Hyperventilating is the secret – as you float on the surface of the warm turquoise waters, rapidly draw air in and out of your lungs to dive deeper and explore more of the coral wall’s abundant diversity of vibrant life. Each descent offers a new surprise; frequently sea turtles and spotted stingrays dart from their dark caverns, curious cuttlefish swim by to give you an inquisitive glance, a close inspection of the coral might offer a glimpse of an impossibly colored nudibranch, or you may well happen upon a banded sea snake stalking the reef for tiny phosphorescent fish. Kicking your way further downward this calming, wondrously sublime aquatic world makes it easy to forget your breath and explore much longer than you thought possible. When your body tells you it’s time to ascend and you break the water’s surface, your eyes are treated to the view of tiny Hoga Island several hundred feet away. Hoga is the epitome of the island oasis. White sandy beaches are crowned with coconut and palm and there is little evidence of habitation except a long jetty where local boys swim. The totality of island inhabitants includes a small local village and scattered huts along the west shore comprising the island’s two simple accommodations. Perhaps a small, handmade wooden boat carrying a local fisherman will putter by as you tread on the surface preparing for your next descent.
Currently, Hoga island finds itself at an environmental crossroads as NGO’s, local communities, and the Indonesian government struggle to strike a balance between feeding and advancing a growing sea-dependent population while preserving its diverse marine ecosystem. The products and challenges of these efforts were illustrated to us as we chatted with Kun Dang, the Hoga Island Resort’s Bajo divemaster. While escaping the rising heat in a pair of shaded hammocks one morning, Kun Dang stopped by to drop off some hand-made Bajo goggles we had requested the previous day while visiting the Bajo village of Sampela where he lives. Kun Dang, one of the few in his village who speaks English, chatted casually about his life and career in Wakatobi. Several years ago he received the opportunity to be certified free of charge as a divemaster through Operation Wallacea , a NGO that conducts marine research and administers conservation education programs to the local population. This opportunity provided him welcomed alternative to other options for elevating his family’s livelihood. For a Bajo, neither joining the army that suppresses internal conflicts or becoming a police officer and exacting bribes were welcomed alternatives living in a community which has been systematically marginalized by the Indonesian government. His father has also invited him work trawling the waters for stingray on an immense Chinese ship complete with a 10 kilometer long net just outside the marine park boundaries, but Kun Dang greatly enjoys his job as a divemaster. He loves being in the water, conversing with new people, and the leisure time it permits. His diving career creates a stable income much higher than the average Indonesian, but he wants to be able to provide more for his daughter and wife. Ideally he would like to obtain his dive instructor’s certificate, however the training is expensive and therefore harder to obtain than paid work on a fishing ship. A moderately more robust tourist market could make a diving career the obvious choice. His story blatantly confirmed the importance of using and tipping local guides whenever possible.
The previous day, Kun Dang had showed us around the Bajo settlement of Sampela, also his home village. The Bajo, or Bajau, sometimes referred to as sea gypsies, are a culture scattered throughout the coastal regions of Southeast Sulawesi and live lives intricately tied to the sea. The Bajo build their villages hundreds of meters, sometimes kilometers, from the shore. Rocks and dead coral are tediously piled by hand until a foundation several feet above the surface is sturdy enough to construct a stilted structure on. While some Bajo villages provide temporary settlement for its nomadic fishermen, the village of Sampela is permanent and extensive. Several hundred meters from the shore of Hoga’s larger neighboring island of Kalidupa, it has hundreds of residents living in an array of wood, metal, and bamboo homes connected by a maze of walkways, platforms, and docks. The village includes several stores, a mosque, a school built by the owner of the Hoga Island Dive Resort, and even a billiard hall quite popular with the locals. Nearly all of Sampelas food and livelihood comes from the waters surrounding it and everywhere there are fish drying, nets being mended, spears sharpened, and boats being repaired. Seafood however is not the only thing on the dinner table here. Surprisingly, the village houses several large gardens which grow healthy fruit trees, watermelon vines, corn, and a variety of other vegetables. As gardeners, we were stunned by their ability to grow productive crops on rock surrounded by saltwater.
