gear and trip report, Tukang Besi Archipelago, Indonesia

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Posted by A Hogarthian in the Islands of the Orient on August 14, 2001 at 00:19:45:

Well i finally got to try out my "on the way to DIR rig" on a warm, shallow coral reef. Being an inveterate carrier of big, bulky housed SLR cameras, long strobe arms, and heavy strobes, I have always had difficulty minding my gear on fragile reeftops. If it wasn't that stupid octopus coming out of its holder or the power inflator grabbing some Acropora, it was that dangling light that was bumping into things that took 10 or perhaps even 20 or 30 years to grow. I already knew that the DIR config worked great in the kelp forest, but here was my other playground; the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific; where marine species diversity reaches the highest point of any place on the planet. 5 days in Bali, 13 days of diving my #$@% brains out at a place called Wakatobi, and 5 days in Torajaland put the equipment to a good test, both above water and below.

All i can say is that i'm hooked. The Hogarthian config worked phenomenally well. The necklaced octo never even touched the reef. At the same time, it stayed nicely out of the way of the camera, even as i photographed things while turned upside down, peering into cracks and crevices, or intercepting fast-moving subjects over the shallow reef top. The octo hose did become a problem as it stuck out to the side a bit. I routed it under my right arm so it wouldnt snag the Tubastrea (a big, brittle coral) as i dipped in and out of crevices and holes, but if a real OOA emergency had arose, it would have been unwieldy to breathe off of as there was a little tug down and to the right when breathing it with this routing. When demonstrating the functionality of the rig to the DMs, i routed the hose over (or around as the case was) my right shoulder as i usually do in less fragile environments....time for a custom hose i guess.

The light stayed in its little bungee on the right chest strap and never ever came out, except when i was sloppy in replacing it once in a cavern, and even then , it only popped out upon giant stride entry on the subsequent dive. When i needed that light, it was easy to reach, always there, ready and waiting. When i was done with it, the elastic band held it nicely in place, out of sight, out of mind, and away from the coral. The best part of all was that one hand was all that was needed to pull out or replace the thing.

The 7 foot hose behaved itself fairly well on the reef. There were some initial problems with it snagging my yoke fitted 1st stage, and wanting to pull out of my mouth to the right, but that was eliminated by routing it under the left weight pouch on my belt (routing it underneath the right side, where a canister light will someday be, was not as effective. It was also easy to deploy and restow after an S-drill with the local DMs. The only time i knew it was there was when doffing and donning on the boat.

The DIR spring straps, attached to decidedly un-DIR Twin Jet Graphites performed well, but they began to chafe at my heels after a few days of spending 6 hours in the water each and every day. Part of this was due to the fact that many of the dives were started from or ended up on a small strech of white sand beach, with some respectable churning wave action (again, more on that later) and lots of little #$%^@# grains of sand ended up in places where i really wished they hadn't. The spring straps also held the twin jets tightly enough, that they irritated the top of my feet, but that is nothing that a little propane torch and some careful annealing wouldn't cure. I suspect that there may someday be all different sizes of spring straps available, in say, quarter-inch steps, each optimal for a given boot/fin/foot combination (assuming Scubapro XL Jets don't one day take over the world ; ) Minor sizing problems aside, it was effortless to doff and don the fins, in 10 seconds flat, with one ungloved hand.

The stainless homemade backplate was pure joy for the back and shoulders. As long as i periodically checked to see that the wing nuts on the STA were tightened, the rig was rock-solid. No tanks wiggling around on my back, no shifting weights, only perfect, nearly effortless trim in any position: face down, right, left or even on my back. The straps showed little tendency to slip out, and only when i rolled to the left or right. They were easily replaced in proper position with just a fingertip on either hand. At the same time, the harness was easy to slip into, and out of back on the boat or the dive shack, and this was while wearing a 7 mil Farmer John (more on that later). The rest of the divers were all warm-water only with varying experience, and they had a hard time believing that the backplate was anything other than a torture device, but that was their loss, not mine. The DMs were impressed after the first S-drill, but even they felt that the rig definitely had an unorthodox and at first glance, cumbersome and uncomfortable appearance. For my part, function beats form....everytime, and the Hogarthian config simply rocks. The power inflator stayed put and never snagged a single thing on the entire trip. It does need a bit of shortening, but i simply shoved it under the bungee with a small bend to keep it from dangling. A trip to Scuba Toys shortly will result in its getting amputated a little near the D-ring (ouch).

