WAKATOBI, SULAWESI. INDONESIA
Indonesia's paradise islands
Season: Season: Year-round diving
Water Temperature: 26-29°C/79-84°F
Diving: House reef, walls, coral gardens, critter diving, shore diving, boat diving
Willing to share option on Pelagian
Can be combined with Bali and Komodo
"Probably the finest diving site in the world", or so Jacques Cousteau is reported to have said about the Tukang Besi archipelago, when he passed through this island group off southeast Sulawesi in Indonesia. Those who have since made the journey to the Wakatobi Dive Resort, opened on the remote island of Tolandono in the mid-1990s, are inclined to agree.
Six degrees south of the Equator in the Tukang Besi National Marine Reserve, and benefiting from the amazing biodiversity of the Banda Sea, the Wakatobi Dive Resort is situated in a remote tropical paradise setting. So remote in fact, that all but a few of the local inhabitants live without electricity, running water and telecommunications. The dive resort’s usual greeting is ‘Welcome. You may not have reached the edge of the world, but you can see it from here!’ Sitting in a picture postcard setting on the edge of a powder sand beach framed with leaning palm trees swaying in the breeze, you are able to enjoy a total sense of freedom and distance from civilization as well as enjoying diving on some of the world’s best coral reefs. No traffic, no pollution, no nightclubs, and no crowds.
Early visitors to the Wakatobi Dive Resort had to make their way via Ujung Pandang (recently re-named Makassar) in southwest Sulawesi, fly to Kendari in the southeast and travel onwards to Tolandono by an 18-hour boat journey. Now the resort has built its own airstrip to carry its guests by private charter from Denpasar airport on Bali to the neighbouring island of Tomia just a short boat-ride away from the resort.
With over 3,000 species of fish classified so far in the Sulawesi seas, the region is now recognized as the epicentre of marine diversity in the world. The most striking features of Wakatobi’s diving are the incredible marine diversity coupled with the pristine condition of the coral reefs.
Diving is on reef walls, seamounts, ridges, and coral gardens stretching out like vast undersea flower gardens. Slopes, reef tops, seagrass beds and sandy floors – all provide habitats for a myriad of marine creatures. The closer you look, the more you will see. Soft corals in vibrant reds, pink, purple, orange and yellow extend their flower-like polyps to feed on passing plankton delicacies. Gold, black, yellow and red featherstars cling on to huge barrel sponges and gorgonian sea fans lean out from coral walls. Schools of fusiliers chase up and down the reef’s contours in continuous waves of colour.
Some large pelagic fish move seasonally within the area, but Wakatobi does not claim to be a ‘big fish’ destination. However, when you have your eyes close to the reef studying the array of colour and life to be found there, most divers will forget to look behind them!
The popular dive site named Mari Mabuk, just a 15-minute boat ride from the dive centre, is a long ridge running at right angles to the shoreline and with its peak ranging from a depth of 25 metes to 5 metres under the surface. Huge sea fans, barrel sponges and coral heads are adorned with dazzling feather stars and colourful soft corals blooming in the frequently swift current. Many species of anemonefish (or clownfish) dance in the protection of their host anemones, and who can resist stopping to watch or photograph them? Check out the pink Muricella sea fans for Bargibanti’s Pygmy Seahorses. Lionfish glide out gracefully from their usual cover to investigate passing divers. Saron shrimps hide in the crevices of coral outcrops.
Roma, close by, is a series of undulating mounds endowed with pristine coral and anemones. A solitary Pinnate Batfish teases the photographer, swimming on before the shutter clicks and returning moments later. Clown Triggerfish seemingly have learned the same prank. Two small bommies covered in corals harbour lots of macro life, one being home to up to seven leafish: green, white, yellow and black, sometimes ‘perching’ in a pink sea fan. The rare and beautifully patterned Comet is sometimes seen under reef boulders, but a torch will be needed to locate these dark-loving fish. Along the reef an impressive plate coral formation has earned the name ‘the rose’ because of the beautiful and unusual shape that it has formed over the years.
A 20-minute boat ride to the neighbouring island of Sawa brings one to the Fan Garden, a wall dive and steep slope with craggy ledges in the upper area. Here you will find lots of pink, orange and red soft corals, purple and orange sea fans, and barrel sponges – the latter providing a chance to search out the tiny pink hairy squat lobster that hides away in the crevices, looking like a small piece of discarded angora wool.
Take a gentle drift along Inca’s Palette, which begins as a moderate slope and then plummets into the depths with multiple overhangs. Huge leather corals, tube sponges, a giant Tridacna clam and the palette of hard and soft corals are features of this site. To get the most advantage from the dive, drift along when the current is running and the corals open.
At Table Coral City, one of the favourites amongst a plethora of outstanding dive sites, two adjacent seamounts rise to within seven metres of the surface. Swim over an extensive garden of cabbage coral. Sea fans of all colours protrude from the slopes, a gigantic multi-layered pink sea fan taking pride of place close by an equally enormous barrel sponge. A large area of layered table coral gives the site its name. But do not be too distracted by the pristine corals. Spend some time searching out the little creatures like the tiny Mushroom Coral Pipefish, Robust Ghost Pipefish, bold mantis shrimps and beautiful anemone shrimps.
