Trip report: Wakatobi archipelago in Indonesia
The pristine reefs of the Wakatobi archipelago in Indonesia teem with colourful marine life, and a stay at the dive resort there is a delight of comfortable living and easy encounters in the underwater world, even if one particular tiny creature take some finding, says Richard Smith.
Stirred by the sound of waves lapping on the beach outside and the excitement of diving on one of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs, my first morning at Wakatobi Dive Resort started ridiculously early. As if I was at home, I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea, but the shrill chirping of sunbirds told me this wasn't London.
I found a quiet spot at the end of the jetty, where the dawn chorus of insects was too far away to hear and so the only sound punctuating the silence was the occasional fish leaping for its life from the still waters.
I watched the sun’s rays energise the reef beneath me, as I had my first taster of the remarkable underwater realm I would experience over the next 10 days in this remote utopia.
The road to paradise isn't always easy, but getting to the Wakatobi region of southeast Sulawesi in Indonesia was surprisingly so. I soon began to forget the 15 hours’ flight time from London to Bali when a representative of the resort greeted me almost as soon as I had disembarked the plane. He ushered me through passport control, baggage claim and customs, past the long-lines of holidaymakers, towards the check-in for a private plane transfer and the final leg of my journey.
For the next two and a half hours, I gazed out the window as we flew over countless coral atolls and pinnacles until we landed on the resort’s little private airstrip. Prior to its construction a decade ago, this trip had taken several days of arduous travel.
Times have changed but, importantly, the reefs haven't, and I was able to have the same magical experience but with the promise of the maximum amount of time underwater during my 10-day adventure.
The pristine and remote Wakatobi archipelago stretches in a south-easterly direction from the tip of the Sulawesi mainland, starting at Wangi-Wangi, along to Kaledupa, Tomia and finally Binongko Island. The first two letters of each island create the acronym after which the area and resort get their names.
If you were to follow my path from England to this tiny speck in the Banda Sea, you might wonder why I'd bypassed so many other coral reef nations on the way. The answer is simply that this is the world's epicentre for marine biodiversity and there is no more relaxed and luxurious way to experience it.
Wakatobi sits at the heart of the Coral Triangle, which is the name given to a roughly triangular area that includes the countries of Indonesia, Philippines, East Timor, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, that possess the planet's greatest marine biodiversity. The further you go from this coral triangle the fewer the number of reef fishes, corals and invertebrates you find. Wakatobi boasts mindbogglingly high species richness, accommodating almost 2,000 fish and 450 reef-building corals. On one dive site here you could easily encounter more species of fish than are found in the entire Caribbean.
My dive guide (known as a Dive Experience Manager) for the trip was Guja, whose enthusiasm was tangible even when he was underwater; Italians talk with their hands after all.
We immediately had one thing in common, which was a love of one of the smallest and most enigmatic of Wakatobi's residents, the pygmy seahorse. Now it might seem crazy to have a wish list of animals, every one of which is so diminutive it comfortably fits on a five pence piece, but these are by no means common creatures. Guja explained that finding three of the area's four pygmy species was a realistic goal, but the fourth, Severn's pygmy seahorse, was a much more elusive quarry indeed. We would need a great deal of luck and some eagle eyes on our side.
Our first dive was on the house reef, which is a coral wall that stretches for 4km in front of the resort. The reef can be accessed directly from shore or by 'taxi boat' whenever you like, but for the sake of orientation and ease is usually dived from one of the large dive boats on the first day. Everything at Wakatobi is intended to make diving as relaxing as possible, so after the first dive your gear will always be set up and ready to go, requiring minimal pre-dive adjustment. When the time came for the dive I simply stepped off the boat into the water where I joined Guja and the three other divers who would be my little buddy team for the trip.
On certain tides there can be quite strong currents on the house reef, but they just carry you along and their speed dictates the duration of your dive. A gentle current also brings out the polyps on the rainbow of soft corals that cover the wall, making for a real kaleidoscope of colour.
As I descended on that first dive, I passed turquoise vase sponges, bushes of crimson soft corals, verdant thickets of Halimeda algae, and a busy cluster of black and yellow sea squirts. The reef wasn't a world of complementary colour palettes from the pages of a fashion magazine, it was an assault on the senses and there wasn't a square inch of vacant space to be seen.
Pottering along the uneven wall full of overhangs and clefts, Guja pointed out many of the reef’s interesting inhabitants. Several species of anemonefish, the classic Nemo of Disney fame, danced among the fronds of their tenticular homes as an inquisitive school of bigeye trevally, a kind of tuna, streamed past us. At one point, transfixed by the undulating colours and mutating skin textures of a cuttlefish, I sensed something overhead and saw a huge green turtle soar over me.
As we naturally moved into shallower water towards the end of the dive the life became ever more intense. At Wakatobi you can always stay in shallow water, since the coral growth continues almost to the surface, and so the snorkelling is outstanding. The sunlight fuels so much growth in the 10m below the surface, there would be easily enough to keep you occupied for many hours.