Well that's enough of the gear, what about the resort and most importantly, the diving?

It was 13 days of non-stop, unlimited diving at the Wakatobi resort on the tip of Tolandono Island, a small limestone plateau some 100 or so miles off the southeastern tip of Sulawesi. Tolandono is one of several relatively small arid islands that comprise the Tukang Besi group. Go north and you hit Manado and beyond that, the Phillipines. Go east and you hit Irian Jaya/Papua-New Guinea. Go west and you hit Java or Sumatra, and go south and there's only a few islands between you and Antarctica. The house reef sits at the confluence of the Banda and Flores Seas and is near deep abyssal trenches that plunge past 24,000 feet. A football field's length from shore the water is over 1000 feet deep. The currents are ferrocious. One minute they howl at a mask ripping 4 knots and a few minutes later they die down, change direction and blast you off in the other direction. The upwellings will rake you with cold water heaved up from the abyss below, such that by the end of the trip, every single person on the boat (except myself...had the Farmer John) was wearing a hooded vest under their 5 mil wetsuits and exiting the water shivering after an hour or so of diving (surface temps were 77 degrees Farenheit). The downwellings can make your bubbles descend below your waist as you inflate your BC and kick upwards. On a few wall dives, i was on a roller coaster ride while the winds and the sea were having arguments with each other and sending long sheets of warm downwelling water off the expansive reeftop on some streches and bone chilling upwelling water on other streches. God, it was f***ing great diving. I loved that stuff. It was better than, well, a lot of things ;-) After a short while, one doesn;t even notice these up& down wellings, unless they are unusually strong. It is a simple matter to just compensate appropriately and continue the dive for another hour. Just watch what directions thw whip corals are bending and you will know whether to inflate, vent, kick like crazy, or just give up and drift to your heart's content. A few times it seemed we would surface a mile or two from where we went in. One time 10 divers popped up nearly 3/4 of a mile apart after being swished back and forth in the ever-changing current. The current just carries a diver along the wall at varying speeds but every now and then, when it got particularly nice and fast, i finned furiously along with it close to the wall. That kinda feels like something out of a Starwars movie where you are flying very fast and low over the surface of something. 8 foot sea fans, soft corals, giant sponges, overhangs, caverns and other stuff are just whipping past your face and you can feel the force of the water like wind on your face floorboarding it through the desert with the windows rolled can feel the water pushing on your mask and reg. It is just too cool to scream past the wall shooting up and over large sponges sticking out like cannons or rolling on your back and seeing the surface of the water anywhere from 20 to 120 fsw above. In the nicer currents, you can fly by schools of fusiliers, barracuda, jacks, the occasional tuna or even an eagle ray or two so fast that you're practically on top of them before they react and keep their distance. If you pretend to ignore them, they oftentimes don't even alter their course. Of course all these currents are bad for those who carry big clumsy cameras. Oh well, gotta have fun no matter what.....its the only right thing to do. Really big billfish are here also. Big sailfish were regularly seen jumping in the channel, and on clear dusk days, the setting sun would just illuminate schools of some sort of fish being scared out of the water by something large and unknown.

The immense and little understood ocean conveyor belt runs right past the Tukang Besi group of islands. All of this means phenomenal biodiversity, roiling schools of fish, clouds of plankton, salps, sea-jellies, stuff i had never even seen pictures of, and lots of little blue Portugese men o'war. It also means that one had better be a skilled, fit diver with the appropriate equipment; mentally and otherwise, especially with a Portugese man o' war 4 inches from your dome port and 8 inches from your ungloved hands in windy choppy seas. The 7 clients and 3 DMs were mostly up to par. In fact, as a group, these were the fittest, most careful and competent divers i've ever been on a boat with outside of Southern California. We must have had nearly two centuries of diving experience between all of us. It was a joy to dive with these people. I felt like i was with the Calif Wreck Divers or BENT Dive Club. We also carried a collective $50,000.00 worth of camera equipment every time we hit the water, and only a tsunami could come between us and our pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs or whatever it was that we were after.