Little is known about the origins of the Bajo people although their traditional creation myths offer some incite into their collective identity as outsiders and a nomadic people from the sea. One myth places their origins as castaways from Southern Sulawesi’s Buginese empire. The myth states that an ancient Buginese princess was once lost at sea. Her distraught father exiled a large search party until his daughter was safe on shore. Another legend holds that upon reaching Kalidupa, the Bajo ancestors found the island to be rife with evil spirits and decided it would be most prudent to settle far from shore.
The Bajo’s long history as outsiders has not faded with time nor has their resolve been shaken. They continue to resist government efforts to resettle on shore and despite being a marginalized group that is discriminated against by their neighbors they continue their traditional lifestyle with a characteristic fortitude. While nearly all of the population has converted to Islam, many maintain traditional animist beliefs, most of which reinforce their closeness with the sea. Some of these beliefs include mantras that are recited to the sea god before undertaking long voyages and others around the time of birth. When a Bajo child is born the placenta is thrown into the water under the assumption that an older sibling is then born in the sea. Also, three days after birth it is coming for the baby’s father to take the newborn diving with him.
Conservationists have been working with the Bajo community to foster their traditional ties to the sea and translate this to a self image as the reef’s caretakers and custodians. So far, the Bajo appear quite receptive to these efforts. Nearly all the fisherman have already experienced decreases in their catch and therefore have responded by respectfully self imposed restrictions on many of the most destructive fishing practices. Originally, the stumbling point was that while the Bajos are aware of the area’s marine park status and regulations, and penalties are sporadically enforced, little has been done on the part of the government to educate the villagers on the specific regulations and their purposes. Additionally, the Bajo community was not initially asked to be involved in the park’s management process and accusations of bribery, intimidation, and racism on the part of park rangers was prevalent. Since 2003, The World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have been partnering with the Indonesian government to address these issues and develop conservation strategies that are transparent and effective including emphasis on educating younger generations. With increased education and positive examples present, the children of Wakatobi could usher in a new era of ecological preservation. It is easy for tourists to set good examples by properly disposing trash, helping collect existing trash, carrying reusable bottles for water and making sure the fish they consume has been sustainably caught.
While conservation efforts are taking hold within the Bajo community many other groups within the area have been slow to change. The immense challenge becomes transforming the way the native people view their reefs and their relationship to them. Historically, the sea has been viewed as a limitless resource. It is believed that the reefs will always produce food and livelihood while absorbing and filtering waste. At one time this may have been true, however increased populations and exposure to Western consumerism equates to increased demand, in the Bajos’ case specifically increased demand on reefs. A highly unfortunate and unsightly consequence of this consumerism is the increased consumption and disposal of plastic wrapped products. When only organic biodegrable materials were being consumed and discarded the sea provided a wonderfully effective waste management system. However today the waste has changed but the waste management system has not. Until Wakatobi’s waste management modernizes, loads of plastic bottles, shopping bags, noodle wrappers and even diapers will continue floating to shore.
A shift in the collective consciousness alone will not save Hoga’s reefs. Without alternative sources of income, exploitation will surely continue. You can help. Come visit Hoga Island, dive and snorkel its incredible reefs, and explore its fascinating cultures. As stated earlier, the island is easier than ever to access. We were greatly impressed with the Hoga Island Resort and highly recommend it. Its facilities were beautiful, the food was delicious and filling, and the staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful. Notably, its owners are active in philanthropic activities within the local community and hire local people. Hoga Island’s long secluded stretches of beach beg exploration, phenomenal snorkeling is a short swim offshore, diving is available everyday and gear is brand new. Trips can be arranged to tour Sampela village as well as watch the old women of Kalidupa hand weave intricate sarongs also available for purchase. Conservation is actually quite fun and enjoyable.