Wakatobi: The Resort

Wakatobi is a stunning resort. It’s set in remote Southeast Sulawesi on a little island with nothing else except a little village accompanying it nearby. The water was always a beautiful deep blue, proof of the clear water that heralded good visibility on all our diving days. The resort consists of a longhouse for a reception area, media room and library/lounge with small huts scattered round as guest rooms. They have beautiful luxurious villas too, complete with private swimming pool and direct beach access, which alas we couldn’t afford.

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One jetty is all you need for a resort this intimate, especially when there’s a bar right at the end.

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But wait, more important is the restaurant nestled in the greenery round the bend of the island.

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It’s has an open verandah concept with buffet service, which is great for busy times especially at breakfast and lunch when people don’t linger too long as there’s beautiful diving ahead.

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The food was pretty varied and inventive considering that it had all been flown in together with us. Only the fish and local vegetables were sourced in the area. Breakfast the usual selection of cereals, fruit, baked items, eggs done any style and pancakes made in front of you. Lunch was slightly more lavish, with a good selection of appetisers and salad, hot mains with both western and Indonesian selections and daily pasta (gnocchi, ravioli, et al) made to order. It was a pity that the Indonesian food was completely non-spicy, but the awesome sambal ulek made up for it. Dinner was were they pulled out the stops, with exciting appetisers such as super fresh tuna sashimi, deep-fried prawns wrapped in noodles (done dim sum style) and feta cheese and tomato profiteroles. This was followed by a good selection of western and asian mains. What we looked forward to was always the night’s roast. Memorable ones were the chicken done Indonesian-style, the meltingly tender lamb ribs (best I’ve had in a long time), and the tasty beef roast. There was also a nightly station that served up something interesting, like vegetable tempura cooked to order, sop daging, or crepes suzette flamed to order. Desserts were decent too, with at least one local option reminiscent of the kueh kueh we get in Singapore.

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Accompanying the delightful food was a delightful view of the ocean and amazingly warm and attentive service. One night, we sat outside under the stars on the beach for a romantic dinner. I grabbed a sop daging from the soup station and forgot to take a spoon. Before I could get up to take one, a waiter had come round, scanned our table in the dim lighting, and come straight back with a spoon. There people are mind readers! They were always so helpful and eager to please, yet not ingratiatingly so. Lovely!

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Most evenings we were at the resort enjoying the sunset. There were plenty of deck chairs and seats under umbrellas to lounge at…

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… but we preferred to go to the jetty bar…

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… where we ordered strong but rather bad cocktails at US$10-12 each. That’s the only thing that’s remotely worth complaining about. The good thing is that we saved money by not ordering anymore after that!

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And now for the room. We stayed in the cheapest option: the garden bungalow, which was more than enough to meet our needs. I somehow forgot to take a picture of the outside, each hut on stilts had a little sand garden with two deck chairs to lounge at and an ample front balcony to sit at and to hang wet gear. The inside had a canopied king-size bed where the staff expressed their creativity in towel art.

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Check out this cute monkey. I was so sad when I sat on the bed and it toppled over. But that didn’t detract from the comfortable stay we had, of course. The housekeeping staff were very sweet too, sending us an extra jug of water “just in case” when we were out of drinking water.

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Each night before going to bed, we made sure that we analysed our tanks for the next day’s diving with nitrox. This is a special blend with more oxygen so that we could stay slightly deeper for longer. There was plenty of space in the clean and well-organised dive centre and the place was so well-run that even our individual cups were washed and then topped up at the start of each day. We didn’t even need to fill them ourselves!

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And the diving? Before each dive, there was a briefing complete with hand-drawn map of the dive site and explanation of the currents and what to expect in the 70 minuteswe were underwater (yup you didn’t see wrong, dives here are looooong).

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And here’s a teaser to show you what it’s like, stay tuned!

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Back to Tulamben: Nudibranchs

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And we conclude this series on Tulamben with a tribute to the nudibranch. There was no shortage of them at Tulamben, we even saw their ribbon-like masses of eggs occasionally.

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They came in all sorts of colours, from the usual white with coloured trimmings, such this one…

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… to those that looked like bits of bubblegum.

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There were a few that came in pairs, exhibiting the trailing behaviour of one hanging on to the tail of the other in making contact.

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There were others that made head-to-head contact, so I wonder whether it was a precursor to any mating action. In any case, these fellas move so slowly I’ll probably have run out of air before anything happened, so it was just as well that I moved on.

