September in Komodo: The Star Attraction

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Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

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But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

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We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

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Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

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I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

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Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

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Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

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And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

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Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

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This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

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… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

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As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

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And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

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… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

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But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

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It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

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We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

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… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

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When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

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But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

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… just like in this video.

September in Komodo: Getting Closer to the Coral

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I really enjoyed how varied the diving was in Komodo. There were plenty of drift dives, wall dives, and sometimes just plain vanilla let’s-poke-around-the-reef dives.

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I dived with Reefseekers and the guides were the loveliest and most professional I’ve met. In addition to their impeccable briefings and safety procedures, I liked how they shared their love for the ocean at a daily storytelling session. Each day there was a different topic, perhaps on rays, or on cephalopods or, in one case, on day and night colours of fish. I never really noticed till diving in Komodo that fish have day and night colours. Not only that, but they change to night colours in the day time to signal to the cleaner fish that they want to be cleaned. Below we have a few surgeonfish changed into their darker night colours, and this in very stark contrast to a much lighter brother who was already being cleaned.

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There were plenty of other fish hanging around the reef, like this startled looking soldierfish…

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… and this predatory giant moray eel.

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There were also plenty of hawkfish, and I had fun catching pictures of the threadfin hawkfish…

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… the freckled hawkfish…

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… more freckled hawkfish…

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… and the rare longnose hawkfish.

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Others in the reef were very hard to spot. Look carefully and see if you can spot a scorpionfish.

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Others away from the coral were the garden eels, poking their heads out from the sand only when divers were further away. It was impossible to get a closeup shot.

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September in Komodo: Blue, Blue Oceans

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I flew to Flores from Bali, landing at Labuan Bajo, the staging point for Komodo. Komodo itself is a small island off Flores and is home to the famous Komodo dragon. I wasn’t here just to see the dragons, but also to experience the famed diving in the area. Diving here is challenging with the strong currents but very rewarding asĀ it is very much an untouched area with an incredible amount of fish.

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Every dive I had was so blue and full of fish. There were trevally in great abundance and in greater abundance were the fusiliers and other smaller fish that made their prey.

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It was always a fish soup experience each dive.

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Famous here are the pelagics, otherwise known as big fish that swim in the blue, like the ominous looking giant trevally.

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They get pretty big, though not quite as big as a diver!

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It was almost shocking to me how often we saw Napolean wrasse. These are rare in other waters but seeing two or three in one dive was almost the norm here.

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They weren’t too shy and often swam round us in large circles, as if to mark out territory.

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Some of them were not yet in the terminal phase and had lighter markings on their smaller bodies. It was wonderful to see these majestic creatures cruise round us.

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Other creatures were more fearsome than majestic, like the dogtooth tuna. From afar they looked fine…

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… but up closer their rows of teeth and rather unfriendly expression made me think of how eagerly they would take revenge on me – all for my penchant for tuna sashimi.

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There were some slightly dangerous fish in the water. Here’s probably the most dangerous – the titan triggerfish. It’s been known to attack divers and to grave consequence. Thankfully it wasn’t nesting season when they tended to be very aggressive and territorial. This one just cruised past without taking any notice of us.

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Even though they have a reputation for being deadly, sharks are generally pretty harmless. There were lots of white tip sharks in the area. It is obvious how they got their name and it’s marvellous how the white tips are almost luminous in the water.

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These creatures were quite shy and it wasn’t easy to get a photo. It doesn’t help that they tend to be quite small, generally being about one to two metres long.

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Some of them came in right onto the reef but quickly shied away from the avid photographers.

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The closest we got was when there was a white tip shark hiding in a cave, oblivious to the fact that its tail was sticking out for all to admire.

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