Wakatobi’s claim to fame is that Jacques Cousteau said (allegedly) that the diving around the Tukang Besi Islands was among the best in the world. I have undertaken a cursory search on the internet but I am only able to find reference to this on an Indonesian tourist website so I remain dubious. However now we have experienced the diving firsthand we can confirm the underwater world here is, indeed, mightily impressive and Monsieur Cousteau may well have uttered those words.
Famous dive sites around the world have their highlights and attractions; some places are known for sharks or mantas, little critters or schooling fish, amazing coral (the list is endless) or challenging (but rewarding) conditions. But there are never any guarantees. Changing seasons, unpredictable weather, water temperature, tides and current all affect diving conditions and therefore diving conditions are rarely perfect, no matter how much planning ahead you do.
When we visited Wakatobi visibility wasn’t the best but it was on average 25 metres (so pretty good) and the water was very warm so not good for the big stuff (sharks like it cold) but the underwater landscape was simply stunning. There was also a serious amount and variety of fish, more than we had ever seen in one place and swimming among them was like swimming through like an underwater cloud of marine life; it was like the proverbial aquarium. Each and every dive took our breath away for one reason or another.
We spent 5 days diving with Asrul, a local guide from Kaledupa. As well as being a great guide, in between dives we chatted to Asrul about Hoga and Wakatobi, his life, his work and he showed us around the old Operation Wallacea complex and accommodation.
On each dive Asrul went at our pace (currents and planning permitting) so we weren’t rushed and we were able to take our time, take photographs and generally have a good look and poke around (figuratively speaking, of course – don’t touch the sealife!).
Asrul was expert at finding stuff and pointing things out. Generally we had a pretty special experience because there were never any other divers as far as the eye could see and so we had the whole reef to ourselves each time we dived. This has undoubtedly spoiled us for future destinations.
Visibility wasn’t the legendary 35 metres but at 25 metres it was plenty good enough. The underwater scenery was like nothing we had seen before; coral reef and gardens with amazing hard and soft corals, walls and drop-offs, overhangs and pinnacles at every turn, as well as sandy slopes, all accommodating an amazing array of sea life.
There were clouds of hundreds of reef fish which we got lost in, countless blue spotted sting rays on each dive raced off down the walls and sandy slopes and disappeared into the deep as we swam past them. We saw schools of snapper and a huge school of big barracuda and a few turtles. For me, it was the best underwater entertainment I had had so far.
There was plenty of the little stuff too, tiny porcelain crabs, orangutan crabs, glass shrimps and lots of nudibranchs – in fact on one occasion we saw a family of nine nudibranchs but unfortunately the camera decided to have an off day.
Our underwater camera was being difficult generally and still stubbornly refusing to focus on anything turtle related. Paul also tried to take pictures of the hundreds of reef fish but again it wouldn’t focus. We could have kicked ourselves for not getting a GoPro as video would have captured this landscape and sea life perfectly.
We encountered a couple of fierce currents (fierce in my book anyway) but despite being tossed about like a rag doll in a washing machine I managed to keep my cool. Being a novice diver the currents were quite challenging but Asrul was very sweet and when I appeared to be in difficulty he grabbed hold of me and kept hold for 10 minutes or so until I stopped summersaulting and managed to keep myself upright for more than 10 seconds! Once me and the current calmed down a bit we just hung in the water and drifted along with it – lazy diving, the best kind!
Asrul was a talented guide and a really good spotter (although neither of us have yet to see a pygmy seahorse no matter how many times they are pointed out, they are just too small to see without our reading glasses which are a bit unpractical underwater!). He was also very safety conscious, good with the briefings and he knew the dive sites really well, often predicting what we would see and delivering pretty much every time.
For me the diving was magical and even the Wooky said it was among the best he had seen.
A little bit about Operation Wallacea
Operation Wallacea is a UK based volunteer marine conservation organization which is building a new base on Hoga Island. It offers university students from mainly the UK and Canada 2-6 week programmes where they learn to dive and get involved in marine conservation and research. It also runs associated forest education programmes in other parts of Indonesia and often students will elect to spend 2 weeks on ocean research and 2 weeks in the rainforest.
The organization does a fair amount of conservation work, education and long term research and overall is generally considered a force for good in the area but it is not recommend you visit during July and August which is when up to 200 students at a time descend on this otherwise sleepy paradise. During these two months the place is apparently unrecognizable. On the western corner of Hoga Island, next to the recently abandoned old Operation Wallacea complex, there is what can only be described as a large village of wooden huts which are used to house the students during this time. They were deserted when we were there but once a year during July and August when the students visit this is transformed into a bustling village complete with shops, stalls and a medical centre.
