Wakatobi’s underwater habitat has been described as the world epicentre of coral reef biodiversity. This tangle of islands, off the south-eastern tip of Sulawesi, offers more to lure the traveller than just marine life.
Words and photography by Mark Eveleigh
The great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace sailed past the Wakatobi archipelago in 1857. This year marks 150 years since Wallace wrote The Malay Archipelago – a book that, even today, remains the most engaging travel book ever written about the Indonesian islands. In its pages, he described Sulawesi (then known as Celebes) as “the most remarkable and interesting island in the whole region, or perhaps on the globe”.
Wakatobi’s name derives from the four biggest islands: Wangi Wangi (WA), Kaledupa (KA), Tomia (To) and Binongko (BI). Situated within the Asia-Pacific Coral Triangle and boasting an estimated 9,000km2 of tropical coral reefs, this area is home to the highest number of fish species in the world and 750 coral reef species (out of a world total of 850). By comparison, there are fewer than 70 coral reef species in the entire Caribbean!
As my plane descended towards the tangle of lagoons around Matahora Airport on Wangi Wangi’s rural western coast, I was already getting an inkling of the relaxed, low-key island lifestyle that awaited me.
I stayed the night in town so that I could wake early to spend a couple of happy hours in Central Market snapping photos and drinking syrupy-sweet Sulawesi kopi with the friendly stall-holders before I wandered towards the waterfront.
The Orang Bajo community, known as Bajo Mola, who settled here in the 1950s, might be one of the most intriguing (and friendliest) stilted villages in all Indonesia. Almost 2,000 houses are perched on gangly timber and concrete stilts over the shimmering blue waters of the reef, offering ideal diving platforms for the countless Orang Bajo children who directed me towards a fish restaurant where I sampled refreshingly tangy sour fish soup and deliciously doughy kasuami (a sort of fluffy bread made from cassava).
Wanci town is the embarkation point for a world of adventures stretching southwards through the wonders of the Wakatobi Archipelago. There are 143 islands in this group and, since 136 of those remain uninhabited, it is safe to assume that little can have changed here since Wallace sailed past.
Sitting on the roof of a little inter-island ferry-boat the next morning, I watched as the reef slipped beneath us like a floor of polished blue marble. By the time we reached the darker deep-water channel, a pod of leaping dolphins appeared on the horizon, and they remained nearby until another Orang Bajo community began to loom into view over the water like a miniature Venice, in the straits near Kaledupa Island.
While Wakatobi’s highest peak (on Wangi Wangi) rises to a mere 274m above sea level, the offshore canyons are believed to descend to a depth of more than a kilometre. These great submarine cliffs are responsible for the upheaval of nutrients that make these waters so incredibly fertile. At the port in Tamboeloeroeha town I switched boats for a short shuttle over to little Hoga Island (just over 3km long).
I rented a beachside bungalow at Hoga Island Dive Resort and spent an idyllic afternoon in a hammock watching flowerpeckers (dainty Asian ‘hummingbirds’) flit through the vegetation and frigate birds wheeling on scythe-like wings across a cloudless sky. Slipping into the mirrorlike water I soon saw that the reef was thronging with marine life. Within an hour’s snorkelling I felt like I’d seen a large proportion of the 942 species of fish that have so far been recorded here. It isn’t hard to imagine why this spectacular submarine habitat is on the bucket list of every globe-trotting diver worth their salt. About 40km south of my little low-key patch of paradise lay Wakatobi Luxury Dive Resort, on Tolandano Island (just west of Tomia). This is the area’s most celebrated destination and justifiably one of the premier dive venues on the planet. It is a prime escape-spot for visitors who want to avoid the crowds and spend their time drifting with a vast array of marine life.
There is an undeniable thrill in the thought that more than a century and a half after Alfred Russel Wallace’s pioneering scientific expedition, there are still sure to be undocumented species awaiting discovery among Indonesia’s wildest islands.
Garuda Indonesia flies 10 times a week to Baubau. Flight time from Makassar is 55 minutes.
Dive Resort $$$$/4.5 starsFrom US$315 pppn
Exceptional all-inclusiveresort, which includes
gourmet meals. Book the luxury dive yacht Pelagian
for the ultimate Wakatobi experience.
Tomia Villa Wakatobi
$/Not yet rated
New, modest B&B. Rooms have private bathrooms.
Spacious communal terrace overlooks the ocean.
5 Senses – Taste
Sample delicious kasuami, a light bread-like speciality made from cassava. Usually prepared in pyramids that are wrapped in palm leaves, it is best eaten either with coto Makassar beef soup or sour fish soup.