Indonesia October 2012 – A Day Off in Ubud

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 12:37 pm

After a week (or more) of constant diving, you need a full 24 hours between your last dive and your flight home. On our first few dive trips, we’d usually allow a couple of days for sightseeing… but we just wound up wishing we’d dived more. So these days, we stick to just one “topside day” at the end of a trip.

We spent our Bali day up the hill a bit, in Ubud. It’s kind of a strange place. On the one hand, it’s the “cultural center” of Bali, full of historic temples and with a thriving community of local artists. But it’s also full of European expats, American tourists (especially of the rather New Age-y type, and also the occasional celebrity), and some of the tackiest crap I’ve ever seen for sale on an island. And that is saying something.

We stayed at the ARMA Museum and Resort, just outside of town. I had to read that twice the first time too: ARMA began as an art museum, and then expanded into a resort with several restaurants. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed, with beautiful grounds and comfortable rooms.

Since we only had one full day in Ubud, we started early: at 6am we joined the ‘Golden Hour Tour’ offered by the ARMA Resort and led by Agung Rai. This is notable because Agung Rai is actually the founder of ARMA; the Golden Hour Tour is his way of showing off the local neighborhood to visitors before they wilt from the heat later in the day. He picked us up in his car at the hotel parking lot, and off we went, on a personal tour of his favorite photogenic spots around Ubud.

Entrance to a family compound:

I always feel a little weird coming in as a tourist and photographing people living their lives. I try to imagine how I’d feel if a bunch of wealthy foreigners came strolling down my street trying to take candid shots of me mowing the lawn. (Not that I’ve ever mowed a lawn). It just seems… tacky.

With Mr Rai stopping to chat up various locals that he knew (and who were presumably used to being put ‘on display’ for his passengers), it felt a little less tacky. Rice farming looks like a pretty exhausting job, but it is quite photogenic!

We stopped to wander around one of the temples – luckily Mr. Rai keeps a set of sarongs in his car for the tourists.

Agung Rai shows us around:

If I went back to Ubud, I think I’d spend more time doing this sort of thing (wandering around the countryside with wealthy museum-owners) – it was definitely a high point of the day.

The other thing I loved in Ubud was, obviously, the Sacred Monkey Forest.

Just outside the monkey forest are women selling bananas for the tourists to feed to the monkeys. I’ve never turned down an opportunity to feed a wild animal, so of course we stocked up.

Turns out you don’t so much “feed the monkeys” as “fend off the monkeys” when you walk into a monkey forest holding a bunch of bananas.

That’s banana in his mouth, not teeth:

Now there are TWO monkeys on my head:

A Balinese man who seemed to know his way around took us under his wing. He wasn’t an employee of the place; it was just out of the kindness of his heart. Ha ha, I kid – eventually it came out that he wanted us to buy some paintings. Which I was more than happy to do in return for the half hour of his time as he guided us through the forest. He helped entice friendly monkeys closer, and shooed away angry ones from time to time. Totally worth it.

Don’t piss off the monkeys:

Sadly, Ubud was kind of downhill for us after monkeys. (To be fair, after you’ve been climbed my monkeys I guess there’s nowhere to go but down.) We were on the prowl for trinkets to bring home to friends, and I assumed Ubud would be the perfect place for shopping. Maybe it is if you know what you’re doing, but basically we spent 3 hours sweating our way through one crappy store after another, all selling the same crappy mass-produced stuff that was probably made in China. All the really nice stuff was huge and/or expensive (original pieces of art, beautiful furniture), so maybe Ubud is a better place to shop if you’re furnishing a local vacation home instead of planning to fly your purchases somewhere.

Or maybe we were just too heatstroked and sweaty to be good shoppers!

So that was our day off – rice terraces, monkeys, and total shopping failure. Two out of three ain’t bad!

AquaMarine picked us up one last time Saturday morning – along with our dive gear, which they had washed, dried, and packed down at their dive center while we bopped around Ubud. Amazing service right up til the end!

I hope this report has made some of you folks think about Bali and/or Wakatobi – or combine the two, like we did. We will definitely be going back!

For more pics, check out our Bali Gallery.


Indonesia October 2012 – Last Diving Days: East Bali

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 5:21 pm

Tuesday we headed southeast along the coast to Amed, a beautiful seaside area full of little beach cottages and European expats.

Our first dive here was at a site known simply as “the Japanese Wreck” – or possibly “the Javanese Wreck” (apparently there is some debate).  We parked at the top of a hill, and porters carried all our dive gear down a set of stairs on the tops of their heads.  As if I wasn’t already feeling guilty at having other people do all the hard work all week!

The wreck itself is in shallow water (you can snorkel over it) and quite small, but still beautiful.  Soft coral is growing all over it, and schools of fish hang out in the shade.  As usual, though, we had more fun poking around in the sand!  The slope next to the wreck was home to all kinds of nudibranchs, as well as jawfish and the usual assortment of little crabs and shrimps.

The second dive was a bit further up the shore, at a site called “Bobo’s Cafe Reef” or “Big Tree Reef.”  You know those dives where you basically never put the camera down, because there is constantly something AWESOME to be shooting?  This was that kind of dive for me!

First we found a patch of garden eels, perfect subjects for a camera on a tripod.  As soon as I finished filming them and went to catch up to Jeff and Janri, I became distracted by a bunch of mating dascyllus and plopped the tripod down again.  Then it was down to the artificial cement-block reef in the sand, home to lots (seriously, LOTS) of stingrays – which also turned out to be fun to film.  On the way back into the shallows, Janri discovered (i.e., was attacked by) a nesting titan triggerfish. (It’s usually smarter to run AWAY from angry triggerfish, but on the other hand they make pretty fun video…)

All this on one dive, and I have the video to prove it!

We continued south to Candidasa, where we  spent the next two nights at Candidasa Bayside Bungalows,the only hotel we stayed at that I wouldn’t recommend.  It wasn’t horrible, but seemed a little run-down and poorly staffed compared to every other place we saw.  And it happened to be next door to some extremely loud roosters who thought it was sunrise ALWAYS.  Ack.

