Jacob Herin -
Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey.
Dive operators and conservationists say the government is not doing enough to protect waters off the Komodo Islands in eastern Indonesia. They say enforcement declined greatly following the exit of a US-based environmental group that helped fight destructive fishing practices.
Local officials disagree, pointing to dozens of arrests and several deadly gunbattles with suspects.
Michael Ishak, a scuba instructor and professional underwater photographer who has made hundreds of trips to the area, said he's seen more illegal fishermen than ever this year. The pictures, he said, speak for themselves.
When Ishak returned last month to one of his favorite spots, Tatawa Besar, known for its colorful clouds of damselfish, basslets and hawksbill sea turtles, he found that a 500-square-meter section of the reef had been obliterated.
Many smaller patches were destroyed elsewhere at the site. "At first I thought, 'This can't be right.
I must have jumped in the wrong place,"' he said, adding he swam back and forth to make sure he hadn't made a mistake.
"But it was true. All the hard coral had just been blasted, ripped off, turned upside down.
Some of it was still alive.
I've never seen anything like it."
The site is among several to have been hit inside Komodo National Park, a 202,340-hectare reserve and UN World Heritage Site that spans several dusty, tan-colored volcanic islands and is most famous for its Komodo dragons – the world's largest lizards.
Its remote and hard-to-reach waters, bursting with fluorescent reds and yellows, contain staggering levels of diversity, from iridescent corals and octopuses with lime-green banded eyes to black-and-blue sea snakes.