Tuesday, July 3, 2007

An Island of Your Own

Soft sand under your feet, warm clear waters and gorgeous undersea life at your doorstep: Andrew Greene samples a piece of paradise.

The bay at the front of my simple cottage is a magical place. With my feet up on the cottage’s bamboo railing, a daybreak coffee in my hand, a dark blue belt spills across the bay marking the boundary to the deep waters.

The sun climbs above the shadowy humps of Seraya Besar Island in the sea. On my side of the azure border, the calm waters are a blue so pale that it could be considered to be tan or even white.

On the belt’s other side, the waters seemingly continue on forever, their blueness eternally increasing. Each shade represents a different submerged world.

My first morning on Seraya Kecil Island, with the tide fully in, I slip on my flippers, don my mask and snorkel and sit in the water. I tilt forward, lay flat on my belly and begin to pull my way, one handful of sand at a time, through the knee-deep water. The water is very clear and the soft bottom is less than an arm’s length away. A few sandy, nearly translucent, fish dart out of my path as I float on my way above them.

Five meters seaward, I come to a bed of sea grass. Here I begin to see more marine life. Crabs crab their way through the thick green dancing fronds. Their poppy-seed flick eyes dart and blink with panic as my pink bulk floats overhead. These are small crabs, less than the diameter of a Malang apple and are in no danger of making it onto my dinner plate.

Red starfish, large, stiff, five pointed things with black nodules running down the crest of each arm, likewise make their home in this grass bed. These too, I swim over the top of. They remain stoic, fortified with the nonchalant character for which all starfish are famous.

An expanse of sea urchins lies just toward the end of the sea grass.

I carefully paddle my way past these thorny challenges and into the world where the true wonders begin, the coral garden. To use the tired cliché that snorkeling above a coral reef is like looking at an aquarium is a bit like saying that meeting an alien is the same as watching ET.

Coral covers the bed below; mounds of brain coral, forests of branch coral and horizontal expanses of table coral. The reef does not seem to have one true bottom. It is made up of layers and shelves and outcroppings and tunnels and cracks, all homes, shelters and hunting grounds to creatures doing what creatures do in any ecological system. Fighting, breeding, hiding, stalking and feeding are all on display below.

Colorful anemones expand and contact and sway to and fro, harvesting microscopic nutrients from the nutrient-rich marine atmosphere. From between the anemones’ poisoned tentacles scurry families of clownfish. Here in the bay, the first family I spy is a trio of skunk clownfish, named for the white stripe painted down along their tops from nose to tail.

Other guests to the island have mentioned sea snakes and sharks. I have not seen either. But I do see many large barrel sponges, their openings large enough to take a rest within. I dive down to one particularly large barrel sponge, its supporting ribs as thick and corded as a weight lifter’s wrist, to find a lionfish in full bloom deep within.

This turns out not to be the only lionfish I come across this day. On the swim back to shore I meet another lionfish hovering, completely motionless, over a bump of coral. Its fins fanned wide, supported by a rack of poisonous ribs. Its heavy slung jaw is lowered and squared and ready for any unsuspecting fish to wander into range. It is the perfect ambush predator.

I swim a circular route, giving the lionfish’s poisonous fins a wide berth and make it back over the grass bed and onto the beach and walk up to my cottage.

I have traveled to Seraya Kecil Island from Flores’ westernmost port of Labuan Bajo. To the east of the Wallace Line it is markedly drier and browner in appearance than Bali, Java and Sumatra.

Labuan Bajo is just an hour’s flight from Bali and Seraya Kecil is an hour’s boat journey from there. It is also possible to travel to Flores overland and oversea. I made the journey in four days by bus and ferry from Jakarta.

The island has only the one 10-cottaged resort for visitors to stay at. A night with a free breakfast is Rp 100,000 and the boat ride to the island is free. The downside is that electricity is generator-powered and available only a few hours nightly. That is long enough to recharge cell phones and cameras and pump fresh water into bathroom basins, but not long enough to have a climate-controlled sleep. Nonetheless, the island is popular with those travelers who have made it to Flores.

The resort is operated by the Gardena Hotel of Labuan Bajo. There is one restaurant on the island which is also the snorkeling gear center, front desk and library. It serves a limited menu of fresh fish during three set times during the day and evening.

Paulus, the manager, has worked here for four years. He is also the boat captain that carries guests to the island from Gardena. His wife is the cook.

In addition to the guests, Paulus is fond of turtles. He visits fish markets on the mainland and purchases any turtle eggs he finds for Rp 1,000 per egg. “I love turtles,” he says. “I don’t want the fishermen to sell the eggs for eating.”

He says that after bringing the eggs to the island they require up to 60 days to hatch. He then keeps the hatchlings in plastic washing tubs in back of the restaurant, feeding them bits of fish and changing their seawater daily until they are large enough to safely release into the ocean.

He says that he has recently freed 60 baby turtles and only has a few to show me. He brings out two who are immediate hits with the small gathering of guests in the restaurant. Cameras pop out and the hard-shelled infants are immortalized in photos that will surely be shown in photo albms in Europe. Then they are put back in a bucket to fatten up further.

As its name suggests, Seraya Kecil is a small island, much smaller that its sister island Seraya Besar. It consists of 10 hills with none taller than 200 meters. To the south, behind the resort, over a hill and across a saddle, sits a fishing village of 50 families.

Being arid and lacking fresh water, there is no farming; a walk through the hills leads to encounters with grazing goats, the odd deer, leafless trees and many blocks of crumbling red rock overlooking grand seascapes. Though hot, dry and barren it is a fine chuck of land to explore and possesses spots from which to shoot panoramic photos or simply sit for a picnic prepared below at the restaurant.

The island is also a fantastic place from which to explore Komodo or Rinca, the two main dragon visiting islands. Boats are easy to charter through the restaurant and more inexpensive than those rented from Labuan Bajo.

For those looking for a real weekend getaway, those already on their way to see the dragons or those traipsing further east along the drips and drops of the archipelago, Seraya Kecil Island is well worth a detour.

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