The location was good though: it was just a 20-minute scenic ride from Candidasa down to Padangbai, where the AquaMarine dive boats live.   These are three super-fast boats of small-to-medium size, tied up to a sandy beach next to a diver-friendly restaurant.

This beach looked so lovely after the pointy, constantly shifting rocks we’d been hobbling over for the last few days.  I was super excited to just have to walk across SAND to get to my boat.

“Careful,” warned Janri.  “It’s quicksand – take your shoes off.”

Turns out the sand here is parrotfish poop – coral that’s been ground up into small spheres inside the guts of fish.  It doesn’t stick together like “normal” sand; the grains all slide past each other, making something that is basically dry quicksand.  (Or wet quicksand, once you get to the water – it still doesn’t solidify like wet sand is supposed to.)  I sank knee-deep on every step, and still have no idea how the porters managed to just dash across the beach lugging all our gear on their heads!

Once on board the boat, it was a shockingly short trip across to Crystal Bay – if a bit jarring to our spines!

The water at Nusa Penida is colder than north Bali, sometimes even dipping into the 60s.  We both added an extra 5mil layer on top of our 3mil full suits.  With those temperatures, I was surprised that it’s still a very tropical reef, with huge hard coral formations and beautiful schools of fish feeding in the current.

But the real reason to dive Nusa Penida – especially in October – is to look for sunfish, or mola mola.  On all of our dives, we kept our eyes trained on the depths.  Janri usually left us cruising in 60′ while he headed a little deeper in search of molas, letting us conserve bottom time.

First dive… nothing.  Second dive… no molas.  For the third dive, we thought about putting on our macro lenses, but decided not to risk it.

Good thing we didn’t, because third time was the charm!  We were tooling around in 40′ of water when we heard Janri’s shaker and glanced down to see him doing a little victory dance and pointing off in the distance.  Jeff headed in that direction and was able to snap a couple of shots of a HUGE sunfish before he disappeared back into the depths.

We spent two days diving Nusa Penida, but that was our only mola mola sighting.  Mostly we just relaxed and enjoyed the sights, letting the current pull us along first one direction and then another – sometimes changing 3 times in one dive!  As our second day there drew to a close, I felt the usual post-trip blues settling in already.  This was our last day of diving in Bali, and I knew I was going to miss it!

At least we still had more to look forward to – a day of relaxation in Ubud…


Indonesia October 2012 – North Bali

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 10:20 am

On Saturday, we piled back into the minibus and headed east. Our next hotel was in Tulamben, one of Bali’s most popular SCUBA destinations.

But first, we stopped for a couple of muck dives at Puri Jati, about an hour east of Pemuteran. AquaMarine has installed a great little facility here on the beach, with rinse tubs, showers, bathrooms, and someone to make you lunch.

Today Jeff and I were both celebrating milestone dives: our first dive would be his 600th, and our second was my 800th. (I am unattractively proud of being so far ahead of him.)

Like Secret Bay, Puri Jati is a shallow sandy dive site chock full of random critters. Janri found us frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish, a coconut octopus, and imperial shrimp.

On both dives, we kept running into a pair of mating cuttlefish! They occasionally took a break from courtship to investigate us.

We packed our things back into the van after two long, satisfying dives, and continued on to Tulamben, home to one of Bali’s most popular dive sites: the USS Liberty. This 120-meter WWII-era cargo ship lies just offshore, and all the dive hotels are clustered nearby. We stayed at Puri Wirata Dive Resort, a small hotel of 8 bungalows clustered around a small garden with a pool and spa.

The only downside of the Puri Wirata is that it’s not RIGHT next to the beach (like the Ocean View Resort, which has an attached dive shop which AquaMarine uses). It’s easy walking distance, but down a bit of a hill that’s less fun to come back up. I wholeheartedly recommend it if you want a nice quiet place to stay that costs less, but only if you don’t mind a little extra exercise!

We gave the hill a test drive that night: our first dive in Tulamben was a night dive on the USS Liberty. We entered at dusk over what quickly became my LEAST FAVORITE BEACH in Bali: the shore here is made up of the kind of loose rocks that I would describe as “ankle-breakers.” Pointy ankle-breakers. We tried to be all “tough California divers” about it, but it wasn’t long before we agreed to at least let Janri carry our cameras safely in and out of the water while we wobbled over the rocks.

It was full dark by the time we reached the wreck, so we concentrated on macro photography. Janri took us straight to a pygmy seahorse that smiled for the camera:

The current was with us on the way back, which I greatly appreciated as it gave me a chance to rest a bit before hauling my butt back over the rocky beach and up the hill to our hotel! Even though Puri Wirata is small, it still has its own restaurant. When we walked upstairs for dinner, there were no other guests in sight, and the staff were all relaxing watching television. They sprang into action immediately, though, and whipped up some truly delicious food. It’s not often you have an entire restaurant catering just to you!

We kept diving the Liberty all of next day and the following morning. It gets quite crowded with divers during the day, so our first dives were between 6am and 7am in an attempt to beat the rush! Sometimes in the morning a school of bumphead parrotfish hangs out by the stern:

It’s a truly enormous wreck with lots of cool areas to explore.

Most of the wreck is a bit too deep for me to be able to get good wide-angle video of it – but I did find this awesome little mantis shrimp chopping up his dinner. This is another video you should turn the sound on for:

On Monday, we did an early morning dive on the Liberty but then hopped on a jukung for 2 dives a bit further afield. What’s a jukung, you may ask? This is a jukung:

What a great way to travel!

We dove at Blue Hillside and Pulang-pulang: both sites were similar to Puri Jati. At Blue Hillside, Janri was even able to tempt a Wonderpus out of its hole for a few photos!

That night we did one more shore dive on the Liberty – my feet had pretty much HAD IT, even through my moderate-thickness booties, so I wasn’t sorry it would be the last time over the rocks!

