THE OPEN WOODEN BOAT SWAYS GENTLY as it makes its way through the waves. A feeling of excited anticipation spreads through its occupants. I am one of 20 guests just landed at Tomias airstrip. Our ultimate goal is a mere 30-minute boat ride away.
The ocean shifts from deepest blue to light turquoise as we glide in over the shallow sandbanks and come to rest. Camera bag in hand, I hop over the side and let my feet sink into the soft sand.
I have 10 days to get to know the celebrated Wakatobi.
But it is a frustrated, disappointed diver who emerges from the water after the first day of diving. I have seen hardly anything of interest and exposed only half of my film roll. The pictures I have taken were done only from a feeling of duty. The guide has kept pointing out things that I struggle to take in, and at one point I swim straight into a giant barracuda parked 2m in front of my mask. My overloaded brain has been struck by a core meltdown - I cant seem to see the forest for the trees.
I have waited a long time to dive at Wakatobi. Is this how it is to be
But the dive guides, it appears, have seen this phenomenon many times before. They explain that after a few days I will get my eye in and the excitement back. Theyre right.
At one point I try to memorise all the different species of fish, corals and other sea life that we see on every dive, but quickly give up. Open a fish guide that covers Asia and place your finger wherever you like, and I can almost guarantee that you are pointing out a denizen of the Wakatobi area. The diversity of species is enormous.
Lorenz Mader was 15 when, inspired by Jacques Cousteau and his books, he decided to become a diver. The young Swiss began working as a divemaster for centres in Egypt and the Maldives, but became convinced that ever-increasing dive tourism led to a dead end.
He felt there had to be a better way of combining the beauty of coral reefs with long-term economic interests.
In 1995 he began his search for a location that would fulfil four criteria.
It had to have a world-class house reef, a beautiful beach, fresh water and a local population interested in taking part in his project.
In the recesses of his memory echoed Cousteaus words that the Tukang Besi islands south of Sulawesi were the best dive area in the world.
Mader headed for Indonesia and spent months being dragged around on an underwater sled by local fishing boats, searching mile after mile of reef for paradise. On the edge of civilisation, off the island of Tomia, he found what he was after. He spoke little Indonesian but managed to explain his plans to the tribal chief. The villagers gave their support, and he started work on an undeveloped section of the small island of Tolandono.
The name Wakatobi comes from the four major islands in the group: Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. As someone once said: Wakatobi isnt the end of the world, but you can definitely see it from there.
If you come here straight out from one of Balis luxury hotels, the accommodation can seem pretty simple. The resort consists of long houses with seven guest rooms with shared shower and bathroom. On the first floor lie the kitchen, dining-room and dive equipment area. A stones throw away are eight bungalows for those who prefer their own facilities.
At 6am divers are already heading out for a pre-breakfast dive. By seven the whole resort is on its feet, with photographers converging on the room dedicated to photo equipment.
On a large whiteboard is the list of who is going where and on which boat today. Thats all you need to keep track of. Have your dive gear loaded and waiting in your plastic tub by 7.30 and the boat guys will see that it is on the right boat with a tank and weightbelt.
There will usually be a two-tank boat dive in the morning and, after lunch, a dive along the house reef. This programme can be complemented by a night dive at around 6pm, leaving time for a shower before supper.
There are about 20 named dive sites around the resort. Most are reachable by boat within 20-30 minutes and often involve diving along a wall or sharp slope. There are also coral ridges that expand upwards from the deep to a pleasant depth.
One of the most spectacular sites, Blade, is also the most remote, taking more than 50 minutes to reach.
This axe-sharp mountain crest runs from 10-30m deep before dropping steeply on both sides. It is one of the best places to see the bigger animals that are otherwise rarely seen, such as sharks or rays.
Neither do you see any large congregations of fish in Wakatobi. You may find glimmering schools of fusiliers, jack and pyramid butterflyfish, but compared with, for example, the Red Sea, it may feel a little empty in that respect. The strength of these waters is in their diversity, macro life and coral landscape.
Compare a reef to a forest and Wakatobi is the Amazon. I have dived in more than 20 tropical countries but never seen such a healthy, rolling, rich coral landscape, stretching all the way to the surface. No typhoons rage here and the water temperature remains constant.
Today we hope to catch a glimpse of Wakatobis pride and joy, the oceans most fragile inhabitant. I have a 100mm macro and an additional close-up lens ready. We split into two groups, planning a few minutes between each entry so that everyone has a chance to see the miracle.
I trail close behind our guide Tina. Presumably we are swimming through a wondrous landscape but I am absorbed in the macro world and for the third time check that my camera is properly set.
Tina stops by a deep red gorgonian, Subergoria muricella. After a few minutes of searching she signals to me while pointing towards something in the midst of the coral.
Taking no chances, she digs a magnifying glass out of her vest pocket for me. Only then does it appear, half the size of my pinkie fingernail, an indescribably beautiful pygmy seahorse.
Its a light shade of pink with small red lumps that enable it to blend with its environment. This species, Hippocampus bargibanti, is the larger of the two found in these parts.
The smaller plucked chicken is hardly bigger then a rice grain. Its pinkish-orange skin covered with light yellow spots explains its name. These creatures tend to stay motionless in one area, so daytime is excellent for the stills photographer, but video photographers should wait until nightfall.
This is when seahorses show off their acrobatic skills, swinging like Tarzan between the vines of the gorgonian using both tail and fins, performing back-flips and dancing with their mates.
Wakatobi takes great pride in its house reef. Over 10 days I dive it five times, at various times of day and depths, and each time it is like seeing it through new eyes.
You can hop in at any point on the three-mile reef, but most people start at Onemobaa Cave. This site is easy for the boat-drivers to find, as its straight out from the house of the Swedish cook.