One aspect of Wakatobi Dive Resort that stands it apart from others in the area is the extremely high level of service, accommodation and food. My bungalow had a porch affording stunning views out across the flat tropical waters to the palm strewn islands in the distance. Cool breezes rolled in from the sea. The buffet-style international cuisine was delicious and served in an open-air dining room that overlooked the ocean. It's very easy to forget how remote Wakatobi actually is when you have such fresh food served daily, delivered from Bali by plane.
It was two days before the end of the trip and although we'd seen three species of pygmy seahorse, there was no news of the Severn's species that I so desperately wanted to see. Guja had asked the other guides to keep their eyes peeled for the 1.5cm long fish, but they'd had no success.
That evening Guja came running to my table at dinner with fantastic news: a pair of the miniature red, orange and brown seahorses had been spotted at a dive site called Kollo Soho. The next day was our last dive day but we were able to schedule a trip to the site.
Armed with just a mental map painted by one of the other guides, Guja took me almost directly to the little outcrop, just above an orange sponge to the left of a purple seafan. There they were, the two tiny fish gripping onto hydroids with their tails and swaying in the current. If a miniscule seahorse doesn't already sound cute enough, the pug-like snout and big puppy dog eyes certainly seal the deal. The impossibly small male was visibly pregnant with a great swollen belly and both animals hopped from one frond to another, feeding on invisible crustaceans. After watching the couple for as long as I could, I eventually surfaced with an unquenchable grin that lasted until well after my return to England.
With the last remaining wilderness being inexorably encroached upon by man, it becomes increasingly hard to find remote places on the globe to dive. There is mobile phone signal in even the most far-flung areas and daily flights to locations that only a decade ago were considered extraordinarily remote. It is reassuring that, at least for now, some places do remain pristine and unsullied. This remote corner of southeast Sulawesi is one such place.
Round trip flights from UK to Denpasar, Bali average £800 with Singapore Airlines, £900 with Emirates, £950 with Cathay Pacific and £500 with Etihad Airways. Rates will vary depending on time of year, check with your airline carriers.
Sample Package Tour
A sample 10-night resort adventure booked through Wakatobi’s guest relations staff costs approximately £3,556 per person, based on two-share in an Oceanfront bungalow. The trip includes round trip flights between Bali and Wakatobi, 8 full days of diving (three boat dives plus unlimited house reef diving and unlimited nitrox 32% fills), all meals and snacks. Reduced rates for snorkelers and non-divers apply. Wakatobi also provides early payment and extended stay reductions. An overnight stay in Bali is recommended with a variety of choices and arrangements provided by the Wakatobi guest services staff; for example, the elegant Sandi Phala beachfront hotel runs £155– £262 night with complimentary airport/hotel/airport transfers, Balinese style accommodations.
Entry to Indonesia is via Denpasar, Bali. From Bali, you take a charter flight (arranged by Wakatobi guest relations staff) to the resort’s private airstrip. From there you are taken directly to the resort via a short boat ride.
Visa Requirements from the UK
Visitors must have a valid passport of six months past arrival date and at least one totally clear page for customs and immigration. There are USD $35 Visa fees for most nationalities collected upon entry, and an international departure tax of 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah payable on exit. Check permits and costs with your local Indonesian embassy or consulate before travel.
Tips and Warnings
A high-factor sunscreen is essential, and insect repellent for use during any rainy periods. There are no malaria or dengue risks. If you're planning a trip to other parts of Indonesia, please consult a good traveller’s health resource for the latest information on medicine recommendations.
The nearest recompression chamber is in Bali and requires a daytime sea-level flight. In case of a serious medical incident, the resort has access to a medical evacuation plane service in Bali and has worked out clearly defined procedures.
All rooms are fitted with three-square-pin sockets (UK Standard) and the electricity is 220v 50 cycles. Wakatobi provides ample plug socket adapters and voltage converters (for 110v supplies) to lend to all guests. There is no need for guests to bring their own. The resort’s 24-hour power is generated by an in-house power plant (comprising a number of generators).
Just about any special dietary needs, restrictions, or requests can be met by the resort’s team of chefs with advance notice.
When to Go
Wakatobi is located in a remote archipelago in southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia and is a year-round, tropical destination with no marked seasons. Average air temperature is 30°C and water temperatures range between 26-28°C. Wakatobi is one of the most arid regions in Indonesia with sunshine on most days, and the air humidity is mostly only about 65 to 75%. Marine life encounters remain consistent throughout the year.
Robert Parrington, Wakatobi Guest Relations, Tel: +44 20 8393 8511
Original Diving, Tel: +44 20 7978 0505
Hartley’s Advanced Travel, Tel: +44 167 386 1600
Dive Safari Asia, Tel: +44 800 955 0180
For more detailed information go to www.wakatobi.com