The best part of the dive was completely impossible to catch on film or camera: we found ourselves in the middle of a school of flashlight fish. When we covered our lights, it was like being surrounded by enormous green, schooling fireflies! Absolutely beautiful and a bit surreal!

Tuesday morning we were on the move again…..


Indonesia October 2012 – Next Stop: Northwest Bali

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 12:14 pm

Back at the Denpasar airport, Wakatobi staff were on hand to help everyone gather their luggage and find their way to whatever was next. In our case, that meant helping to find our driver from AquaMarine Diving, who would be taking on us a customized ‘Dive Safari’ over the next 10 days.

AquaMarine had been recommended to us by friends who’ve been to Bali several times, and they seemed to fit the bill perfectly: a dive and travel agency that would take care of our transportation, hotel arrangements, and diving in multiple parts of Bali. I worked with their staff over the course of a few weeks last spring to put together the itinerary we wanted, which was basically a big loop around Bali: up to the northwest (Secret Bay, Menjangan Island), the north coast (Puri Jati), northeast (Tulamben and Amed) and southeast (Nusa Penida).

The phrase ‘custom dive safari’ had me seeing dollar signs – but to my amazement, booking through AquaMarine wound up being slightly cheaper than if we’d arranged everything on our own. And we had the added benefit of diving with the same dive guide for 8 days straight, usually all by ourselves and never with more than 2 other divers.

The excellent service I’d come to expect after my email dealings continued at the airport, where we were scooped up into a roomy van stocked with information about Bali diving and AquaMarine. The 20 minute drive to our Kuta hotel gave me a chance to read up on all the dive sites we’d soon be seeing in person!

We only ventured down one street in Kuta (street vendor OVERLOAD), then decided to just take it easy in the hotel. This one had a pool bar, too – we were on a roll!

At 6am Thursday morning, the AquaMarine van rolled up to our hotel, and we met Janri, our dive guide for the week. We loaded up the van and headed north through the interior of the island, passing by some beautiful scenery that we both completely failed to capture on camera. Sorry!

First Leg: Kuta to Secret Bay

Three hours later, we reached the north coast and picked up our dive buddies for the next few days, an easygoing British couple. The four of us (actually 6 counting Janri and our driver) continued around the northwest tip of Bali to a shore dive site known as Secret Bay.  There was a nice little facility set up with rinse tanks, bathrooms, and a small restaurant. We didn’t waste any time suiting up and jumping in.

You guys….


I think I can let some of the pictures and video speak for themselves:

Yellow frogfish shows off his lure

Schooling catfish

Cockatoo Waspfish

The highlight of our first dive here was a tiny yellow frogfish who just loved to swim. After years of shooting footage of frogfish just SITTING there doing very little, I had a blast playing with this little dude.

After 5 days of diving on beautiful reefs, it was really fun to switch gears and poke around for weird little creatures in the sand. Plus, I finally got to use my tripod!

There were no time limits here, except those imposed on us by the amount of air in our tanks. After a nearly 90-minute dive, we surfaced and were treated to a lunch of grilled fish overlooking the bay. (I always feel a little weird eating fish while diving….)

Side note on food: part of the AquaMarine service is that lunch is provided on all diving days. What you get depends on where you are – at Secret Bay it was fresh fish, but usually we were offered a selection from a restaurant near the dive site. Most days we had fried rice or noodles, which it turns out are still pretty darned tasty after being packed up to go and eaten hours later on a dive boat! Between AquaMarine providing lunch, and hotels including breakfast, dinner was the only time we had to fend for ourselves – and all the hotels had their own restaurants for nights we felt like staying put.

Our second dive was much like the first, and I had even more opportunities to mess with the tripod.

We headed back to our home base for the next three nights: Adi Assri Hotel in Pemuteran, about a 15-minute drive from the Menjangan crossing and less than an hour from Secret Bay. I really liked this hotel – the rooms were spacious, the restaurant was on the beach, and once again there was a pool bar!

There was also a mosquito net around our bed, which our dive buddies warned us was NOT FOR SHOW. They weren’t kidding: Jeff must’ve squashed half a dozen mozzies in our room that evening! They didn’t seem terribly bite-y though – I usually get chewed to bits, but in three days I only got 2 or 3 bites which barely itched. Conclusion: Bali mosquitos are awesome.

On Friday, we headed out to Menjangan Island for the day.

Lots of dive boats for hire at the Menjangan Crossing:


Menjangan is known for beautiful wall diving, though I’d read that it wasn’t as nice as in years past. You could have fooled me! Although not as lush and healthy as Wakatobi, I would still rate it pretty high on my list of reef dives! We had excellent visibility and just enough current to bring out the fish without kicking our butts. My favorite part of this dive was a titan triggerfish who let me get surprisingly close!

Triggerfish video is best with sound:

For lunch, we pulled up to a little pier next to a temple made of white stone. After scarfing down our fried rice, we took a stroll up onto the island to look at the ruins of an even older temple just up the hill. It was worth a little sweat for the view (did I mention Bali gets freaking HOT?).

Dive #2 was another wall dive in a pleasant amount of current. I had camera issues, so concentrated on modeling for Jeff.

Back on the mainland, we bid goodbye (temporarily) to our buddies, who we wouldn’t see again until our last day of diving. For the next few days, it would be just Janri and us.

We kicked off our “solo” diving that evening, with a night dive in Mimpi Channel in pursuit of mating mandarinfish. The mandarinfish weren’t feeling frisky, unfortunately, but we managed to find other things to look at for an hour and a half! Jeff tried out the red mode on a Sola light one of our friends had loaned him for this trip, and it seemed to especially help when shooting crabs and shrimps.

The next day, we’d be packing up and heading east….


