Obviously, as a lifelong reptile geek, Komodo National Park has been on my radar for… well, all my life. So how stoked was I to get the opportunity to visit Scuba Junkie Komodo?
I’ve been basing myself on Nusa Lembongan in Indonesia over the southern hemisphere winter, which has proven excellent for eating nasi campurs, re-learning to surf (well, paddle), helping out the Marine Megafauna manta team a bit, and getting some writing done before the serious whale shark fieldwork starts again in September.
As genuinely, ridiculously beautiful as Lembongan is though… I get restless after a couple of weeks in the same place. Sigh. I know, life is tough etc.
Fortunately for me, MMF manta ray researcher Elitza Germanov (Microplastics & Megafauna) has been doing fieldwork this year at Scuba Junkie Komodo, a dive resort on Flores Island located right on the boundary of Komodo National Park. Ellie suggested that I pay them a visit, check out the dive sites, and take a look at the manta rays in a vaguely professional capacity.
Sounded like a good plan. The fact that it would also give me the opportunity to see Komodo dragons was also
OMFG OMFG OMFG quite exciting.
Komodo National Park: How To Get There
Getting from Bali to Komodo National Park is easy. I stayed at the Tirta Ening Agung Hotel in Sanur, checked in the next morning with Garuda (who are lovely to fly with and very generous with their dive gear allowance), and took the gorgeous 90 minute flight to Komodo Airport, just outside the town of Labuan Bajo on Flores. You get a great view of Mount Rinjani on Lombok and the volcanoes on Sumbawa if you nab a window on the left side of the plane.
It’s like Jurassic Park down there:
I had to get some work done on the afternoon I arrived, and I thought that Sunset Hill Hotel looked like a great option for a #remoteworkingwin. It was. The place has nice food, good wifi in the restaurant (I even had a live video chat with several classrooms for World Ocean Day that night), and the view is genuinely stunning:
They can easily organise airport transfers to and from the airport, it’s only a couple of kilometres away.
If you’d prefer a Labuan Bajo hotel, there are lots of good downtown options too. Check out Molas Cafe if you stay in town, it’s really nice.
The transfer to Scuba Junkie Komodo the next morning was also very easy. They organised a taxi transfer straight from the hotel to their boat, where my trip really commenced…
Komodo National Park: Marine Biodiversity Overload
Komodo National Park was created in 1980 to conserve the Komodo dragon and its habitat. Despite the name, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is… (Spoiler Alert)… not actually a dragon. It *is* the world’s largest lizard though.
There are over 70 species of monitor lizards in the genus Varanus, ranging in adult size from 20 cm to around 3 m in length for the Komodo dragon. The dragons are the top predators on the five islands where they are still found: Komodo and Rinca islands (and two small islands), with a remnant population on the much larger Flores Island. Around the same year that Komodo National Park was made official, the dragons disappeared from another island in the park, Padar, probably because many of their prey (deer and other large mammals) were killed by poachers.
Protection was extended to the surrounding marine environment in 1984. The Komodo area falls within the Coral Triangle, home to the world’s highest marine biodiversity. The Triangle, which extends roughly from the Solomon Islands in the east to encompass Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the west, covers only 1.6% of the world’s ocean but contains 76% of all coral species, more than 3000 fishes, and the greatest area of mangrove forests in the world.
This makes for some pretty epic diving.
Diving Komodo: Manta Rays, Sea Turtles, Wunderpus, Nudibranchs… oh my.
As iconic as the dragons are on land, they may be matched by the manta rays underwater. Reef manta rays are one of the largest of all fishes, growing to around 5 m wide across their “wings”. My colleagues at Marine Megafauna have documented the Komodo area to be home to one of the world’s largest populations of these majestic sea flap-flaps. Andrea Marshall’s record is more than 70 manta rays identified on a single dive at Komodo.
Elitza, who is leading MMF’s manta research in the park, tells me that over 900 individuals have now been identified from the Komodo National Park itself, with several individuals also being resighted at Nusa Penida, around 450 km west.
I’d heard of some great Komodo liveaboard trips, including those that Andrea and Elitza host personally, but I hadn’t realised that land-based Komodo diving was also an option. Unsurprisingly, more of the park is available to see on a liveaboard itinerary, but I loved diving from Scuba Junkie. I’ll talk about that in a minute.
