Posted in travel

Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:

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Posted in Photography, travel

A Boat Ride to Komodo

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. On the sea, time means very little. There is just day and night. There are those pleasurable hours when the sky is red and the world warms, and then the brutal midday hours when your skin burns when you sit out on the deck. Later, as the sun disappears and the world goes purple, and then innumerable stars beset the sky – where are these stars on land?! – the world seems peaceful, quiet.

*

I had always wanted to see Komodo and its famous “dragons,” and so it had been part of my tentative plan for this summer’s travels, although I knew it wasn’t easy to get there. However, when I found myself on Gili Trawangan, off Lombok, with a week to spare, I decided to ask around and found that there were boats that set off every Wednesday and Saturday for the mysterious island several hundred miles to the east.

So it was that on a sunny Wednesday morning, I walked to the pier and took a public ferry over to Bangsal, on Lombok island, and then jumped on a little wooden gulet headed for Labuanbajo, via Komodo island. It was not a ferry, as I had expected, but rather a tour boat, taking twenty-seven young Europeans to some of the more beautiful spots along that part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Our boat, the gulet, was an entirely wooden vessel, captained by an affable little pot-bellied man called Erren, who joked around a lot with his passengers. His bizarre Indonesian pronunciation made my name sound like the Welsh version, Dafydd, and a man named Blake was simply called “Black.”

“But you’re not black,” Erren would say. “You’re a white man!”

On board there wasn’t much room for the twenty-seven passengers. Most of us slept upstairs on the deck, in a large, low-ceilinged room with rubber mats on the floor. A few people had paid for cabins, which were the same thing except private, and smaller. There was a small area at the bow which got sun, but everywhere else was covered, and for the next four days the sun-lounging area would be crammed full and spots were hotly contested.

We set sail late in the late morning and spent the day moving slowly east along the northern shore of Lombok, whose imposing figure captivated the passengers for hours. Towering Mount Rinjani was visible throughout the whole day and the thick jungle was commented upon by several people as reminiscent of Jurassic Park. I sat on the bow of the ship, soaking in the sun and enjoying the gentle bob of the boat in the waves for some six hours. Flying fish occasionally took flight from the water and zipped along the surface like bizarre alien beings. Normally they made it 5-15 meters, but sometimes they flew as far as 50 meters before plunging back into the deep. Fat blue jellyfish bobbed on the surface, menacingly, and dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping playfully out of the water every few seconds.

In the evening we dropped anchor and watched the sunset. The sky turned bright red and then it faded to purple and then black, and soon an inconceivable blanket of stars covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I thought how sad it is that, all around the world, we are losing this essential part of who we are as human… We have vanquished nature and cast our light into the sky so bright that, for most humans, the stars are barely visible. Yet out at sea, where man is still not master, the skies remain and it possible to feel fully human.

I went to bed at nine-thirty but, at sea, time means very little. It gets dark, you sit around, and then when you’re tired you sleep. The engines fired up about eleven-thirty and we started moving eastwards again. From the top deck, the bob of the ship was more pronounced, and I was paranoid about being seasick out here… yet throughout the day I had enjoyed the rocking of the boat, and no seasickness befell me.

*

I awoke to watch one of the few sunrises of my lifetime, and certainly one of a very small number for which I’ve specifically woken. It came up into a clear sky from behind the mountains of Sumbawa, burning bright orange at first, and then, very quickly becoming the regular old yellow sun in the sky, burning down upon the world.

Soon the rest of the group was awake and eating pancakes for breakfast, and then we were dropping anchor at Moyo Island, where we snorkelled in the most pristine reef I’d ever seen. The sea life there was beyond my comprehension. In the Perhentians and off Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno I had seen outrageously beautiful fish, and yet here it was better still. The reef was completely untouched and undamaged by man or his evil pollution. The array of colour was staggering in both the coral and the fish, and I was utterly captivated as I swam around in my element. Whether on it or in it, I have fallen even further in love with the sea.

