Wakatobi Pelagian Dive

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Excitement was building with images of coral reefs in turquoise clear water, myriads of tropical fish, sumptuous nudibranchs, and exotic marine life coming to mind as we approached Bali on the first phase of our trip from Australia. The next morning, we departed on a 2 hour private-charter flight to the Wakatobi Dive Resort and their live aboard MV Pelagian in remote Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The helpful folks at Wakatobi Dive ensured our travel arrangements throughout the trip went smoothly. Soon after landing we were whisked aboard the MV Pelagian, our home for the next week. It was into shorts, and bare feet to unpack dive gear, assemble cameras on the spacious camera tables, and catch up with dive buddies not seen since last year’s trip to Komodo.

MV Pelagian was built out of steel in Holland in 1964. It is the most comfortable live aboard I have been on, catering for up to 12 divers in comfort, and safety. The “old girl” cruises at a stately 7 knots and is powered by two vintage Gardner diesels. It features a sizable main cabin (enjoyed by our honeymooners, and on one occasion all our group for a video showing) together with separate cabins with en suites, good quality air conditioning, and all is immaculately maintained by Pelagian’s happy live aboard staff of 13, giving a ratio of staff to guests at over one to one…now that’s my style! The food was excellent with even choices of menu for three squares a day…hard to refuse your individually cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs, and banana pancakes with maple syrup! Importantly for these yuppie divers was the 24 hour a day Espresso machine.

Guest numbers are determined by the capacity of six divers for each of the two dive tenders, rigid bottom inflatables which are craned out of the water at the end of the day’s diving. This is an excellent system with the tanks staying in the boats and being filled from air lines so no more lugging heavy dive tanks; just turn up in your chosen style of “deshabille” and you are ready to go out in your aquatic limousine. We all paid the extra US$250 for nitrox for the trip although felt this was a bit “Exxy” on top of an already hefty cost (especially for moi, a single person) required to join this deluxe charter. Each dive tender had its own boatman and dive guide. Dives were unhurried and lasted at least an hour, heaven for slow moving UW photographers. Our dive guides were enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and an enormous help finding things. Beach walks, village tour, and snorkeling could also be arranged for those who were “dived out” although for most of us, there was so much to see that more terrestrial pursuits were on the back burner.

Banded Sea Snake
Banded Sea Snake

Gear sorted, we up anchored and steamed northward during our first night at sea. After a mandatory few drinks and a good dinner, I was lulled to sleep by the gentle swish of the calm tropical sea against the hull. We arrived pre-dawn at our first dive site” Neptune’s Garden” where we splashed in at 0730.After months of preparation, there is nothing as invigorating to the soul as the first reef dive of a trip to these fabulous Indonesian waters. In the garden, we experienced the first of the diverse and varied underwater treats we were to encounter over the next week. In this and ensuing paragraphs, I will give you a sampling of what we encountered both in popular names and, where possible, scientific names: Hairy Squat Lobster Galathea sp. , Banded Sea Snake Laticauda colubrina, Popcorn Shrimp Periclimenes kororensis, Pennant Bannerfish Heniochus chrysostomus, Crocodile fish Cymbacephalus beauforti; the first of the Nudibranchs, Chromodoris dianae; and, several magnificent tropical angelfish including Blue-faced angelfish Pomocanthus xanthometopon and the Majestic angelfish Pomacanthus navarchus.

Our next two dives were on the Inner and Outer Pinnacles. With depth down to 40m we enjoyed Leaf Scorpion Fish Taenionotus triacanthus, Hairy Orangatan Crab Achaeus japonicus, Carpet Anemone and its Anemone shrimp Periclimenes brevicarpalis, and on a different anemone: the translucent Anenome shrimp – Periclimines holthuisi. In the still waters of the afternoon, the sea fans were stunning, showing all colours of the rainbow. Bubble coral shrimp Vir. philippiensis fascinated with its transparent body and wire-like purple lines. There were more Nudibranchs, Chromodoris willani and Phyllidia varicosa.

Long nose hawkfish
Long nose hawkfish

Still eager, we piled into the tenders for a night dive at Hoga Island where tangled soft corals drooped from above like stalactites. The Sponge Crab Dromidiopsis edwardsi which looked like a skull with legs, having a thick overhanging sponge mantle, scuttled away when it saw our lights. The crayfish population was out strutting its stuff, Painted Rock Lobster Panulirus versicolor, Reef Lobster Palinurella wieneckii in vivid orange under illumination at night, and the shy Slipper Lobster Parribacus caledonicus. The Polyclad flatworms were slithering about, one with fine gold dots, Thysanozoon sp., another the Pseudobiceros bedfordi. There is blue and orange one that lights up like a neon light, the Pseudoceros bifurcus (which I have also seen at the North Solitary Islands off Wooli, New South Wales where I dive a lot). At night, the Nudibranch Phyllidiella pustulosa appeared to have miniature boils on its surface, and is probably highly toxic to the unwary. The surface is unusual. It confuses the auto focus setting on my camera and might also confuse would-be predators giving it stealth like properties.