Another thing I hadn’t realised was just how diverse the dive opportunities were around Komodo National Park. I’d heard about the strong currents and big animals. I hadn’t heard about the vivid soft corals, the walls covered by colourful sponges, and the muck diving (= epic macro photography) sites. This trip was highly educational.
The Scuba Junkie Komodo Dive Resort
The scuba diving industry is directly dependent on a healthy ocean. Scuba Junkie has really taken that to heart. They have a full-time environmental team (Scuba Junkie SEAS) who maintain a turtle hatchery and rehabilitation centre in Mabul, Malaysia, and run loads of marine debris cleanups and marine education programs. Scuba Junkie has also been very supportive of marine research and conservation efforts, including hosting MMF’s manta researchers.
Scuba Junkie Komodo is only a couple of years old, but talking with the owners, managers and staff made it clear that they are highly experienced in the area. That’s important to get the best out of the diving, as there can be some serious currents moving between the islands. Obviously safety is the priority, and the staff was also kind enough to separate the dive groups into the normal people (everyone else) who had a blast surfing around some of the sites, and the photographer (me) who wanted to be in the areas with less current to avoid having my strobes smack me in the face.
The dive centre is in a great location. In the aerial photo above you can see Scuba Junkie Komodo in the foreground, on the left, while on the right is Rinca Island – the best place to see Komodo dragons. Woo. Their Komodo resort is much closer to the national park than the dive shops in Labuan Bajo, minimising travel times – and maximising relaxation time – and avoiding the noise and bustle of the port town.
I really enjoyed the way we dived. After an initial shore-based checkout dive on their house reef – which is a good macro site itself – on the afternoon we arrived, we did three dives each day from one of Scuba Junkie’s two boats. The boats leave the resort at 6-7 am each morning, depending on the distance to cover, and serve a great breakfast onboard. Mmmmm, pancakes.
The boats both have an upper deck, half in shade and half in the sun, with a bunch of beanbags to sit around and loiter between dives and feedings. There’s even 4G mobile reception through most of the park (I have a Telkomcel sim card).It’s all very civilised. You return to Scuba Junkie at about 4-5 pm in the afternoon, and there’s a vegetarian- (and carnivore-) friendly buffet meal at the dive resort every evening. Mmmmm, tempeh.
There’s lots more helpful information on the Scuba Junkie Komodo website.
Check out the evening bat tour off the boat, which was brilliant. And a huge bonus – they’ll take you to Rinca to see the dragons on the morning you leave!
Visiting the Komodo Dragons on Rinca Island
Seeing the Komodo dragons is one of the world’s top wildlife experiences. They’re amazing reptiles. I went down a little rabbit hole on dragon facts, because they’re awesome. Bear with me, I’m going to get nerdy… er.
- Komodo dragons evolved in Australia alongside two even larger species, one of which (Megalania, Varanus priscus) grew to a massive 7 m length. Megalania went extinct shortly after the first humans arrived in Australia (and presumably wiped out their prey) about 50, 000 years ago. Komodo dragons probably expanded into the present-day Komodo region about a million years ago, where they originally coexisted with all kinds of weird stuff: early humans, “hobbits” (Homo floresiensis), dwarf elephants, and giant tortoises.
- Komodo dragons might be venomous! But probably aren’t. (Here’s a medical report for a bite on a person.) People are clearly still arguing about this.
- Monitor lizard eyes have only cone cells, so they’re effectively blind at night.
- Only about 2500 dragons are estimated to live in Komodo National Park. Even the relatively large (340 km˛) Komodo Island is estimated to have less than 1200 dragons. The populations on Komodo and Rinca islands are both thought to be stable, fortunately. The dragons that live on small islands are dwarves, only growing to about 44 pounds (20 kilograms), compared to dragons on the larger islands that normally grow to about 176 pounds (80 kilograms).
- Gili Motang, one of the two small islands on which dragons survive in the park, is home to only about 100 individuals. Dragons were isolated on Motang after sea levels rose about 6000 years ago. Genetic studies have estimated that only about one dragon swims over to Motang every 50 years, so they’ve become rather inbred. In future, to help this population survive, it might be necessary to introduce a few more individuals from the more genetically diverse Rinca or Flores populations.
- The inbreeding mentioned above might also be affected by a unique breeding strategy: parthenogenosis. Two separate captive female dragons in the UK – one in London Zoo, one at Chestor Zoo – separately laid clutches of eggs, some of which subsequently hatched, without mating with males.
