Sharks in the Land of the Dragons
After a challenging couple of weeks, to be lolling ‘twixt sun and shade on the roof of a dive boat, flying fish flitting across the sea like steely dragonflies, cruising past rocky islets crowded with stilt fishermen’s houses, treacherous sand bars, arid limestone cliffs and rugged, volcanic islands watching the reef appearing and disappearing in clear water, and the odd long, predatory dart of silver lurking below felt…
Well, it felt pretty bloody good, to be honest. Komodo’s famous for its dragons, found only on two islands in this national park.
But it also has some of the best diving in Indonesia, if not the world. So today we — both of us — dived two sites. Because, yes, children can dive in Komodo.
While we might in later life regret passing up the opportunity to see a creature found only on two islands in the whole wide world, Z is, it is fair to say, quite the reverse of enthusiastic.
“I am not going near one of those things if the ranger’s armed only with a forked stick,” he says. “They’ve got enough bacteria in their mouths to poison a buffalo to death, and they can be 3 metres high when they get up on their hind legs. Plus they do kill people.”
(Komodo dragons haven’t killed a tourist in forty years. But, especially during their mating season, they do routinely kill folk from the villages on Komodo and Rinca.)
I wasn’t going to push it, to be frank.
We’ve seen giant monitor lizards in Palawan, the Philippines — Z wasn’t enthusiastic about those, either, though he did refrain from running, screaming, from the scene — and the dragons aren’t at their most active at this time of year.
So the notion of boating three hours then trekking for some more hours to see a large, sleeping lizard, didn’t entirely do it for me.
Diving Komodo? Now, you’re game on!
Because the thing about Komodo that makes it a death trap for boats is also what makes it a mecca for divers. You’re talking pristine, vibrant reef sprouting on undersea pinnacles, lining vast canyons, descending in vari-coloured walls.
A powerful, fertile flow races from the warm, high Indian Ocean through the narrow channels of Komodo National Park to the cooler, lower Pacific. As the waters meet, currents wind their way around a complex underwater topography. With the nutrients, come fish and coral. And with the fish, come the predators.
Last time we crossed this strait, there was heavy swell, 2-metre waves jolting and spraying our sturdy metal ferry. Today the waters were smooth, almost silky.
And, thank god, I found a dive store (Dive Komodo), here in Labuan Bajo, that a) understood child divers and b) had kit that (virtually) fit Z.
He’s on the skinny side for ten, the youngest age at which a child can qualify as a diver, which means that even an XXS BCD (the smallest size he’s used so far) is, well, a touch on the capacious side (I’m more than double his weight and an XS). Amazingly, though, they have a wet suit that fits.
Frankly, diving Komodo is not something to take lightly, particularly when a child’s safety is involved. Some sites feature whirlpool currents, and strong down currents, lethal things that can tug you down 15 metres in 5 seconds: the Cauldron can tumble you end over end in a washing machine if you get an approach wrong.
Stray too far off the reef at some sites and you can be swept a kilometre or so out to sea. And the currents are not predictable.
Our first dive? Not one of the above.
But Batu Bolong. On the surface, it’s a tiny rocky outcrop, lapped by breaking waves. Below the surface? It’s a stepped, layered pinnacle of limestone covered in a myriad coral species, with undersea channels and swimthroughs, all wallpapered in coral, and vast schools of scarlet, gold, silver fish, swarming like Disney butterflies.
It is, honestly, like diving into a really, really expensive aquarium.
You look at the wall, and there’s feather corals in every colour you can imagine, brain corals, table corals, vast anemones with anemonefish guarding their home. You look up, and the sea above is a silver swirl of fusiliers, predatory jackfish cruising, unnoticed, among them, until one darts in and the swirl transforms into an arrow and heads down, deep down.
And you look out into the blue, the big, big blue, and there are tuna, a huge humphead wrasse cruising past, a wedge of expired silver protruding from its fat lips, giant sweetlips and puffer fish patterned like 1970s wallpaper in psychedelic swirls of lemon and black.
I was nervous about this dive for Z. He’s only allowed to 12 metres and his buoyancy ain’t brilliant. The bottom is 20-plus metres below us, now. But he’s fine, controlled in the water.
A turtle, more gainly in the water than it could ever be on land, fins its way towards the surface for a breath of air.
The current picks up. I push against it, legs aching as I fin through an invisible wall; Z struggles, and our dive instructor, Guy, holds out his hand and pulls him through.
And there, against the sea fans, a metre-long white tip reef shark cruises, apparently invisible to the pennant fish, the butterflies, the fusiliers…
We know white tip reef sharks are nice sharks.
But predatory? Mesmerising?
Hell, yeah. Even nice sharks have cold, black button eyes. Even nice sharks slink.
Z’s pointing, hand over head, making the diver’s sign for “shark”, totally buzzed.
