We ride into the heart of Wakatobi –- one of Indonesia's premier dive sites –- on a faded wooden boat loaded with instant noodles, juice boxes and an aerodry washing machine. At the dock in Kaledupa, men with bowler helmets sweep our bags into a canoe and throw us back out to sea. The heat has bleached the color from the land and trees, but as we putter across a channel to Hoga Island the water remains a cool swirl of vibrant aqua, teal and indigo. This is southeast Sulawesi, a birthmark-shaped island in Indonesia's northeast and home to some of the world's most spectacular coral reefs. I'm traveling with seasoned Indonesianists and we're ready to dive, swim and toss back cold, sunset beers in soft, cloth hammocks. It's not until we come to a halt in the shallow waters lapping Hoga's beach that the silence sets in, followed by fears that we might be making a terrible mistake. These are remote islands, tiny freckles on the Indonesian map, made even more distant by a lack of connective infrastructure –- like toes severed from feet. As we sink our own feet into the hot, white sand, my mind turns to the granola bar in my knapsack –- that could last me for a day, I calculate, thinking this island was far more deserted than we'd anticipated. Yet hidden behind the expanse of palm trees sits a cluster of delightful wooden bungalows and a shaded veranda with dining tables. Rooms are available. Creating a culture of conservation The name Wakatobi is an amalgam of its four main islands –- Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. The seas surrounding the southeast Sulawesi district received national marine park status in 1996 and Wakatobi has since garnered attention from conservationists and avid scuba divers drawn by its incredible underwater diversity and expansive reefs. Each summer hundreds of students descend on Hoga, one of Wakatobi's many minor islets, to conduct research through Operation Wallacea, a non-profit sustainable development group based in England.
Environmental outfits like the World Wildlife Fundhave also been helping to improve park management and publicize its vast biodiversity. In 2012 the WWF released a film about the Bajo, a once-nomadic sea tribe that now lives on stilted homes over the water and depends on fishing for survival. Resourceful and ingenious, the Bajo dive using hand-made wooden goggles. On my second day on Hoga I watch a Bajo man row to shore, scurry effortlessly up a coconut tree, claim a fruit and scoop out the meat in one long, continuous roll. In view of Hoga is Sampela, the only Bajo village in the region completely disconnected from the mainland. The village has a mosque, schools and convenience stores. There is a soccer pitch and a small health clinic, all built on dead coral and connected by a snaking series of wooden bridges and walkways. The belief in the sea and its bounty influences Bajo society, but many traditions are slowly evaporating as fish stocks dwindle. The Bajo have also had to adjust their lives to increasing conservation efforts. Growth in scuba diving, for example, has led to a crackdown on bomb fishing, which in the past destroyed large chunks of otherwise pristine reefs. “We want to promote this place for divers, people who really love to come for the nature,” says Geertje Berveling, a Dutch conservationist who assists with the dive center at the Hoga Dive Resort. Beyond Bali