Wakatobi Dive Resort | A Treasure Trove of Macro Magic
The reefs of Wakatobi are alive with thousands of tiny marine life treasures, and you don’t have to go far to find them. Prime real estate for macro critters begins at the House Reef and stretches across more than 20km of pristine and protected coral. Experienced critter hunters and novices alike can enjoy the search, and Wakatobi's keen-eyed dive guides are experts at finding even the most secretive reef dwellers. Here's a small sampling of what awaits...
A good place to start looking for small treasures in the waters of Wakatobi is among the tentacles of sea anemones. Colourful carpets of these stationary predators adorn the slopes of the House Reef, and similar colonies are found on all of the signature sites within the resort’s private marine preserve. In addition to adding colour and variety to the seascapes, anemones provide shelter for a range of commensal and symbiotic tenants. Best known are the clownfish, but a closer look may reveal varieties of small shrimp tucked among the protective tentacles. Porcelain crabs are commonly spotted in the anemones. Unlike their bottom-scuttling cousins, these crabs' prominent claws are not used to snag prey, but are instead reserved for defensive protection and territorial fights. Porcelain crabs are filter feeders and have evolved a unique set of feeding tools that can be extended from the corners of their mouths. When feeding, they will flick these fine-laced fans about like a pair of badminton rackets, snaring tiny plankton morsels from the surrounding water.
Pygmies on the Fan
Because they feed on things that drift past, most varieties of sea fans form broad, lacy structures that grow perpendicular to the prevailing currents. A number of small animals will perch on the fan’s flat surface to share in the moving feast washing past. The best-known residents of sea fans at Wakatobi are pygmy seahorses. Seldom growing larger than 2cm in size, and cunningly camouflaged, these tiny members of the Syngnathidae family were unknown to science until the late 20th century, and many of the seven known species were not discovered until the early 21st. Four of the five recognized species of pygmies are found at Wakatobi, two of which – Bargibant’s and Denise’s – live on very specific types of sea fans. Knowing this provides seahorse hunters with a good starting point, but it still takes a keen eye to locate these tiny creatures, which can be smaller than a fingernail.
There are a number of marine animals that dig in and make their homes on Wakatobi’s sandy seafloors. Among the more entertaining burrowers are the jawfish. When approached, a jawfish may rise up a few centimetres from the bottom, raising its fins and flaring its gill covers in a display of territorial aggression. Move closer and they will likely retreat into the safety of their burrow. Remain still and they may re-emerge and return to business. For a jawfish, burrow maintenance is an ongoing chore. You’ll often catch them popping up from their hole with a mouthful of sand, which is spat out and possibly exchanged for a small rock or shell, which will be dragged below and used to shore up the burrow walls. The males can be quite territorial. If one excavates too close to another’s existing burrow, the ensuing turf war will involve a lot of posturing and possibly some jousting with jaws agape.
Dressed for bed
At any time of day, there's plenty to keep fish watchers busy at Dunia Baru, a site close the resort where a wide variety of creatures take refuge among the site’s garden of staghorn and finger corals. One of the more noted residents is the pyjama cardinalfish, recognizable by its telltale red-tinged eyes, dark vertical waistband-like stripe, and a tail decorated with bright orange polka dots – hence the name. The best time to catch a glimpse of this colourful member of the cardinalfish family is early in the morning or on a twilight or night dive, when they emerge to hunt for small crustaceans.
A perennial Wakatobi favourite with both photographers and fish watchers are the 'odd couple' pairings of shrimp and gobies. This cohabiting relationship involves a shrimp which excavates and maintains the shared burrow while the keen-eyed goby keeps a lookout for potential threats. There are a number of species of goby and shrimp that can be found cohabiting on Wakatobi reefs. One of the more colourful is Randall’s shrimp goby, which doesn’t like to set up house in open areas, and instead prefers the added security of an overhanging ledge. Divers can usually find these fish and their attendant pistol shrimp in the sand-bottom undercuts of the dive site known as Cornucopia.
One macro-sized subject that is relatively easy to locate is the pink hairy squat lobster, which also goes by the name of fairy crab. Purists might point out that neither name is completely accurate, as it is neither a lobster nor a true crab, and is instead a member of the Anomuran group of decapod crustaceans. A favourite subject for macro photographers, its near-translucent body is covered with pinkish-purple accents and a coat of delicate white hairs. One or more hairy squat lobsters can usually be found on the undersides of the giant barrel sponges that thrive at dive sites such as The Zoo. Just be sure to move in slowly, as these creatures can be shy if they feel threatened.
