The realm of dragons

The hairs on the back of my neck have been standing on end during every snorkel, dive and dinghy ride since arriving in Indonesia. Despite being surrounded by vibrant coral reef and fish aplenty, there was always something hidden in the distant blue that distracted me from the usual underwater wonders and made me very uneasy- the savage salt-water crocodile! Many Indonesian islands are home to this elusive species and I’ve heard horror stories about the brutal loss of life at the jaws of these reptiles. You’d think that my all-consuming fear of death would have stopped me from entering the water, but the ecologist inside just couldn’t help herself. I was desperate to experience the world-class diving that Indonesia has to offer and part of me would secretly love to see a ‘salty’ in the wild… at a safe distance of course. Fortunately (or unfortunately as my internal ecologist would say) we never came across one during our dives, and once we arrived in Flores the threat was completely negated as the crocodiles have been hunted to (local) extinction.

This is Bob anchored off the north coast of Flores.

This island has a healthy and vibrant coral reef with a plethora of fish.

Crocodiles are not the only large, intimidating reptiles to inhabit these Indonesian islands. There is another deadly creature which, over the course of history, has been responsible for many a human death. I’m sure that you have already guessed which creature I’m talking about – the infamous ‘Komodo dragon’. There’s only one small area of the world that houses the last 3000 of these dragons, and lucky for us, Alex and I happened to be sailing right past it.

Komodo Nature Reserve

Komodo Island and its surrounding waters are part of a world famous nature reserve where it’s possible to get up-close and personal with unusual and charismatic species. The marine life here is second-to-none and the terrestrial habitat is home to many plants and insects that support a whole host of larger species – the most famous being its exceptionally large reptilian inhabitants.

We wasted no time at all and hired a local guide for the afternoon to take us through the bush so that we might safely catch a glimpse of this renowned creature.

The infamous Komodo dragon – the creature we were attempting to track down.

The bush habitat is surprisingly well established for such a dry island and there were plenty of places for a Komodo dragon to hide. It’s scaly skin is perfectly coloured to blend in with its surroundings. All it has to do it wait. Wait to pounce on unsuspecting victims innocently passing by.

Alex and our guide, Rahman, scouting the bush for dragons.

Komodo dragons are carnivores and fierce hunters. They are capable of taking down very large prey. Deer are their main food source here but they also eat wild boar, buffalo, smaller Komodo dragons and even humans. The last time a tourist was attacked was in 2017. The man (in his 50’s) suffered very severe leg injuries as a result and was lucky to escape with his life. Others were not so fortunate.

The Timor deer make up the bulk of the dragon’s diets. We saw many deer on our trek. Lots of prey equals lots of DRAGONS!

A hungry dragon hides out and waits for unsuspecting prey to pass nearby. Often, it ambushes the ill-fated animal and attacks with its powerful jaws. It secretes venom in the form of toxic proteins which cause paralysing pain, excessive bleeding, extreme swelling and lowering of blood pressure. This ultimately leads to shock, loss of consciousness and death. Impressively, these reptiles often bring down prey much larger than themselves in less than 30 minutes.

Teeth are often lost during attacks and it’s possible to find this evidence of recent meals while wandering in the bush. Each dragon has almost 60 of these in its mouth.

Teeth weren’t the only evidence of nearby dragons. This pile of faeces is less than a day old. We know it’s from a dragon firstly by its size (unsurprisingly) and secondly, by the white colouration of uric acid produced with the usual pile of brown waste.

This is a track left by a Komodo dragon. You can clearly see the wavy line left in the dirt by the dragons tail scoring the earth as it waddled along. The guides are so skilled at tracking them they are able to tell which direction they were going.

Young Komodo dragons spend their first few months in the canopy of trees. Here they feed on invertebrates, birds and small reptiles while avoiding the cannibalistic nature of the adult dragons. When a juvenile braves the ground to eat the remains of a dead carcass, they have been known to roll in the faeces and intestines of the dead animal in an attempt to deter hungry adults. The young have a slightly more vibrant and metallic colour pattern, presumably for camouflage purposes.

We were exceptionally quiet during our trek and were fortunate enough to sneak up on a juvenile who had ventured to the ground. Our guide told us that it’s extremely rare to see a dragon so young in the wild as they remain so well hidden. We were the lucky few.

Finally, at the end of our trek was a watering hole that was surprisingly devoid of animals. This was the only watering hole for many miles and normally it would be bursting with life as the nearby animals came by for a drink. The reason for this eerie absence of life soon became apparent…

This huge male Komodo dragon was lurking just a few meters away. It might look like we were able to sneak up behind him without him noticing, but he has good eyesight, good hearing and an exceptional sense of smell. He is able to detect the scent of a carcass from over 5km away! Luckily he had recently had a meal (they feed only about once a month) so wasn’t interested in making a meal out of us. Surprisingly he wasn’t at all bothered by human presence. He knows who’s at the top of the food chain!

Pink Beach

There are wonders in this realm of dragons other than its scaly inhabitants. Any Bermudian reading this will not like what I’m about to say. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we have achieved the impossible – we’ve actually found a beach that tops those in Bermuda. Even Alex admits that this beach is the best he has ever visited – and that’s coming from a person who has an unintelligible dislike of beaches.

