A few years ago, Deborah and I went around the World on an extended dive vacation; that trip was so wonderful, we decided to do another. The fact that now both of us are retired made it much simpler. On this trip, we first flew to Bali, then to Wakatobi for a week, back to Bali where we boarded the Komodo Dancer for seven days, and then on to the Seychelles for a twelve-day trip on the Indian Ocean Explorer to Aldabra before returning home via London - six weeks on the road. I've divided this report up into three sections (Wakatobi, Komodo Dancer, Indian Ocean Explorer) and will link them together so I can post lots of pictures without it taking too long to load any one part.
Our trip started out from LAX. The hell-that-is-TSA was simply awful - go stand in this interminable line to get your luggage screened, then go back to the ticket counter to check in, then go to the back of an even longer line to have your carry-on luggage X-rayed and your body scanned for any metal objects. No wonder the airlines ask you be at the airport three hours before your flight. Anyway, enough ranting, we survived and made our flight on Singapore Airlines (very nice airline) to Bali via Taipei - thirty hours from LAX to Bali and a day lost crossing the International Date Line.
The International Dateline - I understand the need for some point on the planet's surface where the date arbitrarily must change, but each time I cross the blasted line, my head starts to spin. Going West across the date line, it instantly becomes tomorrow instead of today. But, doesn't that make present time tomorrow, and yesterday where we just were? Am I missing something? How can now be tomorrow? And, if I go around the World in a Westward direction will I always be a day older? Would it be better to travel East and get younger? If you stood on the line, one part of your body would be in tomorrow and the other part in yesterday... everyone - "Let's do the time warp, again!"
Our travel agent, Sue Pantle (Uncommon Adventures) who accompanied us on the Wakatobi portion of our trip, booked us into the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa in Bali, located on the beach south of the airport. In Bali, we did a day tour of the shops; saw a traditional dance performance; and visited an ancient temple, the rice fields, and the volcano. Handmade crafts are big in Bali and there are shops along every road. They drive on the left hand side of the road with thousands of motorbikes playing "chicken" with the cars and trucks. Don't look, unless you're an adrenaline junkie.
"Followed by his friend the monkey, the tiger comes up. Three masked dancers appear, representing men making palm wine in the forest, whose child [sic] is killed by the tiger. The three men get angry and attack the tiger, which is helped by the monkey. During the fight the nose of one of the three men is bitten off..." The Barong and Kris Dance.
The bombings that took place in Bali by suicide terrorists, two weeks prior to our visit, were unfortunate; the island's tourism had only just recovered after an attack three years ago that killed over two hundred people. IMHO, we were safer in Bali than we would have been commuting to work on the 405-freeway in Los Angeles; well, maybe not on the roads. Unfortunately, many foreigners have now been persuaded to go elsewhere, which can only hurt the peaceful people of Bali. We were warmly greeted everywhere we went and thanked for coming to Bali. Don't let the damned fanatics win, go to Bali, spend your money, and enjoy a beautiful bit of paradise.
One enterprising old man positioned himself near a stunning view of the rice terraces with a couple of rice baskets on a pole and some straw hats waiting for the tourists to take his picture for a small tip. Kirsten paid to pose with him only to find the old man's hands copping a feel! I offered to do it for free, but Deborah said I wasn't allowed - Kirsten is very attractive, married, and about half my age.
Some airline consortiums offer Around-the-World airfares that are competitive price-wise with flying round-trip to far away places. The only limitations are that you must continue traveling in the same direction and you must make a minimum of three stops. If you have the time, it makes a lot of sense to combine several destinations into one trip and maximize the cost of getting there.
The next morning, we flew two-and-a-half hours on a chartered Dash-8 turboprop to the airstrip on Sulawesi; there, we were transported by minibuses to the shore for a twenty-minute boat ride to the resort. Several years ago, before they put in the airstrip, it took two and a half days of boats/buses to get to Wakatobi! It may be more convenient to get there and back these days, but the resort is still on the edge of beyond.
Wakatobi (the name is a combination of several island names) is beautifully situated on the beach of a small island, everyone's vision of a tropical paradise. It consists of 21 bungalows; a long house containing the kitchen, restaurant, camera rooms, and gift shop; and various support buildings. A couple of additional bungalows are planned, with an ultimate, maximum capacity of only 45 guests. There are 140 support personnel working at the resort: dive masters, boat crewmen, kitchen staff, gardeners, etc. Each of the bungalows is roughly 400 square-feet with en suite bathrooms and A/C. The fresh water is desalinated, plentiful, and drinkable.
Internet access is available, both in the long house and individual bungalows, for a fee. The connection is slow, but adequate to send email to the folks back home.
Guests are required to do a "check-out" dive to demonstrate mask flood/clearing and buddy breathing. I don't know how many newbies they get, but it seemed an unnecessary requirement to me. The house reef is a stunning wall covered with hard and soft corals and home to lots of colorful tropical fish. Here, there are a couple of resident turtles and even a few sea snakes to excite the divers. Although we had the opportunity for unlimited shore diving, most of the day was taken up with boat dives. A few hardcore divers did five dives a day, getting in before-breakfast and night dives in addition to the three scheduled boat dives. For shore dives, you can either go into the water directly, or have the taxi boat take you further down the wall and drift to the resort. This may be the best house reef, anywhere!
We were told that the only thing we needed to lift at Wakatobi was a fork. They were right; if you wanted to do a beach dive on the house reef, someone would carry your tank/camera to the edge of the water for you, when you exited the water, someone would meet you to carry the tank back to the gear room!
