Diving Mecca

Sulawesi, Indonesia


Sandwiched between two of the world’s greatest oceans, the Pacific and the Indian, and with almost constant water temperatures, the Southeast Asian archipelago is home to the greatest tropical marine bio-diversity known to man.

Southeast Asia boasts many world-class diving locations that are chiefly found in the world’s ‘hot zones’ of evolution, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

For those who go diving to see as many different marine creatures as possible, Southeast Asia offers the best possible diving. Geological and climactic factors have combined over millions of years to create a hothouse of evolution, a seemingly endless parade of marine life.


Puerto Galera, Philippines


The epicenter of this zone is thought to be the seas around Borneo and Sulawesi, but the entire region – from peninsular Malaysia across the arc of Indonesia offers great diving to suit different tastes. In many ways, it’s a dream destination for divers. The countries have, to varying degrees, established infrastructures for tourism; food is often excellent; costs are minimal and the local people can be among the friendliest in the world.

It has to be said that the dive sites here are worth every ounce of the effort it takes to reach them. There are riotously lush reefs, schooling fish, cleaning stations for manta rays, Second World War wrecks and high-voltage drifts. South East Asia is indeed a scuba divers haven. So, here are some of the top dive sites in South East As


MALAYSIA

Diving in Malaysia can be split into two distinct zones – the peninsula below Thailand, and the northern states of Borneo. The best diving is to be found at one of these Bornean states – Sabah. Lying off the northwest coast of Borneo is Sipadan, Malaysia’s only true oceanic island.

For a relatively small reef, Sipadan’s diving is incredibly varied, ranging from small macro subjects on the drop-off to camera-friendly schools of jacks, barracuda and bumphead parrotfish. The island remains a firm favorite with underwater photographers, who say the variety and friendliness of the marine life make it their preferred destination. We believe there isn’t a better place in the world to swim with green and hawksbill turtles – just try doing a dive here without seeing at least 30 of these reptiles.


Nearby are the islands of Mabul and Kapalai, where visibility is usually poor but the environment supports a huge range of benthic animals. Mabul is popular with underwater photographers in search of frogfish, mandarinfish, flamboyant cuttlefish and other marvels.

Layang Layang is the third of Sabah’s trio of world-class dive sites. Lying off the northeast point of Borneo, it comprises a hotel and an airfield on a lifeless strip of land. Underwater, it’s a different story – festooned with coral and abundant marine life, the reef is magnificent. Schooling fish are common and from March to June it is possible to see hammerhead sharks in sizeable schools.

There are wrecks here as well: six miles west of mainland Sabah and 80km south of the regional capital, Kota Kinabalu, is the island of Labuan. Visibility here can be poor, but marine life is rich and there are four impressive wrecks which make the island worth a visit. Of these, the US Navy minesweeper USS Salute is arguably the best dive.

The dive sites of peninsular Malaysia are not as impressive as those of northern Borneo, but several are well worth a visit. The Redang archipelago has good visibility and the healthiest coral reefs of the peninsula.

Further south, the diving around Tioman Island is enjoyable rather than spectacular. Still, there are impressive granite bommies on outlying reefs, many of which are covered in multicolored soft corals.


INDONESIA


This is the big one – a massive country comprising an archipelago of 13,000 islands, a fast-growing population of 200 million and some of the best diving on the planet.
Where to start? The northern side of Sulawesi has superb reef diving at Manado, where those in search of world-class walls and big fish are advised to head for Bunaken Island. The sites here typically comprise steep coral walls marked by small caves, with coral thriving as deep as 50m.

The Lembeh Strait is arguably the number one destination for macro subjects. The sites are decidedly unglamorous and visibility can be poor, but photographers who want to find a lot of strange fish will be in heaven.

Another photographers’ hang-out is Wakatobi, off the southeastern extreme of Sulawesi. Here, visibility can reach an incredible 50m and the reefs are beautifully preserved. There are plenty of benthic fish, but this isn’t a destination for sharks or blue-water dwellers. Instead, you get great reef diving in an idyllic, isolated location.

For those who want to combine a diving holiday with sightseeing and culture, Bali is the place to go. Diving options are surprisingly varied. To the south, adrenalin-pumping dives can be found at Nusa Penida, where sharks, manta rays and, in season, ocean sunfish can be reliably found. The currents here can be as feisty as the marine life. The best classic reef-style diving is found at Pulau Menjangan on the north coast, while wreck divers head for the Liberty wreck near the village of Tulamben.

At Gilimanuk Bay, muck divers will find a host of tiny terrors, including the Ambon scorpionfish and the harlequin ghost pipefish. Bali’s diving is more varied and of a higher quality than most divers realize, and is easy to access.

