Wakatobi Islands: Underwater nirvana like no other

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Indonesia is a country where acronyms abound, so when I was informed that I was traveling with a group of friends to Wakatobi, I thought it was just an island with that name.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that Wakatobi was also an acronym.

Wakatobi is an abbreviation of the collective names of a number of islands lying southeast of Sulawesi, which are Wangi Wangi Island, Kaledupa Island, Tomia Island, and Binongko Island. They are also called Tukang Besi Islands.

Sulawesi itself is part of the archipelago of Indonesia. It is found towards its eastern fringes and is said to be shaped like an orchid.

Sulawesi is home to a unique endemic flora and fauna different from the rest of Indonesia. The seas surrounding it also abound with unique and beautiful marine life and colorful corals. These characteristics are also reflected in the Wakatobi Islands.

Wakatobi is a marine national park. It forms a barrier reef second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The clear, clean seawater surrounding the islands is home to the largest number of fish species and coral reefs in the world. The islands are also home to diverse wetland, mangrove, and forest habitats.

Going to Wakatobi is island hopping, even if it requires depending on not always reliable ferry services and the vagaries of the weather and ocean currents.

For us, the first stop was Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. From there we took a flight to Kendari, a city on the mainland of Sulawesi. From Kendari onwards it was a question of traveling through a series of places with beautiful and exotic names.

From Kendari we flew to the first island, Wangi-Wangi, which literally translates to “smell good”. Here we stayed at the Patuno Bay resort; a large hotel between the beach and the sea of ​​Flores. The resort itself had become run down since we last visited but was still fine for only two nights.

As an avid birder and photographer, I was thrilled to see many wading birds such as the golden plover, big beach knee, gray-tailed babbler, Eurasian roe deer, and broad-billed heron. The tall trees around the resort were home to the colorful black-naped fruit dove, bright yellow black-naped oriole, island monarch, white-breasted wood swallow, Sulawesi triller and tiny colorful flower woodpecker from the gray side.

From Patuno Bay resort we took a boat to Kambode island. Here a full day was spent snorkelling, diving and bird watching.

Wakatobi is blessed with beautifully colored live corals that are in good condition. It is a coral reef, with various soft corals, hard corals and fan corals on the walls. The clear, clean waters are home to a variety of marine life, some rare and unusual, such as the pygmy seahorse, pygmy horse, skeletal shrimp, frogfish and the fascinating clownfish, as well as a variety of nudibranchs. As this is a protected site the fish tend to be large and plentiful such as schools of big eye trevelley, black tip sharks, parrotfish and barracuda. Also worth seeing are the Neapolitan wrasse and the green and hawksbill turtles.

The next day we rented cars and motorbikes and went around the island visiting a Bajo or Sea Gypsy village, a seaweed farm, a traditional cloth weaving place and a colonial fort, all while taking in the panoramic views of the island .

The next stop was Hoga Island, adjacent to Kaledupa Island: the KA of Wakatobi. Again, we had a boat ride on crystal clear sea.

Along the way, bird watchers were keen to see various seabirds, especially the cuckoo booby, brown booby, and several terns. Dolphins would occasionally emerge and frolic along the boat. From Hoga Island, we did more snorkeling, diving or just enjoying the nature and fresh sea breeze.

A visit to another Bajo village in Kaledupa was also included. This was a very marginalized and poor community. Services in the villages were basic, but the people were friendly and welcoming.

The sea gypsy community is an ancient nomadic people, whose main source of livelihood was fishing with traditional methods and operating small wooden boats. They live in distant islands in Indonesia and other surrounding countries. In the 21stst century still rely on fishing but live in permanent settlements, where houses are built on wooden stilts in the sea. It should be noted that the way of life of this ancient people is under threat. The younger generations prefer to leave the villages in search of a better life, while in the long run their parents are no match for the commercial fishing that is creeping into the area.

The crowning glory of Kaledupa was a visit to Lake Sembano where the adventurous were able to swim among hundreds of small red prawns that live in the lake. A small sea snake has also been sighted here.

After two days on Hoga Island, we were to reach Tomea Island, which forms the To of Wakatobi. The ferry from here was unreliable so we had to hire a private boat. Getting into the boat with our bags and luggage from the dock was a hairy experience. Since the dock did not have a functional ladder, a makeshift ladder was attached to the boat and some of us literally fell into it.

After a few hours of sailing on rough seas, we arrive at Tomea. This island too was surrounded by spectacular coral reefs and marine life, as well as beautiful birds both in the sea and on land.

As bird watchers, we were fascinated by the pearl-eyed lemon-bellied white-eye and the gray-breasted brilliant spotted woodpecker, which was recently classified as a Wakatobi endemic.

On all the islands we were surrounded by the bluest of seas and saw spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

From Tomea Island we returned by ferry to Wangi-Wangi and then by plane to our respective countries and places.

Binongko Island forms the Bi of Wakatobi but we saved it for another visit.

Wakatobi requires many trips often under basic conditions, but to quote Jacques Cousteau, it is “underwater nirvana” and for me above water as well. (kes)


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