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Dive Photo Guide


Wakatobi with the Pelagian: Magical Mystery Tour
By Walt Stearns, September 21, 2016 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Think Wakatobi Dive Resort and its well-known house reef, and you might well conjure images of colorful coral-plastered walls, enormous alien-looking barrel sponges, sprawling gorgonian fans, and breathtaking table corals. The incredible diversity of accompanying marine creatures, from turtles and fish schools to nudibranchs and seahorses, is sure to make demands on both your wide-angle skills as much as your macro abilities. But if you really want to put your new crazy-powerful diopter to good use, the region also offers some of the Coral Triangle’s weird and wonderful photographic subjects—the bizarre cast of critter characters you can only find while muck diving.

Wakatobi’s muck sites are part of a broad swath of the archipelago that forms the seven-day itinerary of the resort’s 115-foot luxury dive yacht, Pelagian. As well as the shallow reefs, offshore pinnacles and dramatic drop-offs around Wangi Wangi and Kaledupa, the Pelagian also visits a highly productive collection of muck diving sites in southern Buton’s Pasar Wajo Bay. Here, some of the signature dives include the intricate mating rituals of mandarinfish at Magic Pier to a menagerie of exotic and cryptic critters such as colorful Coleman shrimp on fire urchins and the enigmatic wonderpus octopus at sites like Asphalt Pier and Cheeky Beach.

As you’d expect, the Pelagian’s five-star accommodations are both spacious and luxurious, but the surprise is that the total number of guests on each cruise is a maximum of 10—outnumbered by the crew of 12

The Pelagian’s diving activities are conducted from a pair of custom-fabricated dive tenders. The crew handles all the heavy lifting, leaving divers free to concentrate on nothing but the underwater experience. Each dive, which runs to 70 minutes or more, is led by one of Wakatobi’s guides, who provide in-water support when needed and are experts at locating rare marine subjects.

A Chromodoris kuniei nudibranch taken at the wreck of the Bianca II, one of the muck sites at Pasar Wajo Bay on the Pelagian’s itinerary


Mucking Around

When you think of what the archetypal muck dive site should look like, Cheeky Beach, along with its neighbors Banana Beach and In Between (yes, it’s in-between the two!), at Pasar Wajo Bay, would certainly qualify. From shoreline down to 100 feet, bottom profiles are predominantly flat and desert like, with a bottom comprised mostly of gray to brown colored sand and gravel with a bit of light sediment that can be easily stirred up by a misplaced fin.

A reptilian snake eel photographed at Cheeky Beach

To a neophyte muck diver, the question might be, “Why am I here?” Until, that is, you begin to make things out. The first might be the mottled red face of a reptilian snake eel protruding from the sand. Or perhaps a wonderpus octopus, recognizable by reddish-brown body coloration with well-defined white bands, out for a little stroll. Ten minutes into my first dive at Cheeky Beach delivered just that, plus a huge variety of other small, strange and colorful critters.

A well-hidden wonderpus with its unmistakable red-brown body and white bands

Coleman shrimp on a fire urchin, photographed at Cheeky Beach

At the site known as Vatican, at Pasar Wajo Bay, the bottom follows a short, sloping profile from 15 feet down to a depth of 55 feet. Across its soft sand bottom, large stands of finger and staghorn coral provide refuge to a large variety of cardinalfish (hence the name Vatican), including one of the Indo-Pacific’s rare species, the Pajama cardinalfish (Sphaeramia nematoptera).

A pair of Pajama cardinalfish conducting what appears to be some sort of stare-down contest


Pier Pressure

The Pelagian will put you on three different piers in Pasar Wajo Bay: Asphalt Pier, New Pier and Magic Pier, each providing its own character and attractions.

Asphalt Pier serves as the island’s primary terminal for loading bitumen (a natural form of asphalt) quarried on the island onto waiting cargo vessels. The depth at the base of Asphalt Pier is relatively shallow—between 15 and 30 feet, dropping slightly further out to a depth of 45 to 50 feet where the bottom becomes increasingly softer with a covering of silt. Shrimp gobies, frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, robust ghost and banded pipefish are among a few of the treasures you’ll find here.

A robust pipefish, photographed at Asphalt Pier

A shrimp goby, keeping house with its alpheid shrimp roommates—which seem to do all the work

As the name suggests, New Pier is the newest pier in Pasar Wajo Bay, and like Asphalt Pier, depth profiles run 15 to 35 feet around the base of the pilings down to 45 feet out front in the sand. While the site is a great spot for finding blue ribbon eels, ringed pipefish (often in pairs), and spiny devil scorpionfish, it is also a true debris field with cans and bottles (good for finding octopus and gobies), toothbrushes and underwear. Happy hunting!

A blue ribbon eel, captured at New Pier

Magic Pier is the most-talked-about Pelagian dive, and the stars of the show are the mandarinfish, which emerge from their hiding places each evening 20 to 30 minutes before sunset for their nightly ritual. Gathering in groups of three to five around a specific meeting spot, they know the females will wait for one or more males to make an appearance. When the suitors arrive, the larger male becomes highly active as he performs an intricate mating dance of sorts, fluttering his pectoral fins like a hummingbird around one or two of the slightly smaller females.

If the courtship is successful, the male will pair with one of the females and begin to rise in a slow spiraling motion two to three feet above the coral. In one cluster of rocks I was working (everyone on the Pelagian has their own private spot on this dive), I was able to observe as many as three or four different males successfully mating with as many as five or six different females—each inside a span of 35 to 45 minutes. Talk about some guys having all the luck!

Magic Pier’s mandarinfish seem to be unusually large, with some males as much as three inches in length, so a 60mm macro lens on your cropped-sensor DSLR or a 90mm on a full-frame camera is all you need to fill the frame


Onwards Aboard Pelagian

Muck diving makes up just one portion of the Pelagian’s rich itinerary, with the remainder targeting the coral-rich shallows, slopes and steep drop-offs of the Karang Kaledupa reef system between Wakatobi Dive Resort and Buton Island. With profiles that rise to within mere feet of the surface, divers are afforded the advantage of making easy multi-level dives for extended bottom times lasting 70 minutes or more. On these sites you’ll have plenty of opportunity to shoot wide angle as well as macro.

With such a diverse range of underwater environments to take in during your trip aboard the Pelagian, the photographic possibilities are almost endless, and you’ll be giving your entire kit a good workout. The only possible caveat: After cruising the most biodiverse waters in the world in such comfort and style, you may wonder how you’ll find the time to dive anywhere else…

The aptly named Fishmarket dive site is a great spot to find wide-angle subjects—like these blackfin barracuda

On the way to and from its home base at Wakatobi Dive Resort, Pelagian stops at sites on the outer edge of day-boat range, such as the knife-edged seamounts of Blade



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