Indonesia October 2012 – 5 nights in Paradise

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 5:49 pm

The next few days were basically Diver Heaven! Our Wakatobi routine went like this:

1. Breakfast
2. Dive #1
3. Dive #2
4. Lunch
5. Dive #3
6. Snacks
7. Dusk/Night Dive
8. Dinner
9. Zzzzzzzz

For those of you curious about the specifics of diving of Wakatobi, here’s a little more detail on how they operate:

When you arrive, you’re assigned to one of their dive boats for your stay. They have a board next to the dive center showing the schedule for the duration of your visit, with the planned dive sites for each boat on each day. Next to it is a tide table, which is helpful for planning when you might want to skip the boat and do a shore dive on the house reef instead.

Each diver has a numbered spot on a bench in the dive center, with space to hang gear and a crate underneath for all your miscellaneous stuff. In the morning, porters take your gear to the dive boat for you – unless you’ve indicated on the board that you’re planning to do a shore dive instead.

The boats’ departure times are also listed on the dive center board – usually around 7:30, 9:45 and 2:45.

By the way – these are really roomy, nice dive boats!

Our boat usually had 3 or 4 different groups diving from it, though one group was just snorkelers. They try to match people up with other divers who share the same diving style; we had filled out a detailed questionnaire before arrival about how we liked to dive (slowly and taking lots of pictures, in our case).

The dives are 70 minutes max when you’re with the group on the boat. (If you do a house reef dive, you can dive as long as you like.)

All that hype I’ve heard about the Wakatobi reefs? Not overblown. They were a wide-angle photographer’s paradise!

Most of our dives were drift dives – the boat drops you off, you go along with the current, and the boat picks you up again wherever you wind up. Current can be tricky when you’re trying to stay still to photograph something, but it also means there’s a lot more to photograph: when the current is running, schools of fish come up out of the coral to feed in the water column.

These were definitely the most spectacular, healthiest reefs I’ve dived on!

As I mentioned before, though, divers are NOT ALLOWED to touch anything – not even a finger on a bare spot (though frankly, bare spots are hard to find here). This, combined with the current, meant that although it’s a diver’s paradise, it’s a wee bit tricky to take steady video.

Awesome for photos though!

Some of you may remember that I added a tripod to my video camera before we left. It didn’t get any use as an actual tripod on the Wakatobi part of our trip, but it still came in handy. I generally dived with a single tripod leg attached; I’d extend it out to the side to give me a wider base to hold the camera steady while shooting wide-angle. I also tried laying it on my shoulder, or butting against my chest or stomach, for extra stability. All of these methods worked to some degree, but I confess I missed being able to put a stabilizing finger down sometimes!

I spent a lot of time modeling instead

After three dives on the boat our first day, we suited up for another night dive on the house reef. We were surprised how few other divers went out for a night dive – in fact, out of the 3 nights we did shore dives, we only saw other divers once. It turns out Wakatobi isn’t just a place for hard-core diving machines; it’s also quite popular as a place to go and just relax or snorkel. Several of us joked that it wasn’t even really a Diving Resort, but a Food Resort with diving. (Seriously, the food was that good!)

On our second full day, the schedule was shifted slightly: instead of an afternoon boat dive, there was a night boat dive. This left our afternoon free for a shore dive on the house reef by daylight!

The tide was up high enough that we were able to enter on the left-hand side of the jetty, and explore an area that’s full of sea grass. At low tide, it’s completely exposed; at less-than-high tide there’s not enough room for divers to float over it without disturbing everything that lives there. But at high tide, you can cruise over the sea grass and keep your eyes peeled for all the interesting critters that make it their home. Ghost pipefish are common here, and juveniles of every kind of fish.

Razorfish in the sea grass

Once again, most of our dive was in less than 10 feet of water!

The night dive was at a location called Dunia Baru, or ‘New World.’ After a few nights dives on our own, it was great to have a local dive guide to help spot some of the better-hidden creatures!

Day Three was back to the original schedule on our dive boat.

On our third dive, we mentioned to our guide that we hadn’t seen a pygmy seahorse yet on this trip, and she promised to keep an eye out. As we drifted towards an especially large gorgonian, I saw her carefully examining it. Nothing, nothing, nothing… then BOOM, pygmy seahorse on demand!

Oh look, now we have yet another picture of a pygmy seahorse looking away

I love it when you can just order up a critter and the dive guide delivers!

That night we did our last night dive on the house reef. I think it’s possible we covered even less ground than ever before; we basically just stayed put right by the jetty and let all the interesting critters come to us!

Then it was Tuesday – our last day of diving, and a shortened one at that since we would be flying Wednesday at noon. We opted out of the first boat dive, preferring to get one more house reef dive in by ourselves.

Since it was low tide, we couldn’t enter off the jetty. Instead, we walked into the shallows and boarded a water taxi. I assumed it would be a pretty calm (current-free) dive, so we asked the driver to just let us off at the jetty, not that far from our planned exit point at the gully (a sandy channel that intersects the reef and provides divers with a recognizable path back to the beach).

When the driver started zipping past the jetty and taking us further up the house reef, we reminded him to stop and just leave us at the jetty. He seemed confused. We insisted (figuring he just didn’t understand how slowly we liked to dive). So he dropped us at the jetty – and into a RIPPING current which whipped us towards our exit point at twice the expected speed. I guess THAT’S why he was trying to get us to go a little further upstream!

It was a beautiful dive: clear water, huge schools of fish out. But we completely wore ourselves out trying to stay put for each photo, and fighting the constant push back towards the exit.

Once we reached the gully we were able to tuck ourselves out of the current and relax. We briefly considered getting out and starting over again, but quickly got distracted by the various sights still available here in the gully.

With our last house reef dive behind us, it was time for our last Wakatobi dive. We rejoined our buddies on the boat and hit a lovely patch of reef with much less current than we’d seen on our morning dive!

In the afternoon, we took a stroll around the grounds and tried to get a few pics of the scenery.

And then we realized – it was almost sunset, and we weren’t doing a dive.. so we could finally DRINK! We plopped ourselves down at the jetty bar for a tropical libation in front of a beautiful sunset; the first (and last) one of our visit.

I can’t believe how quickly five nights can go! It was already time to leave Wakatobi and begin the next leg of our dive trip.