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We were pleased to have spotted a nudibranch that Wayan had never seen before. This warty fellow seems rather well placed to camouflage itself amongst the coral and sand, it’s no surprise it’d not been seen before. I’m sure Wayan will start looking out for it more from now on, and perhaps it could end up being a new species named after him!

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Other nudibranchs were more quotidian, like this yellow, white and black one, looking quite like most of the ones we see while diving in waters nearer to home.

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Some were unusual for me, like this red one. I’ve not seen a red nudibranch before, I don’t think.

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And others, like this, made me torn between liking them for their delicate contours and cute colouring, and turning away in disgust because the yellow splotches made me think it had a skin disease.

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Whatever the case, nudibranchs reminded me that slowing down helps you to get good shots on the camera, and that slowly but surely does it, just like how this one ended up where it was.

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And that was the end of our sojourn to Tulamben in Bali.

Back to Tulamben: The Small Ones

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I have a very soft spot for the little creatures and DC was constantly waiting about for me to finish lying in wait for one small creature or another to emerge or stay still enough to photograph, such as this hawkfish.

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I was very happy to see quite a few hawkfish there, like this pixy hawkfish with the tasseled dorsal fins.

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Then there were the ornate ghost pipefish. It’s normally quite a rare fish to spot, but we saw plenty here. This one is fairly young, as can be seen from its wispy tail.

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Then we got some nice young adult specimens like this.

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And finally some of the older, darker coloured ones that looked less delicate than the younger fellas.

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We also found some of its close cousins, the robust ghost pipefish. They were well camouflaged, looking like brown leaves floating just above the sandy bottom.

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Another of my favourites is the pink anemonefish. Here, one shyly looks up as another dodges away from the camera.

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I don’t know how rare these spine-cheek anemonefish are, but I was delighted to find them as I’d never seen them outside of the fish books before.

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Check out the weird spine jutting out from its cheek!

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Other anemonefish had eggs! This is really rare anywhere else, but every trip to Tulamben I’ve seen fish eggs. Have I told you yet how much I love diving at Tulamben?

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It was really sweet to see how the parent tended the eggs so carefully.

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There were other fish with eggs too, like this sergeant major fish. I think it was really cool how the eggs are purple.

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This fish had laid its eggs on the walls of the wreck, and we ascended to an entire expanse of sergeant majors guarding their own eggs. A wonderful sight.

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Then there were the juvenile fish, like this baby emperor angelfish.

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I like how striking it is, looking like a kid got a white marker and drew circles on the fish.

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Other juvenile fish were less pristine, like this bannerfish that made it out of a bigger fish’s jaws just in the nick of time. Poor guy.

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Of course other juveniles do much better, like this batfish, looking much more elongated than its adult self.

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There were other fish that remained small even as they reached adulthood. One of them is a superstar of the diving world – the pygmy seahorse.

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It was almost impossible to get good shots of this shy creature half the size of a fingernail, especially when it turned its back to the camera and resolutely looked away.

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Still, no trip to Tulamben would be complete without a couple of pictures of these, imperfect or not.

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Back to Tulamben: Crustaceans

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There were a whole load of crustaceans around in Tulamben. Considering that we hardly did any night dives, which is when they typically come out to play, it is again a testament to the great diving at Tulamben that we saw so manyof them.

Here’s a brightly coloured coral crab under its anemone house. It’s a wonder it doesn’t get eaten that easily, its colour is so vivid.

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Even more brightly coloured were the peacock mantis shrimp, its inquisitive eyes jutting out quizzically.

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It’s when the mantis shrimp is in side profile that one understands why it’s called that, for its tail has the pretty colours of a peacock.

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We revisited startling specimens such as this orang utan crab, something you wouldn’t typically expect of something underwater, let along a crab.

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It’s almost impossible to bring one of these into sharp focus, as it’s so hard to tell whether the fuzz is caught sharply or not.

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There were also plenty of shrimp, like this imperial shrimp. It’s amazing how transparent its body is.

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I guess the transparency is how it camouflages itself, especially when young. Check out how the young one is so much harder to spot than the full-size one.

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There’s another type of mantis shrimp, the smashing mantis shrimp that hides in its hole waiting for unsuspecting prey to go past.

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Here, I admire the bravery of these hingeback shrimp. They’re so close to the smashing mantis shrimp’s home that it’s impossible for the bigger one to catch the smaller ones. Nothing like being too close for comfort here!

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Then again, these little shrimp are so tiny it’s hard to see how they’d make a dent in any sizeable creature’s stomach.

