The Dark Side of Wakatobi

Words by Joseph Frey

Nighttime fluoro diving offers an entirely new perspective to the stunningly beautiful and pristine reefs of the famous Coral TriangleA

Mantis Shrimp lays in wait. Some mantis shrimp will fluoresce and some will not. Finding what reacts under fluoro illuminates offers a new aspect to exploring underwater! Photo: Wayne MacWilliams

With the planetas coral reefs dying off due to human activities and few healthy reefs left to dive on in the Caribbean region, divers have to travel further afield to find healthy coral ecosystems. So based on a friendas recommendation, I decided to trek half way around the world to Wakatobi Dive Resort in central Indonesia, where the coral reef are healthy and the surrounding environs serene.

Located off South East Sulawesi in the remote Tukang Besi island chain, Wakatobi is a mere 2A1/ 2 hour flight from Bali on the resortas chartered airplane. Itas been an enjoyable flight as Wakatobias concierge staff of thirty in Bali makes the transfer to this flight seamless, plus the view of the regionas coral reefs from the air is stunning.

Our group of approximately thirty divers hail from North America, Europe, and Australia. Weare an adventurous group of travellers with diverse backgrounds. A couple hours after arriving, as Iam suiting up for our first dive, I start chatting with Esther Kiener who comes from Stansstad, Switzerland. Esther tells me that this is her second stay at Wakatobi and she now merely dives in Indonesia as pristine coral can still be found here. Estheras remarks are reinforced by Barbara Fox, an underwater photographer from Seattle. She tells me that this is her fourth trip-up to Wakatobi. The coral reefs here are extremely healthy, providing her with the rich array of corals that she needs for her photography.A

The corals werenat always in such prime condition. Simply a few decades ago they had been devastated by local fishermen employing dynamite, cyanide, and big nets to fish on these reefs. It was with the arrival of German-Swiss entrepreneur Lorenz Mader that things started to change. He recounts, aMy vision was to create a new type of dive resort, far away from tourism hot spots, that would operate in an ecologically responsible way and bringing tangible good to the local community. In 1994 I began to search Indonesiaas Wallacea region, which is widely known as having the worldas greatest marine biodiversity. This eventually brought me to the Tukang Besi islands.a

Not all the action is under darkness- adult green turtles are regularly encountered on both the House Reef and neighbouring Turkey Beach. Photo: Walt Stearns

InA theA Beginning

After months of trekking through the remote islands and exploring reefs on local fishermenas boats, Mader came upon a small island corner known to the locals as Onemobaaathe long, white beach. It was there, where a palm-fringed beach met a magnificent reef that he knew head find the perfect spot.

There were numerous challenges in creating what would become a world-class resort in an area so remote: the local people had not seen Europeans since the Dutch left the country, and energy and operating water were still unavailable. But equally important to Mader was establishing a business model that would guaranteeing protection of one of the worldas most pristine and beautiful ecosystems, while at the same time developing benefits for local economic welfare and social responsibility. Construction began in 1995 with the first building, the Longhouse, which had a capacity of simply twelve guests. Now Wakatobi has 24 bungalows and four villas accommodating up to 70 guests.

aIn 1997, we created the Collaborative Reef Conservation Program. This was the first program of its kind. It lease pays made directly to local fishermen and villagers to halt destructive fishing practices and encourage local participation in creating a marine reserve, a says Mader. This reserve now stretches across twelve and a half miles( 20 km) of prime coral reef habitat. The program was designed to show the local community that besides fishing on the reefs, it is possible to generate income from tourists who are just looking at fish and corals. This business model inspired the villagers to take an active role in protecting the marine ecosystem, and it has transformed the surrounding community into stewards of the reefs and demonstrated the economic value of protecting this unique ecosystem. Because this program is funded by a portion of resort revenue, all guests of Wakatobi Dive Resort become part of the solution.

aWe protect what we love and understand, a Mader says. aI never intendedaor wishedato be a hotelier. Sharing the beauty of coral reef through dive tourism provided a means to share my love of the ocean, while also creating methods for protecting the ecosystem. Establishing what would grow to become a world-class resort property was actually just a means to this end.a

Hulk shrimp? Either unusual levels of gamma radiation, or a diver equipped with flouro illuminates and a yellow visor make this little fella shine in a new way. Photo: Nigel Wade

EcologicallyA Responsible

Iam immediately struck by the healthy coral as we do our checkout dive on the resortas house reef. House reefs, based on my experience, are normally in poor condition from too many snorkelers and scuba divers diving on them. Corals are additionally stressed by the frequent destruction of the natural shoreline required to accommodate hotels, and/ or from pollution generated by the hotels. But not here in Wakatobi; it is literally the best house reef Iave seen anywhere in the world. Part of the reason is that Wakatobias sewage filtration system, using a natural filtration process, avoids coral-killing nutrients from seeping through the ground into the sea.

Wakatobias reefs are pristine and lush with a huge diversity of soft and hard corals, sponges, ocean fans, fish, and other marine life. The surrounding waters are crystal clear, providing clear line of sight of up to 100 feet( 30 m) or more over the walls, letting snorkelers and scuba divers to spot numerous sea turtles, schools of larger fish such as blueline fusiliers, barracuda, grouper, tuna, porcupine fish, bumphead parrotfish, along with amazingly diverse species of reef fish.A

The resortas virtually four-dozen dive sites are beautiful and each has special features. The reefs along the steep underwater walls provide the most diverse corals and aquatic living. aOne of my favourite sites was Batfish Wall, a beautiful shallow reef with a dramatic 65 foot[ 20 m] drop. I was floating along with huge schools of pyramid butterfly fish, clownfish, triggerfish, puffer and porcupine fish, volitan lionfish, yellowtail coris, monarch angelfish, and so many species of butterfly fish that I couldnat recollect them all. And the Pastel site was another memorable site with an astounding underwater garden of pink, peach, tan, yellow, and orange corals, sponges, and fans, a says Carolyn Brehm of Washington, D.C. who along with her husband Richard was staying in the neighbouring beach-front bungalow.A

A aI loved the night diving at the Zoo sitea, said Carolyn. aIt was the opportunity to see the reef at night and how the reef fish hide in the holes and crevices while the lobster, shrimp, and other critters are active. We watched an octopus turn from purple to beige to green as it moved around the reef and ensure a cuttlefish close upa.