Operation Wallacea does bring a fair bit of money to the island and many local people benefit but the general consensus is that more effort should be made to encourage an increase in general tourism at other times of the year, maybe using the accommodation that stands empty for 10 months of the year.
The old complex which housed the offices, dive sheds and education centre was recently abandoned by the organization due to some kind of rental dispute with the Indonesian owner of the land. While we were there they were in the process of building a brand new complex on the land next door but the students will continue to be housed in the existing accommodation. Asrul suggested the old complex could be renovated as a resort but sadly the investment required puts such a project way beyond our means and firmly into pipe dream territory. It is undeniably a beautiful beach front location with a great deal of potential so if anyone knows anyone with a couple of hundred thousand to spare send them our way (please).
After 10 days we had to face the fact that we couldn’t stay here forever. Plans needed to be made to head to Kendari as our 60 day visas were nearing expiry and efforts needed to be concentrated on this practical issue.
So on the last day while I did a bit more lazing in a hammock Paul went about settling our bill and making arrangements with Wia for catching the 6.00am ferry from Kaledupa to Wanci the following morning. As with all his exchanges with Wia the conversation took place in Indonesian.
He returned to our wooden hut and admitted to me he was a bit puzzled and maybe he hadn’t understood the arrangements correctly but it went something like this. Normally guests are taken by boat to Kaledupa to catch the ferry leaving at 6.00am but for some reason we were going to do a mid-sea transfer onto said ferry. Our bags would be loaded onto the boat at 1.00am that night and we would leave the resort to walk along the beach and board the little boat from the pier at 5.30am. From there we would motor out to meet the ferry in the middle of the sea. That all sounded a bit, well, tricky. We would find out soon enough.
Bags were duly packed and everything stuffed back inside. They were loaded onto the little boat that night and the following morning we woke at 4.45am. Emerging from our room in the dark we saw the strange moonlit landscape of an extremely low tide which explained leaving from the jetty.
We fumbled around in the dark before leaving our cottage for the last time and headed over to the dining terrace for coffee. Wia was already up and about and after a coffee, just as it was starting to get light, we began the 10 minute trek down the beach to the long jetty. The little boat was already waiting for us (with our bags safely stowed on board).
We both negotiated the slippery lopsided ladder from the jetty to climb onto the most unstable boat in the whole of Indonesia. The Wooky boarded first and nearly capsized the boat as it keeled dangerously from side to side. I followed closely behind, and as I gingerly stepped onto the boat I also managed to cause the boat to rock precariously. Even Wia, being Indonesian and therefore an expert at jumping on and off boats of varying seaworthiness, caused the boat to bob about unsteadily. While the Wooky and I were frozen at the bow end of the boat trying hard not make any sudden movements, the Indonesians moved freely about the boat and every time they did it started to sway and we were convinced it was only a matter of time before the boat capsized completely. We’ve been on a few boats in Indonesia but we really thought this one was going to go belly up.
By some miracle the boat remained above the water and we motored a little further out to sea, the captain cut the engine and we sad bobbing about in the middle of the sea for what seemed like hours but was actually only about 10 minutes. Then in the distance we saw the green ferry approaching. A mid-sea transfer was not a misunderstanding lost in translation but an actual plan.
Said mid-sea transfer turned out not to be half as nerve wracking as we expected and as our boat was held close against the ferry by various passengers and crew we simply hoisted ourselves up through the window and stepped on board. This had clearly been done before and it was a piece of cake compared to boarding the small boat (henceforth known as the most unstable boat in Indonesia – quite an accolade given some of the craft we have seen).
Our bags were hauled on board with ease, and as the ferry quickly set off we waved a sad goodbye to Wia and the rest of the crew before settling down for the 2 hour journey to Wanci.
The final hurdle of this boat trip was encountered when the back of the boat got stuck on a sandbank as we negotiated shallow waters on the approach to Wanci harbour. The solution was to move all the passengers to the front of the boat and the crew were particularly keen for the Wooky to head to the bow (being at least twice the size of your average Indonesian) and he was credited with providing the necessary weight to lever the front end of the boat down easing the back end free of the sandbank, and we were on our way again. He even got a few cheers and a little round of applause.
The ferry arrived on time and from the harbour we accepted a ride in the back of a truck to the airport which took us on a whistle stop tour around Wanci (which seemed a very pretty little town) as the driver made his usual deliveries before depositing us at the airport. Flights to Kendari were booked and we killed the next 5 or 6 hours waiting for the flight which was, of course, delayed (Lion Air – say no more!). However, all our little connections with local transport had gone, once again, like clockwork.
We were very sad to leave Hoga Island and Wakatobi. It was an idyllic island paradise above and below the waves and we are already thinking of returning.
Next stop, Kendari for a visa run (in theory).