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Still, they are very pretty and it’s fun to get in close to catch a good shot of this attractive orange shrimp.

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One of my favourites, as regular readers would know, is the harlequin shrimp and again Tulamben didn’t disappoint. We saw this adorable pair posing as orchids.

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It’s really cute how they strutted and posed about.

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There were also some lobsters and these were incredibly well-camouflaged amongst the featherstars. Check out the yellow one here…

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… and the red one here.

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It’s hard to believe how sharp Wayan’s eyes were in spotting these.

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Easier to spot but much harder to spot were the goby shrimp, who spent their days pushing sand out of burrows guarded by gobies. At any movement at all, the goby would dart back into the hole, and of course the shrimp would dart in at the first twitch of the goby’s tail.

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Last of all in this series of crustaceans is this shell of sorts. I have no idea what it is. If anyone can identify it, I’d be really grateful.

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Back to Tulamben: Bottom Dwellers

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There were lots of creatures living on the bottom, whether on the bottom of a part of the wreck or on the sea floor proper. One of them was the relatively hard-to-spot snowflake moray eel with its startled expression.

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Other eels included the ribbon eel, like this yellow female…

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… and this black juvenile.

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Ribbon eels have a characteristic way of moving in and out of their holes, probably partly moving with the surge and partly to act like a lure for its prey.

Yet other eels we saw were the incredibly shy garden eels. It was impossible to get any closer without chasing them back into their holes.

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I think these are spotted garden eels, but it’s difficult to tell without a close up picture.

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Moving away from the eels, there were other fish that live in holes, like this goby…

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… and this yellowbarred jawfish with its characteristic yellow mark on its eye.

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Then there were the fish that simply sat on the bottom, never being found more than a few centimetres off the coral. Case in point is the leaf scorpionfish.

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At Tulamben, we found the white variation…

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… the yellow variation…

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… and a red variation. Such was the multitude of fish at Tulamben, it was a fish photo collector’s paradise.

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We were also lucky to find a rather hard to find ocellated frogfish. This tiny fella was about an inch or so long and we find him while battling a unexpected strong current. Too bad we weren’t able to stay for too long as I’d certainly like to get a better shot of him.

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And last of all was this deeply depressing stonefish. It’s almost perfectly camouflaged, with only its glum downturned mouth to give itself away.

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Back to Tulamben: Of Coral, Crevices and Cleaning Stations

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There was plenty of very healthy coral in Tulamben as usual. And there was occasionally very blue and clear water.

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We were lucky to catch a small school of razorfish passing by…

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… and were even luckier to discover an electric clam in a crevice on one of the walls of the wreck. Check out the blue-white lines on the clam – those are the electric bits. I wouldn’t advise putting a finger anywhere close!

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Other things in crevices included this octopus that didn’t make any attempt to conceal itself.

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All it did was to curl its bulbous head in a bit more to look like a giant, doleful nose.

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Another one was far less gregarious. I wouldn’t call this one shy, given its evil eye peering malevolently from its hole.

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Cleaning stations had plenty of crevices too. Here, many different types of shrimp were proffering their services, including this one coming right up to my hand. It tried to give my glove a good clean, but in vain.

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Others had more business with this giant moray eel, giving it a good dental check up.

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Some were so zealous about their job that they went into the jaws of the eel quite fearlessly. And the eel never bothered trying to eat it.

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The shrimp obviously had to be quite smart in getting out before the eel’s jaw closed, just like this one making the eel look rather foolish.

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Wayan did a reprise of the last trip and demonstrated how the shrimp would even go into his mouth with sufficient coaxing. Here’s an incredible action shot of not one but two (!) shrimp making a beeline for his lunch leftovers.

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And here they are making sure they’re doing a thorough job. Wayan kept at this till he could hold his breath no longer.

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The show was over and we went on to the next cleaning station. Here, a shrimp took a breather atop a coral grouper’s head before going back into its mouth for more dental action.

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And a midnight snapper waits its turn, mouth open in anticipation of the cleaning to come.

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Back to Tulamben: The Wreck

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I’d greatly enjoyed my last trip diving in Bali and I knew DC would love it as much as I did. It was a no-brainer to choose Tulamben and Tulamben Wreck Divers. Tulamben has the fabulous Liberty wreck and other fantastic dive sites that are just off the beach (hence no long boat rides and the chance to return to the room for an afternoon nap), and TWD has excellent guides like the eagle-eyed Wayan.

