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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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May 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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MV Pelagian, Wakatobi, Indonesia

near perfection, but with safety glitches

from the May, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It was good news when my first full day of diving simply got better and better with each subsequent dive. I dived sloping reefs, then a wall, with each dive fishier, which meant a school of two-dozen bumphead wrasses, two banded sea snakes, an orangutan crab hanging out on bubble coral, half a dozen turtles, lots of Clarkii and pink anemone fish, a nest with a porcelain anemone crab. Bright yellow trumpet fish, damsels, and schools of surgeonfish swarmed the reefs. Endless coral species with eye-popping colors, textures, and patterns, from brain corals to gorgonia, all the colors of the rainbow. And, on one dive, an eagle ray zoomed by, then did a stop-on-a-dime-U-turn in front of us, as though it wanted to m ke sure we saw it. After all, some say, Wakatobi is located -- at or at least close to -- the world's epicenter of coral reef biodiversity.

Pelagian's shaded aft deck.I was diving from the MV Pelagian, which is more than 50 years old, but you'd never know it. Originally designed as a 35m (115-foot) luxury motor yacht (it does not handle rolling seas well) and once used by the Duke of Westminster for family vacations in the Seychelles, it carries a maximum of 10 guest divers. We had only eight. It runs from the Wakatobi Resort, making it a popular way for divers to have the possibility of both a liveaboard and land-based vacation in one convenient stop.

When we arrived at Wakatobi from Bali -- about the only practical way to get there -- I checked in at the resort lounge, showed my dive credentials (and a DAN card) and I signed my release. I then learned that Nitrox was $27 per day! I was shocked! So what's a diver to do this late in the game? I shrugged my shoulders and enjoyed the buffet that awaited. Soon, a dive boat ferried us to the air-conditioned Pelagian, where the crew greeted us with smiles. After a quick briefing, I headed aft to my cabin, where my luggage had been stowed. Because the Pelagian was not designed as a charter boat, the cabins vary from a large suite to a cramped single, all with ensuite bathrooms (I soon learned that the inefficient shower door allowed water to puddle all over the bathroom floor). I had been assigned a sizeable cabin with both a double and single bed and plenty of storage space, but my female dive buddy, who was sharing with another woman, had been assigned a cramped bow room with little storage space. (Had I announced I was a travel writer, my solo cabin might have been a perk, but they had no way of knowing; I had paid full fare and was traveling unannounced.)

Our first Zodiac ride that afternoon was only five minutes to a nice wall with a sloping bank at the bottom. This was our "check-out dive," and while we were to clear our masks and share an octopus, our guide ignored the requirements, perhaps because the four divers in my group had maybe 8,000 dives between us. The site was a typical Indonesian mix of soft and hard coral, with plentiful small fish, swirling striped eel catfish balls, a couple of white pygmy seahorses, a long-snouted shrimp and a few nudis that our sharp-eyed Indonesian dive guide pointed out. Water was warm -- 88°F (31°C) at the surface, dropping to 86°F at 70 feet (21m). Visibility was 75 feet (15-23m). The Pelagian then motored eight hours that that evening to dive sites to the north.

The next day's dive briefing was to be at 6:45 a.m., the normal time, but after long flights -- we were four Americans, a Dane living in Dubai, a woman from the UK, and an Australian couple -- we all wanted to sleep in. We requested a 7:45 a.m. briefing, and offered to skip the night dive while making all three regular dives. Ramon, our Spanish cruise director, had no problem with that. Another Spaniard, Judith, was a dive guide, as was Yusuf, an Indonesian. They gave good briefings and efficiently accommodated our requests. The comfortable salon as befits a super-yacht had spacious sitting areas, both near the bow and the stern (with a large TV and DVD player) as well as up top, where there is a shaded seating area. The appropriately sized salon has dining tables and a long, L-shaped, comfortable couch where eight people can sit or two people can nap. The brass everywhere is polished and the portholes and decks always clean. The small, dedicated camera room accommodated about six photographers with big rigs. Next to the camera room is a main wet-area deck bathroom, which is handy when coming back from a dive. The dive deck is a u-shaped stern off the salon that has a cushioned sitting area (to don your laid-out wetsuit), and has the permanent outside eating table where lunches were served. It's small but functional for the 10 divers it was designed for.

Wakatobi Resort in Indonesia - MapThe second day of diving included the nice, current-free reef dives, but diving the third day was really excellent, including a decent night dive with lots of small squid that hung out in the blue and shot orange ink at me. A friendly turtle grazed my flashlight as I tracked rays, crabs, scorpionfish, and a two-spotted lionfish. Earlier on the second dive, the reef top could have been our whole dive -- the light and life were great -- with endless schooling red tooth triggerfish, surgeonfish, and blue filefish surrounding me. Two banded sea snakes slithered down the wall in slow motion. Dives were typically 70 minutes long.

