Plying the Banda Sea by live-aboard, you’ll encounter a pretty special part of Indonesia. Wakatobi, as it’s known, was declared a national marine park in 1996 thanks to the immense diversity in its waters. It’s practically untouched by the outside world, housing only the Wakatobi Resort and a research station. But for divers, it offers a rare glimpse into a little-explored area of the undersea realm.
The name Wakatobi is actually a combination of the first two letters of each of the main islands’ names in the Wakatobi National Marine Park: Wangi Wangi Kaledupa, Tomia and Binonogko. It is the second-largest protected marine area in Indonesia and has become a focal point for biologists and environmentalists due to its geologic history.
Thousands of years ago the continents shifted, separating Indonesia from both the Asian and Australian continents, and isolating the creatures living in its waters. This Wallacea Biogeographical Zone is a region bound by deep ocean trenches and has remained isolated, resulting in a large number of endemic species and a pristine area for divers to explore.
The colorful splendid dottyback is usually rare in Indonesia, but they seem to proliferate in Wakatobi waters. They even live shallower here, starting at about 40 feet. Get out your macro lens, because your chances of shooting a great photo of these guys are good.
Walls and steep slopes represent the majority of the diving terrain here. To the east you’ll encounter many small atolls, stretching to Moromaho in the Flores Sea. It is here that you’ll discover what can only be described as a cathedral beneath the sea. Deep sponges grow to gigantic proportions, forming a labyrinth along the wall, which is also adorned in soft corals, weeping black corals and myriad gorgonians. There are big fish as well, like bumphead parrotfish and Napoleon wrasse, and the island serves as a major seabird sanctuary.
To the north, at the outer pinnacle at Pulau Hoga, the diversity of sponge life keeps divers in awe dive after dive. And Wangi Wangi offers some great macro creatures including pygmy seahorses, hairy squat lobsters and chromodoris nudibranchs.
Wakatobi Resort’s famous house reef is one of the few places you’ll find the tiny halimeda pygmy seahorse. Its soft corals are without rival, and gorgonian sea fans drip like candle wax from the walls. Large stands of sea whips add a brilliant red hue to the reef and harbor trumpetfish and golden chromis.
The diving gets even better at the submerged atoll of Karang Koka, which is part of a string of uninhabited atolls located in the southeast corner of the marine park. You can often find a shoal of immense dogtooth tuna here. Nearby, at Pulau Cowocowo, the pelagic action is always good, but you might get lucky during an afternoon dive along the western point, where a trio of yellowfin tuna might appear from the blue. Highlighted by the warm late-afternoon light, their long, filamentlike fins sparkle like gold.
A trip through this young marine park is definitely an adventure. But as exploration continues, its reputation as a prime area to experience the beauty and majesty of the remote undersea world of South Sulawesi will only grow. — Tim Rock
Need to Know
Travel Tip: Take time to walk through one of the stilt villages of the Bajau people, a nomadic, seafaring culture that leads a fascinating lifestyle perched above the water.
When to Go: You can dive year-round here, but the peak seasons that allow for atoll visits are April through June and September through November.
Getting There: Divers fly by charter from Bali to Makassar, Sulawesi, and then board a live-aboard. There is a private, direct charter flight for Wakatobi Resort guests or private-jet service on request.
Dive Conditions: There are decent currents here, but the wall diving is generally a manageable drift. Water temps hover around 80°F, and you’ll generally find 60- to 100-plus-foot visibility.
Price Tag: Seven-night packages at Wakatobi Resort start at $2,510 and include accommodations, meals, unlimited beach diving and three boat dives per day. A seven-night cruise on the Pelagian Dive Yacht starts at $2,790 including meals and diving.