At Moyo we climbed a tall waterfall with no ropes nor any form of safety equipment, which seemed obscenely dangerous, but miraculously nobody died. The wet rocks were oddly course and provided sufficient grip to get up and down, and at the top there was a huge deep pool into which we all dived in the midst of the jungle morning. Erren amused everyone by producing soap and showering under the waterfall. I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered, and it had certainly been more than three weeks since I last washed my hair…

We got back on the boat and set sail once again, this time just a short hop to Sebotok Island, where we did more snorkelling. Again, the life underwater was stunning. I saw two turtles (taking my total for this trip to almost forty) and perhaps a fleeting glimpse of a shark. In general, though, the fish were small here, but brightly coloured and incredibly intricate. Unlike in more popular dive locations, they were unaccustomed to people and had no fear as I swooped down to shoot them with my GoPro.

Then we were back on the boat and off on a longer trip – this time an eighteen hour journey to the Komodo National Park – our main destination. The trip went well until nightfall, when people moved upstairs to bed, tired from the day’s swimming. Shortly after darkness fell, the waves rose in size, and soon the few of us left on the main deck were being hit with continual sprays of salty water which, in the wind, felt cold and unpleasant, whereas in the daytime it had been refreshing. The waves continued to grow and hit us from the starboard side as we forged on into the night. The stars came out and the dark landmass of sparsely populated Sumbawa was all that could be seen. As I watched the lean, muscled old man behind the wheel, I wondered how he could guide the ship. The waves were invisible until the very last second. We were rocked violently and it became hard to stand up, so I sat and held on tightly to my seat. One of the passengers, a ship-builder by trade, was worried because the ship was clearly in bad shape and slung far too low on the water to handle anything bigger than what was coming at us. The crew seemed on edge, too, and they eyed the distant shoreline as though they wondered whether it was possible to make it if we capsized.

I managed to sleep through most of the night, but like everyone else it was a fitful sleep, being awoken regularly as the ship rose and fell on the water, tossing us all around on the communal sleeping deck. Bags crashed about and in the morning we found everything on board a terrible mess, with life jackets having broken loose and nothing where it had been left the previous evening.

*

Again, I awoke to a rising sun, this time rising over the sea as the Komodo Islands appeared on the horizon. We’d lost time during the rough seas and were behind schedule. But what does time really mean out here? It is only the rise and fall of the sun that matters, and after a rough night, it felt good to watch it burn up and over the horizon, illuminating the shape of our destination.

I sat and watched Komodo move painfully towards us as people woke and came out for breakfast, wondering what today would bring. Soon we stopped in an unbelievably beautiful bay, surrounded by Komodo’s bare islands – very different in appearance from those of Lombok and Sumbawa with their thick jungles. Here, there was only grass and the occasional shrub, on top of land that looked like it had been poured loosely from the skies with wet dirt. It was impossible to imagine how the same chain of volcanoes – the Ring of Fire – had created such different landscapes, but I suppose it is just a matter of age.

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This was Gili Lawadarat, and after jumping from the bow of the boat to the shore, we hiked an unforgiving dirt trail up a steep hill to a viewpoint, from which the seas and the mysterious lands of Komodo unfolded. The climb was brutal, but the reward was more than ample. The azure skies and crystal waters weren’t picturesque; they were beyond the description of mere words. Vast yachts and tall sail boats cruised in and out of the islands, treating wealthy tourists to privileged views of this amazing part of the world.

