More Diving in Paradise…Wakatobi Dive Resort 12 September 2008

When we arrived at the resort from the Pelagian for the next 10 days of our trip, Lyn and I kept saying to each other “this place is a paradise!” The sea and sky are SO blue, the sand SO soft and white, and the palm trees of all types were gently swaying in the constant breeze. resort from jetty bar with MelThe charming bungalows and buildings are all grass-roofed, and the main “Longhouse” is very open to the air, with rolling bamboo shutters that can be lowered for shade or rain protection. The temperature was a pretty constant 82-85F, with low humidity, so it was quite delightful all the time. The resort is located on a corner of the island of Tomia (wa-ka-TO-bi), so it feels at several points like the sea is on 3 sides of you. The “House Reef”, protected from all fishing for about 10 years now, is right off the front step of the resort beyond the delicate seagrass, and is now famous to divers around the world for its beauty, diversity, and sheer abundance of sea life. The owner and founder, Swiss Lorenz Mader, has been working alongside the government, local people and villages on the nearby islands to stop all destructive fishing, and the resort has been voted #1 in several eco-categories by numerous organizations.

There is room for about 52 guests in a combination of 4 villas and numerous one-room beach and garden bungalows. our bungalowOur garden bungalow, like most others, was set only about 30 feet back from the beach behind a few low palms, so we had lovely sea-views, and it was right next to the Longhouse. It was air conditioned, though the A/C worked hard all the time because the roof was grass and therefore ‘holey’; the portion that would have been open to air was glassed-in, so we still had lots of ambient light. We had two beautiful 10” green geckos with orange spots that lived in the roof above our bathroom, the top of which was open to the rest of the room. (Mel and Ellie’s and Lyn and Spencer’s bungalow had outdoor topless showers – open to the sky – off their bathrooms!) The beds were framed by lovely hanging gauze mosquito nets tied back with decorative ropes, though we didn’t use ours as there were very few mozzies. Every piece of the lovely wood furniture for the resort is made by staff at the resort – armoirs, sofas, chairs, tables, desks, beds, nightstands, etc. – from wood shipped in from elsewhere in Indonesia.

walkwaysThe walkways between buildings are all lined with conch shells and occasional soft footlights, and are decorated with tiny symmetrical tracks in the morning and before meals from little critters crossing the sand. (The lights are kept very low at night so guests can see the magnificent starscape above.) Shoes are not allowed in any of the buildings, so everyone goes barefoot everywhere. In front of each bungalow and all around the dive cabanas were 18”x30” built-in concrete footponds for washing the sand off your feet; the sand was cleaned out of these every day, and we watched a tiny crab fall into ours one day and rescued him. And after searching and watching for many days on Spencer’s behalf, finally one day Ellie and I spotted about a 30” long monitor lizard between our bungalows. He is crazy about snakes (he would CATCH them if he could on dives!!) and reptiles of all kinds, so we followed the lizard; I kept following while she went to find Spencer, but by the time they found me, it had disappeared into the dense undergrowth behind the villas.

The daily schedule was different for this part of our trip:

6:45 breakfast in the restaurant – make sure tanks and gear is ready before then
* dive boat crew load the gear during guests’ breakfast
7:40 dive briefing in the Long House, then leave on dive boats
8:10 Dive #1 – this could be later if we went farther out on the reefs
* 1 hour break on board to offgas
* sometimes return empty tanks to resort
10:30 Dive #2
12:00 lunch at restaurant
* If a night dive was scheduled, afternoons were on our own to
* relax or snorkel or dive the House Reef
2:30 dive briefing in the Long House, then leave on dive boats
3:00 Dive #3
4:00 snacks served in the Long House
5:30 Night Dive (if no afternoon dive) OR drinks on the jetty to watch sunset!
7:00 dinner

deni in truckWe were delighted to have Deni, our Javanese dive guide from the Pelagian, continue as our guide for our entire stay at the resort – he is a master-spotter, and never failed to find really cool stuff for us, usually really small stuff, like the ¼” pygmy seahorse native and famous to this area. He is a born diver, too – always tickled with each day and each dive, so content to be diving and living here. On nearly every dive he would come to some point around a corner, or sometimes right as we submerged, and just hang in the water ahead of us with his arms spread wide, signaling “Just look at this! Isn’t this beautiful!?!?” See the photo at the beginning of the Pelagian post for a typical ‘Deni’ pose. 🙂