This photo was taken on a cloudy day and I only wish I could have witnessed the sun beaming down on its turquoise waters and lustrous sand. Pink Beach in Komodo not only contains one of the best snorkel sites that I have ever experienced, it also has the comfortable warm waters of tropical climes and, of course, the sand is PINK 🙂

It’s not just that pink is one of the worlds greatest colours, there’s a lot that goes into the formation of a pink sand beach. Tiny marine creatures called foraminifera create a pink or red calcium carbonate structure as a protective case. This forms part of a more complex structure of shell or coral and once the animals die, natural forces break this up to form the thousands upon thousands of pieces that make up this pink beach.

Manta Point

Finally, I couldn’t finish up without showing you this short video of my time swimming at Manta Point. I swam with manta rays before in the Marquesas Islands over a year a ago now. It was one of my all-time favourite wildlife moments and I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience it twice. Manta Point provided beautiful clear waters to watch and swim with these magnificent rays. Alex doesn’t appear in the video because I left him on the boat driving around in circles in the pass, waiting for me. I might, possibly, have felt a twinge of guilt, but it didn’t last long.

All good things must come to an end

After five months in the Marquesas Islands our time here is coming to an end. We’re currently in Nuku Hiva organising a multitude of things so that we can go to sea tomorrow and head to the Tuamotus. We have exactly 26 days to explore some of the atolls before arriving in Tahiti for the 3rd of May for a much anticipated visit from Alex’s mum (Paulina we can’t wait to see you).

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our return visit to Nuku Hiva. I was expecting to spend most of our time here doing jobs in preparation for our next voyage. As well as being super productive, we’ve also had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. About a week after we got here, 45 boats from the ARC rally arrived as Nuku Hiva was their next rendezvous point. Although it made for a crowded anchorage, it was nice to make some new friends and the locals were prepared with fully stocked shops, markets and craft fairs. We also had time to re-visit the waterfall that Alex missed out on last time when he was trying to keep out of the sun to protect his new tattoo. We seemed to switch roles for a moment and Alex also found time to take a hike while I stayed on board to do some boat work.

We had a lovely surprise when we heard that the Hokule’a was arriving to the island and the locals were holding a ceremony to commemorate the occasion. The Hokule’a is a traditional Polynesian pirogue (in this case, two canoes joined together with a crab claw sailing rig) with no engine – the only means of propulsion is through either sailing or rowing. The vessel is based in Hawaii and was designed to test a theory regarding historic navigation techniques. The traditional wayfinding techniques were learned from elders in Micronesia. These techniques use the position of the stars and sea-swell analysis (amongst other things) to determine position and course. No instruments are needed whatsoever – no electronic equipment, no GPS, no sextant, not even a compass. A crew sailed the Hokule’a using these ancient methods on various voyages around the Pacific since being launched in the 1970s, thus proving the theory of how ancient Polynesians migrated through the islands and their ancestral descent, which has since been confirmed by genetic analysis. More recently, in 2014 the vessel set sail from Hawaii for a circumnavigation which is now coming to an end. Their stop in Marquesas is only two stops before their final destination in Hawaii after successfully sailing around the world. The arrival of the crew on shore was really spectacular. Many of the locals were dressed in traditional attire and were singing, blowing horns, dancing and beckoning the new arrivals to land. The crew were brought to shore in smaller pirogues and greeted by a parade through the street then a ceremony performed in front of the entire village. It was a wonderful sight. For the crew (who had just arrived from a long journey from Pitcairn Island over 1000 miles away) it must have been truly magnificent, if not a little overwhelming.

The Hokule’a anchored in the main harbour in Nuku Hiva. It’s a spectacular boat, it looks stunning and is a true testament to Polynesian heritage. Although, does anyone know what that weird British flag is? Neither Alex or I have ever seen it before.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the Hokule’a here: http://www.hokulea.com/voyages/our-story/

The crew being greeted by the village chief in Taiohae. This and the next few photos are from Marc from s/v Scallywag (thanks Marc!)

During the ceremony. Many local Marquisians dressed in traditional attire, proudly displaying their expressive tattoos.

Many Westerners would cross the street to avoid someone who looks like this. Here, facial and body tattoos are not just accepted but are embraced. In fact, this gentleman is called Farah and was involved in the organisation of the music festival we attended here last November. He’s a really nice guy and even got involved in our silly coconut game that we mentioned in a previous blog.

Another high point was swimming with manta rays on three separate occasions. The last time was absolutely amazing! We swam with about 10 reef mantas for about half an hour as they were feeding. They were very happy to play nearby and often swam within about 30cm of us – they were bigger than Alex. It was one of the most awesome wildlife experiences I’ve ever had and I’d really recommend it if you ever get the chance.

Manta ray photo taken with the GoPro

I also managed to fit in one final dance session with my local friends and introduced a few new cruising ladies to the joys of the Polynesian dance classes. Hopefully they will continue to go after I’ve left.

All good things must come to an end and although I’ve really enjoyed my time here, I must admit I’m okay at the thought of leaving. It’s the first time that I’ve not gotten sentimental about leaving an area. I suppose we have been here for 5 months now and there are so many exciting places ahead of us this year, I’m ready to leave.