Day 118: Hobbits, Dragons, and Manta Rays - Part 1

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September 18th 2010
Published: September 21st 2010
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The surf finally dropped below acceptable levels and I was free from Lakey's grasp. A long and expensive taxi ride brought me to the port town of Sape. I had to stay overnight in a shitty and expensive hotel with nothing to do but read. The ferry from Sape, Sumbawa to Labuan Bajo, Flores was something of a nightmare. They only had one person working the ticket booth servicing hundreds of passengers; an hour and half long line of gridlock. The police were brought in to restore order because of all the people cutting in line... Then it took 3 hours to load the ferry. One car and truck at a time, all the passengers just crowded the deck and smoked smokey cigarettes waiting to leave. I was lucky to get there early and found a corner for my surfboards and a spot I could sit on my bag... Then it took 7 hours on the water.

I made it to Labuan Bajo on the east coast of Flores before nightfall and managed to find a hotel quickly. Labuan Bajo is the main jumping off point for trips to the Komodo Islands where the famous dragons still wander freely. Komodo National Park is also one of the best diving sites in the world. It is a place where people openly talk shit about Austrailia's Great Barrier Reef. It has been described to me as the Holy Grail, Mecca, and the Mt Everest of diving. The Komodo Islands are located in a deep water channel between the warm Pacific and the cold Indian oceans. Lots of nutrients come out up from the cold depths and blanket the warm shallow corals. Species from both oceans come here to feed in great numbers and are protected (to a certain degree) by the National Park. I organized a couple dives soon after arriving and learned the next day what the fuss was all about.

The first dive to Batu Bulan was epic. Pristine coral covers this sea mount. Clouds of multi-colored fish swarm near the reef while schools of larger fish swim nearby. A few 150lb Napolean wrasse swam by unconcerned with the divers in the water. We saw octopus, turtles, 2 white tip reef sharks, moray eels being cleaned by shrimp, and giant pufferfish the size of pinatas. It was hard to see anything because you were too busy looking around for the next greatest thing.
The second dive at Manta Point was life changing. We descended to the bottom and landed on a barren waste. Most of the reef here was obliterated back in the 1970's when dynamite fishing was popular. Chunks of coral shift in the currents to create debris dunes. Corals need a hard static surface on which to grow and the currents here are so strong that only a few patches have come back at all. Upwelling still brings tons of food to the surface and mantas congregate here at certain times of year to feed. During the high season dive shops offer 'Manta Guarantees" and groups regularly spot 40-50 mantas at a time. They are just starting to migrate back so we only saw 9. Still mind blowing.
Within minutes of taking to the water a group of 3 huge mantas swam past us. They have 10-15ft wingspans and weigh hundreds of pounds and the sight of them effortlessly gliding past is enough to take your breath away. We all hung on the bottom for a moment shaking our heads at what just happened when they returned. The 3 swam strait for us out of the blue. When they were about 10ft away the leader flipped upside-down doing a loop, which was emulated by the other 2 in the group. They danced and twisted for a moment before continuing on, flying just feet above us. It was pretty spectacular. Over the next hour we saw 6 more mantas who are docile and inquisitive enough to come almost within arms length, soaring like an eagles in the current. We also saw a black-tip reef shark and a ribbon eel. Mind blowing.

The next day I went over to Rinca (pronounced Rincha) Island for a view of the dragons. I heard from a few different people that Rinca was better than Komodo for actually seeing the monsters. The island is pretty dry; mostly savannah and monsoon forest that survives on seasonal rain. About 1200 dragons live on the island with wild buffalo, horses, pigs, deer, and monkeys for them to feast upon. As they are rather slow moving, they stalk the weak, old, or sleeping and bite with a bacteria laden mouth. For days or weeks they follow the trail of blood left by their slowly dying prey. A 120lb dragon can consume 90lbs of meat in one sitting and they will not need to feed again for 4-8 weeks. We saw 10-15 dragons and dozens of wild buffalo along a 2 hour walk through the park. It was hot outside so most were just laying down in the shade uninterested in the groups taking their photos.

The next day I was all set to dive again but the dreaded ferry ride left me with a cold. A tiny pinch of sinus pressure at sea level can be dangerous at 60 feet below so I had to put the dive off for the next day. Its weird that sitting for 10 hours on a floor covered in mud, trash, and food, with people spitting all over the place could spread disease but the world is a strange place.

The next dives were at Castle Rock and Crystal Rock. These are supposed to be the shark dives in the area and they were pretty cool. Saw more turtles, octopus, eels, scorpion fish, lion fish, crocodile fish, a 3ft tuna, an eagle ray, and a dozen or so sharks and it was a pretty cool dive. When we surfaced our dive master apologized to us saying it was pretty desolate down there..? I guess during stronger currents there are schools of fish that black out the sun and swarms of hungry sharks there to feed. The last group to go saw 30-40 reef, bamboo and bull sharks... but the last group at manta point didn't see any mantas so you win some-you lose some.


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