KNEELING ON A DIRTY concrete block, trying to avoid the rusty reinforcing mesh and the hundreds of black sea-urchins with their needle-sharp spines crawling across decaying hessian sacks was tough enough.
The task was made even more difficult because my attention was elsewhere.
I marvelled at the hundreds of tiny mandarinfish flitting everywhere, a few of them actually lying on the block between my knees.
One tiny specimen, as bold as brass, rested on the top of my camera and was quickly joined by another. I captured images of competing males fighting among the mess and muck that formed their home. One latched onto the pectoral fin of the other as each battled it out for the right to mate with its chosen partner.
This was mandarinfish utopia. I had waited so long to be here, and it was surpassing my expectations in spade-loads. In a few more minutes the two genders would pair up to mate, and I was there like some sleazy paparazzo waiting to capture their intimacy.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a small piece of the concrete appear to move. It manifested itself into a creature I had only ever glimpsed once before.
It was tiny, about half the size of a matchbox, and about as deadly as it gets. Its neurotoxin venom can paralyse a human and kill in minutes.
I was mesmerised by this beautiful little blue-ringed octopus. Fluorescent electric blue circles seemed to light up all over its body, flashing a warning that couldn’t be ignored. I slowly raised my camera, aware of the proximity of this tiny harbinger of death.
The problem is that they’re so cute.
This octopus had a chubby little body and its eight small limbs were covered in even smaller suckers. Its spherical colour display was hypnotic. The little guy showed no signs of aggression – he just sat and posed like the super-model he was, safe in the knowledge that he possessed all the weapons and had the upper hand.
I was lost in the moment, forgetting all about the mandarin orgy unfolding around me as I constantly repositioned myself to get a better perspective.
The octopus eventually tired of posing and disappeared between the concrete blocks, so I turned my attention back to the copulating fish – only to find that they had finished their nightly engagement and disappeared.
Was I disappointed Not on your life, I was ecstatic – after all, I had a memory-card bursting with images I had only ever dreamt of getting.
The site was named Magic Pier. Apt, I thought, as I climbed onto the RIB, wearing a smile as wide as the full moon lighting our way back across the water.
I was in Indonesia’s south-east Sulawesi at Pasarwajo Bay aboard the motor yacht Pelagian. The liveaboard is part of the famous Wakatobi Dive Resort set-up and I was on a two-tier schedule that would include a seven-night cruise, followed by five nights at the resort.
Wakatobi was the brainchild of Swiss diver and ecologist Lorenz Maeder. He started the building work in 1995, and the first phase was completed the next year.
Maeder’s development has evolved into one of the planet’s premier dive resorts. In 2001 it built a 1500m runway at Maranggo on the adjacent island of Pulau Tomia,
said to be the largest hotel-owned airstrip in Asia. It enables weekly direct flights from Bali, followed by short boat transfers straight to the resort’s jetty.
Wakatobi’s name comes from the first letters of adjacent islands Wangiwangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko.
The 36m Pelagian has been operated by the resort team since 2005. Fitted out like a luxury boutique hotel, she boasts five cabins with accommodation for 10 guests, a dedicated camera room, saloon, sun decks, and a mess producing, some say, the best cuisine in Asia. Diving is carried out from two dedicated RIBs.
Our itinerary involved a mixture of cruising and diving the walls and coral reefs around the four islands before and after anchoring in the bay at Pasarwajo Bay for two solid days of muck-diving.

