In Wakatobi, Paradise for Divers, and Others

By Annabel Thomas

For The Bali Times

WAKATOBI, Sulawesi ~ Serious divers and underwater photographers around the world list southeast Sulawesi on their top 10 places to dive in the world. The low-lying open-ocean islands of Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko give the area its name Wakatobi – a moniker synonymous with seemingly endless coral reefs – and … I’ve been there.

Wakatobi Dive Resort is the only land-based dive resort here so, unless you take a liveaboard boat (which Wakatobi also offers: the gorgeous yacht Pelagian), this is where you stay.

Following a visit here last week, I can confirm that the diving and the resort both live up to the sales pitch: the individual bungalows are not opulent, thank goodness, but very serviceable and well made out of local woods. The more recently built Cliff Villas are lovely, with steps right down into the sea (did I mention the almost dazzling white sand?) and while Villa 3 has a pool, I personally preferred Villas 1 and 2 as they provided more privacy.

The Tomia region is home to a vast, protected reef system where healthy seagrass beds stretch out to reefs where even the reef-top coral cover flourishes. This area is home to Wakatobi Dive Resort that has, in collaboration with the islanders, established a unique community-based reef resource management project ensuring complete protection across 20 kilometers of reef.

These many kilometers of reef are perfect for long, slow, scenic dives which it is very obvious all Wakatobi dive staff are keen to provide. I, as a dive operator, was genuinely impressed not only by the friendliness but also the passion and dedication of the dive guides (apologies if that sounds corny but it’s actually true).

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I couldn’t dive all the sites that Wakatobi offers – that would take a while. They include walls and drop-offs; slopes; isolated pinnacles and knife-edged ridges. This variety of sites offers divers and photographers endless opportunities for wide-angle seascapes and also (although more limited) macro-photography opportunities.

One of the areas I didn’t dive was Pasarwajo Bay at Buton Island, where I’m told it’s possible to see Ornate ghostpipefishes, frogfishes, cowfishes, Flying gurnards, strange crabs, anemones, nudibranches, Mimic and Blue-ringed octopus, Cockatoo waspfishes, Leaf scorpionfishes, stonefishes, inimicus (Demon stinger), Bobbit worms, Bobtail squid, Marble snake eels, and fire clams – and all in less than 10 meters of water. I must go back!

I personally think that there must be more macro critters around at other sites, too; the staff just need the time and opportunity to find them. Our dive guide for the duration of our trip was Yann (Rahmat Alfian) from Lombok; another dive guide, Romon (Yos Rae), from Flores, who used to work for us, is also now at Wakatobi – they alone would be a good team as they share a great passion for finding new and unusual species.

Aside from the pristine corals, the marinelife includes schooling Red-toothed triggerfish (which I personally think should be named Midnight-blue triggerfish), Neon fusiliers and the start of a school of Big-eyed trevally like we have in Tulamben Bay in Bali.

I was delighted to see turtles on several dives and although there don’t seem to be many larger creatures, Eagle rays are seen – and one Mola-Mola (Oceanic sunfish).

Several Wakatobi guides told me that even though the resort has nicer accommodations now and far more guests, the quality of the diving is improving markedly. One of the management’s missions is to bring back the vast schools of fish and sharks taken by Taiwanese and Korean long-liners and trawlers in the 1980s.

Famed for night-diving due to the brilliantly colored corals and resident marine life, the reef edges attract great numbers of fish.  The coral gardens, with large bommies, tubastrea corals (green daisy coral trees), large table corals sheltering stingrays, invertebrates and crustaceans, are great fun at night.

After night-diving you can simply sit at the end of the jetty (sampling one of the well-mixed cocktails from the jetty bar) while watching the flashlightfish (like little twinkling stars) and phosphorescent trails left by shrimp. Absolutely delightful.

Wakatobi is also known as the islands of the blacksmiths; however Binongko Island is the only place where metals are still forged and traditional knives are made.

Hoga Island in the Kaledupa region is the research base for Operation Wallacea, where volunteer students rub shoulders with renowned scientists studying the fantastic diversity.

I’ve mentioned the diving but in fact there are a surprising number of non-divers, snorkellers and people there on honeymoon – you should try it for yourself.

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The writer is director of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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