With dinghy oar-turned-spear in hand, our guide ferries the dive tender on and off the sloping shoreline, shouting orders to the local handling the motor. Just inches away, a pair of forked tongues dance on the surface of the water.
“Alright, back it up, back it up. Back!” he shouts, holding the oar between the bow of the tender and the wagging tongues. The dinghy motor kicks in just as the overgrown claws of eightfoot Komodo dragons lift off the pebbled sand in the waters of Indonesia’s Rinca Island. “Just a little closer,” I whisper while peering through my camera’s viewfinder. “Come into the water.”
These shores and their fearsome inhabitants remained hidden from the western world until rumors of a 20-foot dragon lured Dutch sailors to Komodo in 1910. While the sailors failed to find the fire-flinging foe of their nightmares, they soon realized that those same giant monitor lizards creeping into the water towards our dinghy were (and still are) the kings of Komodo. But if the mythical dragons reign supreme on land, then it is the legendary ripping currents swirling about underwater that rule Komodo National Park’s marine reserve.
‘Current-cy’ of the Realm
Nestled deep in the Coral Triangle, the marine park spans more than 1,000 square miles around the islands of Komodo and Gili Banta in the northwest and Rinca in the southeast. It is the nutrients carried in the non-stop current that give rise to the real draw for underwater photographers in Komodo – the palette of colorful coral, some of the most healthy in the world, which blooms from every wall. The fertile waters of Komodo are home to 260 species of reef building coral, 70 species of sponges and more than 1,000 species of fish.
The currents funneled through Komodo National Park carry with them a diversity of life virtually unparalleled even in this farflung region. There’s weird and wonderful critter diving in pitchblack sand off of Sangeang Island, curious pelagics in the ripping currents off of Gilla Lawa Laut in the north, and flocking mantas in the frigid waters in southern Rinca. When you dive anywhere, your encounters are mostly unpredictable and you never really know what to expect. But in Komodo, there appears to be one constant, and that is the rollercoaster currents that grab you by the BC and take you on the ride of a lifetime.
Dive sites like Gilli Lawa Laut’s Crystal and Castle Rocks, two pinnacles that rise out from the depths into current-laden waters teeming with life, are draped with vibrant soft coral, always open to snag the nutrients carried by the current. But Komodo’s many pinnacle dive sites, like the famous Cannibal Rock, are by no means for the faint of heart or casual underwater photographer.
Larger Than Life
Those same currents that swaddle the fields of soft coral are so unpredictable that boat captains are often hesitant in predicting the level of difficulty or even the drop site of the dive. Rolling out of the dinghy, it is critical to descend as quickly as possible before being swept out into the blue. More often than not, there is no time to fiddle with your strobe arms.
You know that you’ve reached another class of diving when you can’t even find one inch of barren reef to curl a finger around. Using a reef hook is often the best way to stay on the reef without decimating millions of years of ecological growth. Once latched on with a reef hook, take a moment to look around and pinpoint possible coral subjects. Since moving around the reef to strategically choose a coral subject is usually out of the question, the best subjects will often be the ones just a little shallower on the reef, allowing the photographer to shoot up and incorporate the heaps of glimmering baitfish and fusiliers shifting between the crevices and often blotting out the sun in the sky above.
But pristine coral reefs aren’t the only reason why underwater photographers flock to Komodo time and time again. Lovers of large pelagics and big fish will undoubtedly turn their attention from the ostentatiously decorated walls to the blue, in the hope of catching a glimpse of reef sharks, napoleon wrasse, black spotted stingrays, or the occasional dolphin.
The timid nature of most of the pelagics and the constant crazy current make a wide-angle zoom lens a must because much of the big animal photography in Komodo takes place from the comforts of a reef hook. Filling a fisheye lens’ frame with the subject is nearly impossible and leaving the wall to chase a subject in Komodo’s wild currents would probably result in making landfall somewhere in Australia.
With the intense, unpredictable currents and level of diving experience required, it is best to find the right settings for shooting wide-angle and stick with them. Instead of fumbling with controls in a 4-knot current at 100 feet, use settings you are comfortable with and focus on the countless subjects flying by your dome port, trying to only change settings if the lighting conditions alter dramatically.