The wreck itself is fairly broken up, so it’s impossible to have an idea of its size just from one picture. Here’s part of the inside where a portion of its hull came to rest tilted on its side.

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It’s not often that we come up close to the resident great barracuda. My last trip, I only caught a glimpse of him once and it was the same this time round. A group of us practically came nose to nose with him in one of the chambers of the wreck. You can just about make out its ferocious teeth. Pardon the poor picture quality, I was still testing the camera.

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Other visible bits of the wreck included a boiler valve encrusted with coral, and I tried to get some pictures of me trying to turn the valve, but in vain.

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Residents of the wreck included plenty of bumphead parrotfish. When we went in September, it seemed like the season. We saw them on a lot of dives at the wreck and not just in the early morning.

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This one in particular was easy to approach as it rested on the bottom. It didn’t seem fazed by the big SLR at all.

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This poor fella was probably sick and in need of some serious cleaning from the blue-streak wrasse here, hence not quite caring whether anyone took its photo.

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We caught some other less-sick fish being cleaned, like this blue-spotted stingray bulging out from the bottom in its characteristic way, signalling that it was open for cleaning.

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Tulamben’s black sand gave cover to all sorts of strange fish, like this peacock flounder just about concealing itself. Only its bulbous pair of eyes gives the game away, thereafter its shape becomes apparent.

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Similarly given away by its bulging eyes was this dragonet.

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It reared up as I got closer, but not close enough to see exactly what type of dragonet it was.

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Beyond the wreck, there were other things to see, just not that often, like this blackfin barracuda.

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There was also the occasional squid, seen from afar. Squid tend to be very shy and it’s not easy to get a shot of one especially in the day time.

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But the most exciting thing about the blue was the occasional treat of fish schooling above the wreck, like these jacks starting to form a tornado.

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It’s quite exciting when you see a bunch of them forming up, I always wonder exactly how many fish end up inside that tornado.

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It’s such an amazing thing watching them congregate and almost block out the light.

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A Quick Trip to Redang: Life Goes On in the Reef

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We didn’t have great visibility for most dives and the colours weren’t very good at all. Low visibility tends to tinge everything green. Still, we managed to see some interesting creatures, like this green turtle poking around in the coral.

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One morning, we were treated to a  herd of bumphead parrotfish on their morning breakfast foray. This big guy came right up to us to check if we were chompable enough. He soon realised that we weren’t yummy coral and joined the rest of his herd.

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And off they sailed, back into the murky water in search of their breakfast.

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One thing that astounded me this trip was the first time I saw pomfret underwater, and in large schools no less.

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We were minding our own business doing the usual reef tour and suddenly we came up to an alcove of sorts and found them schooling in the thousands. It was an incredible sight. I must confess that I was trying to figure out whether they were the white or silver pomfret and whether we could catch any for dinner.

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We stayed there for ages simply gawking at the sight of so many fish in the same area, marvelling that there was enough oxygen in the water to keep them going.

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My fish ID book calls them diamondfish, and the tend to school in shallow waters close to silty areas. What a bonus for diving in a low visibility period.

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September in Bali: A Mucky Secret

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The other highlight of being in Permuteran was diving at Secret Bay. I don’t think it’s that big a secret anymore, but not as many divers go there. It’s a muck diving place, meaning that less of the casual divers and more of the serious divers go there. Why? Because muck diving is all about diving in places with less than white sand and very little coral. The atmosphere can be very depressing because of the low light and poor visibility conditions. Nonetheless, there are plenty of weird and wonderful creatures to see.

I strongly suspect this to be the Kodipungi lionfish, with its separated pectoral fin rays. It’s so beautiful and flamboyant against the dull grey sand.

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What surprised me next was the Banggai cardinalfish, something that is supposed to be very rare. When I’d last dived in Manado, I was told that these fish were only found at Banggai Island and the Lembeh Strait. Balderdash!

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Their blue-black colouration with the almost fluorescent white spots was mesmerising.

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There were also plenty of razorfish among the sea urchins. They were funny creatures that seemed to stand upside down on their noses to hunt for food.

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When pursued, they’d turn ninety degrees so they could make a quick getaway, but were otherwise always nose to the ground.

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Another rare find was the hispid frogfish. It was hilarious how each had a disarmingly charming white pompom on its forehead. This pompom acted like a lure to bring in prey. In a gulp, the poor fish would be gone.

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Another odd fish was the cockatoo waspfish that liked to pretend to be a leaf swaying in the water. Very strange.

