Feature_Boat on the Reef_Didi Lotze

Top of the Reef

Published July 29, 2014 in Freediving, MARINE LIFE, Snorkeling

Wakatobi is known as one of the world’s finest diving destinations, but it could just as easily be called one of the planet’s best places to snorkel. Not only are the sunlit tops of many reefs located within ideal snorkeling depths, the resort staff and boat crews are completely “snorkeler friendly,” and treat surface-swimming guests with the same respect and attention as the divers. Here is a sampling of the many shallow water attractions snorkelers can discover on the reefs of Wakatobi.

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Snorkelers often say they could spend days exploring the house reef before ever venturing off on a scheduled boat trip. Photo by Didi Lotze

Eagle Ray on reef_photo Walt Stearns_MG_1770 (1)
Eagle rays are one of the most elegant creatures to see while snorkeling. They typically glide freely about the shallows in search of snails, small crabs or shrimps. Photo by Walt Stearns

Starting out on the House Reef

After giving your mask and snorkel a final adjustment, you walk the short distance from your beachfront bungalow to the water, where you wade in until waist deep, slip into your fins and put your head under. A few kicks brings you out over a sand bottom where the sun’s rays dapple patches of turtle grass. Your shadow is clearly visible through the water, and as it passes over a clearing in the grass, you spot an eagle ray up ahead coasting along the bottom. It’s common to see these creatures moving about the shallows, as they are bottom feeders always in search of a snail, small crab or shrimp for dinner.

Remembering something your snorkel guide told you the previous evening, you pause for a moment and take a closer look at a nearby clump of seagrass. At first, it all just seems like random blades are drifting gently in the slight current. Then you realize the black spots on one of the blades are actually eyes; and the end isn’t a stalk, but rather a snout. All at once, the animal’s cover is blown, and you are thrilled to realize you’ve found your first ghost pipefish, hiding in plain sight, not more than 40 yards from your bungalow. Two more fin kicks brings you to a small pile of rubble, which seems to be having periodic eruption of sand. It’s a yellow-barred jawfish, using its’ mouth to dig a burrow. It eyes you warily from the mouth of the tunnel, then, disappears inside.

Shallow drop off_625 x 310 photo Walt Stearns
The drop off on the house reef is just a short swim from the beach or jetty. Photo by Walt Stearns

The grass beds could hold your interest for hours, but you eventually swim out to the edge of the reef. The sand and rubble bottom soon changes to a ridge of hard corals. The top of the reef rises close to the surface, then suddenly plunges into the depths. As you position yourself right at the edge of the drop off, you’re suddenly enveloped in a cloud of reef fish – black durgeons, sergeant majors, chromis’s, pyramid butterfly fish and wrasses. You stop at a particularly interesting coral formation, and are immediately confronted by what seems like a somewhat agitated damselfish. Having read about the damselfish in the library at Wakatobi’s longhouse, you know this one is probably a male, who is guarding a clutch of eggs hidden nearby. You leave him to his defensive maneuvering, and venture out over the drop off, creating the illusion of weightless flight as your eyes follow the contours of the reef disappearing downward into the blue.

Baby turtle and snorkeler_Steve MIller
Snorkeling off the beach usually makes for a nice surprise or two, such as an encounter with a baby turtle. Wakatobi’s head start program for sea turtles is helping to give these tiny mariners a better chance at survival in wild. Photo by Steve Miller

White eye eels_Nigel Wade
Some of the most incredible marine life encounters can be had just a few kicks away from your bungalow under and around the resort jetty. White-eyed eels such as these can be found along with a wealth of other marine life. Photo by Nigel Wade

Suddenly, you sense movement to your right, and a baby green turtle fins by with seeming nonchalance. You snap a photo of your snorkel guide as he leisurely greets the turtle with a wink, then pause when a group of pilings comes into view and you realize you’re at the end of the jetty. Here, around the pilings and under the jetty bar a wealth of marine life swirls around and about – grunts, snappers, scorpionfish, lionfish, damselfish, even a small group of white eyed eels catches your eye. You are reminded that   often some of the most incredible sights and experiences are just a stones throw away. Taking it all in you switch from one side to the other attempting to capture every species with your point-and-shoot.

Here, around the pilings and under the jetty bar a wealth of marine life swirls about – snappers, scorpionfish, lionfish, damselfish, even a small group of white-eyed eels catches your eye.

Having been in the water for almost two hours, your stomach is now telling you it’s time for lunch. There’s a convenient ladder on the north side of the jetty so you don’t even have to swim over to the beach. After a quick stop at your Bungalow for a rinse and a change, you are ready for a midday meal at the restaurant.

Dining on patio_photo Didi Lotze
Wakatobi’s indoor restaurant, as well as patio dining area, provide an ocean view with comfortable breezes. Photo by Didi Lotze

On the table

Rested and refreshed by early afternoon, you decide to expand your snorkeling horizons. You learned early on that snorkelers are welcome aboard the resort’s dive boats at any time, but you still have some initial misgivings as you walk to the jetty. The boat is surprisingly spacious, nearly 70 feet in length, with a long sheltered deck that could easily hold far more than the nine divers who are aboard and adjusting their equipment. You can’t help but feel a bit out of place at first, but then you are joined by a couple who also carries snorkel equipment. It is their fifth day of snorkeling, they tell you, and they are looking forward to this repeat visit to one of their favorite sites.

