No matter what destination we are snorkeling, there is one photography question I probably get asked more than any other photo question.

“Wide angle or macro for the next site?” 

Unless it’s a night snorkel where we are likely to encounter smaller critters in the shallow reef, I will almost always say wide angle, and here’s why. In just about all the different destinations we go to the wide angle opportunities like beautiful reefs, larger schools of fish, turtles, and manta rays are readily available and open us up to endless wide angle opportunities. Macro subjects like nudibranches and cooperative reef fish are much harder to find and photograph. I’m not saying there aren’t any macro subjects, there are just as many as the wide angle subjects if not more. The only thing is that where macro subjects are concerned, they are considerably more difficult to photograph—especially reef fish.

snorkeler diving down to photograph coral reef

Wide angle subjects like reefscapes, mantas, and turtles are either non-moving or moving quite slow with more predictive behavior. While things like butterfly fish and angle fish have such erratic movements it’s near impossible to get them framed just right. Nudibranches barely move, but because of their small size we need to dive down to their level in order to properly photograph them which is easier said than done. So, in short there are plenty of macro opportunities, it’s just a matter of consistency of getting great shots. If you are ok with one in twenty shots coming out ok, by all means go for the reef fish, I’m sure the reward of getting the angle fish framed just right will be worth all the effort. However, if you want the closest thing to a guarantee that you’ll be coming back with an SD card full of beautiful photos, then I would suggest focusing on the wide angle. 

A lot of snorkelers want to dive beneath the surface to get closer to the reef, fish, and to just enjoy the feeling of being completely immersed in this wonderful underwater world. Those of you just starting out with your snorkeling pursuits may find this whole diving down thing a bit tricker than you anticipated though. Here’s a few tips which has really helped a lot of our guests out in not only being able to dive down easier, but also stay down longer on a single breath. 

Snorkeler Surrounded by Manta Rays

The Duck Dive

  1.  1. The first step before we want to duck dive down is to take a few large slow breath. This will help relax us and fill our lungs with air. The more relaxed we are the longer we can stay down.
  2.  2. After you’ve relaxed yourself on the surface in one fluid motion we want to stick our bum up and angle our upper torso in a downward angle. As we do this we also want to bring at least one of our legs out of the water. If you can manage to bring both legs out of the water it will only help propel us downwards. It’s important to note that this should all be one smooth movement, there doesn’t need to be and flapping of the legs or arms. The angle of your body and the way the weight is distributed now will help you dive down a lot smoother and easier. As you practice these steps it will become more natural and you’ll find that you will find yourself being propelled underwater much easier. 
  3.  3. A lot of people have a tenancy to start kicking frantically as soon as they start the duck part. This only burns more oxygen with the rapid movement and shortens your dive, but also because your fins have not been submerged yet you are only kicking air and not water. A big thing here is to be patient and wait for your fins to become submerged before you start kicking. When you do start kicking, make sure they are long slow kicks rather than many short fast ones. This will also help you preserve your oxygen supply. 
  4.  4. Don’t use your arms. Using your ams will also only burn through your oxygen reserves while providing little in terms of propulsion. Let the strong muscles of your legs and fins do all the work. 
  5.  5. Don’t for get to equalize! I like to keep a rhythm of equalizing every time I kick with my right foot. 
  6.  6. If you do plan to do a lot of duck diving I would highly recommend wearing a weight belt. This extra weight will help you with the initial duck dive and also make it easier for you to stay under without overdoing it with the kicking. An extra six pounds or so will make a huge difference on your dive while not affecting your ability to float on the surface easy, unless you are particularly skinny then you might want to start with two pounds. 

Snorkeler taking photos of coral reef in Alor

Basically the big things to take away here are making your movements as smooth and efficient as possible to help maintain your body’s oxygen supply while also providing you maximum propulsion on your initial dive. Slow and easy is the best approach when it comes to duck diving. 

