Wild Wakatobi: Indonesia's spectacular and little-known dive destination

Wild Wakatobi: Indonesia's spectacular and little-known dive destination

Thought all the best beach and diving locations were already too crowded? Wakatobi is a quiet, pristine alternative
Wakatobi is home to more than 25 coral reefs and 900 marine species, making it one of Indonesia's top dive sites. (Photo courtesy Wakatobi Dive Resort)

We ride into the heart of Wakatobi –- one of Indonesia’s premier dive sites –- on a faded wooden boat loaded with instant noodles, juice boxes and an aerodry washing machine.

At the dock in Kaledupa, men with bowler helmets sweep our bags into a canoe and throw us back out to sea. The heat has bleached the color from the land and trees, but as we putter across a channel to Hoga Island the water remains a cool swirl of vibrant aqua, teal and indigo. 

This is southeast Sulawesi, a birthmark-shaped island in Indonesia’s northeast and home to some of the world’s most spectacular coral reefs.

I'm traveling with seasoned Indonesianists and we're ready to dive, swim and toss back cold, sunset beers in soft, cloth hammocks. 

It's not until we come to a halt in the shallow waters lapping Hoga’s beach that the silence sets in, followed by fears that we might be making a terrible mistake.

These are remote islands, tiny freckles on the Indonesian map, made even more distant by a lack of connective infrastructure –- like toes severed from feet.

As we sink our own feet into the hot, white sand, my mind turns to the granola bar in my knapsack –- that could last me for a day, I calculate, thinking this island was far more deserted than we’d anticipated.

Yet hidden behind the expanse of palm trees sits a cluster of delightful wooden bungalows and a shaded veranda with dining tables. Rooms are available. 

Creating a culture of conservation

Wakatobi's Bajo, part of a once-nomadic sea tribe, now live on stilted homes over the water.

The name Wakatobi is an amalgam of its four main islands –- Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko.

The seas surrounding the southeast Sulawesi district received national marine park status in 1996 and Wakatobi has since garnered attention from conservationists and avid scuba divers drawn by its incredible underwater diversity and expansive reefs.

Each summer hundreds of students descend on Hoga, one of Wakatobi’s many minor islets, to conduct research through Operation Wallacea, a non-profit sustainable development group based in England. 

Environmental outfits like the World Wildlife Fund have also been helping to improve park management and publicize its vast biodiversity.

In 2012 the WWF released a film about the Bajo, a once-nomadic sea tribe that now lives on stilted homes over the water and depends on fishing for survival. 

Resourceful and ingenious, the Bajo dive using hand-made wooden goggles.

“We want to promote this place for divers, people who really love to come for the nature,” says Geertje Berveling, who works with the Hoga Dive Resort. On my second day on Hoga I watch a Bajo man row to shore, scurry effortlessly up a coconut tree, claim a fruit and scoop out the meat in one long, continuous roll.

In view of Hoga is Sampela, the only Bajo village in the region completely disconnected from the mainland.

The village has a mosque, schools and convenience stores.

There is a soccer pitch and a small health clinic, all built on dead coral and connected by a snaking series of wooden bridges and walkways. 

The belief in the sea and its bounty influences Bajo society, but many traditions are slowly evaporating as fish stocks dwindle.

The Bajo have also had to adjust their lives to increasing conservation efforts.

Growth in scuba diving, for example, has led to a crackdown on bomb fishing, which in the past destroyed large chunks of otherwise pristine reefs.

“We want to promote this place for divers, people who really love to come for the nature,” says Geertje Berveling, a Dutch conservationist who assists with the dive center at the Hoga Dive Resort.

Beyond Bali

Wakatobi Dive Resort is one of the only luxury resorts in the area, offering plush eco villas, spa services and personalized dive cruises.Last year more than 8 million foreign tourists visited Indonesia, placing it 33 out of 50 countries for tourist arrivals, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization

The ministry of tourism aims to draw 10 million visitors by 2014.

But the country’s main resort island, Bali, is suffering from a tourist glut.

Hotels are straining water resources and beaches are littered with refuse.

Tourists complain that traffic jams and parking lots have overtaken paradise. Cases of sexual assault and alcohol-related deaths are on the rise. 

To meet growth targets that rely on tourism development, the government says it needs to promote destinations beyond Bali.

Anthias abound on the reefs of Wakatobi. (Photo courtesy Wakatobi Dive Resort) Wakatobi is one of 16 priority areas slated for development.

Tourism Minister Mari Pangestu admits that the island chain is still difficult to get to, but says the country is shifting resources here to ease the burden on Bali’s environment.

“What we want is sustainable tourism,” Pangestu says in an interview. “You want to ensure that these destinations maintain their local culture, tradition and local wisdom but develop it in a way that can be understood and enjoyed by visitors.”

The Bajo are part of that culture, but in this region it’s the life below the water that excites.

Home to more than 25 coral reefs and 900 marine species, Wakatobi provides divers access to moray eels, dolphins, manta rays and sea turtles.

Lacy fan coral is so immense and intact it’s awe-inspiring. 

“There are not that many islands, but the islands are big and all around the islands are coral,” says Berveling. “There are many places where people haven’t dived yet.” 

All around these islands the sea extends out in a shelf. Then, suddenly, it gives way to a long, unbroken wall replete with some of the world’s best hard and soft corals. 

Come evening, the sunset is the main attraction. Pinnacles, ridges, ledges and overhangs give this reef its majesty.

Snorkeling and swimming is equally serene. Quickly my companions and I forget the time and sink into a routine: swim, eat, read in a hammock. Repeat.

In the evenings we walk the shore or watch the resort staff play volleyball on a beach lapped by water as still and placid as a lake. 

Each night the sunset is more brilliant.

Sprawling and vast, Indonesia is a land of wonder and opportunity, a country ripe for adventure –- and also uncertainty.

In remote regions getting from one island to another can involve long waits and crossed fingers. But a hop around Wakatobi quickly proves why the trouble is worth it.

Exhausted by a day of island cruising and sea-creature sighting, we sink into mosquito-netted beds and listen.

With bungalow windows thrown akimbo we hear a distant boat engine, a bird warble or the void left by total, utter silence.

Getting there

Regular flights go from Jakarta to Wakatobi airport on the island of Wangi-Wangi via Kendari or Bau Bau.

Lion Air also recently launched direct flights from Jakarta to Wangi-Wangi, though they only go on certain days. Boats leave every morning between 9-11 a.m. from Wangi-Wangi to Kaledupa.

They cost about $5 and take two hours. From Kaledupa, small fishing boats take passengers across a strait to Hoga Island.

Accommodation: For a no-hassle splurge, travelers can board a charter flight from Bali direct to the Wakatobi Dive Resort, a luxury eco stay on Tolandano island with plush villas, spa services and a yacht that can personalize dive cruises.

There is only one place to stay on Hoga Island, the Tukangbesi Dive Resort. It's pleasant, affordable and includes food and daily scuba diving packages.

During the summer months guests can also rent cottages through Operation Wallacea

The fully-equpped dive center on Tomia also offers basic bungalows.

Sara has lived in Thailand and Cambodia and currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She likes to keep moving and uses these pages to write about the exciting things she learns along the way.

Read more about Sara Schonhardt
CNN Partner Hotels

Executive Access

Whether you're looking for a post-meeting pint or a wild night out, creativity is on the menu at these hot Hong Kong venues