Wakatobi – Islands at the end of the world

text and photos by Peter Pinnock

‘Welcome to the end of the world,’ our guide greeted us as we boarded Ciska, a motorised live-aboard vessel moored in Kendari harbour. ‘If you need to make any calls do them now. Where we are going, there is nothing!’ He’s not kidding, I thought. After travelling for two days it truly felt like we were heading to the end of the planet. Now we were about to start the final leg of the journey– an 18-hour boat ride to Wakatobi.

Relatively few tourists have ventured into Eastern Sulawesi and even less have been to Wakatobi. But where is it really? Get out a good map of the world. From Singapore head southeast into Indonesia where you will find the oddly shaped island of Sulawesi. On the west coast is the large city of Makassar (Ujung Pandang) and on the south east coast the small harbour town of Kendari. Heading from Kendari for 200 kilometres into the Banda Sea you will find the Wakatobi Islands. The second to last island of Tomea is where we were heading.

Wakatobi is named after the first two letters of each of the four main islands in the Wakatobi archipelago: Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. The Lonely Planet Guide describes Wakatobi as ‘difficult to reach, but offers superb diving, isolated beaches and stunning landscapes.’ The guide is right!

But why would we travel deep into Indonesia to the edge of the civilised world just to go diving? Perhaps it’s the attraction of exotic place names like Bau Bau and Wangi Wangi, certainly for the opportunity to find rare creatures like the pygmy seahorse or ghost pipefish, but mostly because the remoteness of Wakatobi ensures pristine and unspoilt reefs. Oh yes, Jacques also rated the place! The late Captain declared the Wakatobi Islands as ‘probably the finest diving site in the world.’ You have to take that seriously.

Wakatobi is the brainchild of Swiss-German Lorenz Mader. After qualifying as a schoolteacher he spent three years working as a dive instructor in the Maldives and Red Sea. Disappointed by the influences of mass tourism he set out on his own to pursue his dream to set a better example in virgin territory unspoilt by overcrowding and pollution. ‘You soon come to Indonesia,’ Lorenz confided in me. For 10 months he explored the remote islands and reefs of the Wakatobi archipelago looking for the unique combination of island serenity and a spectacular house reef. In 1994 he found Tomia, the island of his dreams. With the consent of the son of the last Sultan of the island, and reinforced with his personal objectives to make a contribution to marine conservation, the challenging project was started.

The pygmy trail

‘So you want to see a pygmy seahorse, do you?’ asked Graham Abbott. I nodded eagerly. Graham is one of the dive guides (all instructor level), an irrepressible Englishman with a wicked sense of humour. ‘No problem, there are a few on the house reef. I will show you on the check-out dive.’

Everyone is expected to display their skills on the first dive. Everything from mask clearing through to buddy breathing and buoyancy control. It’s all part of Lorenz’s plan to protect the reef. The dive on the house reef starts five metres from the dive centre where the water laps onto the crispy white sand. Finning to the drop-off we passed over a field of sea grass that seemed to offer an endless list of surprises. Hidden in the foliage we found juvenile batfish, clownfish, razorfish in a vertical row, picasso triggerfish, crabs in anemones and snake eels. The edge of the drop-off is littered with coral heads. Damsels and filefish dart in and out of the corals, never venturing too far from the safety of their branches. Slipping over the edge we descended the wall.

My first impression of the reef was that it resembled an enormous Chinese stir-fry. Coral heads, sponges, soft corals, gorgonians and tunicates all compete for space in an unsurpassed rainbow of colour. Not an inch of the reef is bare. Fields of goldies hover close to the reef as hundreds of pyramid butterfly fish flit against the current. There is almost always a current which supplies the vibrant reef with nutrients from the Banda Sea. The current is slow enough most of the time, but at spring tides it does rip.

