Komodo – Indonesia – Cockatoos, Dragons and Diving, Oh My!

Indonesia is known for a lot of things, but perhaps it is most famous for its gigantic lizards, the largest living reptiles in the world, Komodo Dragons. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Naturally we planned to visit Komodo National Park and see these notorious creatures, but our schedule only allotted one day in the area where we could see both dragons and our other target, Yellow-crested Cockatoo. When given the opportunity to extend that time, how could we say no? We figured that since we had an extra day from our time in Flores going so well, we could incorporate a little SCUBA diving into our agenda, an activity we didn’t have in the original schedule. Ross and I decided that the best way to do some diving and also see dragons and cockatoos would be to go on a dive trip. Labaun Bajo, the gateway town to Komodo National Park, is lined up and down with companies offering their boating services, whether they be live-aboard boat trips or one-day trips out to the national park.

We managed to get a ride with a super nice local Indonesian girl who works as a nurse in Ruteng but was travelling to the tourist area of Labaun Bajo. It was a full 4 hour winding road car ride before we arrived super late in Labuan Bajo. When we arrived in the town we were able to find a hotel room super quickly, something we were worried about because all of the places in our budget that Ross found online were booked.

This post could be entirely dedicated to dragons, cockatoos, and SCUBA diving, and I would have no problem with that, but we did in fact do a bit of birding after we arrived. The plan for the following morning was to wake up and catch a bus back towards Ruteng to a little patch of forest about one hour outside of Labuan Bajo known as Puarlolo. This location is essentially the only place in the world to find Flores Monarch, a species of bird endemic to the island of Flores. We rode on a public bus and hopped off on the side of the road. It’s doubtful that the bus driver was even aware that this forest trail was here because he gave us a funny look when we asked to get off on the side of a road with no other people around. Regardless we set out and, as expected, it didn’t take long at all before we had a Flores Monarch in a mixed species flock. Ross managed some recordings and snapped a few photos and just like that we were finished birding Flores. Naturally we spent a bit more time there seeing what else we could turn up. The likes of Russet-capped Tesia, Rufous-chested Flycatcher, White-rumped Kingfisher, and some heard only Leaf Lorikeets were present.

We finished up birding relatively early and went back to town to see if we could organize that boat trip out to Komodo National Park that we were hoping to do. As I said earlier, Labuan Bajo is lined with boat companies so we figured it wouldn’t be too hard, but our needs were pretty specific because technically one of the most important things for us to see was a bird, something few other people would be interested in. In our heads we came up with a planned itinerary and hoped one of the companies could make that work. Our plan was to do a two day live-aboard boat where we could get 3 dives in on the first day, and on the second day be out at Komodo Island to see cockatoos and dragons and finish the day with two more dives. The monarch wasn’t the only bird that brought us to this area of Indonesia. Technically the last bird we needed for the Lesser Sundas was Yellow-crested Cockatoo, but that one is only found on Komodo Island, hence the reason we were so set on going there when dragons are much easier to see on the closer island of Rinca. These constraints limited our ability to go on a group charter tour which would have saved some money. We walked up and down the strip of dive shops shopping around until we eventually settled on Diver’s Paradise Komodo where we chartered a private boat for our 2-day, 1-night live-aboard diving adventure. It was a bit of an expensive trip considering our normal budget, but we were justifying the expense as a gift to ourselves in celebration of our 4-year wedding anniversary that was only a few days away. When I say expensive, I mean these two days were costing about half as much as the whole first month of our trip. But it was worth it. Why come to the other side of the world if you are going to skip out on seeing some of the sights that make this area famous?!

The following morning we were picked up at our hotel and brought to the dive shop where we ate a small breakfast with our dive guide/instructor Dominik. We promptly were taken to our boat and set sail to start on the first of our three dives. We were required to do a refresher course since the last time we dove was over a year ago while in the Philippines but we didn’t really mind and figured the added practice was safest anyway.

