Wakatobi at Christmas

Author: Hilary Lee

Hilary Lee wallows in the glory of Christmas spent in the Tukang Besi Marine Reserve, Indonesia. Without relatives!

25th December 2003: Christmas Day on the tiny and remote island of Tolandono. We were just about as remote as it is possible to get and still have the creature comforts of a lovely bungalow (hot water shower and flush loo!) and a superb dive centre. If we walked straight out of our bungalow, within 3 strides across the softest powder sand, we were in the sea: the tide is in. But it is breakfast that calls us at the moment; breakfast with warm bread rolls, croissants and the aromatic scent of fresh coffee (grown locally). Of course we wished ‘Merry Christmas’ to our new-found friends and dive buddies.

There was no scent of brussel sprouts in the air, no forced joviality and NO RELATIVES COMING TO DINNER! Just us and the ocean and all those creatures below the waves. The atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone was happy to be here, to be in the sun and to be going diving.

Three boat dives were planned that day and we gathered with John, our New Zealand divemaster, to find out where we would be going. There were 12 of us on our dive boat: 6 Brits and 6 from America - a great mix. We headed off to Lorenzo’s Delight, which is Wakatobi’s farthest dive site and about 45 minutes boat ride, right around the other side of the tiny palm-covered island that we could see on the distance horizon from our bungalow.

Storms in the night meant that visibility was poor but once in the water we made our way to the reef wall because it was there were hoping to find no less than three different types of pygmy seahorse!

The steep wall was completely masked . Soft corals hung in luxurious drapes, hard corals burst from the wall. Vase sponges, barrel sponges, rope sponges, there was just so much living material it was hard to comprehend that each of the plant-like structures was a living animal. There was simply no space for anything more to grow on the wall itself. New species wishing to find a home here will have to form new layers on or in the existing reef dwellers. Little wonder that it seemed to be raining fish. Schools of thousands of blue fish pour off the reef in a seemingly endless wave and beyond them the predators prowled. Eight or so enormous Dog-tooth Tuna cruised by.

Rounding the corner of the reef wall were hit by a sudden and strong current which bowled us along depositing us in a quiet area, rich with fan corals and soft corals in shades of purple and green.

Our divemaster beckoned us towards one of the sea fans and tucked neatly around one of the fronds I could see a small pale blob that looked a little like a miniature oven-ready chicken - yes, it was our first of the three species of pygmy seahorses! This little character would not win prizes for the most beautiful sea creature. It looked nothing more than a flaccid, pale pinkish blob but nevertherless a rare pygmy seahorse it was.

Our next great find was a fan containing no less than seven of the now-famous grey and pink bargibanti seahorses that underwater photographers have become enamored of in recent years. These little creatures are so well camouflaged with their grey-pink bodies and pink knobs that I am surprised that anyone ever found them in the first place.

But that was not the smallest ‘pygmy’ on the reef, for there amongst some algae was a delightful little ‘weedy’ pygmy, just around four millimetres tall with little knobs and raised ridges on its body. Its tiny tail unfurled and the little creature bobbed around in the water, appearing like a piece of dead algae as it floated (or swam?) along until it settled down and furled its tail around another frond. And just as if to remind me that Wakatobi had far more to offer than pygmy seahorses, our dive that day was rounded off by a visit from a Christmas Manta Ray.

Yellow-striped Cardinalfish on leather coral by Sam Bean.

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