The coral reefs around the small island of Tolandono, Indonesia, extend for 100,000 square miles and encompass one of the largest protected marine parks in the world. The Wakatobi Dive Resort is situated on Tolandono, one of a circle of islands called Tukang Besi, southeast of the large island of Sulawesi, and southeast still of Malaysia. Wakatobi gets its name from the first letters of each of these islands. From the air, the coral reefs around these remote islands look like a glass marble, swirls of turquoise, green, and blue. Reefs are all that can be seen from the tiny window of the charter prop plane as we fly toward Tomia, the closest air strip to Wakatobi . The scuba divers who stare from the air are awestruck. It is reassuring that coral reefs such as these exist, and the excitement is tangible. This is why we have traveled so many hours to be on the other side of the globe. As we watch, uninhabited jungle islands pass below us. The round dark tops of palm trees form a thick unbroken mass from shoreline to shoreline. There are no huts or roads to break the lush green vegetation. We feel lucky to be visiting a place that few tourists find.
The plane lands at a tiny airport where a dozen people wait under the awning of a single square hut. We are loaded into several ramshackle vans and driven through narrow island dirt roads past cinderblock style houses. It looks like laundry day. Every house has t-shirts, children’s clothing, and towels hanging on lines throughout the front yards. Small children run to the road to watch the vans pass. We hike down the stone steps to the dock where we will go by boat to our final destination. We were told of the sea gypsies, the Indonesian homeless who live on the water through the archipelago. We see the men and naked boys swimming by the boats moored at the dock. Boats in various stages of disrepair line our way. Children group at the end of the dock to watch who has come to their island. We board the Wakatobi IV and are handed pink welcoming drinks. It is hot on this island, and we are happy to feel the cool ice of our fruit cocktails. Iced towels are handed out to wipe the sweat from our faces. The children wave to us as we slip away into the darker blue water.
Wakatobi Dive Resort looks like the set from Gilligan’s Island. We are greeted at the hut at the end of the dock, which doubles as the bar in the evenings. The waves lap against the narrow white sand beach where tall palms curve down and back up again, reaching for the sky. Small dark bungalows are nestled between the palms, and wooden beach chairs with white umbrellas line the shoreline. The smell of sea salt and jungle fill the air. The dock begins at an open-air building named the Longhouse. It is the resort gathering place and where dive briefings are held. It houses the library, computer room and boutique. Tea, cakes, and Indonesian treats are available for hungry divers. We put down our drinks and find our way down sea shell lined sand paths to our bungalows. We have barely arrived, and it is time for our first dive of the trip. We rush into our swimsuits and wetsuit liners, and learn where our gear will be stored. This will be a shore dive. We will explore the house reef, one of the best in the world.
We need only swim a few meters when the underworld magic of this coral reef is revealed. We release our air and sink below the surface to have a closer look. Like an underwater garden, the reef blooms in color, shape, and texture. Everything is alive with activity. What appears to be a feathery green and black fern is an animal reaching for food in the passing current. What seems to be a sediment rock is a deadly stonefish waiting for prey. Anemones of pink or orange shelter fish of matching colors. Camouflage and color is the way of life for creatures beneath the surface of the sea. Schools of dazzling striped or spotted fish swim around us. Some fish are both striped and spotted, as if the decision made at their creation was a jumbled error. I am amazed and gasp in my regulator, not for air, but in joy for the viewing the reef for the first time. I have been at Wakatobi for a matter of hours, and I have seen incredible things.
Wakatobi Dive Resort is helping to preserve the reefs around their island. They produce their own power which they give to the native villagers. In return, the fishermen do not fish the reef. Now their fish, caught beyond the protected area, are larger, and everyone wins. And, the reef flourishes. Our vacation will consist of three dives a day, exploring different areas of the reef. Each site will be as unique as the special animals that find shelter in the coral.
During some of our dives, we will float with the current in front of coral walls rich with fans, barrels, and tubes of large proportion. The names reveal the treasures we see. Two foot bat fish weave in and out of Bat Fish Wall. We dive sites above coral at Table Coral City or The Zoo, where diversity is compressed into every area we explore. Animals appear as plants, growing in a garden, rich in florescent blues, yellows, reds, and orange. Schooling fish of matching color swim above and below, unaware of our presence until a fin flips. At the top of coral ridges, venomous banded sea snakes and green turtles surface for air.
Divers seek tiny creatures like a treasure hunt, peering under ledges on rocks for brilliant blue and yellow nudibranches. We hover beside pink fan coral with magnifying glasses in search of pygmy sea horses, and patiently scan the coral for tiny multicolored shrimp. We strain our eyes at the sand looking for crocodile fish and flounder, buried for protection. The garden eels pop from their holes in candy cane shapes, curiously looking at us before they sink in a blink from view. But the lion fish hold their ground with their featherlike fins splayed in the water. They follow divers in groups, daring to be touched on their poisonous spines. The moray eels yawn their jaws to display their teeth as we float by their hiding holes in the coral. All the while the goby fish watch as enlisted shrimp dig their holes. Life continues nonstop in the ocean while we, for as long as our air will allow, watch and learn.
Beauty is everywhere, the bougainvillea that grows in pots by the Longhouse, the red and purple of the setting sun, the smile of the Indonesian people, and the colorful fish. But nowhere is there a more beautiful place than a dive site named for ancient Rome. In Roma the giant barrel sponges look like the ruins of Pompei. At the bottom of a ridge, a giant cabbage coral grows in the shape of an enormous pink rose. As we swim in humble respect for the underwater landscape we are experiencing, a school of large silver snapper swim by. Then quickly to our side, a regiment of bright blue fusiliers dart in formation across the rose.
I am sad to see my dive computer warning that my time at depth is nearly over, and I must ascend to the surface. There are so many animals left to see, and I am eager for the next dive. I will search for cuttlefish, a blue spotted octopus, and striped mandarin fish. As I rise above an anemone, I watch the false clownfish swim back and forth, hiding in its living home. Little Nemo, I see you, and you are amazing. I will see you again on the next dive, in the turquoise waters off Tolandono, southeast of Sulawesi, southeast again of Malaysia, in the middle of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world.