I’ve noticed a couple trends among snorkelers with cameras. The first is that just about all of them want to photograph the wonderful reef fish we encounter our snorkel-ventures to show their friends later on. The second is that after a few snorkel session photographing reef fish, many guests will come to me and ask me how to take better photos of reef fish because all their getting are blurry shots of a fish’s bum. So, here’s a few tips I’ve found helpful in photographing reef fish. 

Tip 1: Stop Photographing Reef Fish

The main reason why reef fish photos typically come back as a blurry fish bum is because reef fish are one of the hardest subjects to photograph well. If you stop and watch a butterfly fish or any one of the billion species of wrass you’ll quickly understand why. They never stop moving and their movement is never in one direction—it’s chaotic and all over the place. Not to mention most of the species people really what to photograph are smaller than your hand, and when you’re duck diving down or bobbing along on the surface their movement mixed with yours creates a really non-ideal shooting scenario. So, if your goal is to come back with a collection of awesome photos to show to your friends—reef fish may not be your most ideal subject to focus on. 

Tip 2: Focus on the Big Picture

Rather than focus on getting individual reef fish in a single frame, I suggest focusing more on the big picture with a variety of fish included in the photo along with the reef and everything else. These types of photos are not only easier to achieve, but also tend to be a bit more impressive to the viewer. I love to look for patches where the reef is particularly impressive and also hosts quite a variety of fish as well. On our snorkel tours reef scenes like this are not in short supply. 

Tip 3: If you Absolutely Must…

If you can not live without your fish photos, then what I would suggest is picking an individual fish and follow it. Though their movement may seem a bit erratic, it’s all part of their daily routine and a lot of times you’ll be able to anticipate what they are going to do next if you start to study their behavior. For example, most anemone fish will actually come out to ‘greet’ you as you come close their anemone but then suddenly dark back into the protection of their anemone only to come back out again. Try to anticipate this in and out movement and time it with the moment you press the shutter. Just about every species of fish will have a more or less repetitive pattern of movement and if you spend a bit of time observing this you can time it with your photos. Not to mention, the the longer you spend calmly watching a particular fish it’s more likely that it will perceive you a a non-threat and you’ll be able to move a bit closer for a better photos. 

Cow fish looking into the camera with snorkeler behind

Reef fish photos are considerably harder to get right, but with a bit of patience and understanding they are by no means impossible. My personal recommendation would be to not spend the entirety of your time photographing them, and instead divide it up between big picture photos which include the reef as well as the fish with some time also devoted to individual species. 

There is nothing better than walking out of your beach front bungalow with fins and mask in hand and then casually slipping into the calm water just a few feet away into a complexity different world. Asia is home to some of the best house reefs in the world, where everything from mantas, schooling fish, mating mandarin fish, and of course stunning fields of coral are possible

Aerial view of Papua Explorers resort

What is a house reef? Well, it’s quite simple really. A house reef is the reef that is situated in-front of the resort. Typically house reefs are a bit more protected from current and waves since most resorts are built in bays or on a side of the island where the weather is more stable. 

Diamond spadefish below jetty in Alor

What are the benefits of snorkeling a house reef? Well, as you may have guessed, house reefs usually offer exceptional snorkeling without any of the fuss of jumping on a boat. You can come and go as you please and take your time with certain subjects. The more time you spend on the house reef you’ll become familiar with certain fish and you’ll start to notice their unique behavior. If you’re a photographer, being able to wait for the nice light is a major bonus while also being able to revisit particular subjects—anemones for example, so you can really get the shot you were after. Also, since most resorts will prohibit fishing on their reefs you can expect an abundance of friendly marine-life. 

Large school of fish in Komodo

Another awesome advantage of house reefs is that most resorts will have a jetty or pier for their boats. What this provides is a very unique habitat for animals. The pilings provide a sanctuary from current and predators, so most resorts will have a cluster of fish and other marine-life you wouldn’t otherwise find in the shallows. 