By now you will be wanting to return to the dive sites that you have already marked down as your favourites. The dive operators, however, will be anxious to show you more of their outstanding sites. It is a difficult choice for you. You want to get back to your favourites, but the dive operators are right – at Wakatobi the good gets even better! The Blade, comprising a chain of pinnacles towering to heights varying from 25 metres to 6 metres below the surface is arguably the most spectacular and exhilarating dive of all, and is so named because of the sharp edge along the top of the ridge. It is a little over an hour’s boat ride from the dive centre, but the journey is justified by the dramatic underwater scenery. Like a fairy-tale castle, the pinnacles are festooned with towering corals, barrel sponges, sea fans and soft corals. The dive ends with a safety stop in the shallows above one of the pinnacles. Here you will want to hang, admiring the panorama and draining every last minute from your dive.
The icing on the cake is Wakatobi’s spectacular House Reef. Just 20 metres from your bed you can enter the water and swim just a few fin strokes before you start to encounter Wakatobi’s marine life. Even before you reach the seagrass bed, 15 metres from the water’s edge, you might have encountered snake eels poking their heads out of the sand and flounders skimming over the sandy bottom. Over the seagrass bed, still with only one or two metres of water above you, the sharp-eyed can observe Robust Ghost Pipefish, Black-lined Filefish and Pavo Razorfish. Then in a short stretch of patch reef check out the Ribbon Eels, Gold-specs Jawfish, the occasional Blue-spotted Ray and the shrimp gobies standing watch whilst their associate blind shrimp works hard excavating their communal burrow. Only 50 metres from the shoreline you reach a gully leading to the drop-off. But before you go over the edge you will want to stop and watch the shoal of resident Bigeye Jacks and spend a few minutes with the Blue-lined Fangblennies that have made their home in ready-made holes in the concrete mooring base. Down now to 12 metres for the house reef’s pièce de résistance – an un-named species of pygmy seahorse, resident on a sea fan! So much to see and you’ve only just reached the drop-off. A gentle drift along the craggy wall reveals beautiful pristine corals, anemones with their anemonefish friends, Periclimenes shrimps and porcelain crab guests, nudibranchs, scorpionfish, lionfish and batfish. Do not forget to keep a watchful eye out towards the blue – turtles and eagle rays are frequently seen here. Needless to say, night dives along this wall are an explosion of colour. Try them!
The chain of islands from which Wakatobi takes its name: Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomea and Binonko, form an area known as the Wakatobi Marine National Park (also known as the Tukangbesi Archipelago). Those who take a cruise on the newly-refurbished Pelagian will explore the Greater Wakatobi Area and the Western Banda Sea. There will be opportunity to explore the outer reefs of the Wakatobi Marine National Park visiting the smaller eastern and southern islands of Moromaho and Runuma, the big reefs of Karang Kaledupa and the fascinating ‘critter diving’ haven of Buton island, as well as the best of the reefs around Wakatobi Dive Resort.
Binongko Island is actually one of the few islands where steel is forged and knives are formed by the same process of smelting and moulding as they were hundreds of years ago. The dive sites here are dramatic in structure with sheer walls studied with black coral, overhangs populated with fish schools and rocky reef tops with swim-throughs draped in colourful soft corals in yellow (Sarcophyton) and orange (Sinularia). Within these soft coral overhangs divers will find such fascinating small creatures as peeping blennies, dottybacks, gobys and some very photogenic sea spiders.
The Eastern Islands are the most remote islands of the Wakatobi islands group and are consequently the least dived. Some of these small, palm-covered, low-lying islands have sea gypsy villages on stilts. Giant overhangs, dramatic canyons and fabulous drop-offs combined with very clear water, superb diversity, profuse and healthy coral and rich fish life make for some wonderful diving – some say it is the best wall diving in the world!
Karang Koromaha is an atoll of around 6 kilometres in diameter, from where it is possible to see Tomea island. Some fishermen make the long sail from Kaledupa to fish with lines in the atoll, but as the sea can be rough in this area, the atoll is seldom fished. Deep walls and steep slopes, overhangs with huge cracks, delicate hanging soft corals and cracks and crevices rich in invertebrate life make these dives a delight for photographers and videographers as well as those who dive armed only with a magnifying glass. Reef corners in this area attract huge schools of fish. Search under table corals for sweetlips lurking below.
The large island of Buton, southeast of Sulawesi, has some very special dive sites with some amazing inhabitants. Shallow dives of no more than 7 metres hold such marine ‘treasures’ as Flying Gurnards (often in pairs), throngs of pipefish, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, frogfish in a variety of colours, juvenile Black Snappers, Marbled Snake Eels, ‘piles’ of octopus, crabs in every shape, size and colour and anemones galore. Devil Scorpionfish, stonefish, Cockatoo Waspfish and Ringed Octopus are also found in this area. This is definitely one of those places where macro photographers should give up trying if they don’t find any photo opportunities!
COMBINATIONS: As all visits to Wakatobi start and end in Denpasar, Bali, why not spend some time diving on this superb island or cruise by liveaboard to remote Komodo & The Nusa Tenggara. Alternatively, it is straightforward to combine a visit to Wakatobi with a visit to another of Indonesia’s fantastic dive destinations. Talk to us about the possibilities.
FLIGHTS: Price from about $1487 return from Los Angeles to Denpasar, plus about $485 return from Denpasar to Wakatobi. There are daily flight connections to Denpasar.