Cuttlefish_Mark Snyder

Shallow Water Paradise

Published May 24, 2013 in DIVING & SNORKELING, Snorkeling

When coral reefs lie just yards from the shore, and a few feet from the surface, underwater explorations require nothing more than mask and fins. At Wakatobi’s House Reef, one can heed the call of the reefs soon after arrival at the resort, and spend hours exploring one of the world’s most colorful underwater environments. Join us as we wade in and take a peek at some of the beautiful scenes and critter action seen right off the beach.

The House Reef calls

The moment you arrive at Wakatobi, seeing the sun reflecting off the ocean’s surface with its vibrant shades of blue and turquoise, you become powerless to its call. Rather than finish unpacking, you round up your mask, fins and snorkel and head for the water. It’s time for a swim on the House Reef. As you fin toward the jetty, conditions are picture perfect: blue skies with puffy white clouds and flat calm seas.

The reef shimmers with an inviting allure. You take a breath and submerge. Dropping below the surface, you pause to take in the silence; no phones, no television, no traffic. A collection of colorful corals and exotic marine life grabs your attention. You recall that Wakatobi is home to more than 450 coral species, at least 1,000 varieties of fish, and even more invertebrate species. You won’t run out of new things to see.

Reef Scene & Water Reflection Wangi Wangi Island
Wakatobi’s reefs are home to more than 450 coral species.  Photo by Roger Klein

Turning your attention to the shallows inside of the reef’s steep drop, you begin to notice a cast of characters; some are more familiar, like a peacock flounder moving and hunting in the sand. Look close, because this fish can changes its color and the pattern on its skin to exactly match the sea floor. And because each of the flounder’s eye can move independently, seeing forward and back at the same time, you’ll have a hard time sneaking up on this fish undetected. Moving on, you spot two strange creatures in the coral. Like a pair of bookends, the leaf scorpionfish, each scarcely three inches long, appear to be in the middle of a stare down contest. Although their exaggerated rocking motion gave them away, their leaf shape body and neutral coloration might have kept them well hidden in plain sight.

 “As snorkelers we saw hundreds of different kinds of fish and coral at Wakatobi, and the density, extent and health of the coral was far better than we had seen elsewhere. A real feast for the eyes.”  Ralph and Renata Muller, June 2014

06-Flounder in shallows_photo Alan Saben
The peacock flounder is seen often on the shallow reefs at Wakatobi. It’s eyes can move independently, seeing forward and back at the same time, which provides an amusing site for snorkelers and divers alike.  Photo by Alan Saben 

Bright colors jump out at you from every corner, and you soon find yet another pair of not so familiar critters. Nudibranchs are snails without a shell, and some of the most vibrantly colored invertebrates on the reef. The number of nudibranch species in residence are simply too numerous to count. These two beauties, known as Chromodoris magnifica, so-named because of their striking, vibrant colors, warrant a closer look. You take a breath and pop down a few feet. Near the bottom, you see another alien-looking creature gazing back at you with equal curiosity. The most colorful of all the mantis shrimps, this peacock mantis behaves in a fitting manner to his name, parading around just like the bird itself.

Cruising parallel to the beach, about 30 feet out from your Ocean Bungalow, you spot a large coral head with beautiful turquoise chromises swarming above. Coming closer you are easily lost in the crowd, albeit the company is not only brilliant, it is calming to watch.

House reef_walt stearns
Just steps from Wakatobi’s bungalows and villas the shallows team with colorful corals and marine life.  Photo by Walt Stearns

Nemo’s Cousins

Of course no snorkeling adventure in the Indo-Pacific is complete without a few chance encounters with Nemo’s family members. Near the pilings of the Jetty Bar, you find the first of several species related to this famous little cartoon character. You wonder, what kind of anemone fish is Nemo? A false clown anemone fish (Amphiprion ocellaris) like the two you nestled in a green anemone? Or is Nemo a true clown (Amphiprion percula) like the trio you spot a few minutes later in a carpet anemone?

False Clownfish
This pair of False clownfish (anemonefish) have a symbiotic relationship with their host anemone. The anemone provides shelter, food scraps and safety from predators. The anemonefish maintain the cleanliness and keep intruders away. Photo by Mark Strickland

A few feet away there’s a similar pair, but in shades of dark orange and deep maroon. These are spinecheck anemone fish (Premnas biaculeatus), named for the large spine on the side of the gill cover. The final species you encounter seems to be behaving a bit bolder and more territorial. Darting madly out from its home in an attempt to run you off, it seems to be telling you to “get out of my yard!” Brilliant orange with a distinct blue tint to the white body bands, this is of course the orange-finned anemone fish (Amphiprion chrysoterus). The anemone and the fish have a symbiotic relationship. The anemone provides shelter, food scraps and safety from predators. The anemone fish keeps the anemone clean and keeps intruders away. Born male, these little chaps have the ability to change sex if the role of dominant female comes available and needs to be filled.

