VIEWPOINT: Plunging into Paradise

Posted on August, 07 2012

Lida shares her diving experience during her latest trip in the waters of Komodo National Park, Indonesia, where she discovers both the good (still pristine diving sites) and the bad (destroyed corals from destructive fishing practices).
By Lida Pet-Soede

After attending the International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 in Cairns, Australia, where I’ve had mixed feelings about the current efforts to activate the application of knowledge that is already available for improved reef management in CT countries, I’ve decided to share my own recent family holiday diving experience.

Somehow we need to communicate the science findings in ways that appeal to the masses in order to fuel political support to finaly take some strong steps to stop bombing and reduce fishing capacity. 

What we need is to start fostering a better sense of appreciation for the values of reefs and their critical role in supporting food security and livelihoods, taking a look underwater does that for me, but how can we get the millions of people in the CT to tell their government that they care for reefs to exist in good health?

With anxiety, I rolled off the speed boat to check out the Crystal Bommie dive site early in our most recent dive trip. The numerous reports since March this year about blast fishing here and other sites in Komodo National Park, along with continued reports of fishing practices ongoing in the No-Take Zones in all the reefs of the park, had me seriously worried.

And indeed, the beautiful hard coral gardens at the top of this site, usually one of my favorite hang-out places towards the end of the dive where swarms of basslets and damsels display their orchestrated dance just hovering above the sharp spikes of the corals, have all been blown to smithereens.

I abandoned the dive after 40 minutes, blaming teary eyes from too much toothpaste to clean my mask, but I couldn’t stand watching the damage. My husband went around the other side and told me later that it was even worse. Fortunately not all reefs have been destroyed, although with the amount of fishing going on, even when you would think it’s just one boat here and there, the big fish are starting to disappear from most dive sites.

The rest of the trip was very good however. But importantly, the diving at some of the sites actually exceeded my expectation and memory. Specifically the dives at Tatawa Kecil, Banta and Pengah Kecil. On top of that we had a BIG surprise at Manta Alley!

Banta is just outside the Komodo National Park, Seven Seas, our dive boat, moored in the half crater left after what must have been one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in Indonesia after Tambora, which was one of the largest on the planet. The dive at Tanjung Rusa needed some good planning and a good understanding of the current, especially around the actual Tanjung, which can be dealt with if one stays near the reef and maintains one’s depth religiously by kicking forward with the current.

We jumped in on the inside of the crater after having checked that there were no swirlies, as those make it all complex. We don’t like down current! And even the new and inexperienced divers in the group were fine. Inside the crater, the reef comes down almost straight and slopes only slightly near the bottom. There are plenty of good critters on the wall but the "waterfall" of fairly basslets shimmering in the sun against the reef was especially mesmerizing.

At the very point you get swept around the corner by a strong current, when the current allows you to slow down after some adrenaline-pumping seconds, you find yourself in a beautiful soft coral garden with lots of leather corals that stretch for a very long time and with the midday sun on it, it was just beautifully colorful.

On the second dive, we started on the outside of the crater and continued that long stretch with soft corals, which turned into a nice bright reef with lots of coral build-up bommies with all sorts of critters. We were searching for the pygmy seahorses that are often found here, but with one of the large fans having cracked and folded over, we did not find them this time.

Castle Rock the next day was as good as I remember it in terms of fish life. We started during dead slack tide, which meant that there were hardly any fish on the site when we rolled into the water. However we had some very exciting close encounters with a good sized grey reef shark. It came up a bit too shallow for its normal behavior to only 21 meters and was not aggressive nor nervous, it swam back and forth just about 10 meters from us so that we could get a good look at this awesome fish.

I find that grey reef sharks look more like real sharks. There were plenty white tip reef sharks around, but when you see a grey, somehow the white tips look a bit dainty. When the current started to pick up, the first giant trevally showed up, some were black, which is always a good sign that some feeding action will happen. One trevally tailed the grey reef shark for a while and when they both swam over a large school of bat fish I wished I was a good photographer and had a camera in hand, but I have that picture in my head now.

Swarms of blue fuseliers showed up, they started to ball into a huge school and Karly, one of the divers in our group, was so completely in the middle of the school that she disappeared from our sight. Another school of blue fin trevally joined. It was the first time I saw them together in such large numbers. Often you will find three or four hunting together, now there we at least 30 in one school! The trevally went in and out of the school of fuseliers like a well rehearsed ballet performance.