Wakatobi Resort definitely met – and even exceeded – our expectations. The reefs are absolutely pristine! The resort was nicer than any we’ve stayed in before; in fact, it may be the nicest place I’ve stayed, period.

The only thing I’d do differently: STAY LONGER! It’s possible to combine a 5-night resort stay with a 5-night trip on their liveaboard, which goes to even more remote locations – that would be my recommendation for anyone thinking about going to Wakatobi. We’d considered it for our trip, but decided it was out of our budget – this time! If we ever make it back, 5 nights will definitely not be enough!

You can see the rest of Jeff’s photos in his Underwater Wakatobi Gallery or Topside Wakatobi Gallery.

Up next: Bali diving!


Indonesia October 2012 – Getting to Wakatobi

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 3:14 pm

We’ve just returned from our best dive trip yet – 5 nights at Wakatobi Resort, followed by an additional 10 nights in Bali. Both were amazing destinations, and I find myself already imagining our next trip there!

Wakatobi is someplace I’ve dreamed of going for years. One of my dive buddies returned from a trip there raving about its incredible reefs, and it sounded like that tropical paradise every diver dreams of: palm trees, delicious food, and amazing diving at your doorstep. When asked about other locations, divers who’ve been to Wakatobi will often nod and agree that Wherever is lovely, but of course “it’s no Wakatobi.”

Wakatobi’s signature palm tree

The only downside? It’s not cheap. I mean, picture it: a top-notch operation in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Everything has to be shipped in by plane, then van, then boat. Of course it’s expensive!

So I’d pretty much resigned myself to never going – unless, by some miracle, one of us won a trip there. Which seemed unlikely, but a girl can dream, right?

All of that backstory is so you’ll appreciate just how much my mind was blown when I placed first in the video category of last year’s NCUPS competition – and saw Wakatobi on the list of potential prizes!

Jeff and I thought it over. Was it worth putting it down as my first choice? I mean, OF COURSE we wanted to go – but his trip would be expensive, and getting there would be expensive, and was it really worth it? And surely people with more standing than me would be putting down Wakatobi as their first choice, anyway, so it was a long shot….

Obviously, we decided to go for it! So I owe this whole amazing trip to the folks at Wakatobi Resort (and their US sales rep Paula Butler), for generously sponsoring photo and video competitions.

The first hurdle: getting there!

We flew China Airlines LAX-Taipei-Bali. The first leg was the most miserable: a 14-hour flight that left at 1am. Even though it was on a massive 747, it was the least comfortable plane of our trip, with narrow seats and armrests that only went up 45 degrees.

The red circles indicate Bali and Wakatobi

I will give China Air this, though: they have the most efficient boarding process I’ve ever seen! Three zones (back of the plane, middle of the plane, front of the plane); everyone got in line in turn, made it to their spots, stuffed their bags overhead and sat their butts down with hardly any of the usual American-style goofing around. The whole process took ten minutes. I thought it must just be a fluke, but we saw this repeated on every China Air flight – why can’t US passengers be so efficient?

After a layover in Taipei and another five-hour flight (on a MUCH more comfortable plane), we touched down in Denpasar, Bali. There was a Wakatobi-hired airport porter to greet us and whisk us through immigration and baggage claim, and a Wakatobi rep waiting outside to help find the driver from our hotel. After the long flights, it was a huge relief to be babied through the process like that! In Bali it was mid-afternoon; I was already sweating up a storm and muzzy-headed from lack of sleep.

We stayed that night at Puri Bambu, located in Jimboran Bay. The hotel was quiet and peaceful, with lovely rooms and a pool bar that we made a beeline for.

The next morning saw us back at the Denpasar airport – this time at the Domestic Terminal for our flight to Wakatobi. Once again we were met by Wakatobi representatives, who escorted us and our significant amount of luggage through check-in and into a private airport lounge. Air conditioning! Breakfast! Lovely!

At 9am, 20 or so guests piled onto the plane that Wakatobi charters.

Yup – we were back on a plane. Luckily this flight was only 2.5 hours, which felt like the tiniest of hops after the previous day!

Knowing that Wakatobi Resort had built the landing strip, I had imagined that it butted right up against the resort. Not quite! We were ushered from the airplane into a small fleet of cars which set off through the small town on the island. After a short drive, we unloaded the cars – and boarded a boat for a 45-minute trip to the actual resort.

Finally, 45 hours after leaving our home in Pasadena, we finally pulled up to the jetty at Wakatobi!

While the staff unloaded luggage, one of the dive guides showed us around the dive center and led us to our bungalow, conveniently located between the dive center and the restaurant.

Bungalow 13, watched over by one of the resident pest-control experts

We stayed in a ‘garden bungalow,’ which means it’s not directly on the beach (but certainly not far).  It was impeccably clean, spacious, and entirely charming.  This would be a top-rated hotel anywhere, but the fact that they pull it off on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere just makes everything a little extra impressive!

We didn’t take much time to rest, though – first order of business was unpacking our dive gear and jumping in for Wakatobi’s required checkout dive.

Why is there a required checkout dive?  The reef at Wakatobi is absolutely stunning, and they work hard to keep it that way. One way they take care of their environment is by ensuring that visiting divers take their buoyancy control very seriously – no touching the reef!   The checkout dive gives the divemasters a chance to evaluate us, and provide feedback to less comfortable divers.

To be honest, our checkout dive was not so great – the current was running at the house reef, visibility was down, and various other minor issues – but we could still tell that the house reef was amazing!  So as soon as we got out we started prepping our gear for a dusk/night dive at the same location, but just the two of us.

And THAT was more like it – we spent the first 15 minutes in no more than four feet of water, enchanted by a colony of pipefish in the shallows by the jetty.  We ventured a little deeper for a while, where the colors of the reef were on full display – beautiful soft corals, color-changing cuttlefish, flatworms.  Ultimately we were drawn back up into the sandy flats, where everyone was out hunting.  My favorite part of the dive was when an olive sea snake came back down from a breath of air and threaded his way right through a loop in the bendy-arms holding my video lights.