Wakatobi is one of Indonesia’s premiere snorkel destinations. The island of Wakatobi is a small idyllic island dotted with palm trees and fringed by a white sandy beach, short limestone cliffs, and endless coral reefs. In the middle of it all is one boutique dive and snorkel resort knows as Wakatobi Resort, which also happens to be one of Indonesia’s premier resorts and snorkel destinations. 

aerial view of wakatobi resort


Logistics of Arriving

Wakatobi is located off the south-east corner of Sulawesi amid a sparse chain of islands and atolls that barely reach the surface. It’s only accessed—easily—by a charter flight several times a week which is operated by the resort itself. The flight is only about two hours from Bali. Upon arriving the resort will pick us up in comfortable cars and drive us a whole six minutes to the pier where we will be picked up by one of the resorts comfortable wood boats. This leg of the journey takes about twenty to thirty minutes. Yes, the boats have a roof to protect us from the sun as well as welcome drinks and a comfortable restroom. 

At this point you’ll probably notice that our large checked luggage is not with us. Not to worry, the resort is unloading it from the charter flight and it will be delivered to our about an hour after we arrive. It’s a good idea to pack a change of cloths, essential toiletries, and medications in your hand carry luggage so you’ll have these essential things upon arriving at the resort. 

view from wakatobi bungalows

The first day is sort of an orientation day where we’ll have plenty of time to unpack, eat lunch, and get a thorough briefing of what is going to happened throughout the week. And yes, we will be able to get in the water for an afternoon snorkel session on their really quite incredible house reef. 

The Resort 

The resort itself is very nice. White sand pathways take you to your beachfront rooms which are beautifully built. The rooms are very comfortable with all the essential amenities and a bunch more. For example, if you want a specific type of pillow you just call down to reception and place your order off their pillow menu! 

Wakatobi resort has a fantastic restaurant where we will take all of our meals, unless of course you want a quiet night on your porch and decide to order room service. The food is buffet style and features delicious European and Asian cuisine and some amazing deserts. If you have special dietary requirements just let us know in advance and they will take care of the rest. 

Where activities outside snorkeling are concerned, there is plenty to do. Wakatobi resort has stand up paddle boards and kayaks while the beach just in front of your room is a perfect place to cool off after sunbathing. They can also organize village tours the the neighboring village as well as Indonesian cooking and language lessons. 

The Snorkeling 

Banded sea snake on coral reef

Like all of our group snorkel tours, Wakatobi resort sets us up with their largest most comfortable boat which is essentially at our disposal for the week. No divers allowed! We will also have our own snorkel guides who will also remain with us for the week and escort us to the areas best snorkeling sites.  All of our gear will be loaded up each morning by the helpful crew and put away each evening in separate boxes for each of us. The furthest we ever need to go to reach a snorkel site is thirty minutes, with the closest being just a few feet from the resort. 

Pristine shallow coral reef

I’ll be honest, after snorkeling in places like Raja Ampat, Komodo, and Alor for the past six years I wasn’t really expecting to be surprised by the reefs, but I was absolutely blown away. The reefs were some of the healthiest I’ve seen and were easily comparable to any of Indonesia’s top destinations. They were generally characterized by vast plateaus of hard coral, sponges, and occasionally sea grass and at the reefs edge they would either turn into steep slopes or vertical walls that dropped into the blue. On the slopes and walls the coral was just as vibrant and dense with lots of soft coral and a variety of sea fans.

Each site offered something a little unique in terms of marine life, while on just about all the sites we did we ended up finding crocodile fish, green sea turtles, and banded sea snakes. Given it’s location within the Coral Triangle, Wakatobi has an outstanding diversity of colorful reef fish. We found everything from nudibranches, schools of fusileers, eels, cuttle fish, blue ring octopus, and even had a blue whale surface just a few meters from the boat!

Coral reef with sun burst behind coral

In short, Wakatobi is an excellent destination for those who want an easier travel option within Indonesia while not missing out on any of the iconic reef scenes the country is known for. From the charter flight, to the food, to the snorkeling, and even the pillows; everything is tailored to fit your needs.