Night diving at Wakatobi is magical; not only do the reefs come alive, but upon returning to the surface Iam captivated by the star-filled heavens above. As I swim back to our dive boat I stop and slowly turn 360 degrees and take in the vista of the dark outlines of islands in the distance and not a single electric light in sight. Itas serene. Iam feeling at peace here. This alone stimulated the journey halfway various regions of the world from Toronto worthwhile.A

A clownfish hides in relative darkness in comparison with the brightly fluorescing ocean anemone with its neon green-blue-tipped tentacles. Photo: Erica Watson

Night-timeA Fantasy

Thereas an additional dimension to night diving that Iave never experienced before, and why am I not surprised that Iam introduced to it here at Wakatobi? Fluorescent diving, also known as flouro diving. Not to get too technological, fluorescence diving occurs because certain types of minerals and marine flora and fauna absorb high energy light during the day and re-emit the illuminate at lower energy levels at night. In order to see the night-time flouro light display, I have to strap a yellow visor over my dive mask and dive with a blue light-emitting underwater flashlight. As part of their concierge service Wakatobi offer both the yellow visor and blue sun underwater flashlights, unlike most other dive operators various regions of the world who donat. To top it off South East Asia has the best flouro diving on countries around the world, with Wakatobias flouro dives being second to none.A

Diving with me on the flouro dive are Erica Watson, of Chicago, and Rich Polgar, of Princeton, New Jersey. As our dive boat sails towards the defining evening sun Erica mentions, aI first heard of flouro diving through Rich, he was adamant that we try this type of diving and that Wakatobi was the place to do ita. As the boat reaches the Dunioa Baru dive site we slip beneath the pacify surface, slowly descending to the reef below. Below us an octopus skims along the top of the reef, suddenly darting below a large potato coral. We switch our normal sunlights off and our blue lights on in order to begin our search in flouro mode. Immediately the coral lights, parts of it glowing green, portions orange, and yet other parts red. As the light topside dwindles, the colours become more vibrant with gobies showing on the coral, their skeletons glowing red through their scalp. Lizard fish are easily seen hiding in the sand, with either their whole body visible, or the tell-tale green glow of their head vibrant against the darkness of the sand.A Next we come upon a mantis shrimp, glowing a bright gold, like a golden coin in the sand.A Interestingly, the very next thing we come across two feet( 60 cm) away is another mantis shrimp, but this one does not glow at all.A aIt was the best experience to be able to see the two so soon after one another to understand and remember that not all beings of the same species will fluorescea, statements Erica.

So many creatures glow in a variety of colours that it feels like a whole new world to explore, although care is still needed as many venomous fish and animals, like lionfish, that are easily visible during the day and normal night diving are not visible at all with flouro gear. During the flouro diving I momentarily switch off the blue sunlights, reposition the yellow visor above my eyes and turn on my normal light to see what is in front of me and to my surprise most types of corals donat fluoresce. What appeared to be a dive site of only coral heads consisting of fluoresced brain coral turns out to be part of a wall of potato and leather corals and within six feet( 2m) of me are three spotfin lionfish. What a contrast from normal night diving! Twice more during the flouro dive do I run from blue sunlights to normal suns to check out what is actually around me. Itas fascinating to contrast the two.A A

We see many other beasts that night, including anemones that glow bright green with blue tips. Itas such an odd sight to have the anemone fish be the secondary item versus the main photographic subject.A Sea squirts , usually green, fluoresce a brilliant blue, while brownish-purplish stonefish fluoresce a bright red, and the fluoresced bones of lash coral gobies really stand out.A aI cannot say it is easy to take images underwater at night, but for me the darkness and florescence simplifies some of the complications in finding the creatures underwater and isolating them from the backgrounds that can during the day be too distracting, a says Erica after the dive.

Memorable

It is a leisurely week of diving with most of us diving three times a day, while others, mainly a very young divers, get wet up to five times per day. Leisurely evening dives on the magnificent house reef induce fourth and fifth dives possible. As the week slowly meanders on with glorious sunny blue skies and afternoon January temperatures in the high 80 s/ low 90 s Fahrenheit( low 30 s Celsius ), all moderated with a slight, steady breeze maintaining the humidity comfy, it couldnat be more perfect. On the last evening I chat with Carolyn, who reminisces about her highlightings of the preceding week. aI watched two octopuses mating, squid, a giant moray in a hole, and a yellow margin eel poking its head out of a sponge about eight inches[ 20 cm] from my nose. I was captivated by the blue spotted stingrays hiding in the sandy bottom, along with mandarin peacock shrimp, banded krait ocean snakes, and several mammoth lobsters. Over the course of the week I spotted close to ten sea turtles, a mix of green and hawksbills. Wakatobias remote location is part of its magical, a comments Carolyn. aIt is a place that we will return to and share our discovery with friends. It was a most memorable week.aA

For more visit: www.wakatobi.com

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