In the very southeastern region of Sulawesi, between the Banda and Flores Seas, sits a small group of islands known as the Tukangbesi Islands. Better known as Wakatobi, this region is now famous as one of the best locations within Indonesia to dive pristine coral reefs. While the area’s premier dive resort, Wakatobi, focuses on the dives sites close by Tomia Island, there is also an option to roam further afield and find out what the rest of the region is like underwater on board the resort’s luxury liveaboard—the Pelagian.
Pelagian covers the region of all the islands that make up the name “Wakatobi”: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. The dives range from coral walls, pinnacles and slopes to the complete opposite of marine habitat, black sand muck and pier diving. As an underwater photographer, I love healthy coral habitats, but I was very keen to explore beyond Wakatobi’s spectacular house reef, especially the black sand of Buton at the far northern reach of the Pelagian’s itinerary.
In choosing my favourite subjects from this voyage, I could easily have written an article on 20 or 30, but for the sake of being concise, I have condensed it down to ten of the absolute best. These are the subjects that I consider to be some of the most rewarding to photograph.
1. Soft Coral Drop-offs
The first and last dives of the charter are on Tomia Island reefs. Great corals exist on the rest of the Pelagian itinerary, but these reefs close to the resort are some of the most pristine reefs in Indonesia and so I could not forego wide angle as the healthy corals make for spectacular ambient reefs shots capturing the wide-angle vistas of the marine park. The tops and edges of the drop-offs are carpeted in soft leather corals and the steep walls feature incredible gorgonians and kaleidoscopic soft coral trees. Definitely a must for those seeking the big picture.
Tip: Choose a wide-angle lens for reef scenes. Generally try to get some upward angle, manually lock your exposure for the lighter surface water and set your flash power to light the coral foreground. Be sure to avoid touching the coral to compose your scene.
The top edge of the reefs of Wakatobi with beautiful soft coral growth
2. Rose Corals
Wakatobi easily has the most incredible examples of large rose coral formations that I have seen anywhere. In locations elsewhere you can find one or two excellent examples, but throughout the Tomian reefs you will find many colonies as well as massive solitary structures of these corals. The reef fish or glassfish around them just add to what is already an amazing spectacle. My choice sites for these Fibonacci spiralled wonders, Roma Reef and Teluk Maya.
Tip: Like most wide-angle shots of reef, you have to use a wide-angle lens or a wide-angle wet lens attachment. It’s no good backing off into the distance, as too much water between you and the subject creates less clarity, even in crystal-clear water. That upward angle often helps—though not always.
Rose corals create magnificent wide-angle scenes
3. Pygmy Seahorses
I never seem to be able to spot them on my own, but thankfully Wakatobi’s dive guides are experts. Bargibanti and Pontohi are my favourite species. The former can be found on small gorgonian sea fans of the Muricella genus, the latter on Halimeda plants where the white of the seahorse contrasts against the green of the plant. So, so tiny, it can be wonderful to watch these seahorses as they move about their habitat from frond to frond. I had two Pontohi close together and waited patiently as they moved to and fro. One seemed to be constantly attempting to get close to the other, but each time it did, the second one would jump away. In the end I had to be satisfied with just one seahorse in the picture.
Tip: My favorite lens for these tiny subjects is the 105mm. On a cropped-sensor DSLR, the apparent magnification essentially gives you a 157mm lens, or a 1.5:1 magnification ratio. An alternative is using a diopter, but they generally provide a shallower depth of field that can make it a struggle to get a good focus on the subject’s eyes.
The tiny and often overlooked Pontohi pygmy seahorse
4. Sea Whip Life
How many times do you take a real good look at sea whips? You swim past them, photograph them en masse when they create wide-angle scenes and try to avoid kicking them with your fins as you pass by, but unless you actually take a close look, you could be missing some interesting finds. Whip gobies are the consistent find and getting a macro shot of them can be very challenging, but patience can win through. It pays to look for seemingly barren surface segments on the whip as well, as this can be the eggs of the whip gobies. Small shrimp of many varieties also lock themselves in tight on the whips, making more great macro subjects.
Tip: My lens of choice is again the 105mm, but for these subjects it is all about great buoyancy and being able to hover in one spot on a breath hold. For lighter background images, lower your flash power, shoot upwards, open up your aperture and decrease your shutter speed. For dark backgrounds, less upward angle, strong flash, your fastest sync speed, and a tight aperture.
A minuscule whip goby seems to laugh at me
A Zanzibar shrimp hanging on tight to a sea whip
One of those incredible subjects that just make me smile, the varieties of frogfish you can find at Wakatobi are astounding, ranging from some as small as the nail on your little finger up to monsters almost the size of a soccer ball. The incredible thing about these masters of camouflage is that you could be looking right at one and not even realise it. Our guide found a green giant frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) that, as we were shooting it, took a huge gulp of water and then pushed it out of its gills. These gills resemble the outlet of a jet engine on each side of its body and the water jet lifted it up and over the side of the remains of the concrete pier that it was hiding on. Frogfish are actually species of the anglerfish family and, despite being incredibly slow swimmers as they ambulate about, have one of the fastest strike speeds of any animal when hunting.
Tip: If you know your subject is a giant frogfish, you could shoot with a wide angle or something like a 60mm macro. For this great green giant, I was caught out with my 105mm and had to back off well over three feet away from the subject. This required strong flash and opening my aperture up to let more light in.
