By Steve Miller, photographs by Steve Millar unless otherwise credited.
Steve Miller shares his love of the underwater treasures that lie within a stone’s throw of Wakatobi Resort’s shoreline.
No bubbles. That’s always a good start to the day. As I complete the usual pre-dive leak check and lift my camera housing from the freshwater tank, a porter appears and immediately takes it from my arms. Smiling, he asks “Will you be needing a taxi boat today?” Looking out to where the turquoise waters of the shallows transition to a deep blue, I reply “No, I think we’ll just swim along the jetty to the wall.”
And this is how most dives start at my favourite Wakatobi dive site, the House Reef. As I wade in and prepare to swim out to the drop-off, I briefly flash on some of the other amazing sites I could have chosen to visit today. I might be soaring above the dramatic knife-edged seamounts of Blade, or dazzled by the colours of Teluk Maya, the ‘Beautiful Bay’, where a ring of wispy coral spires rise from a dazzling white-sand bottom, and the water is so clear that sunbeams penetrate the depths. There’s Roma, with its vast stands of hard corals, some shaped like giant rose blossoms six metres across. Or Zoo, where thick schools of fish swarm a slope that reaches to within three metres of the surface.
Yes, there’s certainly no shortage of amazing dive sites within the waters of Wakatobi’s marine preserve. And so it’s small wonder that the House Reef is often overlooked by first-time visitors to the Resort. There’s so much else to see, and after a daily dose of three-boat dives, each lasting an hour or more, the idea of an additional shore dive may not seem exciting. This changes, however, after divers make that first dive on the House Reef. You can see the epiphany in their eyes as they exit the water, and hear it in their voices when they start to recount their adventures. “Do you know what’s out there? Everything!” And before they’ve even dried off, they are providing an enthusiastic recital of all that they discovered.
A Shallow Start
One feature that makes Wakatobi Resort’s House Reef so memorable is the shallow beginning. Moments after wading in and submerging into chest-deep water, you are gifted with a preview of things to come. Depending on the tide, you can be hovering over anemones and pristine stands of hard and soft corals in just two to three metres of water, bathed in natural light. In these shallow environs, the warm colours missed at depth really pop. The reds, oranges and yellows are all here in vibrant abundance.
My typical House Reef dive starts with a short swim along the jetty. Closer to shore, visibility is about half what it will be once you reach the wall, but the waves are barely ripples. I usually swim right by this sandy area, despite seeing everything from lionfish and stonefish to tiny pipefish and nudibranchs along the way. Other common sightings that reward those who choose to linger include large anemones with their host of clowns, false clowns, domino damsels and porcelain crabs hiding inside their tentacles. If you avoid these distractions, an easy three-minute swim brings you to the ‘cut’, where the jetty ends and the wall begins.
It’s hard not to pause at the pilings supporting the end of the jetty, especially if you know what awaits. You are actually diving underneath the Resort’s waterfront bar, with large concrete beams creating cover and shade. The entire area is simply packed with fish – large fish, small fish – so many that they will block the sun. There are also almost always a couple of sea snakes under the jetty, and for some reason it can seem creepy to run into them in these dark, close quarters. Water clarity around the pier varies with the tide, and the usual 18–24 metres of visibility can seem cloudy compared to the nearby wall, where 30-metre plus vis is the norm.
Drop-off Like No Other
A quick peek under the jetty, a few more metres of finning, and you arrive at the drop-off. It is one of the most beautiful walls I have ever seen, rising from unseen depths to culminate in a reef-top within two metres of the surface. Every square inch of this precipice is covered in life, and many sections are fully vertical, allowing you to get in close without worrying about errant fin contact.
Now it’s decision time. You could go left, right or neither. It’s possible to enjoy an entire dive without moving more than ten metres from this spot! Hang near the reef-top to discover several species of large anemones that perch on the edge, or dive deeper to discover a rich array of subjects hiding among the many crevices and overhangs below. The variety of nudibranchs, crabs, shrimp and fish that are all within any given area of this reef are too numerous to list.
The Freedom of the House
As a photographer, I especially like the freedom that diving the House Reef allows. Even in the small groups of four divers that is standard ratio on the Wakatobi dive boats, it would be rude to linger too long at any given photo opportunity, so we often take a few shots and move on. On the House Reef, there are no such limitations to your schedule. Choose one of the shop’s large tanks, and with nearly 2800 litres of air at your disposal, you can stretch dive times to upwards of two hours without going into decompression. Rather than the usual ‘swim-and-shoot’ dive plan, this freedom provides photographers with ample time to experiment and create that perfect image – the one worthy of the pages of a magazine. Conditions are perfect: bright sun and lots of it, 30 metres of visibility, and five kilometres of pristine coral community to document. It’s like having your own underwater photo studio … which also happens to be one of the finest dive sites in the world.
Wakatobi Resort’s House Reef offers many more opportunities for discovery. By taking advantage of the on-call taxi boat service, divers can gain easy access to more distant portions of the reef, either scheduling for a pickup when finished, or riding the currents back to an exit point at the jetty. Night dives reveal yet another aspect of the undersea environment, and provide a perfect end to a day of diving. However you choose to explore this dive, one thing is a certainty – you will keep coming back, just as I do each time I visit the amazing destination that is Wakatobi.