Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Jack Jackson
MALAYSIA HAS A COLLECTION OF HEALTHY coral reefs or boulders covered in coral in Peninsular Malaysia and coral reefs in East Malaysia. The water is always warm, but the visibility can vary from medium to good. There has been some coral bleaching on very shallow reefs. The number of diving operators has increased on Pulau Perhentian Besar and Kecil, Pulau Redang, Pulau Aur and Pulau Tenggol. Pulau Lang Tengah has become a mainstream diving destination while on Pulau Tioman standards have risen.
Layang Layang, called The Jewel of the Borneo Banks, has expanded considerably. There are many good reefs in this area, but a quality resort and the presence of the Malaysian Navy make Layang Layang popular.
Off Sabah’s west coast, shipwrecks are the main interest off Labuan, operators are offering diving off Sarawak and newer sites are becoming popular at Pulau Mantanani and north of Kudat. Whale Sharks pass along the west coast between January and April.
Off Sabah’s east coast the diving resorts on Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai were developed as a way of having more luxurious accommodation than could be constructed on Pulau Sipadan for ecological reasons. However, the surge of interest in muck diving has made them diving destinations in their own right. There are several other good diving destinations in the Semporna area and north of Sandakan, Pulau Lankayan is one of the latest, there is even a good chance of sighting a Dugong. Whale Sharks pass by in April.
There is little need for Nitrox or recreational technical diving in Malaysia, but the training is available and deep wrecks are now within the realms of technical divers. As a result, the British government has declared HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse as Protected Places - diving is only permitted on a do-not-touch basis.
Where and when you dive in Peninsular Malaysia depends on the monsoon, although the start and end of monsoon seasons can vary by a few weeks. In general the west coast experiences the southwest monsoon from April to October and is drier from November to March. The east coast is drier from April till October and experiences the northwest monsoon from November till March and this is wet enough to close northern resorts. Whale Sharks and Manta Rays are regularly seen at all east coast sites and most of the dive sites are buoyed to prevent anchor damage.
THE WEST COAST AND THE STRAIT OF MALACCA
The west coast of Peninsular Malaysia is much more developed and industrialized than the east coast. The narrow Malacca Strait drains agricultural run-off from rivers in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and has heavy shipping movements. Unable to clear itself easily, the visibility is normally poor.
Off the coast of Kedah, the Payar Marine Park consists of the main island of Pulau Payar 3, the smaller islands of Pulau Kaca 2 and Pulau Lembu 1 to its east-northeast, and the two large rock outcrops making up Pulau Segantang 4 13km (8 miles) to the west-southwest. Pulau Payar has one of the few coral reef areas on the west coast and, together with Pulau Redang on the east coast, has been a focus of WWF’s marine park studies. First gazetted a fisheries protected area in 1985, the marine life is abundant.
Further south, off the coast at Lumut, in the strait of Malacca, Pulau Pangkor 5 Pulau Pangkor Laut 6 and the Sembilan group 7 also have diving in sheltered waters that are conveniently close to Kuala Lumpur.
THE EAST COAST TERENGGANU MARINE PARKS
The Terengganu parks consist of the Perhentian islands, Pulau Lang Tengah, Pulau Redang, Pulau Kapas and Pulau Tenggol.
The Perhentian islands, 20km (12 miles) off Kuala Besut, consist of Pulau Perhentian Besar 9 and Pulau Perhentian Kecil 8, with several small islets and exposed rocks to the northwest. The diving off the two main islands consists of rocks sloping to sand, with shoals of fusiliers, snappers and jacks, stingrays and various species of pufferfish. The sand has many varieties of invertebrates and occasionally sea snakes.
The best diving is at the isolated rock outcrops, jumbles of large volcanic boulders down to 30m (100ft), forming caves, crevices and swim-throughs. Below the tide-line these boulders are covered with soft corals and anemones. Below 7m (23ft) they have black corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans, Tubastrea corals, unusually large Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals, Harp Corals and cowrie, murex and volute shells. Deeper down, stony corals, barrel sponges covered in Alabaster Sea Cucumbers and nudibranchs abound with Spanish Dancers out in daylight. The pelagic fish life is good and the reef fish prolific, including Bumphead Parrotfish, small Whitetip and Blacktip Reef Sharks and stingrays, while dolphins, including Pilot Whales, are seen in July and August.
