Scuba diving across Asia

The best of the continent's scenic diving spots

Photos by Simon Hall, Ian Lewis, Halla Mohieddeen
We noticed them on our rest day. It was hard not to: all chiselled abs, the sort of bodies that grace the cover of Men’s Health. After five minutes they strolled past again, then after strutting by a third time, they approached us.

‘There’s not much to do here, is there?’ one asked. ‘Nope, I’m afraid this is it,’ my friend replied. ‘Not unless you dive.’

‘I can’t swim,’ Adonis Number Two then offered.

And so there followed the sort of uncomfortable silence that one rather hopes to avoid on holiday.

There are many reasons to visit a tropical island. Some party, others work on their tans. But most people who come to Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands do so to scuba dive. Our devastatingly attractive but rather bored acquaintances must not have got the memo.

Consisting of two tiny tropical islands, surrounded by uninhabited islets ten miles off the east coast of Malaysia, the Perhentians are named after the Malay word for ‘stopping point’. Once upon a time, traders journeying between Bangkok and Malaysia would stop over here, but up until the past ten years or so, few tourists made it to the Perhentians. Now the islands are becoming increasingly popular among the diving set.

The big island – Perhentian Besar – attracts families and visitors who want to relax and get away from it all. The smaller island – Perhentian Kecil – draws a more youthful, backpacker crowd and has developed a reputation for being a ‘party island’ – although this is certainly no Koh Phi Phi.

The islands are tiny and underdeveloped: you won’t find any roads on either, and the main disco on ‘party-rific’ Kecil is a wooden box on the beach that sells beer and bottles of the local hooch, known as ‘Monkey Juice’, after dark. There’s little internet, and electricity often only runs in the evenings. For some, this is heaven: a chance to really escape. But when you do get bored of the beach, there’s nowhere else – unless, of course, you go underwater.

For those who’ve never dived before, the Perhentians are an excellent place to try it out. Southeast Asia boasts some of the best diving in the world: just under a third of the world’s coral reefs can be found here, the waters are warm, clear and calm, the visibility can stretch beyond 20 metres and the marine life is simply incredible. The real reason many choose to scuba dive, however, is that it’s the closest you’ll ever get to being an astronaut.

Diving feels rather bizarre to begin with but, once you become accustomed to the weightlessness, the unusual way that light and colour bounces all around you, and the peculiar underwater landscapes, then the sensational scenes from films such as Avatar soon pale into insignificance. Forget space: oceans have become the final frontier. It is estimated that you’ll see more underwater wildlife in 30 minutes than you would over one month in a rainforest (or approximately 365 lifetimes in Beijing), and the reefs are populated by some of the strangest creatures you’ll see.

Divers of all nationalities, ages and levels of ability come to the Perhentian Islands in their thousands. There’s something for everyone, from the absolute beginner to Thailand scuba instructors on a visa run. This may be popular, but the fish always outnumber the divers; there’s very little in the way of crowds, either underwater or on terra firma.

Most dive sites are a five-to-ten-minute boat ride from the islands, but even the farthest are within half an hour of the beach. The spectacular draws include a sea mount, which local divemasters compare to swimming in an aquarium, and an incredible 90-metre-long cargo ship that sank a mere ten years ago, and has been left largely intact. Locals still speculate as to whether the sugar freighter MV Union Star went down due to misfortune in a storm or plain and simple insurance fraud, but the sight of its wreck remains an impressive one.
Either way, it’s one of the prime sites in the region and teeming with fish. If the schools of barracuda and yellow fusiliers aren’t enough to distract divers, many amuse themselves weaving in and out of the mast and rigging, even sneaking inside the cargo hold to find the large air pocket (a souvenir left by bubbles from the divers who’ve come here before you).

For complete beginners, the diving is no less dramatic. After learning some basic skills, divers are led towards the house reef, which boasts beautiful bright coral and hundreds of clown fish. Moorish idols and angelfish sometimes put in an appearance as well; in fact, most of the cast of Finding Nemo can be found skulking around here. There are constant flashes of colour as brightly coloured parrotfish swoop by, eager to find a tasty piece of coral to gnaw on, and, if you’re luckyenough, it’s possible to glimpse blue-spotted stingrays, giant groupers and enormous bumphead parrotfish. On a good day, you might also see blacktip reef sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and even whale sharks – the largest fish in the sea. But sometimes it can simply be the inane and ridiculous that makes a dive outstanding.

On our final training dive of the Advanced Open Water course, our compasses lay forgotten, as we spent most of the dive hovering 10cm above an octopus that had hidden itself in a jam jar, which was partially buried in the seabed. We watched as it eyed a hollow coconut nearby then scurried across and tried the nut out for size – before deciding the jar was, in fact, its dream home.

We emerged grinning from ear to ear, thinking it couldn’t get any better. That was until we glanced over at the house reef and saw our hunky male model bobbing around in a life jacket, snorkel popping out of his mouth. He looked up, dazed and confused, before turning back to his friends. ‘Wow,’ he said, ‘that is really worth learning to swim for…’

Essential info

Return flights between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing with Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) cost from 3,030RMB (including taxes). From KL, fly to Kota Bharu with Air Asia (www.airasia.com) from 195RMB (return, including taxes).

Taxis from Kota Bharu to the Kuala Besut jetty take one hour (170RMB) and speedboats on to the Perhentians take 45 minutes (155RMB, return).

Fun dives in most shops cost around 140RMB per dive, including equipment rental. Proper three-to-five-day PADI Open Water courses cost 1,975RMB at Turtle Bay Divers (www.turtlebaydivers.com) or Quiver (www.quiver-perhentian.com).

Accommodation prices vary from 80RMB per night at Oh La La (no tel) on Perhentian Kecil, to upwards of 500RMB at Watercolours (www.watercoloursworld.com) on Perhentian Besar.

For beginners

Boracay (Philippines)

This is perfect for those starting out, as sites are close to shore and relatively shallow. There’s some unfortunate damage, but Crocodile Island has beautiful, relatively healthy coral fans and clownfish in abundance. Head towards Boat Station 3, where it’s quieter. Blue Mango Dive Resort (www.bluemango.ph) has fantastic accommodation, but rather shabby equipment; Victory Divers (www.victorydivers.com) is a bit more snazzy. High season runs from October to May (although the island can be visited and dived all year round).

For intermediates

Koh Lanta (Thailand)
Thailand is very popular with divers of all stripes. Areas such as Koh Tao offer some of the cheapest diving on the planet, but aren’t highly regarded – the most you’ll see is other divers’ fins. Koh Phi Phi is very much a party place, so visit the more chilled-out Koh Lanta if you want to dive: the schools visit similar sites but without the students knocking back boozy buckets. Dive and Relax (www.diveandrelax.com) resort comes recommended.

For experts

Pulau Weh (Indonesia)
With dive sites nicknamed ‘Bastard Current’, Pulau Weh is the preserve of the experienced only. But its challenging terrain – deep, fast and furious – offers some of the best diving on the planet. Leopard sharks, manta rays, hammerheads, mola molas and devil rays are all regularly sighted. It’s not uncommon to see upwards of 20 sharks on a single dive. Even more of a challenge is the scuttled World War II Sophie Rickmers wreck, which lies between 37m and 55m down. Lumba Lumba resort (www.lumbalumbadiving.com) provides a good base for exploration.

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