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There was more snorkelling here but I didn’t partake, as I had sunbathed most of the morning and, coupled with the climb, I felt I had now gotten too much sun. I knew there would be plenty more snorkelling later in the day…

Indeed, after an hour and a half of sailing we came to a non-descript area of coastline called Manta Point which, as the name suggests, is famous for the huge, alien creatures called manta rays. The captain steered the boat carefully and a man in a snorkel mask tied himself to the front to search the clear waters from below the surface as we slowly circled around the area. Turtles and fish came by but we were only interested in one animal…

After a failed attempt to follow a small group of mantas, we found unimaginable success. A large group was spotted and we were all eager to dive into the deep waters and follow them, but the captain held us back and told us to wait for a better position. On his word, we all dived in and swam frantically towards where we thought we’d see the giant rays. Soon we had a sighting – three impossibly big black shapes moving ethereally through the ocean. And then they were gone.

A few others and I followed the rays but, going against the current without fins, it was impossible to catch up. We bobbed there as everyone else headed back to the ship, and laughed about how amazing the sighting had been – these creatures are just out of this world. They look as though they are flying through space; not swimming in water. They don’t look like anything else on the planet. We didn’t realize, though, that our experience was just beginning. Soon another group of three swam past us very, very close. As we swam after them, shooting videos and pictures without our underwater cameras, another group came up behind us. A great black ray brushed my leg and scared the hell out of me, before I turned and realized his giant gaping mouth was not intended for eating anything like me. He just wanted me to get out of his way.

Manta rays came again and again, swimming along the edge of a steep reef and out into the deep. I swam and bobbed and watched them come and go for what seemed like hours, loving every second of it. It was an experience so wonderful it would have justified the trip alone – and yet from the beginning, with the exception of the choppy night on the sea, it had been one delight after another.

Soon we were back on board, laughing and talking about how incredible the day had been – from stunning views of paradise to close encounters with otherworldly creatures. The ship continued its way south to Pink Beach where we were to go snorkelling once again, this time for two and a half hours. As I dove into the sea, I noticed how much colder it was here than anywhere else, and the current was strong, too. I held out hope for a shark sighting, as they prefer these waters to the water coral reefs we’d previously encountered.

The waters were once again teeming with life and the corals were vivid and thriving, but the first animal I noticed chilled me more than the water – it was a giant moray eel, trying to hide among coral but remaining almost entirely visible. It was easily ten feet long, with a body wider than my own in places, and a giant, mean-looking head. I’ve been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of morays recently, with great success, but this one was hard to even look at. It had vicious eyes and a massive set of jaws at the end of its powerful body. Whenever I moved in close for a photo it would posture aggressively. I am a firm believer in the adage that no animal is truly dangerous when shown adequate respect, and moray eels are no different. I heeded his warning and watched from a distance, although his menacing grimace turned my blood to ice. In the end it was difficult to turn and swim away because I could so vividly imagine the beast chasing me down, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

Elsewhere, I saw very large versions of animals I’d see elsewhere, and they seemed far more aggressive. I saw a huge, bizarre squid/cuttlefish creature which, when I move near, postured as though it would attack me. I also found several blue-ringed stingrays which proved more aggressive than the incredibly shy ones I’d seen elsewhere. From the sun burning my back to the icy cold waters aching my bones and the hordes of jellyfish stinging my skin, I decided after an hour to escape to the comfort of the beach and its odd pink sand.

Back on the boat, I spotted two eagles attacking a smaller bird, and yet more dolphins leaping from the water, as the sun fell once again – this time over the dark, bare mountains of Komodo. Our boat chugged slowly to its resting place for the night as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no more waves disrupting their sleep. We would be anchored in a large lagoon with lots of other tour boats, with little canoes of touts selling beer and bracelets coming up to the boat. One by one, the other tour boats turn on disco lights and reggae music, and our captain, Erren, started showing off his dancing skills.

*

This is part one of a two part story. The second, which tells of the Komodo Dragons, will be posted next week.

Posted in Photography

The Starry Skies of Southeast Asia

Earlier this year I posted a photo I took in Southern Africa of the night sky. To some of you, seeing the stars at night – and I mean thousands of stars – is probably something you take for granted. And yet, for most people on this planet, they are disappearing. If you live in or near a city, chances are that your night sky looks pretty dull. Perhaps, on a clear night, you may see a handful of stars.