The nutrients that keep Komodo’s coral in full bloom also attract ocean-faring mantas, which stop by various cleaning and feeding stations throughout the area. While there is always the chance to see the “big birds” on any given site, the most opportune place for photographers is probably Manta Alley. And while it may seem like every corner of the world has a “Manta Alley” of its own, rest assured that not all alleys are created equal.
Located along the south coast of Komodo, Manta Alley is distinguished by two rocky pinnacles that protrude through the surface at low tide. Beneath the waves, the site is a dramatic series of three wide channels carved out 50 feet below the choppy waves above.
The site is a local haven for mantas, but it is the variety of shooting and diving options that are truly attractive to a photographer. You can spend your time at the very tip of the valley in shallow water (less than 30 feet deep) to try and capture a light blue background with a sunburst effect, as dozens of juvenile mantas fly by.
Of course, the deeper you go, the less light there is to work with; so make sure to boost your ISO as needed. The advantage you get out of venturing into deeper waters is more quality time with larger mantas, as they spin in circles playfully around your bubbles.
Komodo’s underwater gems are not all mammoths. In fact, some of its most photogenic subjects are small – very small. Photographers fawn over Gammaridean Isopods, a pinhead-sized critter located mostly on the dive site Yellow Wall in south Komodo.
Ladybug isopods, as they are more commonly called, are one of those macro subjects you have to see to believe. These seemingly infinitesimal isopods blanket corals on the wall and can only really be seen with a magnifying lens or a serious external diopter on your macro lens. What makes these miniscule critters especially difficult to shoot is the fact they are often attached to coral overhanging a drop-off that falls to several thousand feet.
It is important that you are comfortable with your buoyancy and macro focusing skills before you venture over the wall’s edge in search of ladybugs. And even in broad daylight make sure to flip on a powerful focus light to give your eye or the camera’s autofocus the best chance possible. You’ll want to keep your focus light charged and macro lens handy throughout Komodo’s waters, which feature some of the best critter diving in the Indo-Pacific region.
The recently popularized pygmy seahorse is a mainstay of Komodo sea fans. Because the pygmys are most often found around the 100-foot mark, the dive leader will often head straight down to their homes in the sea fan. Use this time to prepare your settings for the pygmy shot you have in mind, as you will probably have time for only a handful of frames before reaching your no-deco and/or patience limit of your photo-cohorts.
The charcoal-black sands surrounding Gili Banta and Sangeang Island provide the perfect backdrop for critter hunting. Whip coral gobies and shrimp are the highlights of every dive and they make great macro subjects with texture that pops out with a high depth of field.
Komodo is also home to a variety of prized crabs, like the orangutan crab, which has a habit of nestling in between the bulges of bubble anemone. Then there are zebra crabs, kept nice and warm by the flamboyant fire urchin that are guaranteed to catch your eye even on the richest, most vibrant of reefs. The crabs may use the fire urchin for protection but don’t be afraid to bring your lens and strobes close in to bring out the fiery glow in your shots.
And the list goes on – frogfish hop along the black sand in search of their next meal; the skeletal figures of ghost pipefish hide in clumps of algae, rising from their weedy graves for a few moments; and squat lobsters perch in the branches of colorful crinoids.
Happily Ever After
No voyage to Komodo or Rinca would be complete without snagging some shots of its most famed inhabitants. And as if the idea of a poisonous, aggressive 8-foot lizard isn’t exciting enough, it turns out that the king of Komodo is also king in the water.
Crouched over the edge of the dinghy, my shutter finger barely stops moving as the lizard crawls its way towards the frenzy of photographers behind me. “Come on, get in the water,” my inner underwater photographer waits in anticipation. At the last instant, the creature spins on its tail and scoots back up the beach, out of sight, back into the forest and seemingly, back into myth. But in Komodo, a land where dragons swim, “big birds” fly underwater and ladybugs dive, you might just find that myth becomes reality.
Taken from Scuba Diver Australasia Issue 02/2012