But the day was not without problems. An unsecured tank in the Zodiac fell hard on my buddy's thigh, painfully bruising it. Thankfully, it didn't land on her foot and break it. The day before, another unsecured tank fell, just missing a diver, and another day had another near miss by a falling tank. Why in the world they failed to bungee these down properly is beyond me. Ramon said he would take corrective action.

The Indonesian dive crew was quite helpful, drying wetsuits and booties in the sun, then laying them out for each diver. After suiting up, I'd take the easy route down one of the side ladders to a waiting Zodiac, where a crewmember helped me gear up. They called roll before we departed and again after we climbed the sturdy ladders into the Zodiac. Back at the Pelagian, they would help us out of our wetsuits. Divers who drank a lot of predive coffee were given an antiseptic spray for their suits, before getting a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, a hot towel, a hot drink and a warm water spray hose.

MV Pelagian, Wakatobi in Indonesia - RatingThe Pelagian has a huge galley, and they used it well. Early breakfast was heavy on carbs, so I ordered a hardboiled egg with my coffee. Full breakfasts following the 7 a.m. first dive included delicious omelets or eggs, with croissants and toast as well as turkey bacon and chicken sausage (this is Moslem Indonesia, and pork is not consumed) and passion fruit, dragon fruit, pineapple, papaya, and mango. The plated lunch and dinners served offered three entrée options: seafood, chicken, beef or lamb (duck one night) plus good veggies, rice, potatoes, and salads. Desserts were only OK, but not worth the calories except for the coconut ice cream. I skipped them for my own 70% dark chocolate. The chefs were flexible mixing and matching food preferences.

We sailed overnight to Buton for muck diving. On my third such dive there, I spotted a wonderpus, as well as a snowflake eel cozied up in a hole with a burr fish and a banded shrimp. The wonderpus hung around in one square meter of sand, resplendent in his full camouflaged glory. And there was more. Ringed juvenile pipefish, electric sea urchins with Coleman shrimp scampering on them, Chromadis nudis, and a couple of seahorses made this a rich and exciting dive. At Buton pier, I watched a giant green frogfish, red-spotted, slowly descend down a 20-foot-tall concrete wall to the bottom, an opportunity for great shots, and ogled pipefish, pygmy lionfish, a cuttlefish, and several spearing mantis shrimps. We divers typically stayed within sight of each other, but on occasion asked our guide to slow down since there was so much to see and photograph. We did standard five-minute safety stops at five meters (16 feet), and the Zodiacs were always close-by, following our bubbles, and ready to pick us up.

MV PelagianAt our mandarin fish dusk dive in a town bay, we watched these little beauties dance through their mating ritual in this underwater junkyard, which was laced with of hunks of cement, discarded pipes, plastic, and cans. Among the rubbish, I saw an octopus, schools of razorfish dancing in unison, ornate pipefish, decorator crabs and small lionfish. Afterward, the crew disinfected our wetsuits, but that only made me think of the seawater I inadvertently inhaled.

The Pelagian rolls in anything but a flat, calm sea. One diver was in the bathroom during modest 3- to 4-foot swells when the bathroom door (held closed by magnets, not a hook) popped open and a sharp edge slammed into her heel, ripping off a deep layer of skin the size of a dime. This was my buddy again -- she who had the tank bruise her thigh. This second painful injury caused her to miss a couple of dives. While the crew was helpful with bandages and Betadine, the nutrient-rich waters of South Sulawesi resulted in her needing IV antibiotics when she arrived home, a very sick puppy. All because of a door without a proper hook.

When she couldn't dive, she could at least enjoy the scenery, which often included pilot whales and dolphins! When a pod of pilot whales circled our Zodiac, we jumped in with snorkel gear to watch them pass. Motoring between dive sites, we once happened upon probably a hundred pilot whales and dolphins, which danced in front of the boat for our cameras and videos. The captain followed them for 20 minutes before we anchored. That evening, he moved the boat repeatedly so two of us divers could watch the sunset from the bow.

MV Pelagian, Camera RoomOn our next-to-last day, Friday, my second dive on a lovely wall and beautiful pinnacle was among the best. My guide spotted one macro subject after another -- a hairy squat lobster in the crevice of a barrel sponge, several nudibranchs (dusky nembrotha, strigate chromodoris, chromodoris willani), tomato clownfish, a large crocodile fish (we saw many on the trip), popcorn shrimp in an anemone, teeny-tiny bubble coral shrimps, Bath's combtooth blenny, reticulate boxfish, and schools and schools of anthias and redtooth triggerfish.

Dive site Roma brought beautiful rose corals and some unusually heavy currents, (really the only dive with any consequential current all week) which pushed us over a large sandy patch guarded by a large titan triggerfish, which proceeded to attack both our dive guide and my buddy. The dive guide had warned us on his slate, "aggressive Titan ahead," so we got out of the way, but it pursued him anyway. He kicked at it and poked it with his pointer until it finally retreated to the sandy patch to guard its eggs.

