Beneath the Dragon's Realm

Sunrise Over Komodo

Exploring Komodo National Park with Dr. Gerald Allen

by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock


Dr. Gerald Allen counts fish. One of the world's foremost ichthyologists, Dr. Allen is renowned for his speed and accuracy in surveying the world's endangered coral reefs. We are counting fish in what many marine scientists think may be the most species-rich tropical marine environment on earth: Indonesia's Komodo National Park. On this overcast day in late summer, Dr. Allen is stepping carefully around underwater cameras and dive gear scattered over the wooden deck of the "Komodo Plus II", a sixty-five-foot local-style boat which has carried us eastward from Sumbawa into the realm of the Komodo dragon. Dr. Allen drops his equipment on the sopping pile and hands me his plastic underwater writing slate. In smudged pencil Jerry, as he wishes to be called, has covered the slate in a shorthand Latin code that only he can decipher. Each of the 150 entries identifies a fish he saw on our brief thirty-minute dive.

At 55, Jerry Allen is almost as fit as he was when he was the shortest player on his high school football team. His dark eyes are twinkling now as he watches me scan his list. It is hard to believe that he identified every fish we saw, but for nearly thirty years, ever since he left the University of Hawaii doctorate in hand, and boarded a sailboat bound for the South Pacific, Jerry has been counting fish. Jerry and his wife Connie made their way south to the Great Barrier Reef in the early 1970's. After they reached Australia, Connie vowed never to set foot on a sailboat again and Jerry took a post at the Western Museum in Perth. Since 1974 he has been the Senior Curator of Aquatic Zoology, but Jerry spends most of his time in the field surveying tropical marine life, racing to record it all before pollution and destructive fishing practices demolish the world's tropical reef fish population. Here in Komodo Jerry believes he has found the mother-lode: Perhaps the most extraordinary assemblage of tropical marine species yet discovered.

As soon as we both dry off I ask him about the survey's progress. "A few years ago I devised a technique for assessing and comparing fish diversity for sites strung out across the vast Indo-Pacific region. My method essentially consists of comparing species totals for key indicator groups: butterflyfishes, angelfishes, damselfishes, wrasses, parrotfishes, and surgeonfishes. So far Komodo's total for these groups, 284 species, ranks second on a lengthy list of the world's richest localities. And I believe that although the comparisons are based only on fishes, we can expect to find a similar wealth of other marine organisms within Komodo National Park."

Because of its remote location and lack of facilities for divers, marine scientists are just beginning to explore the water-filled laboratories that hover beneath Komodo's waves. In 1994 Allen visited Komodo with an international team trained to undertake the initial underwater survey of Komodo. The team recorded over 800 different fish species in less than two weeks. Both corals and fish were found to be most abundant in the warm tropical Pacific waters surrounding northern Komodo. Sessile, flamboyantly-colored invertebrate life, particularly echinoderms, sponges, and tunicates, dominate the cooler Indian Ocean waters of southern Komodo.

After he returned home from his first Komodo survey, Allen thought a great deal about why Indonesia in general and Komodo in particular supported such an extraordinary variety of marine life. The answer he devised is complex and based on a unique combination of past and present biological and physical factors.

Indonesia is an insular region that forms an archipelago which spans more than five thousand kilometers across forty-six degrees of longitude. Species diverge whenever they are isolated from their ancestral populations and Indonesia's vast distances and sheer number of islands have aided greatly in the fragmentation process. Every time that a small chunk of land broke away from a larger land mass and formed its own island, or the earth spewed out a bit of new land from its molten core, Indonesia's species, even the ocean-dwelling ones, slowly evolved separate biological identities from their original populations.

Sea level fluctuations in past geological ages have caused radical changes in island topography. Huge sea level drops during the Pleistocene epoch linked the southeast Asian mainland with Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, and some of the Lesser Sunda Islands. This land bridge formed a significant barrier to dispersal and further fragmentation of marine populations. Indonesia also straddles the Pacific's notorious "ring of fire", a volcano-plagued boundary between oceanic and continental plates. Volcanism has no doubt caused local extinctions in some areas, but it also created new foundations where marine life flourished eventually. Furthermore, marine habitats of every description abound throughout the Indonesian archipelago and have created myriad opportunities for evolution.