The crew gets the boat underway, and in a matter of minutes you arrive at a site known as Table Coral City. Once the boat is moored, the dive guides provide a detailed briefing on what to expect. This is a large seamount that rises close to the surface. The divers will begin with a descent of its slopes, while the snorkelers will remain near the top, where the guide says they will find the most plentiful and diverse sea life. As soon as you slip overboard, you realize the truth of this promise. An undersea hilltop rises from the depths, and it’s top is covered in thick growths of staghorn and table corals, their shapes obscured from a distance by a swirling cloud of anthias and snapper. A bit farther out, schools of giant trevally and barracuda circle, ever watchful for their next chance at a meal.

“I want to give kudos to my snorkel guide; with his patience and encouragement I was able to learn to snorkel from the boat which was a fear for me. He would check-in and let me know if the water was rough or if the current was too much for me, I had complete comfort and trust. I was able to experience the mind-blowing corals and amazing fish, sponges and marine life. All the staff were helpful and amazing. Truly a wonderful holiday. Many thanks.” Jenny Clack, May 2014

Every nook and cranny of the reef top holds a new surprise. It doesn’t take you long to spot your first anemone fish darting among the tentacles of its host. You’ve brought your camera, and this little guy is close enough to the surface to allow you to make a shallow dive and grab a portrait. More anemones follow, then you spot a group of razor fish, all hanging head down in vertical formation above a clump of finger coral. You hope to discover an octopus sneaking about, but instead come face to face with a different cephalopod.

Cuttlefish
Cuttlefish are often seen in shallow areas of Wakatobi’s reef where snorkelers can enjoy a view of their varying displays of patterns and colors. Photo by Mark Snyder

A cuttlefish approaches, with its entire body pulsing in an ever-changing display of patterns and colors. It holds position a dozen feet away as another appears from the distance and draws up in wingman formation. The pair flashes once more then make an abrupt about face and jet off. You look around to discover one of the dive guides motioning you to come over. He points to a crevice between two coral heads, You don’t see anything. He pantomimes “frog,” you look closer, and see that the lumpy orange glob isn’t a bit of sponge, it’s a frogfish, perfectly camouflaged and all but invisible to the unwary small fry that it hopes will pass close enough to suck into its small but voracious maw.

You hope to discover an octopus sneaking about, but instead come face to face with a different cephalopod. A cuttlefish approaches, with its entire body pulsing in an ever-changing display of patterns and colors. It holds position a dozen feet away as another appears from the distance and draws up in wingman formation. The pair flashes once more then make an abrupt about face and jet off. You look around to discover one of the dive guides motioning you to come over. He points to a crevice between two coral heads, You don’t see anything. He pantomimes “frog.” you look closer, and realize that that lumpy red glob isn’t a bit of sponge, it’s a frogfish, perfectly camouflaged and all but invisible to the unwary small fry that it hopes will pass close enough to suck into its small but voracious maw.

More to come

Once more time has flown, and you can’t believe you’ve been in the water for more than 90 minutes. Back aboard, you eagerly share your findings with the other snorkelers, and listen to the enthusiastic chatter of the divers. Your dive guide asks “how was it?” and you reply that not only was this the best snorkeling trip ever, and you couldn’t see how you’d ever top it. “It’s just your first day,” he smiles in response. “there’s plenty more to see.” For snorkeling, you have barely scratched the surface of the House Reef, and the dive boats can carry you to an exciting collection of sites, each one with something new and different to see. At Magnifica, he tells you, you will find even larger schools of fish than you saw today hovering on the edge of a coral plateau that drops dramatically into the depths. Pastel Reef is renowned for the patchwork hues of its soft coral cover, while the stony corals at Lorenz’s Delight grow almost to the surface, and hide more than 400 species of sea creature. For even more excitement, you could hitch a taxi boat ride to Tanjung Patok, then drift all the way back to the resort on the currents, or simply relax while poking around the critter-filled crevices at Pinki’s Wall.

Sunset at jetty bar_photo Allan Saben
Facing the west side of the island, the Jetty Bar presents a prime viewing point for spectacular sunsets like this. Photo by Allan Saben

That evening, after watching the sunset from the Jetty Bar, and enjoying a wonderful meal with good company, you retire to your bungalow to peruse a fish ID book, and plan tomorrow’s adventures. There’s a chance to see mating cuttlefish, or perhaps catch a glimpse of the alien-like visage of a mantis shrimp.

“An unavoidable concern related to our Wakatobi vacation is that when we take snorkeling trips elsewhere there will be a bit of a letdown due to the inevitable comparisons we will make with the Wakatobi experience. Five stars, yes.” Ralph and Renata Muller, June 2014

From what the divers have shared with you, Wakatobi may well be one of the best places in the world to dive. But as you have already discovered, it’s also one of the most spectacular places to enjoy the ocean with the freedom and simplicity of mask and snorkel.

Enjoy this video to see more of Wakatobi’s snorkeling adventures -Breathless Moments.

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