One evening, our skipper Frank Van Der Linde's partner, Rung, went ashore to see the Komodo National Park rangers about port clearance. With the paperwork completed, Rung casually asked the rangers what she should do if confronted by a dragon. "Run", was the simple reply. Seconds later, Rung was staring face to face at a Komodo dragon. She jumped on to a benchtop, then a chair and finally on to the top of a table. The trouble was, the dragon was just as agile and slowly closed in on its terrified human prey.
Screaming out for help, Rung could only watch as her large reptilian foe closed in for the kill – or at least a very unpleasant bite. Fortunately, help was soon at hand as one of the rangers, wielding a large stick, managed to keep the fearsome creature at bay.
Perhaps recalling the earlier advice, Rung then ran the 500m back to the boat yelling at the top of her voice, prompting Frank to wonder if the entire population of Komodo dragons was hot on her heels.
Komodo Island, home to the world's largest lizard, is part of the Komodo National Park, described by some as Indonesia's real-life Jurassic Park. It is a place where the crews of visiting boats mount 'dragon watches' to ward off hungry Komodo dragons, which sometimes try to climb aboard to join dining guests. Skipper Frank has, on occasion, had to decline the advances of more determined Komodo dragons by pushing them off the stern of his charter vessel, Philippine Siren.
Our crew was on dragon watch as soon as we arrived at Rinca Island, in time for breakfast. The crew took a mix of 'fruit and veg' to the island for the macaque monkeys and wild boar and we watched on from a distance as the hungry locals assembled for their impromptu feast. But as the day warmed up, something else stirred in the undergrowth and the initial dinner guests quickly disappeared. The dragons had arrived; we counted four on the beach, a couple fighting over turf or tucker and the others indulging in some public mating.
We all managed to get some great shots, although Frank was otherwise occupied trying to rescue a RIB stranded on a nearby reef, his efforts attracting the attention of one of the dragons, which decided to go for a swim. At one point Frank fell into the water, which only served to stimulate the dragon's interest even more – fortunately, he managed to recover the situation and was soon back at the boat, minus his inquisitive friend.
Komodo dragons had long been thought to have toxic bacteria in their saliva and, after biting their prey, they would wait until the animal succumbed to the infection, before moving in for the kill. But last year, a venom researcher named Bryan Fry from the University of Melbourne, together with co-authors, published a study in a science journal which showed that Komodo dragons are, in fact, venomous. When biting – usually enough to kill or maim the animal in itself – they release up to 30mg of venom into the wounds. The venom rapidly decreases blood pressure, increases blood loss and induces shock. The study found that it takes 0.1mg/kg of dragon venom to cause hypotension and 0.4mg/kg to cause lethal hypotensive collapse. So it seems the venom is like a back-up plan. If the bite doesn't kill the prey outright, the venom will, or at least weaken it. Dragons also have a highly-developed sense of smell and can locate dying animals and carrion up to 4km away. During our visit, we were told a park ranger was bitten and taken to hospital, where he spent two weeks fighting the venom.
Komodo dragons are a type of monitor lizard that inhabit Komodo and some of the smaller surrounding islands in central Indonesia. Known locally as 'ora', they are the world's largest lizard and can reach up to 2.5m, while weighing up to 166kg. They are known for their extraordinary intelligence and inquisitiveness and are alert and very agile predators.
Granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1991, Komodo and the surrounding islands are also home to some of the world's premier dive spots, with such names as Cannibal Rock, Shotgun Pass and Hot Rock drawing divers from near and far to sample their exotic and sometimes toxic delights.
Having been put on to Frank Van Der Linde and his 40m yacht, I was more than happy to accept his invitation to join him and his crew on a voyage to Komodo and the surrounding islands.
Joining us were 16 other adventurers, together with enough food and beverages to keep us supplied for 10 days. "If you can drink all the beer I have on board in 10 days, I'll shout you a free trip," challenged Captain Frank. Surveying the other guests, it seemed likely that we would accept the challenge in the spirit it was made.
Known as Cannibal Rock, the ridge between the Rinca and Nusa Kode islands in the southern Komodos rises from over 30m below the surface to within 3m and is only 100m from shore. Constantly swept by currents, it is absolutely covered in crinoids, nudibranchs, tubastrea coral, anthias, grey frogfish, vibrantly-coloured anemones, sea apples, crocodile fish and hundreds of juvenile yellow sea cucumbers.
Cannibal Rock is a macro photographer's paradise and anyone keen to create their own photo album will want to keep going back for more. In any one patch there are starfish, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea fans and all the rare critters – pygmy seahorses, commensal shrimps, gobies, frogfish and amphipods. It really is an amazing diving experience, enhanced by nearby Yellow Wall, a wall of rock covered in yellow soft corals.
SHOTGUN – WHAT A BLAST!
The mere mention of Shotgun conjures excitement and anticipation. This site is a pass between two islands, Gilli Lawa Laut and Gilli Lawa Darat. Where the pass narrows and the seafloor rises, divers get 'shot-gunned' – or more like 'shot-putted' – up and over the reef at great speed. It is certainly an uplifting sensation as you are picked up by the current, thrown upward, then spat out into deeper water on the far side.