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Less strange was this octopus that (for good reason) refused to budge from its hole. The best I could do was to take a blurred shot of its tentacles. Pity.

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Other inhabitants of this freakish side show include the striped puffer with its dark blotch around the base of its pectoral fins making it look recessed and mutated.

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Reflecting the green seaweed was this unidentified goby. It would’ve been difficult to spot if it was just a few inches into the seaweed.

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Easier to identify was the spotted shrimpgoby with its distinctive white iris and black markings. It was surprisingly how I managed to get close enough without startling the shrimpgoby.

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Almost completely camouflaged until it started moving was this peacock flounder with its weirdly asymmetrical eyes.

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Another well-camouflaged fish was this orange and black dragonet, its only giveaway the orange lips.

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There were more – this crocodile flathead, if left alone, would soon change colour to blend in with the sand below.

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There was also this really ugly pipefish that looked like a piece of random trash in the water. No wonder it’s called muck diving.

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Secret Bay was one of the few places where I saw full-sized seahorses, like this thorny seahorse. I was so thrilled by this find! Even though we’re told that pygmy seahorses are very rare, somehow I feel that full-sized ones are even more so because guides tend not to look out for them. What a great find.

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Another unexpected find was this whole pile of schooling catfish in the wreck of a little rowboat.

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Even more surprising was this ornate ghost pipefish floating along obliviously above the seething mass of catfish.

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Other than that, there was a truly horrifying sea centipede, another first for me (and hopefully last).

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And then there were the ubiquitous nudibranchs, though this time nothing I’ve seen before again.

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Check out this scrum of beautiful blue and yellow ones too. Lovely huh.

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And rounding things off, here’s a video of something not seen that often – a white-eye moray eel out of its hole in search of prey. Enjoy.

September in Bali: Menjangan Island

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I was in Permuteran to dive two very different locations. The first was Menjangan Island, also known as the island of the deer. To get there, we had to abide by a whole bunch of rules. I like multi-coloured signs like this and I especially liked the rather paternalistic exhortation to make sure all your diving equipment was attached securely to your body.

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While the diving at Menjangan Island wasn’t quite as spectacular as the other places I’d dived for this trip, it was very relaxing as there weren’t any challenging currents. The water was beautifully blue as usual and while there weren’t as many pelagics, there was still the odd gem or two. This yellow-spotted trevally was one of them.

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Here also was the second time in my diving career I saw a school of squid in broad daylight. The last time I saw a school of squid, it was my first dive. It took more than a hundred dives to see them again.

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Closer to the reef were plenty of longfin batfish. Here, they seemed almost excessively friendly, changing quickly from their day colours…

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… to night colours as they came in close, as they did when wanting to be cleaned.

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For some really odd reason, one of them swam right up to me, as if it was expecting me to do the cleaning honours for it.

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There were plenty of parrotfish around. I’m surprised how little photographed these fish are. I think it’s something to do with how shy they are and how they just don’t stay put in one place.

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There were others like this grouper that I can’t find in my fish ID book…

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… and more familiar ones like this Indian doublebar goatfish hovering over some coral.

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Some of the fish came in schools, like the two-spot snappers in their brownish grey raiment.

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Others were more solitary, like one of my all-time favourites, the juvenile harlequin sweetlips. I can’t get enough of its unique polka dot pattern.

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Some fish lived in crevices, like this yellowbarred jawfish emerging in search of prey.

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Others like this fire dartfish seemed to simply hover in one place posing for the camera.

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There were other fish that lived in crevices, and some of these you won’t want to get too close to. This fimbriated moray eel is one good example.

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Some were small and really difficult to get close to, like the goby. I can’t tell for sure whether this is a common ghostgoby.

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I think this is a large (!) whip goby but as usual, I can’t be sure.

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Other fish are much more easily identified, like these panda clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemonefish. They were so at home among the stinging anemones…

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… as was this anemone shrimp.

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Rather camera-shy was this hermit crab, which hid its face swiftly under its shell as the camera clicked.

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And then the ones that didn’t seem shy at all – the nudibranchs. I saw a white flabellina that seemed to mimic the coral it was on.

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There were others that were even more unidentifiable, like this strange blue one with an orange and white strip outlined by deep blue running down the middle.

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I tried to take some nudibranch portraits, some not quite coming out as I’d like as the flash refused to fire.

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And others came out much better, with a pensive, slightly lonesome feel that seems quite at odds with the experience of being a nudibranch, perhaps.

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