Nearly every article I’ve read about Wakatobi begins with an invocation of Jacques Cousteau, said to have described the islands and their surrounding waters as an “underwater Nirvana.” I’ve never been able to find the direct quote, but the flavor of the legend. Everything about Wakatobi is hyperbolic — from the world-class diving to the staff and accommodations. It seems natural that the benediction of the godfather of diving is part of that mythos.
Nirvana is a word for a transcendent state of consciousness, a place of perfect peace and happiness. If Wakatobi is a Nirvana, its patron deity must surely be Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles. From the house reef up, every facet of the experience seems explicitly designed to anticipate the needs of divers, to create a perfect setting for the jewel of the sea. Unburdened of the practical complications of dive travel, what is left is the comfort, adventure, and community.
After a long series of international flights, my first manifestation of Ganesh’s beneficence was Made, waiting at the airport in Denpasar even though it was past midnight. In a turquoise Wakatobi t-shirt bearing an iPad emblazoned with my name, he was easy to spot. He helped me to a place at the baggage carousel, then was off to look for one other passenger he was waiting to greet. After escorting us to the airport hotel, Made pulled some strings with the management to let me hang out in their lounge and use their WiFi until the morning. Within an hour of landing, all the challenges of navigating a strange airport late at night were effortlessly dispatched, and I was still a thousand kilometers from the resort!
In the morning Made collected me and we swept through security to a luxe lounge boasting showers, electrical outlets, and a buffet of local breakfast foods. In short, everything one might need to recharge. Next, it was onto the sixty-person mini-jet to Tomia. This was a hot towel and cozy blankets kind of flight, and I had my whole row and the overhead bin all to myself. With a choice of beef or chicken sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, and salad served with a cloth napkin, even the food was top shelf (not a thing I often say about airline fare).
Three hours later, we touched down on the airstrip at Tomia and were ushered straight from the plane to a small fleet of air-conditioned passenger vans to be delivered in comfort to the dock. We slipped single-file down the gangplank onto Waka V, the open boat that would take us to the resort on the small island of Tolondano.
The staff welcomed us aboard with tumblers of cold watermelon juice and relieved us of our luggage, promising we’d find it in our rooms later that day. Having dragged it myself from San Diego via LA, Guangzhou, and Bali, I abandoned my gear with wanton relief. Our personal dive guides sat us down for a friendly conversation about our dive experience, our preferences, and what we hoped to get from our experience at Wakatobi. When you visit, take advantage of this time to tell your guide if you’re dying to see a mantis shrimp, for instance, or aren’t comfortable diving at night.
On-island, they encouraged us to shuck our shoes and sink our toes into the coarse white sand, and once I’d taken that excellent advice, my shoes spent a relaxing week lounging on the porch of my bungalow. This was their view from the front door.
The raised porch featured a pair of banquettes facing each other, flanked by a personal hammock suspended nearby. Inside, the room was paneled in dark wood with billowing white bed hangings, and a headboard complete with reading lamps and USB chargers. There was even a small collection of coffee table books on local species! The bathroom had a deep stone basin and a bidet, but the shower was a major attraction. Set into the right angle made by the bedroom and bathroom was a high-walled outdoor rain shower with a drying rack for towels and wet swimsuits. Over the course of the week, I took showers in all sorts of conditions — under the high noonday sun, on overcast afternoons after a day of diving, and in the dark of night with the stars peeking between the leaves of the tropical trees. One blustery morning, I took a shower during a thunderstorm!
In addition to ocean-view bungalows like mine, there are others tucked in among the tropical trees, as well as ultra-luxurious villas. These feature gigantic glass-walled showers and personal infinity pools set into hardwood decks with a view of the sea. The housekeeping staff keeps everything in tip top shape, visiting a couple times a day. It’s not unusual to come back from a meal to find your shades were drawn and your toilet paper folded, with an elaborate origami towel swan gracing the foot of your bed.