Day two dawned with calm seas, drizzly rain, and a double rainbow as we geared up for the first dive at the “Metropolis”. This was a lovely dive in clear 30m plus gently sloping across coral gardens towards a deep drop off. White tip reef sharks Triaenodon obesus were seen deeper, along with schooling Chevronned barracuda Sphyraena qenie, spotted Eagle Ray Aetobatus narinari, and schooling Bluefin Trevally Caranx melampygus. Generally, the pelagic were in deeper water, probably a sad testimony to overfishing; but, perhaps reassuring they have been able to adapt their behaviour to avoid Man Homo sapiens. A feature of Pelagian diving is you never know quite what you will encounter, and right there amongst the corals, imperviously sat a large green Nudibranch, Phyllidia elegans. Just at that moment a school of brightly coloured Rainbow runner Elagatis bipinnulata raced by. Our beautiful and gracious Japanese dive guide Kaori-san had the sharpest eyes, and pointed out the Devil Scorpionfish Scorpaenopsis diabolus which like pink concrete blended perfectly with the coral, and the Orange Anenomefish, Amphiprion sandaracinos.

Off Kanpenamne, we dived ” Tumbleweed Passage”. This was a value for money long drift dive with the current expertly judged by our guides. Solenostomus cyanopterus, the well camouflaged Robust Ghost Pipefish was found in amongst leafy debris, the first I had seen. The Willans Chromodoris, Chromodoris willani with white flecked rhinophores is one of the more distinctive Wakatobi Nudibranchs. We concluded the dive in an exquisite garden of soft corals, Sarcophyton sp. enjoying an artist’s palette of soft pastels.

The afternoon dive took place at North East Kapota Atoll, an enclave of purple violet colours in hard and soft corals. A newly discovered Nudibranch with blue toenails, proved to our disappointment to be a regrowing starfish leg! Along the way we encountered Ghost pipefish, Yellow Shrimp Gobi Cryptocentrus cinctus, and a lovely Porcelain crab Neopetrolisthes sp. hiding out at the margin of its host anemone. Two Devil Scorpionfish sat motionless blended with the coral awaiting passing prey which they consume between large jaws with lightning fast speed. That night was beautiful and still, with phosphorescence in the water, and during the dive, there was yet again a parade of new life, particularly shrimps: Boxer shrimp, Saron sp. shrimp, and the Hinge beak shrimp Rhynchocinetes reticulatus even down to a minute (5mm long!) shrimp Periclimenes soror on the underside of starfish.

Spinecheek anemonefish "Premnas biaculeatus"
Spinecheek anemonefish “Premnas biaculeatus”

Our good ship steamed that night, and in the morning we woke to dive “Gone with the Wind” and “Escape”; both rich habitats where we saw for the first time the Yellowbared Jawfish Opistognathus carrying eggs in its mouth. Perhaps the most photogenic of the Sulawesi Nudibranchs is the Dusky Nembrotha Nembrotha kebaryana with vivid contrasting red and green. A close second for vivid colours were a pair of juvenile sea cucumbers in bright yellow Pentacta lutea; Juvenile Emporer angelfish Pomacanthus imperator attracted much interest. A totally new experience was to see the Flame fire clam Ctenoides ales, with its arcing electric current playing along the mantle. In disbelief, I have read of collectors trying unsuccessfully to keep these exquisite molluscs alive in tanks; and, also, learned of suppliers of Moray eels that offer a second one at no charge should the first die in the tank, assuming the fish is “defective”.

Later that afternoon we did our muck dive at Cheeky Beach, named for the antics of the local boys in their wooden dugout canoes who with little brothers in tow take much delight with divers down in the shallow water. The best muck dives are close to the shore where there is fresh-water runoff. Admittedly a muck dive skeptic, I was blown away by this treasure trove of the weird and wonderful. My first seahorse, the Thorny seahorse Hippocampus hystrix! The place was crawling with fire urchins, which in turn supported the Coleman shrimp Periclimenes colemani. Mantis shrimp Odontodactylus scyllarus reared up in aggressive posture with claws ready to strike at the unwary camera lens. The Spiny Devilfish Inimicur didactylus laid camouflaged in the mud along with the fearsome looking Snake eel Ophichthus polyophthalmus, and its cousin the Napolean eel Ophichthus bonaparti. Almost imperceptible in the brackish debris was the angular Bristle-tailed filefish Acreichthys tomentosus.

