Diving with the “Incredibles”, part II

Diving with the Incredibles, part II

I might have still had mask face.  I definitely still had jet lag.  Just days after my return from a trip to Komodo on the Seven Seas in May, the newsflash email arrived.  “Last minute discounted trip to Komodo.”  Because my watch was still on Indonesia time, I knew that it was business hours there and contacted the Seven Seas directly about availability on this cruise.  A response came back within a couple of minutes confirming that yes, there was availability, and furthermore, if I were to join the cruise, I would have a cabin with a large double bed to myself.   How could I repeat a trip to Komodo so soon?   I suppose the better question was how could I not.  In addition to the obvious list of pluses about this situation, including the fact that the cruise would take place over my birthday, I have always wanted to dive a specific location (tropical) daily over consecutive months to experience seasonal changes in the marine life.   A second trip to Komodo two months after the first was as close as I have ever been to achieving this diving goal.

On 14 July, the group of divers for the “last minute discounted trip” met at Denpasar International Airport.  SEVEN divers.  All were experienced divers, with the exception of Tim, the enthusiastic 14 year old on his first diving trip after open water certification.  His father was a distinguished filmographer, who I would soon discover was using a not so ostentatious compact camera and housing to record underwater.  It was raining terribly hard in Denpasar that early morning.  So much so, that we had an umbrella escort to both the bus and the plane, and it was probably the reason that the electricity went out twice in the airport while we were checking in.  Once we were seated on the plane, the announcement was made that our flight would be delayed until the weather improved.  An inauspicious beginning.  In the end, our flight was delayed only about an hour, but the truth is, that these dive trips pass all too quickly anyway.

One of the things I like about the Seven Seas is the crew gets right down to business with a dive plan on the first day.  So even though our flight had been delayed, we still were able to have lunch on the boat and get into the water for a memorable muck dive by around 14:30.   It was tagged as a “check out” dive, but in my mind, at Wainilu, one of my favorite muck dive sites, we were deep within the Komodo diving scene within a couple of hours of landing at Labuan Bajo.  It was not even enough time for me to set up my also modest camera rig in anticipation of the usual characters, perhaps even some of the same guys I met two months before.  This dive site makes me feel as if I am immersed in a black and white photo, low visibility and little sunlight, until suddenly whoever is your guide (or even you sometimes) will find something spectacular, like this time:  a Halimeda ghostpipefish, a couple of tiny nudibranchs, and a mating pair of frogfish, with an exceptionally unusual looking female.  I am curious what she did to get her guy.  Our second dive, more or less a dusk dive, was also at Wainilu, and we were able to see some mandarin fish in the coral rubble.

The dive trip was amazingly different from that in May.  For one, we were hardly alone on the surface or underwater and even had to share space with a super yacht owned by the richest woman in the UK.  It came equipped with a helicopter that essentially wiped away that back to the time of dinosaurs feeling you get when you look at the landscape of the Komodo Marine Park.  Nonetheless, I am convinced that the fun was better on “our” boat.

The weather had also changed.  In May, the sea was like glass everywhere, including south Komodo, which is one of my favorite areas to dive on the planet.  “Big, big wind” I have written in my log book.  The trade winds from the south were now in season, so the sea was less calm, and it was a bit brisk after the dives.  Underwater though nothing had changed.  Cannibal Rock still provoked the worse case of ADHD my eyes and I might ever have, because I could not prioritize where to stop and to look.  Thankfully, we had the Incredibles, a.k.a. Irwan and Frengki, and Karl to identify specific creatures such as three frogfish and a microscopic zebra crab in a fire urchin.  The Yellow Wall o’ Texas and Crinoid Canyon are incredibly enchanting dives as you flow along these walls in the same rhythm as the soft coral and anemones.  It is impossible to capture the emotions I feel in a photograph when I dive these walls.

After two days here, we cruised back to the north for the classic Komodo dives, such as Crystal Rock and Castle Rock, to view pelagic animals.  While reef fish swirled around us, or watched outwardly from the wall as we did, white tip reef sharks paraded by.  A small spotted eagle ray cruised by on one of the dives, and those of us who did not have our heads buried in anemones saw a dolphin and a school of cownose eagle rays.  It was a bit of a joke on this trip, my infatuation with anemones.  I think I am the only diver to have ever gleefully proclaimed “anemone fish” (as opposed to whale shark) on approach to the boat after a dive.  I have always loved watching the way they move in the current, their colors and texture, and their diversified inhabitants: porcelain crabs, shrimp, and of course, the anemone fish.  Everyone made light fun, excitedly motioning Janice over, to view what?… another beautiful anemone, but I enjoyed all of it.  I was surprised, though, this time to see white anemones.  I learned from Linda that these anemones were bleached due to the loss of the symbiotic algae, which usually happens, she explained, when the water is too warm.  Hopefully, this is a temporary condition, but this changed enormously from the two months previous because I have never seen a bleached magnificent anemone.  Intriguing, but difficult photo subjects.

