Since I was small, before I even became a photographer, I always wanted to see how currents move. There are brief moments when we can see smoke in a beam of light, or ink moving through water, but getting a clear image of how currents moved remained locked in my imagination, until one unexpected day in Komodo National Park, Indonesia.
On a group of islands in Eastern Indonesia live the last living dragons. They are called Komodo Dragons, grow much larger than humans, and feed on monkeys and deer. But beneath these islands there are much greater mysteries. Komodo’s coral reefs are some of the most vibrant and healthy underwater ecosystems in the world. This is largely due to very strong cold and warm water currents mixing together. These sometimes-dangerous currents provide nutrients for a variety of sea creatures, and a thriving ecosystem.
My Trip in Komodo as a Photographer
For 10 days between Bali and Komodo, me and my companion Akasha, lived on the “Adelaar” a black and red sailboat that reminded me of a pirate ship. From the Adelaar the little dingy boat took us to the edge of the reef.
The dive master flashed an “ok” sign to me and my companion, and we rolled backwards off the side of the little boat. With my camera in one hand, I pushed the deflate button on my scuba diving vest to release the air, and sank down into the depths. Almost immediately, we were flying across the reef, the current pulling us faster than a bicycle.
There was no sense in fighting it. Moving at great speeds, I watched as fish, and turtles zipped past me, sheltered from the fast moving water by rocks and coral mounds. For about 10 minutes I enjoyed this sensation, staying close to my companion and watching the world go by. All of a sudden, it was as if someone had applied the brakes, and we just stopped and it was very calm. We were in a special place where two currents collided. In this small area, there would be no movement. Free to wander the reef, I watched little shrimps, and clown fish who hide among poisonous anemone that seem to dance in the water.
Unpredictable is the ocean
About 15 minutes later, I looked up from the direction we came, and I saw a strange sight. There were thousands of shiny white object, suspended in the blue water, flashing like snowflakes in the sun, and then some of them began to move. Some swirled into the depths, others moved to the side, and some vibrated back and forth. I looked in confusion for a time, and then I realized what it was. They were bubbles, left behind many minutes ago. The same ones I had in my lungs. Bubbles which normally float quickly to the surface, and yet here, in this strange place where the currents meet, they were held in place, trapped in the blue. The downward currents were stronger than the bubble’s desire to reach the sky.
Here was something I never thought possible taking place in front of me. I could see how currents moved. I watched as thousands of little bubbles revealed the movement of the water around them, twisting and turning, falling into the depths, rising and moving as light beams danced in the blue.
Strapped to my back is a tank of air, enough for me to explore the underwater depths for a little more than an hour. My fins allow me to move in any direction. My watch is my computer. It tells me my depth, time and other important measurements, I am even armed with a knife for combat or to help animals escape from fishing line. And my camera, which allows me to photograph the fascinating things I find. As I go deeper the colors disappear and all that is left is blue. As I float along the landscape full of strange aliens, I cannot help feeling like an astronaut exploring an ocean in space.
The waters of Komodo
In the waters of Komodo there are animals that have come from the far reaches of the imagination. Diving at night is a whole different experience. At night there are creatures and coral that glow different colors when lit with a black light (Ultraviolet Light). On our first night dive I turned off my light and drifted away from the others, into the darkness. Looking into black water, I saw a small blast of blue light. I quickly swam towards it as the light spread through the water like ink. It covered my face, and glowing blue liquid went behind me. Turning on my light, I found a small shrimp the size of a peanut that sprays these clouds of glowing ink to distract hunters and escape being eaten.
I watched a squid spit a fish out when is shone my light on it. I looked up and watched the moon light beaming from the surface. Like on land, it is the strange ones that come out at night…
The day time held many wonders too. I saw clams bigger than me. Beneath a volcano were black sand beaches where bubbles rose from the sand, and hundreds of colorful slugs called nudibranchs gathered, some of which look like blue dragons. In Komodo I saw turtles, tuna, sharks and a school of fish the size of rice swimming by. I watched goat fish using their mustaches to find food beneath the sand, strange crabs defending their territory, and two eels mating in the coral.
In the past, fisherman would throw dynamite into the water, which would explode across the reef. Coral reefs are like cities, full of residents. And when a bomb is dropped on a city, there are many deaths and great devastation. The coral would die, flattened by the blast, and many fish would float to the surface, to be collected by the fisherman. What took hundreds of years to form, was destroyed in seconds. A place of beauty and abundance, where animals interacted and lived would be left in ruin. There are places in the world where dynamite fishing still occurs.
Today however, Komodo has become a marine reserve. While there is still some illegal fishing, Komodo is protected, and where life once thrived, it finds its way back. Softer coral find a home first among the white skeletons of the dead coral, and take root. They spread across the ground and wave like grasslands in the wind. Fish find homes and protection from larger predators, and slowly slowly, after many years, the hard coral comes back. Coral reefs are a delicate ecosystem. They have been around much longer than humans, and yet they are vulnerable to temperature change, waste, and poor fishing practice that benefit only a few and leave nothing for the future.
If we are careful and respectful, we can visit these places for many generations to come. Our children and their children will be able to witness some of the most fascinating and beautiful displays of Nature. Humans do not need to be at war with nature. We simply need to be respectful and act in a way that will be best for all the creatures who live on this planet.
Text and photos by guest & photographer/videographer Karim Iliya