And we swim between the rocks, a blast of cold, cold current hitting us hard and casting a shimmering thermocline in the waters, and in a crevice an octopus lurks, one baleful eye luminescent in the dark. And then we look up, and the sea above us is a whirl of butterfly fish, shafts of light searing between them.
We like. We like a lot.
Z’s buzzing as he scrambles onto the boat, although his lips are tending to the blue.
“I should be tired,” he says. “But I feel really energised.” He shins up the six-inch-wide ladder that leads to the roof.
I shout feebly after him, “You need to hydrate! We’re diving again in an hour.”
Because, even after an hour in the water, we’re ready for more.
Our second dive? Manta Point.
Now, we’ve seen mantas before, snorkelled with them, on Pulau Derawan, and they are amazing creatures. Huge, primitive, unimaginably elegant, a series of wings and folds, like aliens, or possessed opera cloaks, undulating and cruising on the current — vast, black, blue, surreal.
This time, we’re briefed on how to handle them. “Don’t hunt them: they don’t like to be chased. Don’t touch them: they don’t like to be touched. If one goes overhead, let your air bubbles out slow and small: they don’t like the sensation of the big bubbles. If they’re still, they’re feeding, or being cleaned by cleaner fish.”
We descend. It’s a drift dive, this time, over a landscape of over-grown coral rubble that feels like a dirt road, punctuated by heads of coral with feathers sprouting from them.
We drop down and, basically, let the current take us. Guy holds Z’s hand.
The water’s clouded with specks of invisible life, murky with it but a rich, rich blue. We scoot, curving with the current’s bizarre rules, ascending underwater hills, descending again.
Even though the current’s not so strong — I could, at a push, fin against it, and we do, at times, fin across it — it’s disorienting. We’re sweeping, without finning, over an underwater landscape, travelling faster than walking but slower than running. It’s like flying, at walking pace. And not in a straight line. Not in the slightest.
And we see the first manta, a dark patch in the water. I grip onto the rubble. The current rolls me over. It’s not a pretty sight, but I recover into a sort of crouch.
We watch him feeding for a while, his vast mouth slurping out nutrients from the water, cleaner fish ascending to his wings like angels. It’s an amazing sight.
Z signs. He has ear trouble. He wants to go up.
And we go up. His ears are fine, at the surface.
“Want to go back down?” asks Guy.
“No,” he says.
I press him on this. “I don’t like the current. It makes my legs hurt,” he says. “You carry on. I’m getting back on the boat.”
“Ear trouble is often a symptom of having had enough,” says Guy, helpfully.
I should, perhaps, have realised, that for a skinny ten year old boy to dive 2 hours in a single day was pushing it. Anywise, he’s happy.
“Are you sure you’re alright if I go back down without you?” I say, wondering whether I’m missing some maternal instinct. Shouldn’t I, as a mother, get back on the boat with him and sit out the rest of the dive?
“Nah,” says Z. “It’s fine.”
There are crisps on the boat. I figure I’ll leave him to them.
We’ve drifted some way from the patch, so we get a tow from the dive boat, and descend again.
And they’re there. Twelve mantas, in the water. Some obscured by the blue. Others close enough to touch.
As they sweep overhead, I can see their white, flat bellies, serried ranks of gills. They are huge.
It’s hard to keep my place against the current, even flat against the bottom, clinging to the rubble, finning hard. Guy gives me his metal pointer, I dig it in, and I’m hanging onto that, but my body’s tugging back, it’s like a wind machine, and the rubble’s slipping and sliding around it.
I’m paddling and breathing a lot harder than I’d like, burning air like there’s no tomorrow.
Z would, I think, not have liked this bit at all. The current’s moderate for Komodo but a lot more than what I’m used to, though the worst that’s going to happen is that I get pushed back from where I’m trying to hold.
The mantas, stationary, effortless, are in their element.
Guy swims against the current into the shelter of a clump of coral, barrel coral standing tall like cacti in the desert, locks a hook into the rock and hangs on. I grab his hand, blasted in the current.
And the mantas come. They’re crazy creatures. Incurious. Beyond bovine. Just hanging there in the current, wings wide, mouths wide, grazing on their invisible food.
One comes within two feet of me. He eyeballs me, with the weird black eyes that sit either side, protruding, beside his two-foot mouth.
I watch him, waving in the current as though I’m in an air tunnel, while he’s stable, effortless, the flaps by his mouth winding and unwinding. I’m close enough to see the frills inside his maw, with which, I guess, he sifts the krill.
What would I do if he came right up to me? I wonder.
My air gets low. We fin back towards the boat, surfacing gradually, and pause to watch a big, fat reef shark circling 10 or 15 metres below us.
“How you doing, darling?” I ask my spawn, who is on the roof, lounging.
“That was great diving,” he says.
As, indeed it was. Definitely the best since the underwater volcano, and maybe even better than that.
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