Renowned American UW-photo pro and liveaboard operator Mark Strickland was recently in Wakatobi and has written a report about his experiences and discoveries at Wakatobi Resort, Indonesia.

Wakatobi Impressions
By Mark Strickland
Wakatobi Resort, S.E. Sulawesi, IndonesiaIndonesia
From the moment we entered the water for our check-out dive, I could see why Wakatobi's "house reef" is so highly acclaimed. From the thriving seagrass and healthy corals of the shallows to prolific sponges and crinoids on the wall to the abundance of friendly, colorful reef fish, it was obvious that we were diving an exceptional place. And, situated within a few steps of the resort, it couldn't be more convenient. Actually, the house reef is so good that I was tempted to spend every dive right there, as many guests choose to do. However, there are over a dozen other top-notch sites in the area, all of which are worth exploring as well. At one especially stunning site called "Blade", a coral-covered, razor-back ridge creates a series of spectacular pinnacles that rise from great depths to within six meters of the surface. Other sites feature gradual slopes, plunging drop-offs, and expansive coral gardens. One characteristic found at all Wakatobi's sites is among the rarest of marine treasures-truly pristine coral reefs.

The unusually healthy condition of these reefs is due partly to their official designation as a National Marine Park. The biggest factor, however, is the vision and tireless efforts of owner Lorenz Mader. Together with his wife Renee, Lorenz and the Wakatobi staff have made it their personal mission to preserve this special area. By working together with the government and the local people, they have achieved a tremendous accomplishment. While establishing and maintaining this eco-friendly dive resort, they have played a crucial role in protecting one of the world's best remaining coral reef systems.

Prior to my visit, I had heard many glowing reports about Wakatobi's unspoiled reefs, and I certainly was not disappointed. What took me by surprise, however, was the tremendous diversity of marine life. After 8000 plus dives and years of dive travel, I've been fortunate to encounter many rare and unusual creatures. And yet, during my stay at Wakatobi, I saw a number of critters that were completely new to me. One especially exciting find was a species that's been near the top of my "wish list" for as long as I can remember-a Halameda ghost pipefish. Actually there were two of them, tucked into an alcove on the house reef, blending in perfectly with a patch of Halameda algae. Other highlights included robust ghost pipefish, flourescent purple squat lobsters, mushroom coral pipefish, leaf scorpionfish, flashlight fish, blue-ringed octopus, at least 3 different kinds of pigmy sea horses, mandarinfish, soft coral crabs, allied cowries, countless varieties of flatworms and nudibranchs, and the list goes on.

I would have been happy enough just to experience Wakatobi's impressive reef scenery; the great variety of small creatures was a real bonus. As an underwater photographer, this situation was almost too good to be true. And yet, it did present one problem-how to choose the best lens for a particular dive? Fortunately, since most sites feature great scenery and a wide range of small creatures, it's pretty hard to go wrong. If you still can't decide, don't worry; the Wakatobi divemasters post a lens recommendation at least an hour before each upcoming dive.

Healthy reefs and diverse marine life are certainly crucial ingredients for a successful dive resort, and Wakatobi is especially blessed in that department. However, no matter how good the diving is, you still need conscientious staff and competent management for it all to run smoothly. This is another area where Wakatobi shines. From the moment of booking until you are heading home, you know you're in good hands. The base office is a picture of efficiency, promptly answering any questions before the trip, and ensuring that all the endless details are taken care of. At the airport, nothing is left to chance; Wakatobi ground staff are there every step of the way. At the resort, the entire staff functions as a well-practiced team. The local boat crew and domestic staff are superb--somewhat shy, but always ready to help. Niklas, the cook, serves excellent food and caters to individual tastes as much as possible. But the people who impressed me most were the divemasters, Paul, Fred and Sue. Each are extremely professional and competent, and together run a very safe and efficient dive program. At the same time, they never forget that their guests are on holiday, keeping the atmosphere relaxed, casual and extremely friendly. And, they go out of their way to show each guest the kind of diving they came for, whether it means searching for unusual creatures or finding that special scenic vista. Without exception, the entire Wakatobi team made every effort to ensure that our stay was as enjoyable as possible.

It just so happened that my stay at Wakatobi coincided with the terrible events of September 11, as well as the beginning of U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan. Considering the global repercussions of these events, I did initially wonder if in the world's most populous Muslim nation was a good place to be, especially for an American. It is true that demonstrations and anti-Western rallies have occurred in certain parts of Indonesia, and there have been warnings advising travelers to avoid these areas. However, I can honestly say that there was never a moment during my month-long stay in Indonesia when I felt the least bit threatened or uneasy. I'm not saying that caution should be thrown to the wind, but I never experienced even a hint of animosity or anti-Western attitude.

One thing to bear in mind about visiting Wakatobi is that the trip is based out of Bali, which has a very different atmosphere from the rest of Indonesia. Unlike the rest of the country, Bali is a predominantly Hindu culture and has an economy based largely on tourism. Even at times when other regions have experienced unrest, Bali normally manages to stay clear of problems. The island depends on tourism, and the Balinese certainly don't want anything going on that might discourage visitors. And, there are plenty of direct international flights to Bali; it is not necessary to go through Jakarta. As for Wakatobi itself, the locals there have enjoyed a very warm and beneficial relationship with the resort and with visitors in general. I never saw the slightest indication of animosity towards tourists, nor could I imagine it in the future.

International travel will probably never be quite as easy and carefree as it was before September 11, and travelers are wise to give serious thought before traveling to certain parts of the world. However, considering that visiting Wakatobi does not require going to any "problem areas", I would not hesitate to do the trip again--now, or at any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, I would jump at the chance!

Sincerely, Mark Strickland - U.S.A. / Thailand


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