Yet this is not what we are, as a species, accustomed to. Since long before we knew what a star was, we have wandered the world, looking up and navigating by the stars, speculating upon their role in our world, making up stories about them… They are a part of us, and we are losing them to light pollution and smog.

In Eastern China, where I live, the stars are a rarity. Granted, this year, with government efforts to reduce pollution, we can see more than in the previous five years, but nonetheless it makes for pitiful viewing. As I wandered the plains of Africa last winter, I marvelled over the incredible number of visible stars, and lamented the fact that I know so little about them. In the Philippines, many years ago, I remember floating out at sea in the middle of the night, drinking rum and being circled by curious thresher sharks, staring up into the innumerable stars as a bright blue lightning storm exploded on the horizon. The whole Milky Way seemed visible. Years later, I stared up at the stars from a mountaintop in California with the coyotes and cougars and bears… The stars seem paradoxically part of this natural world, and yet they are so alien that they captivate me whenever I’m lucky enough to see them.

On my trek through Southeast Asia this year I paid attention to the skies and even used an app on my iPhone to learn some of the constellations and star names, and was surprised to find that from most rural locations, at least several planets were visible. Bobbing on the sea at night in a small boat, I experienced the incredible sensation of being surrounded by stars from horizon to horizon. Then, on Gili Trawangan, I finally managed to shoot a decent photo of the Milky Way – something I’ve wanted to do for years. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in on this photo like I can on my computer (unfortunately, the mobile version of this site doesn’t allow for that) and see more stars than you could ever count.

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The Milky Way as seen from Indonesia.
Posted in travel

Gili Trawangan

The sun has set over the distant figure of the island of Bali, appearing like an eruption of molten rock from the top of Mount Kintamani, and soon the sky is lit instead by the luminous full moon in the east, which comes up over the horizon bright yellow and then moves across the sky an almost blinding white, illuminating the little fishing boats bobbing on the sea, the faint spectre of Gili Meno, and another volcano – Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok, which is always partially enveloped by thick white clouds.

From La Moomba, a little restaurant on the northeastern curve of the Gili Trawangan (pronounced “tra-WANG-an”) seashore – which stretches, unbroken around the whole of the little island – I take in the stars and the smattering of twinkling lights on the water and the nearby islands. It is quiet except for the lapping of the sea on the beach, and the ever-present Jack Johnson and Bob Marley records that ring out from beach bars the world over.

A day earlier, I arrived on Gili Trawangan – the largest of three tiny islands off the northwestern shore of Lombok, which itself lies to the east of Bali, on the Indonesian archipelago. I stayed the first night in a quite comfortable but crowded little hostel, called La Boheme, in the middle of the town, but it was fully booked on my second night, and so I wandered around, looking at the “no vacancy” signs for an hour. Although the island was undoubtedly beautiful, surrounded on all sides by white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reef, with volcanoes and flawless blue skies in the distance, I didn’t feel happy here. I’d been looking forward to visiting for nearly ten years, but I’d naively expected a relatively untouched paradise island, or at least a basic backpacker destination.

Instead, it was fully developed and packed beyond capacity with tourists from around the globe. It seemed almost the entire island was covered in hotels and restaurants. Everything was expensive and gaudy, and the tourists were mostly middle- and upper-class families and honeymooning couples. I wondered why all these resorts needed swimming pools when there were calm sea waters on all sides. Eventually I found Alex’s Homestay in the north of the island, rather tucked away from everything else. Luckily, Alex had a bungalow for me, and it only cost $18/night, compared to the $50+ that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere else. My bungalow was basic but had everything I needed, and was set in a small village, surrounded on all sides by trees and roaming buffalo. Alex, the talkative and affable proprietor, leant me his bicycle so I could pick my bags up from the La Boheme.

