Saturday, September 12, 2015

Labuan Bajo, Indonesia: Sea Below, Stars Above

I can't remember the last time that I was able to see the Milky Way. Saigon just has way too many lights and hazy skies to ever have a chance at seeing anything less bright than a half-moon. It's a sad indication of how urban my life has become.

Waves crashing on Devil's Tear near Dream Beach (Lembongan)

Ten days on the Sea of Flores in Indonesia fixed that, though. The town of Labuan Bajo is located a few islands further east from the more popular Bali. It is isolated by the fact that you have to take an extra 1.5 hour flight from Bali, which seems to discourage most travelers from making it out there. However, the extra trip over stunning islands and pristine seas shimmering every shade of blue imaginable is well worth the effort.

Our final and best snorkeling sight. There's a cuttlefish down there somewhere

Those beautiful, clear, clean seas offer an abundance of marine life and diving opportunities. Bryn and I SCUBA dived six times over two days and had a blast. We swam with a pair of Manta Rays, saw countless Sea Turtles, a few reef sharks and, after numerous failed attempts to find a cuttlefish during our dives, we finally spotted one flitting alongside a sea turtle while we were snorkeling on our last day. The coral is still extremely healthy, but there is already evidence of its destruction. Like in Vietnam, it appears that the marine park charged with protecting the area is more interested in collecting revenue than protecting the park. Very few dive spots had mooring lines and a lot of boats just dropped anchor over coral beds. It was painful to watch. Like with Con Dao, it seems that the strongest force for preservation, for now, is Labuan Bajo's isolation. The sheer fact that not many people go out there means that the coral stays in tact. Who knows how long that will hold true, though.

Labuan Bajo's biggest celebrities are its Komodo Dragons. Two islands off the coast of Labuan Bajo (Komodo and Rinca) make up the only wild Komodo Dragon habitat in the world. And the 5,000+ dragons roaming those islands are out in full force. We hiked on both islands and saw dozens of dragons lounging in the sun, hanging around the kitchen hoping for handouts or females guarding their nests buried in earthen mounds. Although they're quite dangerous (our guide briefed us on all of the Komodo Dragon related injuries and deaths over the years) they're also pretty docile animals. As long as you keep your distance from them, you're fine. It's when you start posing a threat to the nest or if you come across a hungry, hunting dragon that things get dicey. On our second day in the park we spent a few morning hours walking around Komodo Island and I think it was my favorite. Climbing to a hilltop to enjoy the view, we found that a dragon had beat us up there and occupied the best spot. Cockatoos squawked in the valley below us and flew from tree to tree and a little further out, you could see the coral under the waves of the bay rolling out to the sea. He was a smart dragon.

A Smart Dragon
Logistically, you're going to have to spend a lot of time on boats while you're in Labuan Bajo if you want to get the most of it. The town itself doesn't offer much more than dive shops, restaurants and hotels. There are some cool excursions inland, but the mountainous roads are slow going, so you have to set aside a lot of extra time for overland travel. As for us, we spent every day we were there on a boat. We spent the first two days on a dive boat exploring the reefs and marine life and the next two days on a private boat touring around Komodo Island National Park. We constantly passed much larger, live-aboard ships that offered 5 or 6 days of diving much further out at sea where the day-trippers couldn't reach. I was only little jealous of them. Honestly, I probably don't appreciate diving enough to get the full benefit of a live-aboard. Two days of diving and two days of snorkeling/hiking with dragons was a good amount for us. But more is always possible.

A boat similar to ours waiting for the nightly bat evacuation from the mangroves. 
One of my favorite moments of the trip was our night out at sea in between Komodo and Rinca islands in the national park. We had anchored next to a mangrove forest to watch giant fruit bats come out for their nightly feeding. As the migration of bats dwindled, the stars began to come out. The moon was waning so we had a few hours of good darkness after the sun went down. All four days we were out there, there was never a single cloud above us - they always lurked behind mountain ridges on the horizon, but never got close to us - so the sky was clear. And to make it perfect, the closest human settlement was nearly 20 miles away behind a mountain, so light pollution was at a minimum. The only manmade light source came from a few fishing boats out on the horizon. The conditions were perfect for an amazing star show, made more amazing by the fact that it's been so long since I've seen one. The Milky Way smeared across the sky above us as we lay out on the roof of our little boat.

The coolest thing was that I had gone to Labuan Bajo anticipating amazing experiences in and under the water - and it fully delivered on those expectations. The star show was unexpected, though, and those surprises are the ones that really grab you.

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