THE DIVING HERE TAKES PLACE over a sand or silt seabed littered with discarded flotsam and jetsam in which hordes of tiny critters have made their home, adapting to their surroundings by using anything they can find for cover.
One such site, Cheeky Beach, is named after the mischievous youngsters from the adjacent village of Pasarwajo who swim there, and it was our first port of call.
I immediately found a tiny blenny living in the slot formed inside a discarded energy-efficient light-bulb, and another that had made an empty soda can his man-made fortress.
I had noticed a few brightly coloured fire-urchins slowly marching across the silt in deeper water. These sometimes host hitch-hikers in the form of zebra crabs or pairs of Coleman shrimp.
I asked my guide Nico to try to find one, as they make great photo subjects.
Off he went on a marathon journey, flitting from urchin to urchin. What I hadn’t realised was that there were thousands of the little beggars, but they were all devoid of interlopers.
Nico stuck to the job in hand, however, and after nearly 20 minutes of searching banged his tank in triumph.
I swam over to find a beautiful pair of shrimp nestled on a little bald patch among the flamboyant yet poisonous spines of this toxic echinoderm.
Nico was holding his slate above his head, the words “My job is done” scribed shakily across the front.
“Dream on, young man,” I thought as I replied: “Thanks, ghost pipefish next” A wry smile, and off he went again as I nestled above the sand to concentrate on this amazing photo opportunity.
Cheeky Beach is also good by night, so at dusk we headed out on the RIB with Pelagian’s American cruise directors Steve and Shelly Chenoweth. They have been plying their trade in this area for some years and have an intimate knowledge of the various dive-sites and their residents.
The couple’s enthusiasm was infectious, as was their joy on finding and sharing weird and wonderful marine creatures with their guests.
Shelly found a small overhang with four white-eyed moray eels all huddled together. I watched in horror as one of them struck out and took a cute juvenile boxfish in its mouth, then sighed with relief as the predator let go.
The pea-sized baby swam off, looking a little shaken but none the worse for its near-fatal encounter.
Beautiful reef squid danced mid-water in front of my camera as partner gobies and snake-eels watched the spectacle from the sand below. Crazy-eyed mantis shrimp scurried across the silt, as little pufferfish and ornate ghost pipefish hovered by small strands of soft coral.
This place was a gold-mine, keeping us under water for nearly two hours. Exhausted but elated, we headed back to the Pelagian for a fillet-steak supper and a bottle of excellent red wine.
We dived more muck sites – New Pier, Asphalt Pier, Banana Beach and Vatican (home to a large number and variety of cardinalfish), and visited the deeper sections of Cheeky Beach. The guide
team discovered and shared more bizarre critters than I could believe, and my hard drives filled with images to treasure.
I’m a reef enthusiast, and after two days’ exploring the bland seascape of the muck sites I was chomping at the bit for some colourful reef and wall vistas.
So it was with mixed feelings that we left the shelter of Pasarwajo on the next leg of the cruise early the next morning.

OUR FIRST DIVE OF THE DAY was at the site Karang Kapota. Lush coral growth greeted us as we descended through the clear water – a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, yellows and purples set against the azure backdrop made my eyes pop as the soft coral gardens came into view.
Nico was spending his time searching the many pristine fan corals for pygmy seahorses. I was dreading hearing the clang on his tank as he pointed out these minute wonders. I had opted for an ultra-wide-angle lens set-up on my camera, so would be unable to immortalise them.
I concentrated instead on the astonishing scenes before me. “This is world-class stuff,” I thought, as I slowly circled the gardens, trying to take it all in.
It seems a rarity these days to find delicate hard corals with no signs of human or natural environmental impact, but everywhere I looked I found undamaged, unspoiled staghorn and branching corals, a clear testament to the education policies and protocols set in place by Lorenz for his staff and guests who dive these areas.
The next three days saw us visit more of these enchanted reefs during the day and at night. Time seemed to double in pace, becoming a blur, and all too soon we found ourselves moored up at our starting point, just offshore at Wakatobi Island.
I joined crew and divers on Wakatobi Five, one of five locally built specialist boats, for two dives on local reefs.
Mya and Heath, two of our three companions aboard Pelagian, were already aboard with our guide. The spacious deck seemed empty as we kitted up and listened to the brief.
“Any requests” asked Nico. I knew that it was four days since a full moon lit the Pasarwajo sky, and in my experience a number of species lay their eggs at this time, so I asked everyone to keep a lookout for little patches of unhatched babies, especially around the numerous anemones found on the reefs.
I hoped to get images of resident clownfish attending their new-born.
We arrived at the reef’s edge at Magnifica and jumped in. The area was being washed by strong currents that took us with them, drifting past steep slopes chock-a-block with striking Technicolor soft corals and fans. Like the outer reefs they were exceptionally healthy, vibrant and pulsing with life.
Dense schools of snapper and jack lined up in the flow, effortlessly maintaining their position as we sped by.
The morning sun sent light rays dancing across the shallows, glinting off our bubbles as we progressed round a corner in the reef and found slack water.
A short critter hunt ensued, and Nico found a rare Halimeda ghost pipefish.
I marvelled at his skill and sharp eyes as I tried to frame the tiny fish in my viewfinder. This species is a master of disguise, almost invisible as it mimics its surroundings with the same shape, texture and shade as the Halimeda sea-grass that lends the fish its name.
Nico was elated and again wrote on his slate: “My job is done”, followed by a celebratory overhead punch in the water.
“Any eggs” I replied sarcastically, a broad smile letting water past my reg.
Nico immediately pointed his reef stick at an adjacent magnificent anemone, and as the current gently surged, the tentacles and skirt lifted to reveal a small patch of eggs glued firmly to the rock below.
Hundreds of tiny eyes stared at me as a parent darted over to protect its brood. “Now your job is truly done, Nico!”