Bizarre lifeforms
The cave entrance opens up after only a few minutes swim, at 24m. Hanging from the ceiling are soft corals in every imaginable colour, and the cave crawls with bizarre lifeforms.
Ever seen a red file shell clam that generates strobe-like flashes around the opening between the shells Swim further and you might encounter a humphead parrotfish vandalising
the reef. Youll probably pass at least a couple of turtles, pygmy sea horses, spiral string corals and a handful of 10-armed octopuses as well.
If you time the current and your air consumption right, take a left when you see the opening to the Gulley. Here the ravine quickly shallows to within a few metres to the surface. I think the dive is over until Tina tugs on my fins. She has discovered a robust ghost pipefish, Solenostromus cyanopterus, allowing the current to sway it to and fro.
How she distinguished this extremely well-camouflaged fish among the dead seaweed is a mystery.
Farther up we find false stonefish, a black-and-white-striped sea snake and, the icing on the cake, two pegasusfish, Eurypegasus draconis, wandering over the sand bottom.
These resemble an artists attempt to create a masterpiece using only old spare parts. A sponge with chicken wings and Mickey Mouses face is probably the best description. They dont swim, but walk over the bottom using their fins.
The son of the last Sultan of Tomia was very interested in environmental work, so Lorenz Maders plans for the resort moved forward relatively quickly. To protect the house reef from fishermen, he offered in return for co-operation to have the village streets paved, to improve garbage disposal and to provide electricity. His offers were accepted and so he and the villagers worked, step by step, to build a national marine park.
To control the no-fishing area, a patrol unit with a boat, fuel and equipment was sponsored. And books, magazines and other educational materials concerning marine life are circulated among the younger villagers who will one day take responsibility for the reef.
Permission was granted to build the airstrip on neighbouring Tomia which opened in 2001. Now, instead of a three- day journey from Bali, it takes only 150 minutes.
Wakatobi Resort employs some 30 people, all of whom donate a portion of their salary to this community project, ensuring that all the villagers share in the resorts income. Guests also participate, as a portion of the cost of staying is donated to the village project and marine park.
But not all that glitters is gold, even in paradise. Some less-enlightened fishermen still use poisons to drug fish, and home-made bombs to blow them out of the water, making it easy to pick them up by hand. The authorities claim that this type of fishing causes£7.5 million worth of damage every year.
During our visit we hear at least three detonations while diving, though we never see any reef damage. After one explosion, only one boat is visible in the area, so suspicion is directed towards it.
The dive resort is notified at once, but no one on Wakatobi is authorised to make an arrest, so a police officer must accompany anyone hunting down illegal fishing boats. The distance is too great; the fishermen escape with their cargo.
Divers can be noisy, too. Tank-bangers and shark-shakers are just a few of the gadgets used to gain attention under the surface, and the more intense the sound, the more promising the sighting.
A ping may bring a beautiful scorpionfish. Two or three shakes of the rattle could mean an orangutan crab, nudibranchs or a school of 10-armed octopus.

Yodelling sharks
When the surrounding waters fill up with frantic banging one day, we all head for the source, imagining a dozen yodelling whale sharks at the very least.
I round a coral hill to see Chris with a steady hold on his tank-banger. In front of him swims a green turtle. We are all a little surprised - turtles are great to see, but surely not worth more then a little tap or two on the tank.
Out of courtesy, I stay around and inspect the turtle as it gently swims towards the great blue. Suddenly I realise that everyone is pointing at me.
I spin round, not wanting to miss whatever these divers are practically swallowing their regulators about, but behind me lies only the usual reef landscape. Facing the group again, I see them raising their cameras. Those that dont have one are pointing at me with both hands. Again I turn, but an octopus is all I see. Nice, but not that big a deal. Turning back, I realise that my audience is checking out my own nether regions.
I check myself out, and solve the mystery. A remora, or suckerfish, has decided I am worth stealing a free ride from. Apparently it hopped off the turtle, but my wetsuit made it almost impossible for it to stick to me, and I have made its task even more challenging as I twisted and turned to see what was going on.
At least I now know how it sounds when divers are laughing so hard that they cry.

Shrimp
Shrimp on an anemone
royal
royal corals
it
its not just the underwater world that is picture perfect
from
from Bali, its a 150-minute flight to Tomia airport followed by a 30-minute boat ride
Wakatobi
Wakatobi divers enjoy a break between the dives
Although
Although the pygmy seahorse is only 10mm long, its one of Wakatobis biggest attractions
a
a whip-goby tries to blend in
Cuttlefish
Cuttlefish
a
a diver outside one of the
a
a porcelain crab waits for a snack to float by
Divernet


FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Thai Airways flies to Denpasar in Bali, from where you can catch a flight to Tomia and take a half-hour ferry ride to Wakatobi.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Wakatobi Resort can accommodate 46 guests, www.wakatobi.com
WHEN TO GO: May-November offers the best diving and Wakatobi Resort takes guests from March to December. The coolest, driest time is April-November, with January the wettest month, August the driest. A 3mm wetsuit should be adequate.
money: Indonesian rupiah.
COSTS: Dive Worldwide (www. diveworldwide.com) offers packages from£2369 with flights and transfers, a night in Bali, 10 nights full-board in Wakatobi, three boat dives a day and unlimited shore diving, plus a contribution to marine park protection and community development.
HEALTH:The nearest chamber is on Bali, more than 600 miles away, so take out good diving insurance.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Indonesia Tourist Office 020 7499 7661, www.indonesia-tourism.comGreek National Tourism Organisation, 020 7495 9300, www.gnto.gr