Watch this with the sound on to hear me squeal (twice):

Thanks to the early sunsets in the tropics, we still made it to dinner at a reasonable hour – where we were blown away once more, this time by the quality of food.  I’d heard that Wakatobi had excellent food, but I didn’t realize that meant more than just “excellent food for a dive resort.”  Their food is excellent, full stop!  It’s served buffet-style so you can pick and choose, but is in no way “buffet food.”  We relaxed with some of the local brew (Bintang) and watched the geckos on the ceiling (or, once, on Jeff’s head), before turning in for our first night on Wakatobi.

More Wakatobi coming in the next post…


Kona, Summer 2009 – Dive Day #1

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 4:30 pm

About a week before I went to Hawaii, I got an email from my friends Sylvia and Francesco, asking me for dive shop recommendations on the Big Island for their upcoming trip.  I did a double-take at their travel dates – we’d be there at exactly the same time!

This neatly solved one of my dilemmas: I was scheduled to land around noon on Monday, and hated to waste a perfectly good chance to dive for lack of a buddy.  Now I had two!

I headed straight from the airport to Jack’s Diving Locker to meet up with Sylvia and Fra.

Making fish faces with Francesco at Jack’s – at least, I made a fish face…
Making fish faces with Francesco at Jack's - at least, I made a fish face...

Once they were all set up with gear, we headed to Honokohau Harbor.  The dive site just south of the harbor has overtaken Place of Refuge as my favorite beach dive on the island – though the entry is a bit more of a pain thanks to a longish hike over lava.

We picked our way across the rocks uneventfully and walked into the water off the beach.  I was stunned by the water temperature; I’m used to the low-to-mid 70s of winter and spring, but it was 80-plus today.

As we snorkeled at the surface, we got an excellent welcome to our dive trip: a turtle right next to us.


We dropped down at the first of three mooring buoys.  Our plan was to descend to the sandy bottom, where divers are often treated to large critter sightings (eagle rays and tiger sharks), as well as garden eels and coral heads full of juvenile fish.

No sharks today, but we did spot an enrmous school of Heller’s barracuda.  These fish are usually rather skittish, but today they didn’t seem to mind as I slowly worked my way closer.


Francesco and Sylvia were terrific divers, especially considering they only had a few dozen dives under their belt – and those more than two years ago!  I never would have guessed if they hadn’t told me.  They followed me back up the slope, peeking into coral heads for eels.


One of my favorite (and reliable) sights at Manta Ray Bay are the schools of goatfish that linger in the shallows, waiting for the shade of a moored boat.  Like the barracuda, they let us swim right up alongside.


We spent some time poking around the third mooring buoy, where the staff at Jack’s had told us there was a yellow frogfish.  I didn’t have very high hopes of finding it (the darn things look just like the sponges they like to park next to), and sure enough we had no luck.

But it was still a pretty fantastic dive, and I was so excited to have a chance to show off this site to my friends.


Kona, February 2009: Part Four

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 2:23 pm

Sunday was eventful – in good ways and bad.

Our day began at Honokohau Harbor.  More accurately, at Alula Beach, just south of the harbor and accessible by a short hike over lava.  Without SCUBA gear, it’s a relatively easy hike.  With tanks, weights, and cameras, it’s a slightly tricky wobble over uneven ground, best made in two trips.

The dive site itself is variously referred to as “Honokau Harbor,” “Manta Ray Bay,” or “Rip-Off Reef.”  That last name comes from the fact that dive boats will often stop here, even though it’s just a 2 minute cruise from where they dock – thus saving them money.  However, it’s also a great dive site in its own right, so I’ve never minded being “ripped off” in this way.  In the deep, sandy area you can encounter larger animals like eagle rays and tiger sharks, as well as garden eels and small coral heads full of juvenile fish.  Or you can cruise around in the shallows, where big schools of fish like to hang out in the shade of moored dive boats.

We headed deep first.  I remembered doing a dive here with Jack’s years ago, where we found bicolor anthias and other colorful, tiny fish swarming over the coral heads in the sand.  A large tiger shark also showed up that day, so today I had my wide angle lens on just in case.  No sharks (or anthias), but I did get surprisingly close to an eagle ray as he soared over the sand.

Eagle Ray coming in for his close-up:

On our way back into the shallows, I was also delighted to discover more hungry raccoon butterflyfish.  One lonely  fish tailed me for quite a while, ducking in for a snack whenever I approached a seargant major’s nest.

Anastasia surrounded by her peeps:

After we hiked back to the car, I struck up a conversation with two local guys hanging out in the area.  When we’d passed them earlier, the air had been rather pungent with marijuana.  So it cracked me up a little when they told us we should come down in the evenings and hang out, barbeque and talk story – but not drink, as alcohol is illegal on state beaches.  Uh, pretty sure weed is too!

Other favorite local quote: “Honolulu – eh, pardon me for saying this, but it’s just for white folk.”

On warning them that I hoped to one day be one of those annoying ‘white folk’ who moved to the islands, I was assured that all I needed to do to gain acceptance from the local populace was “just love the island.”  That doesn’t seem like too tall an order to me!

After lunch at the harbor, we set off down south to dive Place of Refuge, with its much easier entry.  (Still over lava, but a very short walk followed by a handy set of natural ‘steps’ down into the water, and no hobbling out through rocky shallows.)

Sadly, this was where the ‘bad’ eventful part caught us – camera problems that you already know about by now.

You may recall from my last entry that we’d scheduled a second Pelagic Magic dive for Sunday night.  We’d even gone and bought a nicer focus light for Jeff to use.  Now he didn’t want to go at all – several rounds of phone calls ensued with the dive shop over whether we could cancel at this last minute, whether we could rent a camera and housing from somewhere, and so on.  They finally agreed to let us cancel, which was Jeff’s favorite option – but frankly, I still really wanted to go!  We hemmed and hawed a bit since they need two people to make it worth the trip, so if Jeff didn’t want to go I probably couldn’t either.