Few dive destinations can match Komodo for sheer adventure, adrenaline-charged excitement, and the thrill of discovery. Most sport divers will not risk diving in Komodo's strong currents and wildly fluctuating water temperatures, yet it is exactly these inhospitable elements that bring Jerry Allen to Komodo again and again. The sea surrounding the northern side of the islands is invariably warm, between 78 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, as it should be within 10 degrees latitude of the equator. But only twenty miles away around the southern perimeter of the park, upwellings of cold water from the abyss make frequent and unscheduled appearances. "My most vivid recollection of Komodo's unusual temperature ranges involves a dive I made during the 1994 survey while wearing my usual eighth-inch tropical suit. The dive plan called for a quick descent to 120 feet and then a leisurely swim back up the slope to record all the encountered fish. The water felt unusually chilly, in the low 70's, at the beginning of the dive, but it was not uncomfortable. The deeper I went, the cooler I felt until I began shivering uncontrollably at a depth of 100 feet. I suddenly encountered a clearly visible thermocline--a pronounced blurring that marks the collision of two water masses with radically different temperatures. I tentatively extended my hand into the blurry water, abruptly withdrawing it. I couldn't believe how frigid that water was; an astounding 55 degrees Fahrenheit, or about as cold as the Southern Ocean around southwestern Australia during middle of winter."

The low water temperatures in particular have very interesting biological implications because Komodo's cool waters draw in organisms usually restricted to temperate seas well outside the park's tropical boundaries. Jerry first encountered the surgeonfish, Prionurus, while snorkeling on Komodo's western shore. "I could scarcely believe my eyes. Only a handful of Prionurus species are known, recorded from far-flung cool-water areas including Japan, south-eastern Australia, and the Galapagos. Seeing this animal so near the equator made me feel like one of the make-believe scientists visiting Hollywood's Jurassic Park.

The Prionurus, which is new to science and still lacks a Latin species name, survives in tropical Komodo because of the frigid upwellings carried in by Komodo's ferocious currents. The seas surrounding other islands in the Lesser Sunda Group, as well as the much larger islands of Java and Sumatra also host strong currents that bring in colder-than-normal water. Oceanographic studies have revealed a consistent sea level difference between the northern (Pacific) and southern (Indian Ocean) shores of the islands. Even though the difference is small (8 to 15 inches), it is just enough to generate a gross downhill flow into the Indian Ocean Basin, especially when tides and winds are favorable. The archipelago's southern tier of islands acts like a dam and holds back the warmer Pacific waters which are forcibly discharged through numerous narrow straits or "spillways" into the Indian Ocean.

The net result is horrendous currents that literally rip through the restricted land gaps. Even casual observers with little or no interest in the mechanics of oceanography are awe-struck when they first see this phenomenon. Running at speeds of five to six knots in every direction, currents are totally unpredictable. Tongues of opposing water collide frequently and form spectacular surface whirlpools. The channel between Sumbawa and Komodo often whirls and foams like a massive twenty-kilometer-wide washing machine.

These unrelenting currents are responsible in part for Komodo's amazing variety of sessile encrusting organisms. The strong surface currents which run predominantly from north to south form a "wake" effect on the southern or lee side of the islands. Surface waters are forcibly pushed out into the Indian Ocean and create a pressure void along the rocky southern shores. Cold water rises up from the abyss and rushes in to replace water removed by surface currents. A by-product of the upwelling phenomenon is greatly increased production of phytoplankton, a nutritional boon for southern Komodo's bottom-dwelling filter-feeders.

Phytoplankton production has far-reaching biological effects. These microscopic single-celled plants constitute a vital first step in the food chain. Upwellings transport dissolved nutrients, the product of bacterial decomposition of organic detritus, to the surface. These nutrients act like fertilizer and cause rich blooms of phytoplankton. Most of the organic material that sustains life in the sea is synthesized by the endless varieties of phytoplankton within the shallow, well-lighted surface layers of the ocean. They provide food for herbivorous zooplankton and some small fishes, which in turn support a succession of actively swimming predators. In the rocky shallows additional food also is available from the growth of larger fixed plants and from land drainage.

The increased productivity evident at Komodo is responsible for unusual population explosions of several organisms, some rarely seen elsewhere, that are difficult to study because they thrive in hazardous currents. "Jerry is really an intrepid explorer, says Kal Muller, author of Underwater Indonesia. We were planning a dive at a spectacular site situated midway along the western coast at Pulau Tukohlehokgebah, Pulau Tuk for short, and Jerry really wanted to get in the water and count "sea apples", a holothurian (Pseudocolchirus violaceus) that's quite brilliantly colored and normally hard to find. But by the time we finished gearing up minor swirls of water on the surface had turned into spinning whirlpools and the current was running out of control. In hindsight we should have aborted the dive, but we ignored our better judgment and jumped in."

Muller and Allen quickly realized that the current was pulling them out into blue water away from the protection of the reef and that they were sinking much too quickly. Their bubbles were going straight down past them instead of streaming up toward the surface. Crashing into the bottom at 120', they pulled themselves across the rocky substrate and caught their breath beneath the protection of a coral ledge, and then watched the parade of marine life jet past. The water literally teemed with small mid-water swimming fishes, including thousands of Scalefin Anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis), while peculiar bright blue phallic-like sea squirt colonies (Neptheis fascicularis) and blazing red, blue, and yellow sea apples clustered helter-skelter on the rocky bottom.