One unique character that you are likely to find among the branching soft corals of Wakatobi is the longnosed hawkfish. Typically 5 to 10 cm in length, these fish have a bright orange and red crosshatch pattern that makes them quite photogenic, but also helps them blend into their surroundings. You will often find these colourful little fish hovering close to a concealing sea fan branch, waiting patiently for a tasty crustacean to swim within range. When a suitable target is spotted, the hawkfish will swoop in for a quick kill. This hunting style is likely what earned the hawkfish the association with its namesake bird.
Gobies on a Wire
The twisting and spiralling stalks of a sea whip don’t offer much in the way of concealment or shelter. But there is one fish that blends in perfectly among the spiky tentacles. At around 4cm in length, the whip coral goby would be relatively easy to find, were it not for a colouration that makes it almost invisible. The goby’s body is partially translucent, while the visible areas match the hues and patterns of the whip. These gobies hang close to their sheltering branch, nabbing the occasional invertebrate or zooplankton that drifts past. They may be found singly or in pairs, and once you know what you are looking for, you’ll find they are quite common in Wakatobi waters.
While pygmy seahorses are often considered the Holy Grail of tiny finds, there are other members of the Syngnathidae family that are equally intriguing. Snake-like pipefish are ubiquitous inhabitants of the reefs and coastal shallows of Wakatobi. One of the easiest species to find may be the network pipefish, which often congregate around the rocks of the Wakatobi jetty. Growing to lengths of six inches or more, these pipefish are easily recognised by the banded colouration of the body. A special find is the Lembeh seadragon or pygmy pipehorse, a recently-discovered species that has been spotted among hard corals at the site Teluk Maya. This creature is more closely related to the pipefish than the actual seadragons known from Australia.
Sunny Side Up
There is a certain type of nudibranch which has been harvesting sunlight since long before humans invented solar panels. At first glance, this relatively large species (Phyllodesmium longicirrum) might be mistaken for some sort of mutated octopus, because rather than the typical slug-like body usually associated with nudibranchs, it sprouts tentacles. Closer examination will reveal there are usually more than eight, and that the brown spots on these off-white tentacles are not disk-like suckers. Instead, these blotches are actually colonies of zooxanthellae algae, similar to those found living within the polyps of many coral species. The solar nudibranch harvests these algae from octocorals, incorporating the crop into its own body, and draws sustenance from the algae’s photosynthesic process.
Stealth Mode Hunters
Another stealthy regular that is a prized find on a Wakatobi gorgonian, soft coral, crinoid or even amongst the seagrass is the ornate, robust and halimeda ghost pipefish. These exotic creatures sport impressive arrays of spike-shaped fins that sometimes mimic the appearance of a crinoid, or might give the appearance of a random clump of drifting weed. Ghost pipefish are experts at hiding in plain sight. They are equally adept at working with currents and eddies to hold position or drift inconspicuously as they remain motionless, waiting patiently for a meal to come within range. When that happens, the ghost pipefish doesn’t lunge, and instead uses a lightning-fast snap of its elongated snout to create a powerful suction that draws dinner to them.
The Fish that goes Fishing
When you think of a predator, what attributes come to mind? Streamlined speed, explosive agility, aggressive strength… and then there’s the frogfish. Slow, reclusive and lacking in both offensive and defensive weaponry–not to mention being far from streamlined–one would not consider this enigmatic creature to be a lethal predator. Yet despite some seeming shortcomings, frogfish are masters of camouflage and equipped with a unique way to capture prey: they hide in plain sight and deploy a lure much like a fisherman’s pole to attract its meal. The frogfish lure resembles a worm or a shrimp, which it can flip and wave about to lure a would-be predator into thinking it has an easy meal, only to become the meal itself.
Mandarinfish have been called the most beautiful fish in the ocean. In addition to its vivid colouration and intricate patterning – reminiscent of the robes of a Chinese emperor – this diminutive member of the dragonet family is famous for its courtship rituals. Every evening just around sunset, male mandarinfish gather at sites such as Magic Pier, strutting their stuff in the hope of attracting a female's attention. When connections are made, the couple will pose nose to tail and begin a spiralling dance as they rise above the reef to consummate their courtship. This nightly show is a highlight of the cruises aboard Wakatobi's dive yacht Pelagian.