Slowly we were tugged past the reef. Content to relax, we watched as the colourful spectacle passed us by. Graham pulled up alongside a purple gorgonian and crooked a finger. This is the sign for a pigmy seahorse. Pointing at one of the branches, I followed his direction and saw….nothing. I looked at Graham, looked at where he was pointing and once again saw….nothing. Giving him a look of disbelief I shook my head. Suddenly it dawned on me that finding pygmy seahorses could be a challenge. I cleared my mask, blinked hard and concentrated on the gorgonian. Eventually I found it. ‘This guy must be kidding me,’ I thought. The seahorse was a mere five millimetres long and perfectly matched the colour and texture of the gorgonian. No wonder they are a rarity!

Leaving the water we reflected on the dive. This was surely the most pristine and colourful house reef we have ever dived on. Lorenz has an arrangement with the local fishermen that they will not fish on the house reef, and it hasn’t been fished on for five years. The number of fish seen here compared to the other reefs in the area is startling.

The distinctive shape of the seahorse has stimulated the imagination of writers and painters for hundreds of years. Their shape has placed them alongside mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns. In seahorses the male produce sperm, and the female, eggs. What sets the seahorses apart is that the female deposits her eggs in the male’s brood pouch. He alone nurtures the embryos, eventually releasing a string of miniature seahorses. The pygmy seahorse, as I discovered to the amusement of my dive buddies, is almost impossible to detect. They live exclusively among the branches of the muricella gorgonian and their bumpy surface texture perfectly matches the polyp structure of the host.

Wakatobi wonders

Your day at Wakatobi starts with breakfast followed by a two-dive boat trip. The briefing covers the reef and currents, but the choice of depth and how you want to dive the site is left completely up to the individual diver. Lorenz asked us to try to limit our bottom time to 75 minutes – just in case some of the other divers get bored waiting on the boat! Most of the dive sites are within 30 minutes of the resort.

The dive boat is a cleverly converted fishing boat that can comfortably carry 12 divers diving in two groups. It has plenty of space for gear such as cameras and is a breeze to move about on. The friendly skipper and crew understand very little English but they were always on hand to assist and seemed to anticipate our every need. Lorenz has identified 40 dive sites in the area. Some of them are good, most are excellent. The diving is characterised by a series of fringing reefs and atolls with steep drop-offs. Large schools of predatory fish and sharks are seldom seen, but the richness and pristine condition of the reef more than make up for their absence.

One of the most memorable dives is Mari Mabuk, which is Indonesian for ‘lets get drunk’ – probably what the first divers did after discovering this stunning reef. It is a large ridge that rises to just below the surface. On either side of the ridge sprouts most species of Indo-Pacific vegetation. Colourful gorgonians and green coral trees flank massive hard coral outcrops. Barrel sponges the size of fridges line the edge of the ridge. Orange, yellow and black crinoids cling to them filter-feeding in the underwater breeze. We spent most of the dive exploring the life on a huge barrel sponge. Gobies darted around the surface and in one of the deep recesses we were delighted to discover a brilliant pink hairy squat lobster. The hairy little crustacean is densely covered with white and pink bristles and reminded us of a colourful remnant from the sixties. The crinoids on the sponge support a whole eco-system on the move. Looking carefully within the arms of the crinoids we spotted clingfish, commensal shrimps cunningly disguised to perfectly match the host’s colour pattern and the elusive crinoid squat lobster. The squat lobster is a crab that lives deep within the crinoid’s maze of arms and steals plankton food from its host. Nearby an opaque shrimp with purple antennae and claws snuggled comfortably in the recesses of a bubble coral. For those prepared to take their time and look carefully, there are hordes of interesting creatures just waiting to be discovered. After 96 minutes we returned to the boat. Lorenz looked at his watch and shrugged. ‘Must have been a good dive – it happens often here,’ he joked.

After coffee and biscuits we were ready for the second dive. The reef adjacent to Mari Mabuk is called Roma and is another dive that you will want to repeat. In the shallows of this off-shore pinnacle we were enveloped by schools of fusiliers and batfish. At five metres we spotted blue ribbon eels, leaf fish, crocodile fish and many new species of nudibranchs. A banded sea snake searched through the coral recesses for crustaceans. These highly poisonous reptiles are often encountered at Wakatobi, but pay no attention to divers.