FOR SUITABLY QUALIFIED and experienced guests, solo-diving is allowed on the resort’s house reef. I fancied a relaxed day away from the two-morning boat-dive schedule, so arranged to use a sling-tank and bail-out system (as required for this genre of diving).
Accompanied by a nominated surface look-out I made my way down the jetty steps. Over a coffee the night before the very helpful and knowledgeable dive manager Sonia Goggel had given me an insight into what to look for, including three anemones that were home to true clownfish, a species I’d rarely seen on my travels, though I had seen lots of their cousins, the false clownfish.
The difference between the two is the subtle black edge found on the true clown’s white bands and fin tips. I didn’t have to go far. Right on top of the reef near a drop-off were the anemones with their chocolate-box-sweet little inhabitants darting in and out and taking full advantage of their immunity to their hosts’ stinging tentacles.
The reef dropped off on a wall that extended a few kilometres either side of the jetty. It was covered in vibrant corals, with whips and fans reaching out into the current to feed on passing morsels.

A SHOAL OF SNAPPER moved aside to let me pass as I made my descent. Lone divers can enjoy the reef more, I was thinking, as I didn’t have to look for my buddy or try to catch up with the group.
I decided to concentrate on a small area and thoroughly search for tiny creatures.
I spotted some almost microscopic crabs, their purple and yellow claws tucked neatly inside wormholes as they gingerly peeked out. Blennies, gobies and damselfish occupied the space and my time as I enjoyed a full 60 minutes in their company.
From world-class reefs and muck-sites full of the bizarre and unusual, this small corner of the Indonesian archipelago is regarded as a leading dive destination. The Wakatobi set-up takes the whole concept to a different level, with sumptuous accommodation, exceptional cuisine and well-trained and attentive staff.
Lorenz has all the bases covered. His love affair with this area, above and below the water, is reflected everywhere.
I hope his eco-friendly policies and talented team continue to protect this treasure for generations to come. I can’t wait to get back to this little slice of luxury in the centre of a diving dreamland.

GETTING THERE Nigel Wade flew from London to Bali with Cathay Pacific, and charter flights to Wakatobi.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Wakatobi Diving Resort & Pelagian,
WHEN TO GO All year round, as this is a tropical destination with no marked seasons. Average air temperature is 30°C and water temperatures range between 26-28°C.
HEALTH A high-factor sunscreen is essential, and insect repellent during rainy periods. There are no malaria or dengue risks. The nearest recompression chamber is in Bali and requires a daytime sea-level flight.
MONEY US dollars, euros and Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES Nigel’s trip was organised by Original Diving which for £6100pp offers one night’s B&B in Bali at the Jimbaran Puri in a cottage suite followed by seven nights’ full-board on Pelagian in the master suite and five nights’ full-board at Wakatobi in a one-bedroom villa, all flights, 10 days’ unlimited diving (four boat dives daily on Pelagian and three boat-dives plus unlimited house-reef diving at Wakatobi), unlimited nitrox 32 fills and all transfers. A standard cabin and bungalow reduces the cost substantially,