December 10, 2017
One of the reasons we like staying on the Pelagian live aboard is the variety of diving it offers. The 115-foot dive yacht travels throughout Wakatobi Marine National Park with stops at all four islands that comprise its name: “wa” for Wangi Wangi, “ka” for Kaledupa, “to” for Tomia and “bi” for Binongko. Each island provides a spectacular array of pristine reef diving with flat walls, sloping reefs, large overhangs and the largest atoll reef system in the world. As if fantastic reef diving were not enough, the typical weekly voyage also includes a sail across the Flores Sea to spend a couple of days muck diving at the island of Buton.
Muck diving is a stark contrast to reef diving. It is a literal, if not metaphorical, yin and yang as the white sand beaches are replaced with the black sandy, muddy bottom of Pasar Wajo Bay. Towering underwater cliffs give way to smaller, but no less impressive concrete piers and your 16-35mm wide angle lens gets swapped for the 100mm macro lens. You don’t come here to see large fish. You come for the critters.
The first time Leslie and I went muck diving (which happened to be our first visit to Pasar Wajo Bay two years ago) we were very surprised. We thought “muck” simply referred to muddy brackish water. Certainly the visibility is reduced when compared to the wide open reefs out on the atoll, but that isn’t the only characteristic of muck in these parts. While muck can refer to the natural ecosystem including silt and sediment runoff from the surrounding hills, it also refers to the man-made contributions.
From the large bags of asphalt (a primary export from the island) and crates accidentally dropped during the loading process the around the edges of the piers to discarded fishing nets to, well, simply put…trash: old tires, bottles, Frisbees, toothpaste containers, you name it. To be fair, it is not an underwater dump, but you can’t really go too far without coming across something might generate an Iron Eyes Cody tear.
There are three sets of dive sites in Pasar Wajo Bay. Immediately off the boat to the west are Asphalt Pier and New Pier. Despite being located next to each other, the dives are a bit different. The dive at Asphalt Pier centers around two massive 20’ square columns on the north end. These concrete walls are home to an impressive number of creatures including a a large patch of what seems like hundreds of ink-spot sea squirts.
About halfway down one of the columns is a small gap that suggests it might actually be two concrete blocks placed on top of each other. That few inches wraps around the entire column and offers a terrific place to hide. It was interesting to watch an orange-lined triggerfish swimming on it’s side so that if can fit into the narrow horizontal space.
Slowly, our group circled the column rising a few feet each time to make sure we don’t miss anything. Trumpetfish, a couple of nudibranchs, reef pipefish, baby boxfish, orange cup coral and diamondfish all make Asphalt Pier home.
What New Pier lacks in terms of volume, it makes up for in quantity. Rather that a few large columns, there are more than forty small circular columns, each perhaps a foot or more in diameter. This presents a different spotting challenge as critters do not have to traverse a 20’ span to get away and hide. Rather, they only have to move about a foot to the other side of the column.
The third pier on the bay is located about a mile to the south. The water is not as deep and rather than tall columns, the pier sits on a small hill of large concrete blocks which creates a terrific underwater habitat. The pier is quite active with fisherman cleaning both their catch and gear daily. The runoff spills over the side and lands gently below providing ample food for the variety of foragers in the neighborhood.
Magic Pier is an evening dive, although it starts a tad earlier than most. Part of that may be due to the timing of the main attraction and part of that may be due to the necessary housekeeping. The first creatures you see when you get in are long-spine sea urchins…hundreds of them. They cover the concrete and sea floor. Good buoyancy is not just a recommendation at this dive site. The next few minutes are spent cleaning off ten or twenty urchins so each diver can get situated and then we wait.
It isn’t long before we start seeing the mandarinfish. Each is a multicolored symphony of green, yellow, blue and orange. Just a few come out at first but, after a few minutes, more appear and the mating ritual begins. Males compete for the attention of the females and fend off competitors by biting their fins. Once a successful paring is made, they swim next to each other rising in the water column and then expelling both sperm and eggs. Each fish mates many times each night…which must be exhausting.
Once the mandarinfish are done, we began exploring the other areas around the pier. Cuttlefish, different moray eels, shrimp, octopus, crab and sea stars are just some of the animals that populate this terrific dive site. Indeed all of the piers offer fantastic diving, but there is even more on the sandy bottom. Part 2 will explore the more horizontal terrain.