Finally I put my foot down and said I wanted to go, and would happily pay for his spot to make it happen.  But I hoped he would change his mind and come without the camera, so he could just enjoy the dive.  He didn’t think that was likely.  We headed back to the house to lick our wounds.

Fast forward a few hours, and Jeff decided a camera-less dive might be fun after all.  I was glad to hear it!

We were the only guests on the boat,  and had three crew members this time to keep us company.  Once again, this is just a REALLY COOL DIVE.  This time around we didn’t see quite as many little tiny critters, but there were lots of jellies – and I even managed some decent shots this time.  Near the end of the dive, I started to notice red blobbish things zipping by out of the corner of my eye – pelagic squid!  Darned things are way too fast to shoot, but nifty to see!  There were also a lot of tiny, colorful fish chasing my lights around.

Short clip from our Pelagic Magic dive – 1 MB, 20 seconds

40 minutes in, the batteries for my video lights died, so I spent the last 20 minutes camera-less and just enjoying the view.  It’s way more peaceful to dive without worrying about your camera – as Jeff was also reminded on this dive, which he enjoyed much more than the previous one.

And that was it for diving – at least until next time!

Our flights weren’t until Monday night, so we still had a day to chill.  We started by doing something we haven’t done since our very first visit to Hawaii: hanging out at the beach!  There’s a gorgeous little state beach not far from where we were staying, and we parked ourselves on the sand for a few hours watching the bodysurfers.

Soaking up the sun:

We must have brought our bad luck from Sunday with us, though – as we were getting ready to leave, we noticed someone being dragged unconscious out of the water.  Someone started CPR right away.  I got on the cell phone to 911 (I’ve learned you can’t always assume someone else has) – luckily, they already had a few calls in.  After about five minutes passed, we noticed the person was breathing on their own again, which is actually pretty amazing.  Another five minutes and the cops showed up.  Twenty minutes after CPR had begun… still no ambulence.  We went ahead and left, and passed the ambulence on the way in.  I have to say – twenty minute wait for an ambulence after you’ve been NOT BREATHING?  This might be a downside of living in Kona versus Los Angeles!

Back at the house, I checked in on our flights.  Jeff’s was good to go, but mine (different airline) had been bumped back to 3am.  Since the car rental places at Kona all close at 10pm, this would have left me in the empty, boring, closed-up Kona airport for five hours.

A few phone calls – and one very helpful dude in India – later, I was all set to fly back the next afternoon, instead.  Five hours of boredom averted!

Of course, Jeff still had to go.  We had a nice dinner in Kona, and then I dumped him at the airport and headed “home.”

Tuesday morning, I did nothing very interesting.  Slept in…  shopped around downtown Kona…  hung out on the balcony with a book.  It was awesome.

Then I left.  One of these days, the story won’t end that way.  It’ll go “and they stayed in Hawaii and lived happily ever after.”


Kona, February 2009: Part Three

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 4:59 pm

On Friday, we headed down south for a few dives with one of Jack’s ‘advanced’ trips.  These are fun trips to sign up for, as you may get to some more difficult or interesting dive sites – and even if you don’t, you’re on a boat with a bunch of other moderately experienced divers, and no classes.

We dropped in first at Driftwood, a site with a large coral ridge running down the slope.  Parallel to the ridge is a pretty roomy lava tube; a swim through it usually starts your dive here.  It’s a good place to look for slipper lobsters, cowries, and other critters that like the dark.

Once you make it back out into daylight, this site is all about the fish.  Jeff actually managed to spot a Flame Angelfish, one of the rare fish that we were told to be on the lookout for here.

There’s lots of whip coral at this dive site – and where there’s whip coral, you can find whip coral gobies!

Whip Coral Gobies:

It’s a nice enough dive – but I was more excited by dive #2, at The Dome.  As the name implies, The Dome has a nifty lava tube structure that includes a large, dome-shaped area big enough for everyone to be floating around in at once. It also tends to be full of neat little critters like the blue dragon nudibranch.

Blue Dragon Nudibranch:

No major excitement today – in between dives we motored around in search of dolphins, but none were in the mood to play.  I think we’re kind of spoiled after a few years of having big animal encounters in between dives, because we found this pretty disappointing!

There was one bit of good news, though: after we raved to the dive shop about the awesomness of their Pelagic Magic dive, they set up another one for us Sunday night!  They usually only schedule one a week, but Matthew was available and there were a couple other crew guys who were happy to go.  We were both glad to have another chance to try to photograph all those little critters!

Saturday we did the normal Jack’s boat dive, which meant a slightly larger crowd and slightly less exotic dive sites.  On the bright side, our divemaster was Elaine, who we know from the Kona Classic.   Not to put down any of Jack’s other fabulous DMs, but Elaine remains our favorite!

This is what we call “diver hair:”

Dive #1 was at Pyramid Pinnacles.  I found lots of yellowtail coris and rockmover wrasses to chase after with the video camera, and there were a few photogenic lava tubes as well.

Looking through a lava tube:

The highlight here was when Jeff spotted some Heller’s Barracuda up in the shallows.

Heller’s Barracuda:

No luck in between dives today, either – it was just too windy and choppy to go out to sea in search of whales.

But our second dive was back at our old favorite: Eel Cove.  And today, the raccoon butterflyfish were there!  This pretty much made my day, if not my trip.  Ever since our first Kona Classic, when I first saw these guys in action, I’ve been dying to have another crack at it.

Raccoon Butterflyfish clip – 24 seconds, 10 MB

We also found a grumpy-looking devil scorpionfish.  I think I spotted this one while he was swimming – the backs of their fins are bright red and black.  But once they stop moving, they blend into the coral rubble pretty well!