Returning to the resort we admired the traditional thatch-roofed long house and the newly constructed grand bungalows from the sea. Nestling amongst large coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, the resort faces the sea and the setting sun. With accommodation for only 22 guests, the open-air plan is airy and spacious. The resort was entirely constructed in wood using local labour and techniques, all by hand (no machine tools). All this in an area where the locals had not seen a white face since the Dutch left , and where electricity and running water are still a rarity. Lorenz chose the resort location wisely as in 1992 the Wakatobi Islands were declared a marine reserve following a submission by the World Wildlife Fund. Wakatobi Dive Resort is positioned in the front row for an unspoilt view of the show of biodiversity taking place right on its doorstep.

After the boat dive you are free for the rest of the day to dive the house reef at your leisure, but first a hearty lunch prepared by Niclas – the Swedish chef. Niclas never ceased to surprise us with the masterpieces he created in his small kitchen. What makes this feat so remarkable is that all the fresh ingredients are ferried in from the mainland, at least 18 hours away! The island is a raised coral atoll and nothing will grow on it. Each meal is preceded by a tasty soup. The main course ranges from Indonesian stir-fries to European classics and, of course, the emphasis is on fish. Only pelagic fish, bought from local fishermen using traditional fishing methods, is used.

In search of giants

‘I’m just in the mood for another dive, feel like joining me?’ asked Paul after lunch. It’s not often a divemaster asks you to join him for a dive, but at Wakatobi the staff are enthusiastic about their diving. Paul is an effervescent Welshman who we strongly suspect of having fallen into a bowl of alka seltzer when he was young. ‘I can take you to Waiti Ridge, there are some giant pygmy seahorses there’. ‘Yeah right,’ I thought!

‘These guys are monsters, really huge! The biggest one is about one and a half centimetres,’ he exclaimed enthusiastically. How could we resist an offer like that?

Waiti Ridge is a series of sea mounds that rise out of the depths. Clinging to the edges are soft corals, sponges, colonies of hydroids, sea squirts and gorgonians. Paul led us to a bright pink gorgonian where we were delighted to find a whole community of pygmy seahorses. We counted eight of the curious little creatures, two of them entwined by their tails – inseparable in the current. Being careful not to damage the surrounding reef with our fins, we spent the whole dive searching the gorgonian for seahorses. But the truth is that a misplaced fin does not cause nearly as much damage to the reef as a carelessly dropped anchor. Returning to the surface we spotted a foreign fishing boat anchored on one of the reefs within the reserve. Slowly Lorenz turned grey as if he had just been strapped into a dentist’s chair. Strictly no anchor damage is allowed on their reefs! There are marine officers on the island, but they don’t have access to a boat. Rules and regulations are difficult to enforce within the marine park. Wakatobi Dive Resort spend much energy and funds towards ensuring increased awareness in the park and are getting international recognition for their work and their Wakatobi Foundation.

On our last morning at Wakatobi we dived on Onamoba’a Cavern, an extension of the house reef. It is covered with tube sponges, barrell sponges, colourful soft corals and whips. Hordes of shrimps take refuge in the gloomy recesses. Soft corals hang from the ceiling like colourful stalactites. This was our 15th dive on the house reef and we still hadn’t seen everything it has to offer.

Two days later we found ourselves back in the bustling city of Makassar. Visiting the fish market we found fish of all shapes, colours and sizes for sale – rays, fusiliers, surgeons, parrots and kingfish cluttered the smelly little market’s cement floor. Dynamite fishing is still rife in parts of Indonesia and it is believed that up to a third of the fish sold at this market are caught with this method.

In the hustle and bustle I thought of a remote group of islands at the end of the world and a young Swiss man who is the self-appointed guardian of the reef. I smiled to myself. All is well in Wakatobi.

scroll to top