Komodo National Park was founded in efforts to save the now-vulnerable Komodo Dragons from the threat of going extinct. The national park not only encompasses the larger islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar, but also 26 smaller islands in the vicinity and the waters surrounding them. As a result the reefs in the national park are some of the most pristine and bio-diverse in the world. The coral I witnessed while diving was certainly the healthiest I’ve ever seen. We bring a lot of gear on our trips and have to cut weight where we can. One of the first things we opted not to bring was our GoPro, despite the fact that having an underwater camera to document escapades such as this would have been quite nice. I say all of that simply to say, I do not have any photos to show you the exceptionally clear water and vibrant, colorful life living beneath the surface that we witnessed while diving. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Our first day diving included three dives and over the course of the day we managed to see some pretty fun creatures such as a sting ray, moray eel, mantis shrimp, White-tipped Reef Shark, nudibranch, starfish, and an innumerable amount of colorful fish ranging from all shapes and sizes. Perhaps it could best be described as swimming in a fish tank. Truly it was exceptional.

That night we anchored the boat not far from Komodo Island and watched as the sky impresed us with an amazing sunset show of deep orange, yellow and reddish-pink hues. We slept on the upper deck of the boat and were rocked to sleep by the ocean.

The next morning we were the first tourists to set foot on Komodo Island. Although seeing dragons was a priority, finding the cockatoo was just as important to us and, as you may know, birds are most active in the early parts of the morning. We arrived thinking we would be able to get out walking but unfortunately the rangers on Komodo refused to let us walk around earlier than 7, despite the fact that the park is open whenever there are visitors (as we were told later in the day by a different guide.) One particular ranger tried to charge us an additional 500,000 rupiah because we came to see birds and not dragons! I promise I am not making that up. He took one look at Ross’s recording gear and decided that we were fit to pay an exuberant amount of money. The dishonesty was utterly ridiculous. As you can imagine, we both gave him an ear full and said “Okay, fine we’re just here to see dragons then.” He still wouldn’t let us on the island before 7am, but we didn’t have to pay his made up “birdwatching fee.” Luckily while we were waiting for 7am to roll around, we had views of Yellow-crested Cockatoos from the visitor center right when you get on the island. Eventually we were allowed to pay our regular entrance fee and met with a ranger who showed us around one of the trails on the island. We were informed that dragons are most difficult this time of year as it is mating season and all of the females have moved further inland to nests. Komodo Island, which is better for birds because there are no introduced monkeys on the island to eat the bird eggs, is not as good for seeing dragons. During our 2 hour walk we saw more Yellow-crested Cockatoos, Flores Drongo, Flame-breasted Sunbird, Green Junglefowl, Varied Goshawk, and Black-naped Oriole, but never came across a single dragon which was not okay. We couldn’t come to Komodo and not see Komodo Dragons! Our itinerary for the day was supposed to include 3 more dives but we were willing to forgo one of those dives in order to make it to Rinca Island to see dragons. Luckily we had chartered our own boat and were sold by the fact that our trip would be 100% flexible to accommodate our needs. So we decided that we would change plans a bit and go to Rinca.

Unfortunately the boat ride over to Rinca took much longer than expected (3 hours!) and when we arrived our captain managed to get the boat stuck. Logistically it was a bit of a mess but eventually a smaller boat came and shuttled us to the pier. We were taken onto Rinca and unlike Komodo, promptly ran into a dragon. Here the dragons were plentiful and we had views of 3 relatively large males basking in the sun before a smaller one, approximately 2 years in age per our guide, arrived. Seeing these four massive beasts up close was really like taking a step back in time to the era of dinosaurs. Their snake-like forked tongues and massive scale-covered bodies were so neat to see up close, but not too close because one bite from one of these beasts can be lethal. (Komodo Dragons have so many types of bacteria in their saliva that it is actually the bacteria that kills their prey and the dragons more or less wait around for their prey to die after infecting them with the bite.) These lizards have no other predators on the island and are at the top of the food chain. We weren’t sure we wanted to spend the time walking around the island considering we had just done that on Komodo Island so we decided to head promptly back to the boat hoping we could still make 2 dives for the day.

Remember when I said the captain got the boat stuck on the way in? Well, in doing so I guess he also broke a gear and when we got back to the boat we weren’t able to go anywhere. Now we were stuck. This mishap cost us precious diving time and we never were able to get back in the water and essentially wasted the rest of our day. In fact, we sat on the top of the boat deck outside of the dock to Rinca until just before dusk. We kept ourselves entertained with the several White-bellied Fish-eagles coming and hunting over the water.

Thankfully Diver’s Paradise Komodo refunded us 2 million rupiah for our inconvenience. So at least that was nice. Regardless, this little mini-vacation/anniversary present to ourselves concluded our time in the Lesser Sundas and it was a really fun experience! The next day we were flying out to start the second leg of our Indonesian trip, The Moluccas!