Story: Hoang Phong
Photos: Wakatobi Dive Resort

Scuba diving at Indonesia’s Wakatobi Islands reveals one of the world’s richest and most well-preserved coral reefs, teeming with colorful life.

Imagine you are an astronaut, just arriving on an alien planet. Every square centimeter of its surface is covered in technicolor living creatures you have never encountered before. All around you are countless other organisms, wholly unafraid of the stranger descending into their midst. With hardly a movement, you glide over structures thousands of meters long, which have been alive for tens of thousands of years. Gravity here is almost nonexistent, allowing you to move in all three dimensions with a mere thought.

It might be a while yet before mankind can explore the stars and planets, but right here on Earth there are indeed such wondrous alien landscapes: our oceans. And unlike the moon or planets barren and devoid of life, this otherworldly realm is filled with living things in the last wilderness relatively uncolonized by human presence.

In the ocean, coral reefs are where life concentrates. Only 0.1% of our oceans’ surface are coral reefs, but this tiny area houses a staggering 25% of all marine species.

If you happen to be in a shallow area near a coral reef, it is not hard to visit Neptune’s domain: just don a mask and snorkel, then swim face down in the water. But remember that you are much slower and clumsier than the fish. Try to stay still, do not flail around attempting to chase them. Relax and allow them to come to you. The best way to enjoy the underwater show is to let the graceful denizens of the sea go about their business normally.

Southeast Asia is blessed with the highest density of coral and reef biodiversity in the world. The “coral triangle” between the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has more coral species than the rest of the world combined, even leaving the Caribbean and the Red Sea far behind.

On a return visit to this coral triangle, I decided to visit the Wakatobi Islands in Indonesia. I had heard tales of this place floating around diving forums: that before a private airstrip was built, adventurous divers used to spend nearly a week on buses and ferries, island-hopping across Indonesia to get here; and that the quality of the reefs here is among the best in the world, rivaling the legendary Sipadan of Malaysia and Raja Ampat of Indonesia.

Snorkeling can give you a taste of the underwater spectacle, but you are confined to the surface and might still be some meters away from the richest parts of the reef, as if visiting a beautiful garden from a helicopter. To truly immerse yourself in the wonders of the deep, you need a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus – a SCUBA. A recreational scuba diver can go down to 40 meters (130 feet) and stay underwater for about an hour. More importantly, your scuba equipment enables you to control your buoyancy, thus allowing you to move in all three dimensions underwater.

That Wakatobi still retains its pristine coral reefs is in no small part thanks to Wakatobi Resort on Tomea Island, which partnered with locals in protecting the marine environment. The resort’s founder is a Swiss diver who roamed the region in search of a perfect location on both land and sea. The resort sponsored electricity, waste management, and many other community projects for the local villages. In return, local people agreed to honor a 3-kilometer reef sanctuary on their traditional fishing grounds, and patrol against harmful practices such as dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing and bottom trawling. About 100 locals also work for resort full-time, taking care of travelers who have come from around the world to this far-flung outpost.

Wakatobi truly boasts the best density and diversity of corals and marine life that I have ever witnessed. Schooling pyramid butterflyfish and redtooth triggerfish blot out the sunlight. Every nook and cranny teems with preying moray eels, or dozens of lobsters waiting for the night, or napping turtles. Giant barrel sponges house fat boxfish as big as your head. Tiny juvenile angelfish and surgeonfish buzz about deerhorn corals. For underwater macrophotography enthusiasts, it is a paradise filled with all kinds of nudibranchs, porcelain and orangutan crabs and squat lobsters, and the local specialty: minuscule pygmy seahorses hiding on massive gorgonian fans.

I left Wakatobi not just with beautiful photos, but also with renewed hope. As coral reefs around the world are being threatened by human activities, Wakatobi is a model for us all, shining proof that we can coexist peacefully with nature.