To begin to understand what makes Wakatobi so special, start with a map. Find the island nation of Indonesia and look to the east for an amoebic landmass called Sulawesi. At the very tip of its southeastern peninsula are the Tukangbesi, a chain of little islands that make up Wakatobi National Park. As remote as it may seem to us, here lies the throbbing heart of the Coral Triangle — one of the most biodiverse places in all the world. This is the Banda sea, which according to The Nature Conservancy can support up to 280 unique coral species in a single reef. And where there’s coral there’s other wildlife…to the tune of 1,728 species of reef fish. That’s what you come halfway around the world to see.
They ease you into the eighty degrees F (26.6 C) water gently, starting with a relaxed dive along the House Reef. One of the smiling staff carried my gear to the end of the jetty to a set of wooden stairs leading directly into the water. After a mini-refresher with a patient dive pro named Jaka to evaluate and refresh my basic safety skills, it was time to brave the grueling three-meter surface swim to the edge of the reef. So many obstacles — thick wetsuit, extra lead, hauling gear, (potentially) rusty diving habits and long surface swims — vanquished! There are even taxi boats that can drop you upstream if there’s a current, or pick you up when you’re too exhausted to make the surface swim back to the beach.
The Wakatobi House Reef is packed with life in so many different forms, I couldn’t even begin to catalog them all. Jaka and his magic slate were invaluable, teaching me where to look for different creatures and identifying ones I didn’t recognize.
Once I had the knack, I began to see bubble corals with their tiny shrimp tenants everywhere, to recognize gaudy featherstars spangling the seascape, and to spot the strangely iridescent Valonia ventricosa — a giant single-celled algae more commonly called sea pearl, but sometimes known by the gruesome moniker Sailor’s eyeball. It was on this dive that I saw my very first wild lionfish, first a bright and frilly juvenile darting close among the coral and later a giant adult that sailed sedately past like a parade float in the water column.
Hands down, this was the most beautiful dive I’d ever been on. And this was just dive one, snuck in after lunch on the Monday I arrived. From then on, the diving was mostly from the deck of Waka VI, one of several day boats like the one that ferried us from Tomia, each with their own unique itinerary. There are at fifty-seven dive sites in the area, some of which are different points along continuous reefs, and singular others which are much farther afield. I did nine dives in four days of diving, and something remarkable happened on almost every single one. For those with the time and the capital, I highly recommend spending a week on the Pelagian, Wakatobi’s dive yacht, equipped to take up to ten guests to the remotest sites in incomprehensible luxury.
Some standouts among the fauna included banded sea kraits, snaggle-toothed stargazers, blue-spotted rays, sea turtles, and the hypnotic pulsing xenia coral with its clusters of white polyps clenching and unclenching like tiny fists. The garden eels at Tuluk Maya were a delightful surprise, and even the walk along the jetty offered up a pair of white mouth moray eels poking their heads out of holes in the stone wall. An aptly-named site called Galaxy produced the most alien of creatures — a bizarre salp, transparent and shaped like an Atomic Age rocket dragging a tail of budded clones behind it through the water. Wakatobi is also known for three of its very exotic, but very shy residents — pygmy seahorses, cuttlefish, and the elusive blue-ringed octopus.
I did both a night and a day dive at a shallow bowl-shaped site called Tuluk Maya. The night dive was no great shakes, but that was entirely on me — I was task-loaded with too much equipment at a new site at night. I should’ve done myself a favor and left the camera behind, but it did give me a chance to check out the fluo diving for which Wakatobi is famous. I brought two fluo lights to try on my own, but for divers who want to book a formal fluo dive the resort furnishes the lights and an experienced guide for some extra illumination.
While it’s designed with divers in mind, Wakatobi has plenty of nirvana to offer their dry-gilled loved ones. There are spa services, nature walks, Bahasa Indonesia language classes, cooking courses, stand-up paddleboarding, kiteboarding, and of course snorkeling along the top of the House Reef (divers are allowed to do these things, too).
Wakatobi even offers age-appropriate childcare, from nannies for infants to activity leaders for older children. I met one young lady who had already visited the island with her parents, and was returning after her tenth birthday to finish her checkout dives and become a certified junior diver!