Along the west side of Gilimota Island there is a site named the "Apple Orchard" in honor of its profusion of these seldom-seen marine oddities. After Jerry's experience at Pulau Tuk, we decide to dive Gilimota at exact slack tide. Harry and Anton, two sturdy deck hands who hail from the island of Flores on the park's western boundary, set the anchor. We enter the cool transparent water and leave topside Komodo's baking hot primeval landscape behind. Drifting easily down a volcanic slope flamboyantly adorned with crinoids, filter feeding relatives of sea stars that have long feathery arms they use to trap microscopic food particles from the water, we slip through undulating masses of transparent fish. And everywhere we look there are sea apples, bushy yellow and white tentacles outstretched, gracefully gleaning bits of trapped plankton from the flowing sea.

The current quickens at the end of our dive, and as we ascend we are pulled into a cloud of plankton. For a moment we forget where we are and just swirl with the water as we try to photograph the tiny larval jellyfish and thimble-sized pelagic tunicates that bob past us almost too fast for our autofocus lenses to keep pace.

Jerry is already dancing on the deck with glee as we swim over to the rusty ladder. "That is what is so wonderful about this place. Diving in Komodo is totally unpredictable. You go down thinking you'll see some sea apples or a few interesting fish species, and the next thing you know you're surrounded by alien beings masquerading as plankton!" After we are back on deck he explains to us that Komodo's raging currents are constantly dispersing pelagic larvae, the fragile ocean-going first stage in the life history of most reef organisms. Jerry tells us to "think of the Komodo area as a gigantic rotary beater thoroughly blending its larval brew. The successful recruitment of a given species at a particular location depends not only on a sufficient supply of larvae, but especially on the whims of the unpredictable current patterns, which virtually transform the colonization of reef organisms at a particular site into a lottery. Because of Komodo's currents, you never know what you might see next!"

Unfortunately our excitement turns to anger and then despair during the next dive. We move the boat over to the southern shore of Rinca Island where Komodo dragons patrol the dark sand shore. Through shared binoculars, we all watch two nine-foot-long adult dragons chase a small juvenile to the water's edge. The youngster escapes by swimming over to a bit of reef that barely breaks the surface, but we scare the dragon off its perch when we start the outboard and head off in the dingy to hunt for poisonous sea urchins. The urchins we are looking for, Asthenosoma varium, are incredibly beautiful animals. Each one is about ten inches in diameter and their constantly-moving spines are lavishly colored purple, yellow, and red. Near Rinca we dive a site where each urchin we find plays host to a pair of symbiotic shrimp (Periclimenes colmani), a crab or two (Zebrida adamsii), and even colonies of pale white wentletrap shells (Luetzenia asthenosomae). We are pleasantly gliding over an underwater meadow of octocoral studded with brightly-colored urchins when we hear the first explosion. The force of the second detonation nearly knocks my regulator out of my mouth, and the third one sends us finning for the surface as fast as we can without risking a decompression accident.

We surface and see a bagan, a local-style fishing boat, motoring away from the dive site. The widespread use of cyanide and explosives for catching aquarium and food fishes has reached plague proportions throughout Southeast Asia. Even the remote reefs of Komodo have not escaped these illegal practices. Deadly home-made bombs are concocted easily with readily available ingredients such as fertilizer and diesel oil. They not only kill huge numbers of fish, but cause serious long-term degradation of the coral reef environment. Reefs that formerly supported lush coral gardens are routinely reduced to rubble. Local fishermen invariably claim that the illegal poachers originate from surrounding islands rather than sparsely populated Komodo. The Indonesian government wants to stop poaching and dynamite fishing, but it is terribly difficult to implement effective controls due to the park's large size and the lack of trained and well-supplied ranger-manned patrol boats.

Although we are depressed over the incident, Jerry believes there is a glimmer of hope for Komodo's reefs. "Komodo's marine fauna is very special; it has a unique blend of animals. The park's marine resources deserve protection as much as the more well-known dragons, and the world scientific community recognizes this fact, especially after the publication of the results of the first survey. One recent positive governmental action was the seaward expansion of the boundaries of Komodo National Park. But I believe that although the marine environment is now officially protected, there still is a genuine need for police or military support because these poachers are frequently armed."

Along with more effective law enforcement, it is hoped that the government will implement a comprehensive conservation-oriented education program specifically aimed at Indonesian youth. The fate of Komodo (and other Indonesian reefs) is really in the hands of the people, and their education process must foster awareness of the very special character of Komodo's marine life and the need to nurture it for future generations. This is a real challenge which should concern all conservationists, not just the few people who are fortunate enough to dive beneath the dragon's realm.



Please follow these links for information about travel to Komodo, Alor, Irian, Indonesia, and beyond:



Photos provided courtesy of Secret Sea Visions - Burt Jones, Maurine Shimlock
Stories courtesy of Burt Jones, Maurine Shimlock, Gerald Allen, and Kenneth Knezick
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