Divers are dropped in well out in front of the pass itself and the dive begins with a slow drift over white sand and bommies covered in vibrant soft corals. This is a prime spot for wide-angle pics, with soft corals in the foreground, and a backdrop of brilliant blue water. I remember thinking at the time that I could fill a photo library with colourful underwater images from this place.
As the current picks up and the pass converges, you end up in a spot where there are two channels going off to the left. Here the walls are covered in sponges and there are fish everywhere – black snapper, trevally, drummer and nurse sharks. It's like a living fish soup!
At Crystal Rock, near Gilli Lawa Laut, I swam up to the head of the current, where it first hits two bommies. I saw fusiliers being hunted in a small cave, and every big reef fish wanted in on the action. There were giant trevally (GTs) – big black ones – giant Maori wrasse and a super-sized moray eel. There were also GTs hunting fusiliers mid-water. Our divers spotted clown trigger fish, eagle rays, white-tip sharks and bull sharks. I found the trick with Crystal Rock was to swim to where the current hits the rock first and wait for the action to begin!
Castle Rock, also at Gilli Lawa Laut, is one of Frank's favourite dives. Here GTs and blue-finned trevally hunt blue fusiliers, as do the big-eye trevally. On the reef there are emperor angelfish, surgeonfish and white-tip reef sharks. The bommy is about 4m below the surface and drops to 30m or more on all sides.
Bima Bay reminded me of a magical 'muck dive' at Ambon dubbed the 'Twilight Zone'. Muck diving is diving on a sandy or muddy seafloor. On the sandy slope of Bima Bay there were gaudy fire urchins, with Coleman shrimp and zebra crabs, cuttlefish, yellow seahorses, big flatheads, wolf eels, cockatoo waspfish and a sea moth. The rare and unusual critter list goes on, with yellow ornate ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, pipefish, spider crabs, transparent shrimps with white spots and Ambon scorpionfish. In one small area I spied an orange frogfish, black frogfish and a spotted moray eel – definitely a muck diver's paradise!
Sangeang Island rises from the sea like that scene from the blockbuster movie, King Kong, in which the skull-shaped edifice emerges from an ominous and threatening fog. With its black lava flows and thick jungle spilling from its slopes, it fits the bill perfectly. An active volcano, it boasts three sizzling dive sites named Tecno Reef, The Estuary and Hot Rock.
At Tecno Reef, hot water and bubbles trickle from vents on a black sand slope and the coral bommies are home to white leaf fish, gobies, bubble coral shrimps, panda clownfish and yellow ghost pipefish living on black coral. The Estuary produced ornate ghost pipefish, xeno crabs, blade shrimp, yellow pipefish on black coral, juvenile warty frogfish, yellow leaf fish, painted frogfish – yellow/red in colour – and pygmy seahorse.
At The Circus, near Banta Island, we did a night dive in 10m of water, where we spotted mimic octopus, spiky devilfish, sponge crabs, flounder, moray eels and a stunning dragonet with golden eyes – a macro photographer's delight. The Lighthouse at Gilli Lawa Laut is a drift dive, with black snapper, many GTs and emperor angelfish – "galactic", as an Italian dive buddy, Fabio, described them.
The Hole in the Wall dive site is aptly named as tiny Batu Bolong Island has an above-water hole running from one side to the other. The current absolutely rages around the island. We were dropped off in the island's lee, where we were sandwiched by the current on both sides. At 20 to 25m, there were big Napoleon wrasse, GTs and white-tip reef sharks. We finished in the shallows, where a gang of GTs was hunting fusiliers.
This proved to be a good dive to see big marine animals, but I soon learned not to wander off to the sides, as the 20-knot current can sweep the unwary off into the blue yonder.
Pink Beach is at Pantai Merah, near Komodo National Park. It is one of the best dives for wide-angle photography, with bommies at 25m covered in crinoids and reef fish. Helmet gurnards spread their lovely pectoral fins over the sand, making for great photo opportunities.
With many years of running dive charters, Frank Van Der Linde and his Worldwide Dive and Sail partners have refined the Philippine Siren to cater for international dive groups. Built in Sulawesi, the Philippine Siren is 40m long by 10m wide, and sports seven 'Phinisi gaff-rigged' sails.
Accommodation consists of 16 bunks in eight rooms, with a total of 14 crew, including two PADI dive instructors looking after guests. Enriched air nitrox is free to all certified nitrox divers. If you are not certified, the crew can run you through the process as well as offering other PADI courses on board. There are two fast RIBs for diving and guests can also enjoy waterskiing and kayaking.
While the Philippine Siren is a powered craft, there was always a great sense of excitement when the crew hoisted the sails. The agility with which they scaled the masts and unfurled the sails had to be seen to be believed.
The Worldwide Dive and Sail fleet is one of the biggest and best in Southeast Asia, with 14 different destinations on offer, including the Similan Islands, the Mergui Archipelago, the Andaman Islands and Komodo Island.
But from my point of view, prehistoric Komodo Island and surrounds, with active volcanoes, super-sized dragons, raging currents and coral reefs teeming with bizarre marine life, is one of the world's most exciting diving destinations.
For more information, go to: www.worldwidediveandsail.com.