- When Komodo dragons reach about 20 kg they undergo a major switch from hunting small (less than 10 kg) prey to hunting BIG (over 50 kg) animals. Smaller dragons will actively hunt, whereas the larger dragons switch to a “sit and wait” strategy targeting deer, wild pigs and occasionally even buffalo.
- A significant future conservation threat to the dragons might be an invasive species, the black-spined toad. These toads have almost expanded their range to reach dragon habitat. When Australian monitor lizards first encountered invasive cane toads, the lizards suffered over 95% mortality. They were poisoned by toads as they tried to eat them due to a particular enzyme mutation that makes them particularly susceptible to toad toxins. Komodo dragons have the same vulnerability.
- Baby dragons hide up trees to avoid being eaten by larger dragons.
- The capture of Komodo dragons for the Bronz Zoo in New York, back in 1926, was the inspiration for the original King Kong film.
So freaking cool.
Anyway, back to the tour. The Scuba Junkie boat drops you off at the dock for an hour-long walk. There are park guides waiting at the end of the dock who’ll escort you around the island, with a stick to protect you from the dragons if need be. A big advantage of visiting as part of the Scuba Junkie package was that there were only three of us, rather than the large groups that were turning up from Labuan Bajo.
Our guide was great. I got him telling stories. He’d used his stick five times over eight years, in cases where he genuinely needed to stop a dragon attacking. Apparently, though, the dragons are normally quite wary of humans – it’s normally the individual dragons that have (purposely or accidentally) been fed, and hence become more comfortable around people, that are dangerous. If you do what your guide tells you, you won’t have any problems.
Most of the dragons we saw were around the ranger station. We were told they congregate because of the smells of cooking. We did walk around a short hill loop though, a nice way to see more of the island. We saw some of the dragon’s prey species too, deer and buffalo.
Take some shoes (my friends Eva and Carl both got by in flip-flops, but I totally would have outrun them if a dragon got feisty) and water for the walk, and you’ll have to pay for the entry and guiding. I gave our guide an extra tip at the end, too, as he was very patient with my incessant questions.
Apparently the dragons are most active early in the morning, so that’ll presumably offer the best photo opportunities. I’m keen to get back over there next year! Our guide said there is a cabin for overnight stays opening up later this year.
I was using my Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera on land and underwater. The new E-M1 mkII is also out now, and it’s looking nice – improved battery life, autofocus, and slightly better resolution. I was using my Nauticam NA-EM1 housing underwater with dual Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes (with eneloop rechargeable batteries).
My “jump” settings for underwater wide angle are normally f/8, 1/125 sec, ISO200, with strobes set to 16. For macro, I’m normally at f/14, 1/200, ISO200, with strobes at 16. I shoot in manual mode in both cases. I always shoot in raw format and edit using Adobe Lightroom. I used the video tutorial at Stuck at Customs to learn how to use Lightroom properly. I love video tutorials!
Many of the sites at Komodo are extremely biodiverse, as I mentioned above, so get your buoyancy well sorted before you start thinking about photography. Both the macro and wide angle photography opportunities are excellent, so you’ll likely want to change lens (and sometimes batteries, I always take a spare). I keep my gear in something like a Think Tank Mirrorless Mover bag, in a proper dry bag for protection, with a travel towel to dry things off before I open the housing.
As usual, the 40-150 mm was my go-to lens for everything above the water. The bats were very cool (and I appreciated the f/2.8). The tilting LCD on the camera was very useful while photographing the dragons so I could easily get a nice low angle.
The aerial photos were taken with my DJI Phantom 4 PRO drone. I’ve been using that with my Nexus 6 phone, but the app constantly crashes on Android which is pretty annoying. It seems to help if I put the phone into airplane mode, but it still routinely overheats. I’m thinking about picking up an iPad Mini 4 to use with the drone (and for reading) instead. The drone is otherwise great though, image quality is excellent for still photos – a big upgrade over my Phantom 3. I haven’t used the video much yet.
If you’re interested in improving your photography, the best underwater photography book is Underwater Photography Masterclass by Alex Mustard. For wildlife photography, the Wildlife Photography Workshop is pretty useful too. Lonely Planet Indonesia is a useful general travel resource for the country.
Thanks a million to Scuba Junkie Komodo for hosting my visit, and generally for their support for our research!
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