Suddenly, I felt quite positive about the island, having been rather depressed for the first 24 hours. I sat and talked to Alex for an hour on his little property, surrounded by trees and cats and chickens, and then went to find lunch. I stopped in at a small beach bar on Turtle Beach and befriended the quiet owner, who told me it was safe to leave my phone, camera, and bag on the beach as I swam. I could barely believe it, but when put to the test it turned out to be true – nothing was stolen. I spent six hours sipping cold Bintang beers and chatting with the owner and his friends, who all reckoned they could do a Scottish accent. It seemed they had Scotland confused with London, however, and instead put on some impressive Cockney accents. Mostly, though, I spent the day in the water.

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Your humble reporter enjoying a Bintang on the beach.

On the northeastern shore of Gili Trawangan, the aforementioned “Turtle Beach” area, the snorkelling is fantastic. Although it can be difficult to get over the sharp coral at low tide, in the morning, when the water is high, it is extremely accessible and there are always several turtles swimming around, munching on the corals. There is a peaceful atmosphere here that is lacking in the crowded south, or on the snooty, rich western beaches. I spent the whole day drinking beer, reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt (a fitting title), and swimming with turtles, until the tide was so low that it became impossible to swim. Around this time I began to realize that I was rather sunburned, too, and decided to retire to my bungalow for the evening.

Every place is, to some extent, what you make of it. My disappointment at the gap between what I’d expected of Gili Trawangan and what I’d actually found had darkened my view of this place, but during a happy day spent meeting nice, friendly locals and tourists, and swimming leisurely in the turtle-filled seas, I found a new perspective, and I looked forward to spending more time here.

*

The streets of Gili Trawangan, or rather the dusty paths that criss-cross the tiny island, are mercifully free of motorized traffic, in stark contrast to Bali, just across the water. Instead, dozens of horses pull little carts around, filled with tourists and building materials for the numerous little bungalows being built to cater for the huge influx of tourists that now come to Gili Trawangan every year.

Along the waterfronts, small beach bars and larger resorts are filled with bikini-clad young tourists. They serve the local beer, Bintang, almost exclusively, along with tropical cocktails, and the menus primarily offer Western-style food. All except the most expensive resorts will allow guests to sit on the beach for free, sometimes even using their beach chairs and sun beds, and at night the waiters will whisper to passers-by, “You want weed? You can smoke on the beach… it’s no problem. No police on Gili Trawangan!” Which all sits in seemingly direct contrast to the façade the island now presents as an up-market, bourgeois tourist destination.

Gili Trawangan’s main draw as a tourist destination is its waters, and all through the town and in almost every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, and hostel – as well as the bars and restaurants – diving companies and boat-owners offer an array of scuba and snorkelling trips. Despite years of exploitation leaving most of the reefs that surround the Gilis (including the other two islands in the chain – Meno and Air) dead, there is still an abundance of easily visible marine life. On my first day snorkelling, I saw six turtles, and on the second day I saw fourteen. I also encountered moray eels, banded sea kraits, giant puffer fish, and innumerable colourful fish whose names I don’t know.

The beaches are mostly white sand, but sometimes black, giving way almost immediately to coral reef – or dead corals where a reef used to be. (There have been successes in regenerating the reef, particularly around Gili Meno, in recent years.) It is very accessible during the morning and early afternoon when the tide is high, but less so later in the day as the tide lowers and the reef and rocks are exposed. On the northeastern shoreline there is a bed of seaweed that draws huge numbers of green and hawksbill turtles, and just further out is a steep drop-off into the ocean. On the western side there is a dive site called Shark Point several hundred meters off shore, where I found one white-tipped reef shark. The currents all around Gili Trawangan are deceptively strong, and caution is advised while snorkelling or swimming.

