Jurassic Park on land,
abundant tropical safari under water
Komodo National Park was one of the most incredible places I've ever been. I didn't want to leave. And to think- I almost didn't think it would be worth coming here.
It's notoriously expensive to get to Komodo and requires a flight to Labuan Bajo, a nearby island with a big enough port to use as a jumping-off point to see the many islands comprising the park. Dain found a great dive shop, Divine Divers, that was affordable enough and we were able to kill two birds with one stone by getting our Advanced Open Water SCUBA certification while diving Komodo's beautiful reefs in the process. We pretty much spent all our time in the park on a boat, which is exactly how you should see the park. All I really knew about Komodo was that this was the only place in the world where you can see the famed Komodo dragons, but this place is about so much more than that.
We decided to visit Rinca Island, a large island next to Komodo, because it's much less developed than its neighbor and also is home to wild dragons. You disembark from the boat, surrounded by curious macaque monkeys, and walk a little ways until you reach a large open savanna. In just a few meters, the breeze from the ocean is gone and the intense heat from the sun beats down on this unforgiving plain. It's the perfect habitat for sunbathing cold-blooded reptiles, and lo and behold, we see a 6-foot long dragon lounging just a few feet off the path. They look like medieval alligators wearing chain-mail like they're sneaking in a quick nap before their jousting tournament. The babies, each about 3-5 years old, were the ones that moved about the most, using their long snake-like tongues like metal detectors trying to sniff out some food.
Most of the guides inside the park live there and there's a small shack with a kitchen where they grab their meals. They swear they don't feed the wildlife but the dragons smell the food cooking and camp out near the building, which makes for easy dragon spotting since these creatures are normally solitary. They take nine months to hatch out of soft-shelled eggs buried in holes in the ground and immediately climb up into a tree to live for a few years. They can immediately hunt and eat lizards, birds, bugs, and smaller dragons. We got surprisingly close to these creatures even as our guide was telling us that they eat anything (each other, humans...) and can run 20km an hour. But don't worry, he had a stick in case anything happened.
After seeing the dragons up close, we hiked around the beautiful island of Rinca. The dragons mainly stay on the hot flat savanna but as you climb into the hills you can sometimes see buffalo and wild horses later in the summer. The view from the top of Rinca overlooks the rolling hills to the east and the rest of the islands in the national park to the west. Seriously, how awesome is this place?
The wildlife on land is great, but the real magic happens when you dip underwater. I've only been diving for a few months but I've been to some of the planet's best dive sites (including famous Sipadan) and I can easily say Komodo was the best. The abundance and variety of exotic creatures combined with great visibility and warm water make this collection of reefs second to none. We saw octopus mating, fifty turtles, eagle rays, sting rays, bump-headed parrotfish, huge lionfish, giant travally, sweetlips, angelfish, trumpetfish, stone fish, flagfish, lots of silvery schools, squid, grouper, and many more. We finally got a deep-water case for the gopro and were able to get a lot of these moments on video, watch below!
The one thing we didn't get on tape sadly is the manta ray. I had a unique experience with the mantas that I'll never forget. We were snorkeling over a reef and decided to swim out to one of the tiny islands with a pink beach. The beaches in the park are made with bleached crushed coral, most of which are white but some are red, which makes a lot of the beaches a sparkly pale pink color. Off about 200 feet away, someone shouted, "manta!" Without thinking, I dove into the water and swam out as fast as I could in their direction. After about 150 feet I stopped to check my progress and saw a big silvery mass in front of me. I thought it could be a dolphin because we saw them frequently around the boat but after I focused my eyes a bit, I saw it was a ray. Not only that- it was a giant manta ray with a wingspan of about 15 feet!! It was simply me and the ray just a few feet ahead in the open ocean and I couldn't help but feel really, really small in this world. The ray flapped its great wings, rolled onto its back, and slowly swam off into the blue. Dain missed this particular moment but later on our drift dive through Manta Point, we'd go on to see about ten more manta up close as they came to get cleaned by feeder fish. They're fantastic animals and the biggest creatures I've ever seen both wild and up close. The manta encounters were just the big fancy cherry on top of an already fantastic dive trip.
Each day as I'd stand in my wetsuit on the sundeck on top of the boat, I had the biggest smile on my face as I surveyed the island landscape. Diving, being out in nature, and seeing animals are what truly makes me happy. I'm so blessed to be living out my life like this and a little piece of me will feel sad as I dive less frequently moving along with the rest of my trip. Even more blessed to have found a hobby I'm so passionate about and allows me to enjoy places like this!