I’m going to find it difficult to explain Wakatobi to you. If you’re not (yet) a scuba diver, I’m going to attempt to describe the whole experience of coral sea diving in a few hundred words. If you are already a scuba diver, you’ll understand the general attraction, but Wakatobi is almost certainly a different experience from anywhere that you’ve dived previously (unless, I’m reliably informed, you’ve been to Rajah Ampat).
Overwhelmingly, people like me who love warm water diving in coral seas do it for one big reason: we love gazing at the wildlife (there are other sorts of diver, like the ones who dive deep into ice cold water to hunt for artifacts in wrecks, which is a different experience altogether). So when we talk about our dives, we discuss excitedly whether we saw a turtle or a shark or a manta ray, or a tiny brightly coloured mandarin fish found only in this particular corner of ocean, or of a coral shrimp so tiny and translucent that it took the sharpest of eyes to notice it. Many divers are obsessive about writing up every dive in their logbook, not least because the major certification bodies make this an important part of one’s training, and old habits die hard. On a good dive in normal sites, which would typically last somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, you might expect to see a dozen or so notable things (the definition of “notable” is fuzzy, but everyone agrees that it includes sharks, rays and turtles, and it usually includes any bright, colourful or physically odd-shaped fish that isn’t present in massive numbers in the area you’re diving).
The thing about Wakatobi is that on just about every dive, you reach the “dozen notable things” mark in about the first five minutes. Then, the number keeps clocking up as you go, accelerating as you reach the shallows, especially if the sun is out. If you try to remember all the species you’ve seen on a dive, you’re on a hiding to nothing; even counting them is beyond my ability. I’ve tried remembering all the species of butterfly fish – just one small section of the marine diversity out there – and given up when it gets to a dozen (it turns out that around 60 of the world’s 120 species are present in the area). In other dive areas, you might struggle to think of any really significant thing you saw during a dive. At Wakatobi, you have the opposite problem: you’re getting sensory overload. It’s best to start a dive with a couple of things you’re going to look out for, like, for example, counting butterfly fish species, counting turtle sightings (my maximum count was twelve) or searching the sand for its inhabitants. The goby-shrimp combo is a particularly cool sand-dwelling symbiosis: the shrimp lives in a hole and does the housekeeping, ejecting anything it considers not to be nice and clean, while the goby (a silvery fish around 3cm long) stands on guard outside.
If you compare coral reef diving to wildlife-watching on land, the difference in sheer profusion and diversity is simply enormous. Whether it’s a safari in Africa, hoping to see the “big five” (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo), looking for bears or moose in Scandinavia, or just bird-watching in the UK, you can spend most of your hours in the field waiting for some animal to put in an appearance. On a coral reef, by contrast, there is a riot of colour and shape all around you.
It’s not just about the fish. The coral comes in a thousand forms. The hard corals are generally named after things on land: potato coral, lettuce coral, mushroom coral, plate coral, brain coral (you get the idea). They can make very large formations indeed. Some sea fans can be well over the size of a person. Roma, one of Wakatobi’s dive sites, has two enormous “coral roses” of overlapping plates which must measure at least 30m in diameter. Towards the top of the reef, you can see single formations of staghorn coral that last for 100m at a time, hosting an unbelievable variety of reef fish sheltering in its branches. The soft corals can be equally eye-catching, like watching a colony of Xenia coral feeding, each of its dozens of arms waving in the swell, with a star of eight feathery “fingers” opening and closing to grab nutrients which pass by. Blown up in your mind’s eye, it’s the stuff of horror movies. There are many other creatures that are not corals. Ali Baba could hide inside the basket sponges without a problem; Lampert’s sea cucumbers form scary white patterns around the outside. There’s the tunicate family: solitary tunicates with a delicately veined pattern like fine porcelain, bluebell tunicates, electric blue translucent ovals which you’ll see in colonies scattered across the reef. Sailor’s eyeballs are a type of anemone which look for all the world like giant pearls.
Everyone has their own favourites. I love the ambush predators, like the crocodile fish which looks extremely like its landbound namesake, except that it’s perfectly camouflaged for the underwater landscape. We’ve seen a scorpion fish coloured white as it swims through the water, then settling on a reddish brown rock and then changing in an instant to match the place where it has settled, waiting for prey to arrive. There’s also defensive camouflage: at 20-30cm, a trumpet fish isn’t exactly a small item, but it’s surprisingly difficult to spot one when it’s pretending to be one of a bunch of sea rods. Many divers and most dive guides seem to love nudibranchs; personally, I struggle to see what the fuss is about. At the end of the day, even if it’s brilliantly coloured and boldly patterned, a snail is a snail. But big shoals are always a thrill, particularly when they’re tiny fish swirling around in a “bait ball”, whose shape morphs as they move with the current’s ebb and flow or perform some shift to attempt to confuse predators. I also love seeing parrot fish bump the coral, bite off a chunk and grind it up into fine sand which you can see them excrete (after they’ve ingested the nutrients). It’s not far off the mark to assert that the fabulous beaches of white sands in these parts are largely composed of parrot fish droppings.
By the way, I haven’t attached any underwater photos because I stopped taking them a few years ago: I realised that I wasn’t enjoying dives any more because I was spending all my time worrying about the camera and the pictures. There are plenty of people who disagree with me, as a search for “Wakatobi underwater” will quickly show you.
Wakatobi is located just off the south-east corner of Sulawesi (that’s the spindly one on the Indonesian map) in the so-called “coral triangle”, which brings me to the first of my three caveats: it’s a bitch to get to. If you’re coming from the UK or the US, you have to spend the best part of a couple of days getting to Bali, and it’s then a two and a half hour charter flight to the airstrip on nearby Tomia island. They do their best to make the trip smooth and efficient, but any way you look at it, Wakatobi is in the middle of nowhere.
Second caveat: you won’t see much in the way of large pelagics here (sharks, rays, etc). And finally, Wakatobi isn’t a cheap ticket by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a luxury resort with a capacity of around 60 guests, where they take exquisite care of you. You do pay for what you get, although not at the level of the ritzy international brands.
Somehow, when you leave, the team there manage to make you feel like you’ve just left a long lost second family. I don’t know quite how they do it, but whatever the magic is, it results in a lot of return guests. We’ve just done our third trip and it won’t be the last.