Dragons and Mantas and Monkeys, Oh My!

We walked through the dirty port, jumped over several muddy grey puddles, avoided the garbage scattered everywhere, and turned onto the main road. Much like Kupang, scooters weaved through traffic and there appeared to be few if any traffic laws. My dad, knowing we were looking for a dive shop, pointed out one after another, but none matched the name Dive Komodo, the outfit with which I had been communicating. We later discovered that there were 20 to 30 dive operators in Labuan Bajo.

Eventually we saw it, and there were several Indonesians there who fortunately spoke English. We walked down the stairs to the basement to try on the rental gear. By this point in the trip, we had gone diving with at least five different dive operators. This one had the most tattered equipment. The wet suits were frayed and the first one they brought me didn’t even have a zipper and my dad’s zipper was frozen. It wasn’t the best first impression, but we were committed. (Disclaimer, although the wetsuits looked rough, everything else was great and I highly recommend the shop).

We met them the next morning and they led us through town to the docks where their dive boat waited. It was shaped like a banana, with a high bow, high stern, and low sides. These boats were like none I had ever seen, and even more, their motors sounded like a helicopter since I don’t think they have mufflers or emission standards. They had some fresh doughnuts and bananas waiting for us, which we attacked like starving animals after confirming that everyone else had enough. We were happy.

A few boats similar to the dive boat, anchored next to us.

We chatted with the other divers while the boat puttered towards Komodo National Park. We arrived after about an hour, donned our gear, and jumped overboard. I had heard the diving here was the best in the world, so I think my expectations were a little too high. There were quite a few fish, and the coral was pretty good, but we have become accustomed to big sharks, caves, wrecks, and other magnificent sights, so I was a little disappointed. We exited the water and started our surface interval.

I was half dry when our guides spotted Manta Rays. They said we could snorkel with them if we wanted, and since they are my favorite sea creature, I entered the water with enthusiasm unknown to mankind before they even stopped the boat. I was the first one in the water and would swam a few yards, then looked up to see if I was on track, and adjusted my aim towards the black fins that occasionally broke the surface. Soon, I saw a giant manta with its mouth wide open coming directly at me. I stopped swimming and watched in amazement as it passed so close I could have touched it. The water was a bit green due to high plankton content (aka Manta food), which is what attracted the Mantas, but it was still incredible. There were at least six swimming nearby, and they were not shy. It was better than my experience in Bora Bora because they were just under the surface so I did not have to dive 40 feet to see them.

This guy was CLOSE!

Eventually we had to go back to the boat, but my day was made. I don’t even remember the second dive because I was so euphoric from the Manta Rays. We had as great lunch of traditional Indonesian food, which was delicious, and headed to Rinca Island for the second part of our dive trip, the dragon trek.

The boat dropped us off and went out for a third dive. The trekkers were me, Dad, and Rachael, a British neuroscience student who was traveling solo. We were welcomed by many monkeys guarding the dock. There was even a mother with a baby hanging under her, something I had never seen. It was adorable. We passed the monkeys and continued down a dirt path towards the ranger station. A ranger came out to meet us and started teaching us about the Komodo Dragons in his peculiar accent, which took about 15 minutes for me to start comprehending. Basically, he said we were going to do a short trek including visiting a dragon nest.

The welcoming committee.

The concentration of wildlife on the island was astounding. In the first ten minutes, we saw five deer, a water buffalo, monkeys, and six Komodo Dragons. Although the rangers do not feed the dragons, they smell the food from the kitchen and hang out and bask right outside the ranger station.

One of the dragons snoozing by the Ranger Station.

We walked a bit down the path and reached a dragon nest, a dirt mound with holes dug into it. Our guide said the dragons dig many holes, but only lay their eggs in one to make it more difficult for predators to find them. There was a mother dragon nearby guarding the nest, which they do for eight months until the eggs hatch. Then, all bets are off. Of the 30 hatchlings, the baby dragons eat their siblings as they dig their way to the surface. Only 7-10 make it out of the nest. Life doesn’t get much easier for them once they get above ground, and they climb a tree and live in it for the next stage of their life. Predators such as monkeys, eagles, and worst of all, other dragons will eat them. 0-3 of the 30 survive to adulthood. Learning about the dragons made me grateful to be born a human, where I don’t have to worry about my sister, Tessa, eating me.

We continued our trek and learned more about the dragons. For example, their bite is poisonous and they can kill anything, including water buffalo. My dad asked if tourists ever get eaten. A few years ago a tourist from Singapore went on a walk without the guides and got bitten, but he made it to a hospital before the poison killed him. It works slowly, sometimes taking six weeks to kill a buffalo after the bite. I didn’t want to risk it so I stayed close to the guide. We concluded our trek and saw many dragons of varying sizes and learned a ton about them.

Upon our return to Labuan Bajo we went to a rooftop bar called Le Pirate for happy hour. They have a small pool and a view, as well as many sailor themed drinks such as the Rusty Anchor, Mermaid Tears, and my favorite, the Captain Jack. Rachael joined us and we had great conversation about healthcare reform from the British point of view. Finally, the sun began to set so we left to go to the night market for dinner.

Dad and me at the rooftop bar.

The night market consisted of stand after stand of fish, squid, lobsters, and crabs. I had more fun looking at and identifying the different species than I did actually eating it. We selected snapper and grouper, which they gut, cut in half, and grill. It is very tasty, but you have to work to get the meat, and there is less on the fish than you would expect. We finished our meals and called it a night, since we had another three dives scheduled the next day. This time they lived up to the best in the world reputation

Our haul, we had the squid, snapper and grouper.

3 thoughts on “Dragons and Mantas and Monkeys, Oh My!

  1. Another great story, Travis. I’m glad you went into detail about the Komodo Dragons. What a hard life, from hatching to maturity! Good thing they’re poisonous, although if it takes six weeks for the poison to kill, how can it be a deterrent against anything but a well-informed human?
    I’m in Huron for a couple of weeks, and yesterday walked at Sheldon’s Marsh with your mom and Tessa . Jamie’s Peruvian adventures rival yours and Hardy’s. Your family is intrepid, to say the least. Love, Dale

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    1. Hi Dale! It actually is for hunting, not a deterrent. Apparently once the buffalo dies they group around it and make short work of it. I would be interested in seeing this dragon feeding frenzie, but we were unable to find any dead buffalo.

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  2. Hi Travis,
    It is such a treat to get to go along with you and your dad in your adventure! I don’t always read the posts in order, or I go back and revisit an earlier one I’ve read. They are always captivating.

    Swimming with the Manta Ray’s looks magical, and getting to be up close to a komodo dragon even better. And yes, you are very lucky you have such a nice sister who has normal eating habits.

    Nancy

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