We did our safety stop off the top of Castle Rock looking down at tons of fish and I was so relieved to see not all is gone yet in Komodo. But it appears that only those sites that have some natural protection from big current still have some fish.

The Minister of Tourism, visiting Komodo on a private trip, came by to talk about the recent stories of illegal fishing in the park. Her sons, also keen divers, liked the specialties of diving in Komodo and with the Head of Komodo National Park in her group, we talked about the importance of enforcing a zoning plan with daily patrols, combining the fleet of patrol vessels and floating ranger stations with an under-cover, civil-clothed fishing boat surveillance team.

We talked about the bomb fishing of course, but my husband made the point of how important it is to enforce the entire zoning plan, which marks ALL reef areas as No-Take Zones, meaning no fishing! Local communities in Komodo have not historically depended on the reefs for their fishing as they have been using lift nets for squid and small pelagic fish for decades.

If the fishers from outside Komodo can also be kept at bay, the park can support the preservation of diversity for tourism purposes and fisheries replenishment in areas around the park for additional livelihoods also benefits. The Seven Seas crew, many of which come from the Komodo region, is also frustrated to see the tourism business, which is growing steadily in Labuan Bajo, threatened. Pai, our captain, said tourists come here for nature experiences, not for beer and parties such as many in Bali. If the reefs are empty and damaged they will not come anymore and we should not go the way of Bali with just parties and fancy hotels, he said.

We hope that the Minister can do something, she clearly is a really engaged and very knowledgeable woman, caring a lot for the marine environment for which Indonesia is so famous.

While some dived Crystal again some days later, I stayed back as I could not bear to see the damage again. I went along with the kids who snorkeled in Gili Lawa Laut Bay, while their parents did a scuba introduction lesson.

The afternoon dive at Fish Bowl was my choice that day, even though I knew I was going to blow my ear drum, as I always do on that dive. It was an absolute hit again, and indeed even as I blew my ear, it was so worth it, even if I had to skip the following day's dives.

At the entrance of the channel in the white sand, hundreds of garden eels danced their rhythmic dance as they picked their food out of the water column. I wonder what the unwritten "privacy" rule of distance is between them, as they appeared mathematically dispersed over the sandy bottom in some raster.

Drifting with a mild current, we saw leafy scorpionfish and a big angry looking stone fish amongst the hundreds of colorful bommies, some of which were completely packed with glass fish. Keen to see the fish in an area I call the chimney, I urged my daughter Eva to forget about macro photography for the remainder of the dive, and we let the current pick us up and push us into the base of the chimney.

Above us, hundreds of fish, mostly different species of trevally and snapper, scatter temporarily. As we settled on the rubble substrate at the base, they came back into the chimney and provided a splendid Javanese shadow puppet show, with their different shapes looking like black silhouettes against the afternoon sun. Turning over some of the rubble with our fingers, colorful wrasses come and pick the algae off our hands and the freshly exposed rubble bits. They come so close that Eva takes a couple more close-up shots of these crazy patterned wrasses and we get ready to go up through the chimney.

Exhaling like crazy we go up and through the bright yellow and orange soft corals while checking the school of sweet lips on the left, the horse eye trevally on the right, avoiding a sea snake underneath, and letting the current race us over the shallows into the coral garden on the other side. Exhilarating and a great fishy dive!

Because of the ear squeeze at Fish Bowl, I decided to snorkel the next day with the kids and with the divers below us on Batu Bolong and Pengah Kecil, we found ourselves in a colorful aquarium, filled with basslets, giant trevally, a shark, a turtle and lots of wrasses and parrot fish. The hard coral cover on both sites was breathtaking, but at Pengah Kecil we saw some bits of bomb damage that had not been there when we dived in March. Both sites are current swept, which protect them to some extent from fishing and bombing, but not sufficiently.

At Pengah Kecil I was relieved to see several juvenile napoleon wrasses and at Batu Bolong, there were a lot of adult sized groupers! The most amazing animal behaviour of this first week however, was the egg laying by a giant cuttle fish. She was not at all worried by the fact that about eight people were looking at her every move, and instead went about her task laying an egg every three minutes or so, carefully placing them in a foliose coral. By the time my husband first saw her she had already placed several dozens of eggs in their spots, and as we watched she deposited another five eggs carefully and very determinedly, just under our eyes.

Fantastic to see how the animals go about their normal lives and don’t feel threatened by divers here. This reminded me of the spearfishing operations that wiped out a school of giant sweetlips in merely one week, some years ago. Especially the giant sweet lips. I often think of them as old grumpy men hanging about the neighborhood fussing about modern fads.