Polyclad flatworm "Pseudoceros bifurcus"
Polyclad flatworm “Pseudoceros bifurcus”

Magic Pier is a must do night dive; expect to be challenged, even frightened by what you see, and careful not to touch anything, it might eat you! Early evening, the Mandarin fish Pterosynchiropus splendidus rise from their rocky lairs to engage in convoluted mating rituals. Like an underwater morgue dead fish parts lie around, even a severed Marlin head with a ghoulish looking large eye surveying the carnage.

Peacock flounders Bothus sp. slithered along, Striped Eel Catfish Plotosus lineatus danced in a writhing mass, the Moray eels, the giant Gymnothorax javanicus, together with the Peppered Moray Gymnothorax Pictus, and Fimbriated moray Gymnothorax fimbriatus exercised their jaws preparing for a meal of fresh marine carrion. The Ringed pipefish Doryrhamphus dactyliophorus was exquisite, along with neighbors Ornate Ghost Pipefish, with black male and red female, having made a home on a discarded pink bra.Our crusty old undertaker, the Sponge crab, decided it was all too busy and lurched away on its ataxic sideward gait. A bazaar of the bizarre.

The next two dives occurred at the Fish Market Pinnacle. These waters harbour a plenitude of large sponges of all types, sea fans, and corals.. Just everywhere you looked there was an extravagance of shape and colour. Tube sponges Testudinaria, and Barrel sponges Xestospongia; even one ejecting a spume of smoke-like spawn. We encountered a Banded Sea Snake with a suspicious bulge– signs of a good meal. Here, we had a close look at the numerous and diverse local corals, to name but a few: Brain coral Platygyria; Cabbage coral Echinopora pacificus; Bubble coral Pterogyra sinuosa, Green hard coral Tubastraea micrantha, and a coral with orange stalks Tubastraes faulkneri. This was the best site for finding the elusive Pygmy seahorse, actually two types depending on the host sea fan. The Moricella fan in red is home to the more photographed Hippocampus bangibanti; whereas, the Echinogorga fan in yellow is home to the Hippocampus denisi (see photo cover of Sport Diving magazine, issue 142). The knobbly protrusions on their bodies have something to do with the ingestion of the host coral and would seem to add to their defence and camouflage. Exquisite.

Leaf Scorpionfish "Taenianotus tricanthus" - AB
Leaf Scorpionfish “Taenianotus tricanthus” – AB

From here, the Captain headed the ship back to Wakatobi Bay for the final two days of our trip. Along the way, we stopped to do two dives at Waiti Ridge with still more goodies…the Giant Frog fish in black phase Antennarius commersoni, a Winged pipefish Halicampus macrorhynchus, the Bignosed unicorn fish Naso vlamingii. The coral gardens revealed glimpses of the ever shy Two-spine angelfish Centropyge bispinosus. Late afternoon we dived” Magnifica” a lovely wall, one of our best. By the last day, we had anchored back near Wakatobi to enjoy dives at Roma and Kollo Soha Beach with new finds of the Leaf Scorpion fish Taenianotus tricanthus in both yellow and pale pink. If you looked carefully you were rewarded with glimpses of the disjointed looking Arrow head crab Huenia heraldica sometimes found in and around Feather Stars, of which there were several extremely colourful species.  An odd one was a Gray Drummer Kyphosus bigibbus with a parasitic Isopod (Family Cymathoidae) attached to its gill covers. At Roma, we were tantalized with Tang, Brush tail Zebrasoma scopas, Blue Paracanthurus hepatus, and Sailfin Zebrasoma xanthurum.

The Tritan triggerfish Balistoides veridescens were muscling up in preparation for mating and warned us to stay away; schools of prehistoric- looking Crocodile needle fish Tylosurus crocodilus cruised past. After a busy last day in the water, we had hoped to do the unique new fluo night dive offered through the resort.. It is popular so be sure to book ahead.

Our party of nine were guests of Wakatobi Resort for a sumptuous smorgasbord on our final night; we dined well but not before enjoying sundowner cocktails at the Jetty Bar and a spectacular tropical sunset. We compared diving notes with an international group of divers who stayed at the resort while we were at sea. All had a fabulous time enjoying a varied and busy dive program with many new and exciting sights: we were spoiled with diversity of the fabulous marine life in the rich seas of Sulawesi..    Pelagian, we decided, we’ll be back!

Link to Photo Gallery Note: Only a few of the images appear within the text – click here for the full gallery at large high resolution in new tab window.

Useful texts:

Allen, Gerald R., and Roger Steene, “Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Field Guide”, Tropical Reef Research, 2002.

Allen, Gerald; Steene, Roger; Humann, Paul; and Ned Deloach, “Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacific” Star Standard Industries Pty Ltd., 2003.

Travel arrangements: Allways Dive, Melbourne, Australia.

Photographic credits: Wakatobi Dive (WD), Andrew Baldey (AB), Geoff Skennar (GS), and Roger Welch (RW). Pelagian Dive Yacht (PDY).

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