The boat dive schedule consisted of two dives in the morning, with the dive boat returning to the resort or not depending on the distance to the first dive, and a one-tank dive in the afternoon. One day, a night dive was substituted for the usual afternoon dive, which permitted a comfortable afternoon dive on the house reef. The furthest dive spot was one hour away, but most were only ten to twenty minute boat rides from the dock. There were three dive boats for the forty-two divers - twenty meters long, with gobs of room, heads, freshwater rinse tanks for cameras, radios, oxygen, snacks, etc. Giant stride entries and side-ladders provide easy off/on for the divers. You never had to lift a thing, the crew was always on the spot to help you with your gear.
Nitrox (32%) is available from a membrane system, $10/tank or $150/week. Tanks are ubiquitous aluminum-80s, with larger aluminum-100s for the air-hogs, and smaller Al-60s for the wee-folk. All fills were to 3100 psi (210 bar). The resort has lots of oxygen on hand, but it takes almost 24 hours to get to the nearest recompression chamber in Bali.
Air temps in October were in the mid-eighties and the only rain we got came at night. Water temps ranged in the low eighties, with 3mm or 5mm suits the norm. Visibility was in excess of fifty feet. Most of the dives were wall dives, with a few ridges, bommies and bays thrown in for variety. The reefs are very healthy, with huge coral formations, sponges and many schools of fish. Wakatobi is not the place for large pelagics - while we did see two eagle rays and one black tip shark during our week stay, there were lots of schools of medium/small size fish to enjoy. Many species of nudibranchs, unusual inverts and two species of pygmy seahorses added spice to an already satisfying fish stew! Frogfish, lionfish, sweetlips, jacks, angelfish, leaf scorpionfish, eels, cuttlefish, several kinds of anemonefish, and a zillion little tropicals were a delight.
The dives were limited to seventy minutes!!!! Yes, you read that right; every dive was seventy minutes of fantastic, multilevel diving - more than ample bottom time for most divers. None of the return-to-the-boat-after-thirty-minutes-with-1,500-psi-remaining-in-your-tank dives that you get at many places! I loved it!
Wakatobi is touted as an "eco resort." The owner leases approximately 40 kilometers of reefs from the owners. In many parts of the World, reef ownership is analogous to land ownership, the reef "belongs" to someone who also claims the fishing rights. The reefs leased by the resort are protected and repeat guests claimed the reefs were more abundant than they were when they last visited three years ago. This can only spill over to the unprotected reefs - a win/win situation for all involved.
Ah yes, the food - second only to diving in the hearts of scuba divers! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served buffet-style. The menu was varied and tasty enough to satisfy anyone - from traditional American fare to Indonesian dishes. Plus, there were three kinds of dessert at lunch and dinner!!! Considering that everything has to be brought in from Bali, the food was unbelievable. (Note: beverages other than coffee/tea were not included in the price, but were reasonably priced.)
There are two robust ghost pipefish in this picture!
The majority of the divers at Wakatobi were u/w photographers. The camera rooms had ample space for all the camera gear, with lots of 110 & 220 volt charging stations. E6 processing was available for the few remaining filmosaurs. Plug adapters are not needed; the power strips will take standard American two-prong plugs.
Dive masters were assigned to groups of five to six divers. These young men and women were wonderful and pointed out lots of interesting critters that we would have missed if left up to our own devices. The dives were evenly divided between drift dives and ones where the dive boat was moored. The dive sites were carefully chosen with the tides in mind to avoid strong currents. On several dives, the direction of the current changed along the wall and the DMs reversed direction to avoid having to swim into it, changing depth on the return to see new stuff. Markus and Doris were our excellent dive guides for the week and had been at the resort for two years each.
Jawfish with eggs in his mouth - you can see the eyes in the eggs!
&^%$#(* pygmy seahorses! The fascinating, tiny, little pygmy seahorses are common on the reefs. There are three species. They are very, very small (1/4 inch) and almost impossible to photograph with a digital camera. In addition to being tiny and hard to get in focus, they don't cooperate at all, always turning away from the camera. I had read somewhere that if a light is shined on them, they will turn away from the light and your dive buddy can use their light to "herd" them in your direction; don't you believe it, it doesn't work. I'm not real happy with any of the images I got; these were the best I could do. I need to go back with a better camera/lenses.
[Scubadrew kindly provided the names of the three species]
With a little help from my friends: My beloved Olympus c5050 died on the second day! The sensor died and all I could see in the LCD were black/white lines. Luckily, I had a second, backup camera and was able to continue taking pictures. My friend, Bill graciously offered to let me carry his 5050 on the rest of our journey after Wakatobi and I gratefully accepted his kind offer. I had chosen not to carry a spare prescription mask (probably not the best decision I've made). Wayne offered to give me a couple of press-on, spot magnifiers just in case I needed to use another mask. Divers are wonderful, generous people and I hope to be able to "pay it forward."
The owner of the resort bought the live-aboard Pelagian, which now operates in the more distant water surrounding Wakatobi. An ideal vacation would be to combine a week on the Pelagian with a stay at Wakatobi...or back-to-back weeks at Wakatobi. If you are going to go to all the trouble to get this far, you may as well maximize your diving. We were only on the island for a seven-day trip; I wish it had been longer. They also offer ten and eleven-day itineraries at the resort. If you put two of those together, you could get three-weeks. Retirement is looking pretty nice, huh?
Our last night, we had a beach barbecue under the stars. The next day, we were ferried back to the island where the airstrip is located for our return flight to Bali. All but four of us either returned home or went on to other places.
Next stop: the Komodo Dancer.
Click here for Part II: Around the World II - the Adventure Continues - Komodo Dancer