Marooned on Komodo Island, Diver Recounts Brush with Death

komodo.jpgLABUAN BAJO, Flores ~ A Swedish diver who spent two nights stranded on a remote island east of Bali with four other Europeans has spoken about how she had to fight off an aggressive komodo dragon with her weight belt.

Helena Nevalainen said the dragon, a member of the largest lizard species in the world, lunged at her three times before it was driven off as the divers awaited rescue on remote Rinca Island in the Komodo National Park.

“It was big … It tried to have a go at my feet,” she said a day after she and her companions were rescued at the end of a two-day ordeal, including more than 30 hours on the dragon-infested deserted island.

“I threw my diving belt. He came back and bit my diving belt and then he let go. After that he cam back one more time,” the 38-year-old tourist said.

The Swede, three Britons and a Frenchman struggled to shore on Rinca Island overnight last Thursday after getting caught in a strong current late that afternoon as they dived in the treacherous waters of Komodo National Park.

She said they spent about nine hours at sea and a further 31 hours on the deserted island, which is a sanctuary for the protected komodos off the western coast of Flores island.

Speaking from the comfort of her hotel in this western port of Flores, Nevalainen said she was just glad to be alive.

“I am happy I’m here, I’m alive,” she said.

Komodos are members of the monitor family and can grow to more than three meters long and weigh over 70 kilograms.

They are not usually known to be aggressive predators but have voracious appetites, powerful jaws and saliva laced with toxins and virulent bacteria.

Djoko Santoso, a reptile expert at the Bandung Institute of Technology, said most able-bodied people would be able to resist a hungry komodo as long as they avoided being infected with its toxic saliva.

“The saliva contains a host of bacteria and toxins as well. A buffalo or a deer, even just scratched by the teeth of the komodo, can die the following day,” he said.

The divers – Nevalainen, Britons Kathleen Mitchinson, James Manning and Charlotte Allin, and Frenchman Laurent Pinel – emerged from their ordeal almost unscathed apart from dehydration.

Pinel, 31, said on Saturday that the group had fended off a dragon by pelting it with rocks and had eaten mussels scavenged from the beach as they kept a lookout for search boats.

The search was hampered by a lack of resources, including fuel for aircraft, and police called on local fishermen to help.

Nevalainen said she did not blame group leader Mitchinson, who organized the trip along with her husband, Ernest Lewandowski, through their Flores-based dive shop.

“I don’t blame them at all … They have been here for so many years. I think they know what they’re doing and I trusted them,” she said.

She said the dive itself had been fine but the group ran into trouble when they reached the surface.

“It was not the diving itself; it was when we came up – the current was too strong. It was very, very bad currents,” she said.

The divers tried to struggle against the current for several hours but could not reach any of the islands they could see around them.

Eventually they decided to conserve energy and tied themselves together by their dive vests.

Hours later, however, they saw another island and despite exhaustion and severe cramps made one last effort to reach land, finally making to Rinca in the middle of the night.

“We didn’t know where we were. We were trying to reach land many times but couldn’t because the current was too strong. We were spinning around,” Nevalainen said.

Nevalainen and the four other survivors left a medical clinic here earlier on Sunday. Mitchinson, Manning, Allin and Pinel are believed to have left Flores to stay on a nearby island.

Komodo National Park lies about 400 kilometers east of Bali and is well known for its teeming sealife, with dive sites up to 40 meters deep.

Divers say its waters can be treacherous due to strong currents formed by shallow channels between the islands.

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