Devil Scorpionfish:

Saturday night, we treated ourselves to dinner at the Royal Kona Resort, where we’ve stayed on most of our visits.  We did the tacky tourist thing and made the waiter photograph us with our tropical drinks:


Then it was off to bed, to get a full night’s sleep before our last day of diving…


Kona, February 2009: Part Two

Filed under: — Anastasia @ 4:45 pm

On Thursday, we had a special treat planned.  Several weeks before our trip, I’d contacted the local underwater photography club to see if anyone wanted to dive with us while we were in town.  One of our offers was not just to go beach diving – but to go out with someone on their boat!  Adding to the treat was the fact that said someone (henceforth Boat Dude or BD to protect him from random other divers pestering him for dive trips) is an experienced videographer; of course we jumped at the offer.

We met BD at Honokohau Harbor at 7am on Thursday to launch the boat, which is just big enough for three divers with photo gear.

Launching the boat

BD used to live in Southern California, but has retired to Hawaii and definitely has the laid-back Hawaiian attitude going on; I felt totally welcome even though he’d never dived with us before and couldn’t have known if we would be good company or difficult passengers!

Dive sites today were on request, so we asked to hit Turtle Pinnacles first in search of turtle cleaning stations.  We’ve had good luck at this site before, and were excited to have the chance to dive it without a ton of other divers nearby.

One reason BD may have been glad for company, even unknown company, is that it’s probably impossible to moor a boat if you’re the only one on it.  There’s no anchor-dropping at the dive sites in Kona; instead, each one has a mooring with a buoy attached to it which floats 5 to 15 feet under the surface of the water.  GPS coordinates will get you close; then you motor back and forth while peering down in search of the submerged buoy.  Once you’re on it, someone needs to dive off the boat with a rope to run through the loop on the mooring – and since BD was driving the boat, that someone today was Jeff, who nailed it on the first try.

Alas, the turtles were not to be found today.  Maybe they just hadn’t gotten out of bed yet!  We cruised around for a while seeing nothing special, but just enjoying a relaxing dive.

Of course, as soon as we climbed back onto the boat turtles started popping up out of the water all around us.  Figures!

Our second request was another old favorite of ours, a site where I always find something fun to look at: Eel Cove.  It’s exactly what it sounds like: a small cove with lots of little coral heads where eels are usually found hiding out.  Around the north and south corners of the cove you can often see one of my favorite fish behaviors: attacking raccoon butterflyfish.  Seargant majors nest in the large boulders in this area, and usually chase the hungry butterflyfish away from their eggs.  But when divers pass nearby the nests, the seargant majors hide – and the raccoon butterflyfish, not at all deterred by the divers’ presence, dive in for a free buffet.  It makes for a pretty good show, but you need to be careful not to linger too long near any of the nests, so that they aren’t totally decimated!

But, like the turtles, the swarming butterflyfish were not to be found.  There were plenty of eels though, including one or two out on the prowl.  And I managed to get in some quality time with yellowtail coris as they moved rocks around in search of food.

Whitemouth moray eel

Back at the harbor, we unloaded the boat and watched as BD gave it a good rinse at the boat-rinsing station (one of the perks of Honokohau Harbor, for a modest annual use fee).  We grabbed lunch at a restaurant right on the harbor, where I decided to have another go at local fish.  I was told they were out of fish and chips, so the waitress gave me a few minutes to look over the menu and decide on a second choice.  By the time she came back, she had an announcement: they had fish and chips again!  Guess it really was fresh off the boat!

Thursday night was another special dive: Jack’s “Pelagic Magic” black-water night dive.

It’s pretty much just what the name implies – a dive at night in the open ocean in search of bizarre pelagic critters.  We had an hour-long orientation at the shop to go over diving procedures, as well as look through a photo book of some of the common pelagic animals we might see.  Our guide for the night was Matthew d’Avella.  We first met him years ago at the Kona Classic, where he’d screened video from “black water” night dives he’d started running; we were excited to have the chance to do this dive with him at last. Only three divers were signed up: us, and a guy who’d actually never made a night dive before and had intended to sign up for the manta dive.  (Luckily, he turned out to do just fine.)

Along with Jeff Leicher (owner of Jack’s), the five of us hopped onto the roomy Nai’a Nui and headed out into the darkness.  We motored straight offshore about 3 miles, where the water is probably about 7000 feet deep (yes, more than a mile).  The boat’s motor is cut, and a parachute deployed into the water to help drag the boat along through the current.  Three lines were hung over the side of the boat; each had a small weight attached to the end to weigh it down, and ended about 45′ under the surface.  As each one of us approached the swim step, we hooked ourselves into another, shorter line that would attach us to one of those lines while letting us move up and down freely.

And so we splashed into the dark ocean a few miles offshore, and let ourselves dangle under the boat for an hour.

I can definitely say this is one of the coolest dives I’ve ever done.

Most of what you see is teeny.  As in, super duper teeny tiny.  Larval crustaceans zip around in the water or attach themselves to slightly larger gelatinous critters and enjoy the ride.  They look like children’s drawings of crabs and shrimp: tiny colorful outlines against a black background, like little neon signs.   Some creatures just sort of slowly float by you; others will circle around your lights and investigate you until they pass on in the current.  Most are translucent and hard to see unless you shine your light at just the right angle; others generate their own light shows as they sail through the dark.

I attempted to shoot video, but didn’t expect to come away with any watchable footage – it’s hard to focus on small, moving, translucent objects in the dark.  I did manage a few shots that make for semi-decent screen grabs, though:

Comb Jelly
Comb Jelly

Larval crustacean on jellyfish
Larval crab on jellyfish

Jeff had an even harder time, since the focus light on his camera isn’t very bright.  He managed to take pictures of a clump of critters near the beginning of the dive:

Shrimp on some sort of jelly – eating it or just taking a ride?
Shrimp on some sort of jelly - eating it or just taking a ride?

After that, he never did manage to focus and basically gave up.  He was a little task loaded on this dive, between futzing with the camera and worrying about buoyancy control in the dark.  We probably should have skipped the cameras, but since this dive usually only goes out once a week we figured it was our only chance.

Still, I thought this dive was totally worth it – we saw creatures most people never get a chance to observe.  It was just really darned cool, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

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