They used to be so trusting of divers, that this irresponsible illegal spear fishing tourist group did not have to work too hard to kill them all in a few days! As they did not know what to do with the piles of dead fish meat, they gave them to the local village thinking they had done a good deed for poor people in the park. I have not seen any giant sweetlips at that site for years and the fish in this site are now keeping their distance, what a waste and what a shame. Michael Ishak just reported another spear fishing tourist operation from Lombok inside the park last week. That has to stop, it’s illegal!

The night dive at Wainilu was so rich with critters that we could not agree whether we had seen eight or ten or even more different frogfish, as it was hard to keep count. Sonia, one of our dive buddies, had dived the site during the late afternoon and observed the funny walk of frog fish and she had already seen six out in afternoon day light!

At night we saw harlequin shrimp munching on a sea stars, bobtail squids, devil scorpions, I saw four different snake eel species and in my count we saw 11 different frog fish. They are the cutest critters if you like funny faces (and funny walks!). When hunting, they sit quietly with their angler out that waves a little bit of fluff as bait. I would not have seen some of the frog fish, if they did not display this, as they otherwise blend in so well in the coral and seaweed.

Another one caught my eye as I thought it was tumbling down the reef slope, but back on board Sonia demonstrated how she saw the frog fish walk earlier, and I realized it was not tumbling, that’s how frog fish walk. Hilarious to watch. Wearing two suits over another and a hoodie it was easy to stay out the full hour.

At the end of the dive we turned off our torches and made "fluo-angels" in the water column, with the fluorescence shooting off our moving arms and legs. It was like a show of underwater fireworks, a very appropriate ending to a great night dive.

Tatawa Kecil used to be my favorite dive site when we first came here in 1995, but the reef had been damaged tremendously five years later so I stopped diving it because it was just too devastating to remember what used to be here. The last three years however, coral colonies started to come back and hard coral is growing so fast in these rich waters, that these have almost completely covered the Eastern site of Tatawa Kecil again. Great reports by Rod Salm over the years made me want to dive it again.

It's truly a stunning dive with the overhangs in the West site and the huge coral boulders that build up on the Northern point, which marks the start of a coral garden so colorful and so packed with angel fish, butterflies, damsels and basslets, that it’s dizzying to look at. I just had to stick to one position and hang there quietly for 30 minutes to take it all in. This is a great way to see how the different fish use the reef and interact with each other, as they do all the time. The group of deepwater snappers from the Western side, followed us to the Northern point when the current picked up and they were hanging very near me in the current and were soon joined by trevally and schools of fuseliers. Again an exhilarating dive and so fantastic to see the new growth of hard corals.

At Manta Alley, we did two dives and even as the water was so cold, we suited up excitedly as chances to see mantas were good. Karl in his dive briefing did not want to jinx it though and only referred to the "big black animals starting with an M" but he jokingly mentioned the chance to see a molamola, something that one person had experienced only once ever at this site. What a laugh I had underwater when we did not encounter one single manta for the first 40 minutes of our dive, but instead swam with the largest molamola for ten full minutes from the moment we hit the water. Amazing! The animal was SO large, this fish is SO oddly shaped, and yet SO graceful.

At the end of the dive, we did see three mantas as well as a large hawksbill turle, and the reef with its schools of yellow snappers and large bumpheads and millions of red basslets was just stunning as well. The second dive turned into a snorkel with little Laura instead, and at German flag we swam with 6 mantas for a long time, and again at manta alley we saw another 6 or 7 below us, fantastic! It could not have been better, never mind the cold water. Onwards Seven Seas went to Padar where the group dived three sisters and we went to some of the beaches, and played a mean game of volley ball on pantars' pink beach until the sun went down.

My last dive of the trip was at Pulau Pengah Kecil. I think it is now my most favorite reef site in Komodo. When we entered the water we had the last of the upwelling water with lots of food in it, and all the basslets, damsels and lots of slender wrasses were out in the water column, feeding frantically. Swimming through swarms of them down to only 12 meters for the rest of the dive, we saw a herd of large bumphead parrots, lots of nudibranches, a sea snake, a hawksbill turtle stoned high from eating some sponges, crocodile fish and just stunning hard coral formations completely cramped in between soft corals, giant clams, sponges and what not.

For me the best way to end the trip, on a high with lots of fish and an amazing variety of corals and colors!
Lida Pet-Soede
© Robert Delfs