The resort provides chase boats and lookouts on shore for those who gamble with the current and lose. The boat pilots are ethnic Bajoe People, descendents of the Sea Gypsies. That means that they have been plying the oceans in small wooden boats for centuries, well before the first Europeans ever happened on the scene. That also means that they are very, very good sharp eyed boat drivers, and even when divers surfaced hundreds of yards from the boat, in opposite directions, the boat was never more than 5-10 minutes away. The captain would motor up, the deckhand would toss a line, and thirty seconds later you were on the boat, and a minute after that you had a cup of hot mocha in one hand and a glass of water or fresh coconut in the other. We ate like pigs, drank like fish (fresh drinking water, that is) and dove like mermaids. The shortest dive of the trip was the first 58 minute checkout dive, and that was only because no cameras were allowed on the checkout dive. We did OOA simulations and mask removal and replacement on the checkout dive, all while maintaining neutral buoyancy....hovering in 40 fsw above the abyss in front of the house reef wall. The resort owner and original founder, Lorenz Mader seemed to be aware of many different diving configs and philosophies, and darn if it didn't show! My dives averaged around 80 minutes each with the longest being over 100 minutes with Al80s. There were Al 92s and 50s for those who wanted them. On some dives, we were dropped into the water from the boat about a quarter mile from the resort and i would swim or drift (or a combination of the two) back to the resort and exit onto the beach.

The boats were comfortable, ergonomic and very well thought out. There were 4 gates from which we could simultaneously enter the water and there was plenty of room for divers and their gear. The dive sites were at most, 45 minutes away, and many were much, much closer. The food was gourmet every night and on most days, we had fresh tuna prepared in any one of a jillion different ways. We had three square meals each day, and i drank gallons of water daily...more than i ever thought i could drink until rather recently. Muffins, doughnuts or fritters of sorts were available after each afternoon dive, and the facilities were adequate for our cameras, gear and cleaning up. The hot water was a little balky, but that was fixed in short order. The rooms were warm and comfortable, and mosquito netting was provided, but i never used it. The local climate is somewhat dry and the bugs were never a problem.

The diving is among the best on the planet. There are other areas in Indonesia that rival Wakatobi (at least, when i last saw them) but Wakatobi, with its national park status, extremely astute owner, and revenue-generating ability for the locals, as well as the government, seems to have the better chance at long term survival what with blast fishing, overpopulation, pollution and the like. Not all sites were current wracked walls. Some were gentle slopes hills or terraced dropoffs. One such site, Table Coral City had undulating cascading sheets of fish literally erupting out of the Acroporas on the reef top in the late afternoon. When the waves were breaking over my head, some 6-10 feet above, perhaps 70 minutes into the dive, with no other divers in sight, clouds of these little damsels, Chromis, Anthias and the like would extend as far as the eye could see in every direction. Occasionaly a big group of black snappers or bass of some sort would encircle me as they crossed the reef top. Ribbons of fusiliers of different species would sweep in from the drop offs occasionally at depth, one would see a dinner-table sized sting ray or mackerel or tuna looking for dinner over the abyss. One day, at a site called Roma, we found a solitary great barracuda, perhaps 5 feet in length, at a cleaning station. Every so often he'd snap his jaws from side to side and when he did, the entire cloud of fish on the reef would seemingly flinch and dart a few feet deeper to the shelter of the coral below. At another site called Barracuda Reef, a school of bumphead parrot fish actually allowed me close enough to get a decent photograph before the other divers showed and scared them off. Blue spotted stingrays, black blotched rays, cuttle fish and sea snakes (banded kraits) also made appearances every other dive, as a matter of fact, i have never seen so many banded kraits as i have at Wakatobi. They even exited the water several times and crawled over the sand under the dining area at night. They are a real pain to photograph, and i'd already seen them at Bunaken, so i pretty much ignored them on this trip. So many things to see and do, so little time and so few dives.