Birdseye view of Wakatobi
The reef under and around the Wakatobi jetty hosts a multitude of marine life, including several species of anemone fish. Photo by Didi Lotze 

Ghosts and Darkness

Sometimes it pays to take a closer look at things that seem a bit out of place. On the way back to the beach, you realize that a blade of turtle grass is not what it appears to be and is actually a fish mimicking the grass’s swaying motion. Your excitement increases as you notice there is not one but two robust ghost pipefish side by side. After snapping a few shots and observing the well-camouflaged pair you are eager to return and share your discovery. Where else could you spot these rare creatures just a few feet from the surface?

Your snorkeling adventures are by no means over, or limited to just daylight hours. After finishing unpacking and enjoying dinner, you decide to head out again at sundown , and immediately discover several pairs of pipefish, right at the base of the jetty’s steps to the water. About the size of a small worm moving across the bottom, they look like a straight-bodied seahorse with a tiny mouth – in fact, the pipefish is a close relative of the sea horse.

The sun might be down, but the carnival is just beginning. In the beam of your underwater light you spot something round and about the size of a dinner plate skirting across the sand. Moving closer reveals the animal is a blue-spotted stingray with its telltale collection of iridescent blue spots dotting its back. Moving back in over the turtle grass beds, you spy a small octopus out on its nighttime foraging. Shining your light on the cephalopod triggers a game of peek-a-boo as the little guy quickly vanishes then reappears amongst the green and brown sea grass blades.

Where else could you spot the rare Robust ghost pipefish just a few feet from the surface? (photo by Adam Middlemass)
This rare Robust ghost pipefish was photographed just a few feet from the surface in the seagrass in front of the resort. Photo by Adam Middlemass

Farther afield

After going to sleep with visions of coral reefs dancing through your mind, you wake with the realization that your snorkeling adventures have only begun, and they can move beyond the House Reef. Time to solicit the expertise of a private snorkel experience manager and head out to some other sites.

The majority of Wakatobi’s forty-plus named dive sites provide exceptional snorkeling opportunities, each offering long stretches of reef shallows you will explore. You hop on a boat and head for a site aptly called the Zoo. Once the divers have plunged overboard and descended, the boat idles in closer to the reef for you and your private snorkel experience manager to drop in. The bubbles clear, you suck in your breath and say “wow!” as you scan the rich blue depths below, with the reef’s vertical face cresting a few feet from the surface.

“My snorkel guide was outstanding! He made sure my snorkeling was always great, catering to my desire to swim. At the same time he took care of the other snorkelers including beginners and made sure they were having a great time. He is also a fantastic marine life spotter and educated us with his wide knowledge.”  Mark Mahan, May 2014

In the sun-dappled shallows, the reef with its garden of hard and soft corals presents a virtual wonderland of strange shapes and color. You can’t help but notice their covering resembles minute flowers swaying in a breeze. Although a live coral polyp looks like a flower, it is not a plant; it is actually an animal. In order for it to survive it snatches tiny organisms that happen to float within range of the polyp’s tentacles. While you peer down on the surface you’re thinking “didn’t I see something like this in the movie Avatar?”

Floating weightless with your dive guide, the warm rays of the sun on your back, you feel at peace. Some buy an aquarium and fill it with colorful tropical fish to find relaxation. You on the other hand are in an aquarium. Moments later, you spot a hawksbill sea turtle making a meal of some sponges. He is unfazed by your presence as your guide brings you in closer using the opportunity to take a few pictures. With such a willing subject, you’re sure to capture that perfect profile.

Hawksbill_photo Frank Owens
Curious, friendly Hawksbill turtles are a common sight in the waters of Wakatobi, and they’re not camera shy!  Photo by Frank Owens

A little farther away, your guide motions for you to “come have a look,” his outstretched hand pointing to a spot a couple feet down in the corals. At first you don’t see, then you do as this broadclub cuttlefish suddenly changes its color pattern in the blink of an eye. Back on the boat your guide explains the cuttlefish is a close relative to the octopus and squid. Cuttlefish are sometimes referred to as “chameleons of the sea” because of their remarkable ability to alter the color and pattern of their skin. The color-changing function is produced by groups of red, yellow, brown, and black light-reflecting cell pigments in the skin. In addition to using this ability to camouflage themselves or to warn off potential predators, researchers are finding their more rapid switching of color between light and dark (like a flickering strobe light) is used to communicate to other cuttlefish.

The boat heads for home and another day winds down as you contemplate the wonders you have seen snorkeling about the reefs. Each opportunity has presented a dazzling and sometimes bizarre array of aquatic animal encounters. Your holiday is far from over, and you find yourself dreaming about the adventures you will have the next time you are immersed in the waters of Wakatobi.

To inquire about a trip to Wakatobi contact our office at, or complete a quick trip inquiry on A guest experience representative will be in touch with you to answer any questions and discuss your next dream dive vacation.

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