Why Komodo?

Komodo. Here be dragons.  Whether you are here to meet the world’s largest lizard or immerse yourself in breathtaking vistas above and below the sea, Komodo is a truly magical land guaranteed to leave a lasting impression on its visitors.

Dragons2

Approaching 3m in the flesh the dragons are a unique draw for many visitors to the Komodo Natonal Park. Perhaps unsuprisingly, dragons are inherently lazy creatures and it’s unusual to encounter one moving, let alone swimming as pictured above.

In my opinion, the real Komodo magic happens under the ocean and so that’s what I plan to share here: the magic of Manta Rays dancing in formation; vibrant coral reefs full of aquatic life; cryptic critters; and raging currents that get the adrenalin pumping.

What exactly makes Komodo so magical? Geographically, it’s situated in the lesser Sunda islands archipelago, an area of Indonesia that is sandwiched between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in the heart of the marine ecosystem known as the Coral Triangle. Just being in the Coral Triangle itself makes for a special aquatic experience – there’s more biodiversity in these waters than anywhere on the planet – but Komodo has few extra tricks up its sleeve that in my opinion make it the most spectacular destination for diving on the planet, namely it’s infamous currents.

Yes, Komodo is notorious for strong currents that for many people add a new dimension to diving. Currents that will make large powerful fish like Giant Trevally look uncomfortable, let alone scuba divers. For competent divers following an experienced guide, these currents can be leveraged for added excitement and abundant fish life. Get things wrong and you could be dragged down, spun around in a giant natural washing machine, and if you are lucky spat out hundreds of meters from the dive site. The story of lost divers drifting at sea overnight and being washed up on a dragon inhabited beach at the very southernmost part of Rinca island is considered diving folklore for the area.

The Indonesian Throughflow causes millions of tonnes of water to move through the channels around the Komodo National Park, encompassing an area around Komodo, Padar, Rinca and west Flores. This current system predominantly flows from the Pacific to the Indian ocean thanks to a 30cm difference in sea level between the two oceans. On a macro level looks like this:

ITF-map-Diving-Bali

(This image is from a great article about the Indonesian Throughflow here)

In a nutshell, the Komodo National Park (KNP) benefits from the currents that bring food and nutrients and abundant marine life to the area. Throw in hundreds of mangrove lined bays that act as nursery grounds for marine life (also feeding grounds for dugongs and green turtles) and you have all the ingredients for a balanced marine ecosystem.

For the majority of Komodo dive sites, the basic rule of thumb is that the rising tide flows roughly south to north and the falling tide flows north to south (disclaimer: always dive with an experienced guide and check the current first!). From May until October (dry season), cooler, more nutrient rich water tends to be drawn from the deep Indian Ocean in the south with the rising tide, whilst warmer, clearer water generally flows from the north to south with the falling tide. During the dry season the best conditions are in North and Central Komodo, with calm seas, 27 degree average temperature and stunning visibility at the right times. The South of the park is a chilly 20-25 degrees, 5-10m visibility and prone to swell in these months, however, the cooler, nutrient rich water offers up the greatest numbers of Mantas so longer liveaboard itineraries still make a trip down to Manta Alley in the South of Komodo. These conditions are reversed during the north-west monsoon months from November until April – the Northern dive sites suffer from lower visibility and swell, there are loads of Mantas turning up across Central KNP dive sites and the sites in the South have the clearest and warmest waters.

komodonationalparksmall

Dive sites of the Komodo National Park map courtesy of Dive Komodo

People regularly ask when is the best time to visit Komodo? That depends on what you like to see and how many people you are prepared to share the dive sites with. It’s no secret that visitor numbers to Flores and Komodo are growing rapidly and so if you can avoid the peak months of July – September you’ll have more chance of avoiding other groups in the water and potentially get better encounters with bigger fish such as Mantas and Sharks.

mantap
Manta alfredi, one of the biggest highlights for divers in the Komodo National Park.

Komodo is an incredibly unique part of the world that will always have a special place in my heart.  Beyond the spectacular diving and scenery, the local Floresian people are some of the most friendly and hospitable people I have met and they take great pride in showing the best of their country and culture.  Getting to Komodo is easy enough, leaving is likely to be emotional.

sangeang_sunset
Sunset behind Sangeang volcano from Gili Lawa Darat, North Komodo.
Advertisements

Manta Magic

Manta rays. These gentle giants are not only one of the biggest fish in the sea, but surely one of the most graceful and charismatic. They are relatively abundant in the waters of Komodo and a big draw for divers and snorkelers. I have been privileged to spend hundreds of hours observing them and take great pleasure in sharing this magical experience with divers.

stu-13

Size matters. The reef mantas (Manta alfredi) most commonly encountered in Komodo live for up to 40 years and can reach up to 5m wingspan. Typically they average 3m wingspan, with the largest ones being females, but the combined effects of underwater magnification and excitement often result in first encounters with 4m+ giants! Komodo’s reef mantas are known to travel an impressive 450km to Nusa Penida in Bali, with repeat encounters recorded in just over a month, emphasising their hyper-efficient design. Conservation International deployed satellite tags to collect data on manta behaviour and recorded some interesting findings, with the reef mantas tracked at depths of over 200m in Komodo, and more than 600m in open oceans.