We had some challenging dives where we experienced that famous Komodo current.  Tatawa Besar is always a straight-forward drift dive, but the Golden Passage and Fish Bowl presented significant challenges when the tide was changing, i.e. we had to kick a bit to get where we wanted to be, and I never knew that my heart could beat that fast.  Tatawa Besar is kind of an underwater freeway where the car next to you is a green turtle, and then suddenly the current that runs parallel to the reef stops dead, and always at the same location in the reef.  Sometimes the current is slower than others, but usually it is always fast enough that you can not maneuver a pause to look at something.  Our shortest time across Tatawa Besar was about 22 minutes.  Right at the point where you feel as if you are exiting a moving sidewalk, a cuttlefish was laying eggs into the coral.  I wondered what the incubation time was for cuttlefish eggs and whether I had narrowly missed seeing some hatch because I had also seen a cuttlefish laying eggs at exactly this spot in May.

The diversity of small creatures on these expansive underwater reef sites surely boggles my mind but more so, the fact that the guides find them.  At Pygmy Point, I watched Frengki darting from one sea fan to the next at 25 meters searching for pygmy sea horses, like he was in a timed immunity challenge for the reality TV show, Survivor: Underwater. He was successful in finding five of these creatures that take up about 0.15cm3 of space in the water, but in a single new fan that was only 18 meters deep.  18 meters and no other photographers around?  This opportunity was the best I had to take a photo of one.  Topside he told me, “It is best just to spend your time looking at them on the dive and then to take the picture from a book.”  Good advice.  On Penga Kecil, Irwan spotted a critter that I have only seen once before, a winged pipefish.  It was not residing in any specific reef locale so if you look at a full-length photo of the pipefish, you will wonder how he distinguished that from everything else on a wall covered with life.  It was probably my favorite macro critter of this trip.

Night dives were also offered most days.  I could not easily understand who could pass on a dive called IMAX, even if it was at night.  Most everyone apparently (although we were only seven), so it was just three girls (angels we were called) and Irwan.  It was a real test of buoyancy control, at night and with a camera rig.  I felt like I was dangerously close to being a Jerry Lewis character underwater with my camera rig floating precariously over an expansive garden of perhaps centuries old delicate staghorn coral.  We managed to find two Spanish dancers and a huge aplysia that was moving too fast for a photo.  I had seen so few nudibranchs in comparison to my trip in May, but when we did find them, they were enormous!  There was something deeply primitive to me about diving the site called Coral Garden at night.  The sand here is especially white and pristine, and we were there on a clear night where there was nearly a full moon that cast Komodo island before us in a unique light.  Under the water, you wanted to be like the stargazer that we saw, buried in the sand up to its eyeballs, marveling at the moon and the stars.  I took the opportunity to turn off my light and watched the moonlight shimmer on the sand.  I could not see anything else, but each movement of my hands or fins made the presence of bioluminescent life apparent.

The last dive was a beautiful “stroll” around Batu Balong.  No current this time.  It is a huge, rock/wall outcrop in the ocean covered with soft corals, sponges, and in general, just color.  And you have to keep your eye out on the deep blue for pelagics.  On another day, we had seen an octopus here out in the open on the rock, changing its appearance it seemed to impress us rather than to frighten us.  On this last day, I finally saw several nudibranchs, including a Frengki find, which was impressively small in contrast to the gigantic Spanish dancer that we looked so hard for but could not find the night before.

It is not all about underwater on these trips.  We jumped from the boat, watched the sunset from Bugis Beach on my birthday, hiked up a 200-meter peak on Gili Lawa Darat, and inspected at close range the Komodo dragons on the beach in Horseshoe Bay.  Various crew members taught us some Indonesian words, my favorite being matahari, the word for sun which literally means “eyes day”.  I can only state again that it was incredible.

That is it until next time on the Seven Seas, which unfortunately will not be less than 60 days from now.

©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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