As a seasoned traveler, I take special care to mark my luggage, especially for a journey to an outpost as remote as Wakatobi. My compulsion paid off as my checked bag with my BCD, fins, wetsuit, etc., went missing before or after my Hong Kong layover. And that's why I carry my regulators, dive computer, camera equipment, mask, swimming trunks and a change of clothes in my carry-ons. And it's also why I arrive two days in advance of boarding a charter or a boat halfway across the world.

MV Pelagian, SalonIn this case, I had decided to spend two nights in Bali before catching the charter to Wakatobi, and my bag finally turned up, despite missing the handle with the bag tag, my ID tag, and even an itinerary. The Wakatobi/Pelagian rep met me as I arrived and helped me file my lost bag claim, then hooked me up with my driver for Conrad Hotel Bali. I was confident my bag would show up because I had stashed another Itinerary and ID on the outside, a third on the inside. That gave Cathay Pacific enough information to get my bag on the next flight and to my hotel. The following day, my driver picked me up at 6 a.m. for Wakatobi's twin-engine turboprop charter, which arrived about 10:30 a.m., and a van delivered the passengers to the waiting Indonesian-built dive boats that spirited us to the resort.

The MV Pelagian provides a great liveaboard experience -- if a tank doesn't fall on you in the Zodiac or a bathroom door doesn't whack your heel. The diving is pristine, the boat lovely, the food great and the dive guides excellent. That it carries only 11divers is a great plus -- and we saw no other divers during the trip. If they address the safety issues I noted, you shouldn't be disappointed on this luxury live aboard.

P.S.: I did not see one shark the whole trip. Where were they? And no mantas or whale sharks either. Are they being exterminated?

And a few words about Wakatobi Resorts

After breakfast on the Pelagian, we were ferried at 6:30 am to the Wakatobi resort for our 7:30 am dive, while our luggage was delivered to our rooms. Spacious and long, the resort's six dive boats can each accommodate 18 divers and groups were dropped strategically apart to avoid crowded dive sites.

Shoko, our Japanese dive guide, was thorough, helpful and good at finding small creatures, which are plentiful on the Wakatobi's reefs. There is a wide variety of macro sites, (with a few wide angle opportunities), with plentiful nudis, plentiful crocodile fish, various anemone shrimps and crabs, unusual small fish species (e.g. splendid dottyback, spotted cardinalfish, juvenile spotted boxfish). The coral was healthy and rich, with lots of fishy sites with schooling fry, surgeonfish, black snappers, square-spotted xanthias, (I watched two males lock lips and battle it out for territory for 5 minutes), wrasses, gobies, hawkfish, Denise pygmy seahorses, bubble anemone shrimp and turtles. I encountered ten turtles on the house reef on one dive.

The ocean front cabins were delightful, well appointed, roomy and with a spacious outdoor shower, porch with couches and padded beach loungers with a large umbrella. A large closet, windows, netted queen beds and fresh towels each day made the room very pleasant. Ideal really.

Meals in the Long House were buffet style, with lots of variety and of high quality. Soft drinks were $4, $7.00-$10.00 for beer, wine, and mixed drinks. The grounds were immaculately maintained and beautiful. Massages were good. The village tour was well worth doing, especially if you haven't seen Indonesian village life. Quite an eye-opener.

Wakatobi resort should be on any serious diver's bucket list. Many guests were returning visitors, saying something for its attraction. The staff was super to a person -- very well trained and executed, all 300-plus of them.

-- RT.

Our undercover diver's bio: He started diving in 1992 in Grand Cayman, and has since logged more than 1,000 dives in every major Caribbean destination and most hot spots in Asia/Pacific. He prefers liveaboards, but also enjoys a week on land and local tours. His bucket list is pretty small now, concentrating instead on returning to his favorites in Indonesia, primarily, with Raja Ampat at the top of the list. He often travels alone, but also with small groups of buddies he's acquired over the years.

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: Cost: US$2590 single (with two sharing) for seven days, plus $27/day for nitrox. $745 for air charter from Denpasar to Wakatobi air strip. Total flight time from the states: 36 hours (Coming back I had to overnight at the Hong Kong airport hotel. . . . Pelagian charges $4 sodas and $6 beers and wines -- but no hard liquor onboard . . . electricity supplies are European 220v 50Hz, but there was an ample supply of American 110v adapters. . . . tanks (60s, 80s and 100s)Full-board at the Wakatobi Resort per night costs from $290 - $845 per person (two sharing) according to the accommodation. Conrad Hotel Bali is a nice property, which I booked online for $139/night, with an eye-popping breakfast buffet. I hired a driver to take me to a large artisan batik shop, a fabulous large art gallery, a coffee plantation to drink Lewak and other Balinese specialty coffees and teas, a grand view of a volcano, elephant riding and Ubud for a 12-hour day, all-in for $90, including a small tip. (Tips only need to be small, if at all, in Indonesia.)

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