At certain times of the year, the oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) makes an appearance in Komodo to feast on seasonal explosions of krill and plankton. I had the good fortune to meet the ultra-rare leucistic variation with almost completely white skin pigment, often described as manta unicorns. Quite how they know when and where these feasts are going to occur is wonderfully confounding. These giants grow up to 7m and are known to migrate much further distances than their reef dwelling cousins.

manta-1
Manta birostris

After the initial excitement of being dwarfed by a fish that looks like a stealth bomber, it’s a good idea to stay calm and find an unobtrusive position to observe the manta ray. Whilst brief fly-by encounters are always welcome, the most memorable encounters are when mantas are cleaning, feeding or mating.

Cleaning stations are by far the best way to enjoy quality time with mantas in Komodo with the dive sites at Karang Makassar, Mawan, and Manta Alley offering some of the finest spa facilities for manta rays in the national park. Look out for relaxed mantas hovering over the cleaning station with extended cephalic fins, allowing their huge body mass to be cleaned by a small army of reef fish. There are a variety of fish species involved in the cleaning process, with butterfly fish and moon wrasse going to work on the body area and cleaner wrasse focussing on the mouth and gills. By following codes of conduct to ensure the mantas have plenty of space to clean, lucky divers can sometimes experience enjoy curious manta rays at exceptionally close quarters, however, mantas are said to be highly spatially aware and unlikely to intentionally have contact with divers.

Manta rays feed in a number of ways, the most common being “ram” feeding: literally opening their huge mouths and extending their cephalic fins whilst swimming in current to draw planktonic food through their gills. Ram feeding happens at depth, but due to higher plankton concentrations, it’more common to see manta rays feeding at the surface, much to the delight of snorkelers. Sometimes there are concentrated patches of food, and manta rays can be seen barrel rolling repeatedly in the same spot to maximise plankton intake. The most impressive feeding spectacle happens when there is an extra heavy plankton bloom – sometimes known as a red tide – and it’s possible to encounter immense numbers of mantas on a dive site such as Karang Makassar, frenetically ingesting the concentrated plankton by barrel rolling and cyclone feeding in groups. Being completely surrounded by more manta rays than you can count for well over an hour…scuba diving doesn’t get much better!

Manta courtship is another wonderful spectacle for divers to experience in Komodo, with trains of male manta rays performing an elaborate ballet pursuit of a female in heat. She will loop and turn and they will follow suit, in a test of stamina that lasts for up to 48 hours until there is one male manta that has proved his dexterity. Although this behaviour is regularly witnessed by divers in bi-annual courting seasons, it’s also the only occasion when I have perceived a sense of aggression from courting mantas, emerging from the blue with little regard for encroaching scuba divers.

Mating is extremely rare to see and a much more short-lived affair, due to mantas being negatively buoyant copulation lasts only a matter of minutes. The male moves perpendicular to the female and bites onto the left wingtip (recognising mating scars are a good way to spot sexually mature females), positioning themselves belly to belly and then attempting to swim up the water column to prolong copulation.

ninja_manta
A “ninja” manta, scientifically known as melantistic due to the black skin pigment.

Mantas can be spotted throughout the year in Komodo, although ironically there tend to be less around at the most accessible manta dive sites in the peak tourist months of July to September. Whether this is linked to increasing numbers of boats, people, noise and pollution, or simply a consequence of less food availability and natural migration cycles, remains to be seen. There is a definite correlation between the moon phase and manta sightings, with the week preceding full and new moon often lacking many mantas in the central Komodo sites. Outside of these peak tourist months, the mantas are generally abundant, if not guaranteed. Whilst the general weather and diving conditions may not be perfect in the quieter months of November to April, they are some of the most prolific months for manta encounters.

If you’ve made it this far I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. There are a wealth of resources available online for further reading and insights about manta rays, including Marine Megafauna Foundation, Manta Watch, Conservation International, and Manta Trust. Feel free to contact me with any questions about Komodo mantas and visiting Komodo in general.