Every night dark clouds would gather low on the horizon, occasionally split by dazzling forks of lighting. The spiraling arm of the Milky Way arched indifferently overhead, dense with stars that don’t have to compete with urban light pollution. Even stargazing is easier here! My first evening, as I stared awestruck into space, one of those stars abandoned its spot in the sky and began to drift in dizzy loops toward the treeline. Not a star at all then, but a lone firefly! Once I’d scraped my jaw up off the floor, I rolled my eyes — Okay, Wakatobi, I get it, you’re amazing. Wakatobi had the last word, though, with a flamboyant rainbow over breakfast the next morning.
And yet, for all the natural splendor on every side, one of the most profound and unexpected things about Wakatobi is the quality of the people you meet there. Such an extraordinary environment seems to bring out the best in visitors and staff. I visited Wakatobi solo, but before long was surrounded by old friends. Once the ice is broken with a big fish story, it’s easy to connect with people from all over the world. There really must be something in the water, because this place attracts the best of everything and makes it as easy as possible for you to enjoy.
What You Need To Know
The private charter plane to Wakatobi leaves from Denpasar, Bali on Mondays and Fridays (though not every Friday). As little as 16 hours from London, 18-21 from LAX, and a short seven from Sydney, there are two things to know about Ngurah Rai International Airport. One, it closes down at night, so even if you fly in late get a hotel room — this is not an airport where you can post up somewhere and catch a layover catnap. Second, twice a year the whole place closes down for an entire day in observance of Nyepi, a Hindu holiday that calls for island-wide silence. Schedule your trip accordingly!
When to Go
There is no bad time to go to Wakatobi. Year-round, the weather and water are gorgeous. I overheard a dive pro divulge that autumn is the time to maximize remarkable animal encounters — as the water cools, many of the more bashful denizens will venture up from the depths to within diving range.
Souvenirs, supplies from the shop, and extra amenities are billed in Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). The exchange rate is roughly 1 USD/13,284 IDR/.9 EUR so you may want to download a currency exchange app to help you keep track of all the decimal places.
Where to Eat
Tolondano is tiny, home only to the resort and a local village, so the house restaurant is your main dining option. It’s open on three sides to let in the breeze and views of the ocean (and the occasional wandering monitor lizard), the dining area also incorporates a number of outdoor tables for those that like to dine al fresco. Served buffet-style, the food is a wide selection of both traditional Indonesian fare and international staples. Our first lunch offered a selection of gazpacho, tuna olive tapenade, chicken pancetta, Thai noodle salad, and a red bean tortilla.The staff are friendly and attentive and remembered my name from the first meal on-island. By the second day, they knew my drink order.
Pro Tip: A few weeks before your visit, the resort will email you a questionnaire where you can note any special dietary requirements. I understood this as an opportunity to let the staff know if you’re a vegetarian or have any food allergies, but it can be so much more. One group I noticed was drinking Pepsi though the restaurant serves Coke. They had requested Pepsi on their intake form, and the staff brought in a supply from the mainland!
Where to Dive
Anywhere. There are over fifty different locations to dive in Waktobi, including the House Reef just steps from your door. I visited seven of those — and heard tell of many more, including the Blade, a deep dive which is rumored to be the only place to reliably see sharks… You’ll be assigned to one of the Wakas, each of which has its own schedule of sites, though if you have a particular preference it’s worth asking. The staff seems eager to do everything they can to help fulfill your wishes. For underwater photographers, there’s a climate controlled camera room, a photo pro to help you develop your skills or troubleshoot your gear. The dive guides are trained to be human tripods, and even teach you a special hand signal to let them know you want to take a photo!
A Note on Unplugging
While there is WiFi available in every room, it may be slower than you’re used to. In order to ensure guests can access the internet, the resort imports the signal via satellite and bandwidth is limited. You may also notice the absence of a television in your room, but with all the great food, wonderful people, and unparalleled diving…I’m betting you don’t.
Find Out More
You can find out more about Wakatobi and how to book by visiting their website – www.wakatobi.com.