Deni’s English is nearly flawless, but one of the funniest moments with him was topside on the dive boat during a break between dives…he was telling us how he loves to play chess with the computer, and then said “but I am always doing “oondoh, oondoh”. We all hesitated, then nodded politely, not understanding – literally for the first time – then someone finally asked, “Sorry Deni, but what is ‘oondoh’?”, and he says “you know, when you want to go back?” We all howled, and he was mildly embarrassed of course, asking us for the proper pronunciation of ‘undo!’ We then happily explained to him this could be added to the many other funny computer expressions around, like the ‘any’ key, if he doesn’t mind…

One evening after the sun had set while we were all way out over the reef at the jetty bar, we were looking in the water below for divers’ tank lights. As we watched, these long ‘strings’ of glowing phosphor drifted lazily toward and around the jetty, slowly merging and separating. Delighted and fascinated, we asked the bartenders and one of the dive guides who was there, who informed us they are ‘just shrimp’ that drift together in strings! We didn’t get a definitive explanation, but we promptly dubbed them ‘glow shrimp’.

The resort is amazing in other ways too, not least of which continued to be the food. ice creamAll meals were served buffet-style, usually with selections from Indonesia and many other cultures. Eggs to order every morning, soup every evening, often a fresh sushi appetizer, multiple desserts, and ice cream was served twice, which was a great hit. We could order fruit smoothies, and they were wonderful – guava was the best. No wonder none of us lost any weight! Our first day at the resort both Ellie and I got deep tissue massages. My masseuse, Nori, was trained by a woman from Bali; she was tiny – maybe 4’11, and 90 pounds. But Nori was superb – it felt like she was channeling the weight of the earth; it was one of the best massages I’ve ever had. We also happened to be at the resort at the same time as a young doctoral candidate who is studying the pygmy seahorse; they are less than a ½” long and native to this area. He did a short lecture one evening on them and their importance to the health of the reefs, which was fascinating. He is also an excellent underwater photographer, which I appreciated, because while we did see several, the tiny creatures were really too small for me to focus on in the dim underwater light.

Resort Diving

On the diving side, again we had to carry NOTHING except our dive suits. The dive crew were yeomen…our gear was kept in a large numbered blue milk crates, and every morning,crew carrying tanks like a small army, the crew would heft all the guests’ dive crates and tanks (we analyzed our tanks the night before) onto their shoulders and carry them to the dive boats for us (left) – at high tide the boats were tied to the jetty, but at low tide they were anchored over the sand break in the reef, and they would have to use the water taxis to load everything. Then when we returned, they would carry it back ashore, and there we would do all the rinsing. Another crew assist I was very grateful for was at the end of a dive: as each diver started to climb the ladder up onto the boat, a crewman would reach over your head and grab the top of your tank and help pull you aboard, lifting about 40 pounds! Talk about being spoiled… And like on the Pelagian, we had fun with the crew and the gesture/expression ‘chapedeh!’

solar nudiHave I mentioned nudibranchs? They are a type of sea slug (some refer to them as mollusks or shell-less marine snails with exposed, feathery gills) but they are definitely the good-looking cousin. Most are tiny – ½” to 1” long – and are very brightly colored; because their skin tastes immediately terrible to predators, they are spit out so don’t have to be camouflaged. We have seen many species on this trip, and Lester has some wonderful photos of them. But there are two in particular that stand out in my memory. pink nudiOne is the ‘solar-powered’ nudibranch (above right), which is actually quite large – it really looked like a coral or sponge, not a nudi…it was about 8-10” in diameter and in height, with many gently waving chubby arms. It is so-named because it lives in shallow waters, stores algae in its outer tissues and lives off the sugars produced by the algae’s photosynthesis! The other is one whose name I do not have, and that we saw only once (right). I spotted it on the House Reef (in front of the resort) at about 35 feet just as we descended, and it was so lovely it captured my heart. We weren’t able to observe it for long though…the current along the House Reef is referred to as the ‘Wakatobi Express’, and we were quickly carried along toward the jetty.