Our green giant jet-propelled frogfish
Often confused with its cousin, the mimic octopus, the wonderpus (Wonderpus photogenicus) is in my opinion a much more elegant looking individual. The wonderpus does not mimic other creatures but moves very gracefully along the bottom. Never rush right up to a wonderpus; instead, watch it from a distance and gradually move closer. You will be rewarded with wonderful behavior as it moves about foraging for food. Ours was half hiding in a hole in the sand as it stalked a nearby mantis shrimp. The shrimp curiously approached the wonderpus and just as it appeared that we would witness an amazing underwater duel, the shrimp realized its mistake and took off at high speed.
Tip: Your chances of getting really close to a wonderpus are slim, so a 105mm macro lens is ideal. Like for the giant frogfish, your settings need to be for a more distant shot. Position yourself as low as possible, as getting some upward angle will generally improve your result.
Wonderpus are surely so named because they are simply wonderful to watch
The absolute “must-do” night dive of the voyage is under the Magic Pier in Pasarwajo Bay. This is an essential dive for all but especially for those who have never witnessed the courting dance and mating of mandarinfish. The pier is a concrete jetty with a gradual slope going down to around 80 feet. The mandarinfish are mostly found on the slope between 15 to 25 feet, hopping around the concrete blocks and coral clusters. As soon as we entered at dusk, there was no waiting—they were already doing their thing.
Tip: Patience and timing is the key. I recommend a long lens and a red focus light, but these courting couples seemed to not be intimidated at all and were making out for all to see under the spotlights of the divers. Watch and wait as they stalk about. Two will then rub cheeks together and rise, which actually gives you enough time to compose and focus the shot. Keep shooting and you might just capture the fertilized eggs floating in the split second after the mating fish dart back to the coral.
Mandarinfish getting jiggy with it
Blink and the fish are gone—but the fertilised eggs remain
Nudis are a fascination for most divers and as photographers we generally cut our teeth on macro subjects and the sheer variety and stunning beauty of nudibranchs makes them a huge favourite. Indonesian waters in general are great for nudi-hunting and the waters of the Wakatobi Marine Park do not disappoint if this is your thing. It is so wonderful when you find a species you have not seen or photographed before and as our guide was revealing to us nudi after nudi my eyes went wide at the sight of a Chromodoris Hypselodoris Apolegma. This species is thought to be a hybrid of the more commonly seen Chromodoris Bullocki, which in itself is stunning but the Apolegma's slightly different colouration with its fading white fringe just makes it so much more photogenic.
Tip: For nudi hunting, generally again the 105mm lens is my first choice. Try and get yourself as low as possible (without touching the reef) so that you are shooting at the nudi’s level. Shots looking downwards onto a nudi tend to make them look small and insignificant.
The magnificent Hypselodoris apolegma nudibranch
9. Mantis Shrimp
These tiny but ferocious hunters come in two basic variations: “spearers” or “smashers,” and you pretty much lose count of how many you see in the marine park. With their elongated eyes, “Spearers” tend to favor remaining in their holes or burrows with only their heads poking out, and will spear anything edible that wanders over the top of their home. “Smashers,” or “Thumb Splitters” as they are also known, have round eyes. The most flamboyant of these is the peacock mantis shrimp, with vivid coloration of reds, greens and browns in almost iridescent hues. These shrimps are also vivacious by nature and can often be seen out and about on the sand or among the coral looking for prey, and their antics can be quite humorous to watch as they dig through the sand and rush about.
My favorite, though, is their habit of suddenly stopping when they realize you’re watching them. They then look straight at you and flare two vibrant front appendages wide, as if to say, “Don't come near me! I am bigger and more dangerous than I look!” This is the perfect moment to try for that portrait shot, but timing is critical as it only lasts seconds.
Tip: As with nudis, get down to the subject’s level if possible. Your fastest sync speed is usually the right choice, to freeze any sudden movement of the shrimp. Don’t get too close as they have been known to crack a lens port!
The vibrant peacock mantis shrimp flares its appendages at me
10. Square Spot Anthia
For me, this bright pink and iridescent purple/blue subject is one of the most photogenic of reef fish. They tend to feed in the water column just out from the reef slope, and if you approach quietly with a 105mm lens, you can follow their feeding pattern and wait for the perfect portrait. Interestingly, it is only the males that have the pink and square spot coloration; the females are completely orange in colour. They are also sequential hermaphrodites, where they are all born female and become male only when social and environmental factors dictate.
Tip: Again, the 105mm is my choice lens. Your fastest shutter speed and a wide aperture with your flash power to suit that aperture will give you a beautiful black background to isolate your subject.
The flamboyant male square spot anthia
Compared to the diving near Wakatobi Resort, the Pelagian offers a different diversity of sites, and the muck diving of Pasarwajo Bay was, for me, the highlight of the voyage. Which is better? I don’t think you could separate the two: Each is a different side of the same coin that is diving the wonderful waters of the Wakatobi National Park.
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip with Pelagian
How to Get There: Fly to Denpasar in Bali, then take a private charter plane to Wakatobi. International flights into Bali are available via many carriers from all around the world.
When to Go: Wakatobi is a year-round diving destination. Average daily temperatures are around 86°F maximum and 79°F minimum. Water temperatures vary dependent on season and range between 79°F and 86°F, so a wetsuit is advised.
Diving: You generally get four dives per day including the night dive. All diving is done from two large, rigid hull inflatable pangas, and most dives are mere minutes away from the yacht. Nitrox is available.
Dive Guides: It is possible to book your own dive guide who can assist in focusing your dive on each site to cover your needs in what you want to shoot.
Electricity and Camera Equipment: Both 220V and 110V outlets are available. There’s a large camera table with storage shelves and compressed air, all inside a climate controlled room. Two separate rinse tanks are maintained purely for camera equipment.