*

I stayed another few days on Gili Trawangan, mostly spending time with two friends from China who’d were visiting Indonesia for a few weeks. We explored the island and its waters pretty thoroughly, and I became very fond of the place – having come full circle from my disappointing first day. However, with my summer holidays drawing to a close, it was time to move on and see more of Indonesia. I booked a 4-day boat trip to Komodo National Park through Wanua Adventures for a cool a1.8 million rupiah (U$140) which would stop off in various places of interest along the route from Lombok -> Sumbawa -> Komodo -> Rinca -> Flores. I had no idea what to expect, but an adventure on the high seas, coupled with some time hunting the Komodo’s famous dragons, seemed like the perfect ending to a long, enjoyable stint in Southeast Asia.

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A panorama of the western coastline.
Posted in travel

That’s a Moray

Or not. This is the story of a moray eel which was not a moray eel.

I’ve been afraid of moray eels as long as I can remember. It probably goes back to a childhood of being fascinated by the sea, and of hearing a story of a man having his faced ripped off by a pissed off giant eel dozens of meters under the sea.

For whatever reason, although I’ve enjoyed being in the sea all my life, the thought of moray eels in the cracks and crevices of a rock face or reef has put me on edge. Even in the past decade when I’ve actively sought out, and often found, sharks in various parts of the world, I’ve never once found myself fearing these atavistic apex predators, and yet I’m always terrified that there may be an eel nearby…

My friends in the diving world have told me that I was being ridiculous, and I believed them, but our fears are not always rational. I’m scared of spiders, too, even though I know most of them to be entirely harmless. (Having said that, I’ve been bitten by spiders many times, including one month ago when a spider in Thailand bit my arse while I sat typing an essay.)

Last week, in Malaysia, I encountered many moray eels, and although I was filled by fear and repulsion on the first instance, I began testing myself. I start swimming closer and closer, telling myself that I needed a good photo of these animals… They were all different colours and patterns, and in different habitats, yet they all moved in the same lethargic, rippling fashion. They all swung back and forth on the current ever so slightly, mouth agape, eyes alarmingly alert. But as I moved forward I began to appreciate what my diving friends had told me – that they are quite docile animals, unwilling to strike unless proved – ie you stick your hand right in its face. Sure, they seemed wary of me and I didn’t doubt any of them would’ve bitten me if I’d gotten too close, but they were not threatening; they showed no interest in moving towards me.

Today I saw a black and grey moray eel partially in the open, searching for a place to hide. It was being bothered by dozens of small, electric blue fish, and seemed uncomfortable to be in the open. I followed it for a while before its posture indicated that I should get no closer, and I left.

A little later, I was in nearly the same place and I saw what appeared to be the same eel, and once again it was in the open. It moved differently, and appeared to be much smaller than the first one… so I reasoned that perhaps it was the same kind of snake – perhaps the offspring of the first one.

I followed this new eel for a while, pushing myself to get closer and closer. I was able to take several clear photos as it moved slowly across the seabed, and I swam down nearly to the bottom, satisfied that this eel was entirely passive. Perhaps, without the protection of their dark hiding places, moray eels aren’t willing to attack…

Finally, as I got right alongside, the eel buried its head in the sand. I took one final close-range photo and left the poor animal alone, not wanting to cause it any undue stress.

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That’s not a moray.

Later that day I was sitting in La Moomba restaurant, using their WiFi to post a photo of a turtle that I had taken earlier. As I looked through my shots from the day, I saw the photos of the moray eel and realized that the final eel was absolutely not an eel at all, and that the similarities in appearance were restricted only to colour. The patterns on the animals’ backs were completely different when viewed closely.

I Googled “Lombok sea snake” and realized that the animal I’d seen was a banded sea krait. I searched a little further and discovered that banded sea kraits are incredibly venomous (50x a cobra’s venom) and kill people when they do stupid things like provoke them by swimming too close to take a photo…

Oh.

So that was a lucky escape. I would say that I have entirely conquered my fear of moray eels, although it nearly came at a very steep cost.