Every single dive showed more fish species in the first 15 minutes than i had ever seen in my entire life in California. Every dive would show at least one thing that i never even knew existed, and that typically, was not in any book that i had at my disposal. This is a part of the world where species unknown to science are not that rare of an occurrence. Another site called spiral corner had fish exhibiting unusual behaviors, or acting uncommonly tame around divers (the same goes for the house reef). Fish that normally flee before a photog can even get remotely close are unusually tame and trusting at this site. Every dive at this site, i'd see fish behavior in a particular species that i'd never seen anywhere else (perhaps it was realted to being able to spend 85 minutes on a dive without having hordes of PADI puppies thrashing about, stirring up sediment, banging into rocks and generally scaring the wits out of everything within sight. Towards the end of one dive, a little orange spotted grouper swam right up into my face and just hung around for afew minutes. He was right under my chin, so close that i couldn't even look down and see all of him. I don't know what the hell he was up to, but that is a seriously strange behavior for a coral grouper. Usually they're more skittish. Some of this fish behavior seemed like it would be roughly akin to finding a single white sea-bass that eats out of your hand at only a single island in a single part of a single cove off of Southern Cal; it's that unusual.

On top of the house reef, there are sea-grass meadows chock full of weird little things that i've only seldom seen even photographs along with nice tame schools of jacks (trevally), that could care less about the diver's presence. The things would swim so close that i could snap a frame-filling picture of a face only! The school would lazily circle the divers so that one could spin around and see nothing but a solid mass of jacks in all directions. A blacktip reef shark, cuda, octopus (including the deadly blue-ringed variety, which eluded me on this trip..others saw some though), blue-spotted rays were also to be found just 30 yards from one's bedroom. Night diving was phenomenal. It was not always the easiest or best nightdiving i ever did but it compared very favorably most of the time to places like the Jetty at Derawan (off the coast of Borneo) or the house reef at Murex in Manado. It all depended on the moonlight. The colors were the absolute best of anyplace; translucent blue tunicates corkscrewing around on gossamer little stalks next to orange, purple, yellow or even white soft corals, tons of weird little crustaceans, big 7-8 pound bugs, and one night, a school of 20-30 bumphead parrotfish beddng down in only 20 fsw. Several areas were simply 100% covered with lush, healthy, nearly perfect coral. The coral cover at numerous sites was equivalent to the best i'd ever seen on the planet (which was and hopefully still is, Sangalakki Island, 50 mi off the east coast of Borneo).

There were areas that showed dynamite damage, but many of these showed strong signs of recovery, and juvenile barracuda and jacks were seen in a number of places. Sharks are notably scarce, due to the fact that a shark finning operation a few years earlier had annihilated all the reef-dwelling sharks in the shallows (but then, one can go to the Bahamas for the big animals at a third of the price). If one wanted to see cartilaginous fishies (and mostly skittish ones at that, one had to go deep...very, very, farm-animal-stupidly deep. Come to think of it, sea turtles were very skittish, and few and far between as well...well, that skittishness bodes well for their survival at any rate. Humans are dangerous for turtles. The cold water was a bit of a drag, especially when the bottom time reaches 98 minutes of motionless hovering and drifting. The visibility was highly variable....some days it was as little as 60 feet in places, other days, i could clearly see the surface from 140 fsw but if you want a symphony of life, don't complain about the vis. There were tons of wondrous little gelatinous critters wriggling around in that turbid murk, and some of that plankton rivaled the stuff off of Southern Cal for weirdness. The more traditional critter hunting was near par with that of Lembeh Straits, several hundred miles to the north. One one dive alone, we saw false stonefish, Pegasus sea moths, robust ghost pipefish, and later in the evening, mandarin fish, really huge mantis shrimp (big enough to cause nightmares: his hole was 5 inches acorss); a pretty good haul for two dives at one site. Lionfish were so numerous as to constitute a genuine pain in the butt, and even crocodile flathead stopped eliciting photographs after the fourth day.

13 days of diving is not enough for a competent, thoughtful underwater photog at this place. There are just so many nuances to become aware of, and even after spending 5 - 6 hours a day in the water on nearly 50 dives, there is still far too much to see and photograph. I returned from the trip with 1,224 exposures used up (which is slightly below average for me, given the duration of the trip) and i feel that i have barely scratched the surface. There is so much oppurtunity, once the critter-hunting is over and done with, there are all those odd behaviors and strangely friendly fish and exquisite little juxtapositions of invertebrates, any one of which looks like it'd make the cover of Skin Diver or Ocean Realm or National Geographic if the film would only turn out as hoped. Nope, 80 hours under the water here is not even close to being enough. I am definitely returning within 2-5 years time to see how Lorenz Mader is doing with that splendid masterpiece of his called Wakatobi.

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