Mae with her little daughter, who I have stayed in touch with while I was in Indonesia. In Sanur I met up with Natascha again and planned two more diving days in Bali. We first went to Nusa Penida in Bali’s southeast, where the water temperature was much lower (and the visibility much better) than in other places due to the cool Indian Ocean water pushing its way through the channel between Bali and Lombok. Nusa Penida is famous for its pelagic fishes that include the sunfish Mola mola, manta rays and sharks. We were keen to see the sunfish but sadly were not lucky, despite three drift dives in the area. The reefs were good, but hell, it was cold! On the next day we went out to Tulamben, one of the very famous dive places in Bali. The most popular site is the beautifully over-grown “Liberty” wreck close to Tulamben’s shore that boasts pygmy seahorses, sharks, leaf-, anemone- and jackfishes but also big barrel sponges and nudibranchs. The Drop-Off was a great dive site, too. What will always stay in my memory about Tulamben, though, are the tiny local women carrying everyone’s dive gear on their heads across the dark beach pebbles to the entry point – sometimes two sets at a time! Unbelievable!

I have a feeling that this was not my last time in Bali. The reef and mud inhabitants were truly amazing, so that a diving holiday seems most likely. However, I haven’t really seen the interior of Bali yet and would like to get to know the Ubud area next time. With so many Balinese friends on Soneva Fushi, there must be a good way of visiting this gem of an island again!

Planning my Indonesian travels

When I took a took a course in conservation biology during my year at the University of Victoria in 2000, a book titled “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen was highly recommended to complement the lecture material. It was a book about island biogeography in an age of extinction, a thick volume about patterns in natural history, evolution and species distribution in the world. I must admit: it took me quite a long time to finish reading the book, as it was so intense. However, I became immediately intrigued by one of the “main actors” portrayed in the book, an extraordinary naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, whose name and influential works were mentioned repeatedly in the course of the book. Wallace had extensively travelled through the Indonesian islands 150 years ago and – by concentrating on the distribution of beetles and birds, and independent of Charles Darwin – had discovered the process of natural selection, through which evolution happened. He also found that the fauna of the eastern islands of Indonesia was more closely related to that of the Australian region, while the animals on the western islands were more similar to those on the Asian mainland. The imaginative Wallace Line between Bali and Lombok as well as between Sulawesi and Borneo is still valid today and indicates the border between the Asian and Australian biological realms. Interestingly, Wallace was not only an enthusiastic naturalist but also a culturally sensitive anthropologist, who had a wonderful talent for describing the peculiarities of the many different peoples in the many different islands.

I was hooked. I also wanted to get to know some of the animals, plants, landscapes and peoples that Wallace had seen 150 years ago, and I wanted to see how much had changed since then. Two months of free time were all I had – compared to his seven or eight years of exploring the natural wonders in the archipelago a tiny fraction. But a start! Instead of trying to cover a huge area, though, I decided to concentrate on a few regions only and leave room for later discoveries. My previous travels had taught me that, to get the full experience of a place, it was better to spend as much time there as possible, absorbing the smells, tastes, sounds, local stories etc. With enough time for a great holiday at hand, I was happy to just take it easy, not to plan too many details, and to be able to change routes according to the weather, other travellers’ recommendations and my own instinct. Komodo and Sulawesi were on the short list of islands that I really wanted to visit, with the option of going to Borneo, if time allowed. But options I had plenty of:

“There are, in round figures, 17,500 Indonesian islands – making up 1.3 percent of the total land area of the earth – with more than ten thousand species of trees, about a tenth of the world’s flowering plant species, about an eighth of all mammal species, nearly a sixth of all reptile and amphibian species, a sixth of all bird species, and about a third of all fish species. In almost all plant and animal taxa, Indonesia has levels of species diversity and endemism that rank with the highest in the world. And among humans, Indonesia has the world’s greatest ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.”

Before leaving for my summer holidays, I had read a beautiful nature and photography book called “Archipelago: the Islands of Indonesia” by Daws and Fujita, which was a great inspiration for my own photography and from which the above quote stems. My constant travel companions, however, were the following books:
“The Malay Archipelago” by Alfred Russel Wallace, apparently still one of the best travel books on the region
“The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen
“Indonesia” in the Lonely Planet series

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