Shallow Water Paradise
Discover the adventures that await snorkelers at Wakatobi
The reefs of Wakatobi are calling. On the short boat ride from the airport to the resort, you caught glimpses of sun-lit coral walls shimmering just below the surface of the clear water. During a hasty unpacking at your oceanfront bungalow, you could see the vivid aquamarines and blues of the House Reef, just steps away. Now, after a light lunch, you are ready to heed the call, and you won’t be using scuba gear.
At the top
As an avid snorkeler, you seek out those rare destinations where vibrant marine ecosystems lie close to the surface. For years, you’ve read about Wakatobi’s house Reef, which is said to be not only one of the best shore diving sites in the world, but also one of the best venues for snorkelers. You are about to find out if these stories are true. Starting from the beach, you fin your way across a 40-yard expanse of grass-cover shallows punctuated by small oases of coral. The coral growth intensifies, then suddenly, you are hovering over the edge of the world.
Actually, you have arrived at the outer edge of the reef, where the coral wall drops abruptly from depths of a meter to more than 40. With a final inhale, you drop below the surface and glide towards the edge of the wall. You pause to enjoy the silence; there are no phones, no television, no traffic. As you begin your exploration of the reef crest, something a bit out of the ordinary catches your eye. A closer look reveals two strange-looking creatures cloistered in a coral recess. Facing each other like a pair of bookends, two Leaf Scorpionfish, each scarcely three inches long, appear to be in the middle of a stare down contest. Had you not noticed the exaggerated rocking motion, their leaf shape body and neutral coloration might have kept them well hidden in plain sight. You pause to take a quick photo, then move on.
“As a snorkeler, it is rare to find a dive resort that makes you feel so special; the attention here in that regard was wonderful.” Joan and Tom Woodward
Bright colors jump out at you from every corner of the reef, and you son discover yet another pair of not so familiar critters. These are snails without a shellsâ€”nudibranchs. These two beauties, known as Chromodoris magnifica, so-named because of their striking, vibrant colors, warrant a closer look and a couple of photos. You take a breath and pop down a few feet for a closer look. Your duck under reveals yet another colorful and alien-like creature. It is a peacock mantis shrimp, resplendent in bright colors, and parading around just like the namesake bird itself.
Of course, no snorkeling adventure in the Indo-Pacific is complete without a few chance encounters with Nemoâ€™s family. You’ve been told that you can find at least eight species kin to the famous little cartoon character with a few feet of the Jetty Bar. Searching the area, you wonder what kind of anemone fish is Nemo? A false clown anemone fish like the two nestled in a green anemone, or a true clown like the trio inhabiting a carpet anemone. A few feet away thereâ€™s a similar pair, but in shades of dark orange and deep maroon. The two are spinecheck anemonefish, named for the large spine on the side of the gill cover. A bit later, you happen upon yet another variety behaving a bit bolder and more territorial. Darting madly out from its home in an attempt to run you off, he seems to be telling you to â€œget out of my yard!â€ Brilliant orange with a distinct blue tint to its white body bands, this is of course the orange-finned anemonefish.
Eventually, it’s time to head to shore. On the way in, you realize that a blade of turtle grass is not what it appears to be and is actually a fish mimicking itsâ€™ swaying motion. Your excitement increases as you notice there is not one but two Robust Ghost pipefish drifting 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 at Wakatobi are by no means limited to daylight hours. After downloading your memory card and relaxing with a late afternoon snack, you head for the Jetty Bar just before sundown. But unlike the guests who have come to enjoy a libation while watching the evening light show, you don your snorkel gear and a bright underwater light. Moments after descending the jetty steps, you discover several pairs of pipefish. About the size of a small worm, they look like a straight-bodied seahorse with a tiny mouth. In fact, the pipefish is a close relative of the seahorse.
The sun might be down, but the show is just beginning. The beam of your underwater light you spot something round about the size of a dinner plate skirting across the sand. Moving closer reveals the animal in question is a blue-spotted stingray with its telltale collection of iridescent blue spots dotting its back. Finning towards 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.
Under the cover of night, eels emerge from hidden crevices and squid flit in and out of the shadows created by your dive light. Scorpionfish become more active, and flatworms emerge from burrows to feed. The light beam catches an unexpected reflection on a purplish lump, A closer look reveals it to be a frogfish, perfectly camouflaged to mimic the colors and patterns of a sponge. Youâ€™d probably have missed it in daylight hours. The next half hour yields a collection of ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, leaf fish, funky hairy squat lobster, and several species of pygmy seahorses. Though present during daylight hours, many of these animals are easier to spot when illuminated by the beam of a dive light.
Though you could spend days exploring the House Reef, there’s much to enjoy. A majority of the 40-plus dive sites visited by the resort’s dive boats also provide exceptional snorkeling opportunities, offering long stretches of reef shallows. To begin your second day at Wakatobi, you engaged the expertise of a private snorkel experience manager and head out to a site fittingly called zoo. After the divers submerge, 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 let out an involuntary â€œwow!â€ as you scan the rich blue depths below. The reefâ€™s vertical face crests a few feet from the surface, and the sun-dappled shallows re covered in a vibrant garden of hard and soft corals. You canâ€™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 polypâ€™s tentacles. While you peer down on the surface youâ€™re thinking â€œdidnâ€™t I see something like this in the movie Avatar?â€
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. With just minutes in the water 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, youâ€™re sure to capture that perfect profile. As the turtle swims into the blue, your guide motions for you to â€œcome have a look,â€ his outstretched hand pointing to a spot a couple feet down in the corals. At first you donâ€™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 â€œchameleons of the seaâ€ 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.
In the boat ride back to the resort, you contemplate the wonders you have seen. Each coming day will create more opportunities to explorer new underwater landscapes and discover dazzling and sometimes bizarre array of aquatic animal encounters. Wakatobi truly is a underwater paradise, not only for divers, but also for those who discover it’s aquatic treasures from the surface.