I started taking Lester’s small camera with me on our 3rd day at the resort…I know, I said I would ‘never’ take one! But Lester clearly had different interests than me (I love the landscapes, but they are HARD to photograph), so I thought I’d give it a try. lesters bubblesI am very pleased with many of the photos I took, so I hope you enjoy them! This one of Lester’s bubbles below a huge barrel sponge (left) is one of my best. I mentioned the cuttlefish in my ‘Pelagian’ post. What I don’t think I mentioned, is that some of them are happy to hang around while you just watch them, or try to interact with them as Mel does, wiggling his fingers. But some are very shy, and on one dive, and as several of us approached a large one like this, it in an instant it turned BLACK and shot like a jet up the reef wall about 30 feet. We slowly approached it again, and while it slowly backed up and continued to change colors, it did allow us to observe it for a little longer before taking off again.

blue surgeonfishAnother surprising encounter was at a cleaning station where fish get the algae cleaned off their scales, gills and teeth – not sure if I have mentioned these before, but they are still tricky for me to spot. I finally came upon one, and saw a powder-blue surgeonfish (right) about 18” long being cleaned (mouth open wide, cleaner wrass swimming in the mouth, out the gills). I watched for several minutes and was then distracted by a dive buddy signaling to come look at something. black surgeonfishI looked away for about 20 seconds then looked back, and was quite surprised to see a ‘new’ fish there, so quickly! The new fish was completely black in color, and I thought, ‘wow, that was a quick change of customers!’ But as I kept watching, to my fascinated astonishment, the fish changed from black (right) back to the powder-blue. I didn’t know they change color; I have since learned that many fish change color, and I love seeing it.

cabbage coralTwo dives sites stand out for me as well. Table Coral City is amazing – it is a wide, gently sloping valley filled with table coral, cabbage coral (left), and some potato coral that look exactly like that! – this photo does not begin to do it justice…wide landscapes just come out too green! The other one is Taluk Maya – again a wide gentle bowl/valley with a sandy bottom, and edged with huge rocks and coral heads crowded with fish. We found things IN holes the rocks, UNDER the rocks, and of course, the ever-popular garden eels poking their cute heads up out of the sandy bottom.

And there were the days our game was a little ‘off’…in one day alone I left my regulator in the rinse tank at the Longhouse (the boat radioed a crew member at the Longhouse who grabbed it and handed it to another crewman who ran it out to the end of the jetty where we gently nudged up and reached for it!), then my shoulder dump valve started hissing when I did my check as we prepared to dive (Mel took it apart and fixed it), then Lyn jumped in without her weight belt and couldn’t descend, and Deni got stung by a Crown of Thorns! His hand got quite puffy and it was painful, but he didn’t miss a dive.  The dive guides are charged with removing them – a type of sea star that is very destructive to the reef, and has a venomous thorn.

I think my truly favorite thing about diving is the sensation of flying. More and more on this trip I would get ‘tired’ of trying to spot the little stuff on the reef, and would just kick away from the wall, like jumping off a ledge (and it feels a little like too, like ‘will I really fly???’) – float out into the ‘blue’ then turn around and enjoy the view – the reef, the millions of fish, the divers and bubbles, the void beneath me…

my leaf scorpionfishOn our very last dive, my 50th on this trip, we were about 55 minutes into it (nearly every dive was over 70 minutes long) at a depth of about 18 feet, and I was floating along the reef wall, thinking ‘how cool it would be if I could spot something special, like a scorpionfish’. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘we’ve all seen so many big scorpionfish that no one is impressed with them anymore. Spencer spotted a small one the other day…that would be cool.’ And then I looked down, and right below me was a very rare 4” leaf scorpionfish!!! (At right-can you make it out?) I could hardly believe it – I rattled my shaker to get Deni’s attention, signaled him excitedly to come back and look, and when he did, he gave me a huge two-handed ‘you’re the one!’ signal, and I was thrilled and satisfied – the only way to describe it!

Back at the resort…

childrenOn our last day we didn’t dive, since we were flying out the next day, so I went on the village tour, and Lester did the resort tour. The village is about a 30” walk across the island from the resort, though we took a dive boat over and walked back. It reminded me so much of our work in the Philippines – the poverty and simple living, the eager children, and the young people trying hard to improve their lives and their homes. The main source of income is from fishing, but the resort has ‘adopted’ the village, providing electricity and funds for the schools and other projects. According to the founder, who lives at the resort, over 2000 people benefit from the resort, and many resort staff come from this village, walking or boating to work every day; some staff come from villages farther away and live in housing at the resort. 50 people alone are employed maintaining or building new grass roofs, many others are dive crewmen or furniture builders, and many work on the housekeeping and restaurant staff.

jetty barWhat a great place, Wakatobi (especially the Jetty Bar!) – I am so fortunate and glad I have had the opportunity to visit! Thanks to Mel and Ellie for having a 25th anniversary and inviting us to share in the celebration, to my other great dive buddies Lyn and Spencer, and especially to Lester for gently asking if I might be ready to learn to dive so I could go on this trip with him!