Bali also acts as the gateway to the more isolated sites to the east,  which are normally visited by liveaboard: Komodo National Park and the Alor region. The diving here is wild, isolated and of exceptionally high quality. Complex and often violent currents abound, and water can suddenly cool from a balmy 29ºC to 23ºC in a few miles. On the warmer sites, you can expect picturesque reefs and superb visibility. The cooler, low-visibility sites to the south have ultra-rich reefs dominated by crinoids and populated by gobies, mantis shrimps and some rare nudibranchs.

If you want something bigger, head for Sangalaki, located off the coast of Kalimantan and the base for diving the Derawan Islands. The buzz on Sangalaki’s dive sites is that they’re even better than Sipadan, and there’s a great manta site as well.

The latest area to excite those divers with a pioneering spirit is West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Here, the Rajah Empat island group offers varied and exciting diving – aeroplane wrecks, muck dives, lagoon channels and a beautiful latticework of limestone islands reminiscent of Palau. The diversity of fish life here could be the greatest in the world.


PHILIPPINES


More than 7,000 islands make up this archipelago, with most of the diving taking place south of the capital city, Manila. Much of the diving is concentrated around the central islands known as the Visayas, but the nation’s most popular resort centre is Puerto Galera.

Situated just a short hop from the main island of Luzon, Puerto Galera offers good quality general diving. The reefs have deteriorated somewhat over the past decade (notably at the site called Coral Garden), but there’s still enough fish life and even a few wrecks to keep divers occupied.

This is the place to come if you want to combine good, varied diving and the exotic nightlife that comes with a fully-fledged resort strip. You get all sorts here, from macro photographers to full-on technical divers.

To the south, there’s good diving around the islands of Bohol and Cebu, where it’s possible to stay in small tourist villages which hug the coast, such as Moalboal or Panglao Beach. Basic liveaboards are available for safaris to quality offshore sites such as Apo Reef and Tubbataha. As with many parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, dynamite fishing has taken its toll on many areas. But that which remains is more often than not spectacular, with soft and hard corals, anemones, crinoids and tunicates vying for every available inch of space.

The Philippines is even gaining a name for itself as a macro destination. Revered Japanese photographer Yoshi Hirata has been discovering promising new sites in Cebu, and European snappers are praising Puerto Galera for its array of frogfish and nudibranchs.

Some of the best shore-based diving is concentrated around the island of Palawan. As well as some impressive reefs, there is Coron Bay, with an array of Japanese Second World War wrecks to rival Chuuk Lagoon. The ships were sunk in 1944, when part of the the US fleet embarked on what was at the time the longest-distance air raid in history – their target was 350 miles away. At Coron Bay, 18 Japanese ships were sunk, some of which were rumored to be carrying gold (which has never been ‘officially’ recovered). Visibility here is typically low – visitors have likened it to UK-style wreck diving with warm water!

Diving explorers, including Ron Holland formerly of Borneo Divers, have been on expeditions to the Sulu Sea and the Tawi-Tawi region in the extreme south of the Philippines. Those reefs which have not been dynamited are said to be amazingly rich, but the region is currently too politically unstable for any sort of travel.


THAILAND


Thailand is also a wonderful country with all this excellent diving. To the west of Thailand is the Andaman Sea (pat of the Indian Ocean ecosystem), and to the east the Gulf of Thailand (part of the Pacific Ocean Ecosystem). The very best diving in Thailand is on the Andaman Sea side, some spots in the south and further north in the Similan Islands. The Gulf Of Thailand has only a few sites that are worth mentioning – but makes for the ideal place to learn to dive!

The Similan Islands are famous as one of the10 best scuba diving destinations in the world. Whale sharks, manta rays, reef sharks, leopard sharks, barracuda, octopus, cuttlefish, lionfish, clownfish – you name it, you’ll probably find it here. The sheer abundance of life out around these remote, uninhabited islands is breathtaking, as is the visibility – 20-35 meters visibility is the norm.

The most popular place to learn to dive in all of Asia Pacific, after Cairns in Australia, Koh Tao has some good beginner dive sites and some great après-dive action. If you want to dive and party, then this is the place to come. Many times it appears that it’s actually a place to party and dive. The short travel times from the shore to the dive sites – typically half an hour or less – make diving extremely convenient. While the diving is not as spectacular as the Similans, (no manta rays here, very little living coral, almost no turtles) there are occasionally encounters with sharks to be had at Chumphon Pinnacle and also, if you’re very lucky, whale sharks too.

One of the last world class pinnacles left in the Andaman Sea. 8 mile rock is a submerged pinnacle roughly 8 miles due south of Koh Lipe. Noted for the large palegics that cruise past, devil, manta and eagle rays are common, along with leopard shark, giant barracuda and groupers. Sighting for whale sharks have actually been up over the whole of the lipe group of islands, with most sightings coming at 8 mile rock.