A sea star at Pulau Perhentian. They usually have five arms, but often more. Many have the ability to grow a new arm if one is damaged, and a severed arm can grow a complete new body.
Terumbu Tiga (Tiger Rocks) 10, just south of Pasir Tinggi, at the centre of the east coast of Pulau Perhentian Besar, is one of the best dives. There are large boulders down to sand at around 18-20m (60-65ft), with caves and tunnels to swim through. The upper rocks are carpeted with leathery soft corals and small Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. Deeper rocks are covered in black corals, bubble corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans, stinging hydroids, Harp Corals and anemones with clownfish. On the sand there are large barrel sponges covered in Alabaster Sea Cucumbers, many species of sea stars, cushion stars, sea cucumbers and black sea urchins. Fish life includes Bumphead and other parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, rabbitfish, many different varieties of pufferfish, lionfish, surgeonfish, cardinalfish, lizardfish, hawkfish and shoals of sweetlips, snappers, shrimpfish and fusiliers. Pulau Lang Tengah 11, 10km (6 miles) from Pulau Redang has similar diving.
The Pulau Redang Archipelago, 45km (28 miles) northeast of Kuala Terengganu consists of nine islands. The two largest are Pulau Redang 12 and Pulau Pinang 19. The other seven islets are Pulau Kerengga Besar 18, Pulau Kerengga Kecil 17, Pulau Paku Besar 14, Pulau Paku Kecil 16, Pulau Ekor Tebu 20, Pulau Ling 21 and Pulau Lima 15. Prohibited fisheries waters since 1983, and a marine park since 1985, it has the best coral reefs and the most intensively studied reefs in Peninsular Malaysia.
The east side of Pulau Redang has sandy beaches, while the west side has stony beaches. The most extensive reefs, down to 25m (80ft), are around the small islets and are most diverse on their deeper north and east sides. The coral gardens are dominated by staghorn, table and boulder corals. The steep cliffs have soft corals and encrusting corals on the granite. Hawksbill and Green Turtles nest along the west coast of Pulau Redang.
Most dives are jumbles of boulders covered in stony corals. The sites around Pulau Lima have some of the most spectacular diving off Peninsular Malaysia. Big Sea Mount 13, 50m (165ft) north of Pulau Lima, has a jumble of boulders rising from 30m (100ft) to within 10m (33ft) of the surface. The top is covered in stony, leathery, soft and encrusting corals, tunicates and sponges, Gorgonian Sea Fans and anemones with clownfish. The seaward slope continues beyond 40m (130ft) with Tubastrea micranthus corals and large Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. Fish life is prolific and includes Eagle Rays.
The Pulau Tenggol group, with its main island of Pulau Tenggol 26, is about 29km (18 miles) from Kuala Dungun. The smaller Pulau Nyireh 25 is to the north-northwest. The islets and rocks of Batu Tokong Kamudi 24, Pulau Tokong Burong 23 and Tokong Talang 22 are to the north of Pulau Nyireh, while Batu Tong Daik is south-southwest of Pulau Tenggol. In general these islands have steep cliffs descending into deeper water than most of Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast. The underwater boulders are covered with stony, soft and encrusting corals and sponges. Visibility is good and the currents strong. Nurse Sharks, reef sharks, large tuna, groupers and Eagle Rays are common.
The west side of Pulau Nyireh is particularly rich with large shoals of Bumphead Parrotfish, barracuda, tuna, jacks and snappers, while the drift from Batu Chanchang 27 to Tanjung Gemok is probably the best dive in the area for prolific fish life over rock outcrops on sand. There is an old 20m (65ft) wreck lying at 7m (23ft) about one kilometre (half a mile) north of Kuala Dungun.
EAST COAST PAHANG MARINE PARKS
Pahang Marine Parks consist of the large island of Pulau Tioman 37 and the smaller islands of Pulau Renggis 36, Pulau Sepoi 32, Pulau Labas 35, Pulau Soyak 34, Pulau Chebeh 28, Pulau Tulai 30, Pulau Sembilang 39and Pulau Seri Buat 40. Pulau Tioman is 56km (35 miles) from Mersing. It has coral reefs and sandy beaches along its west coast, but the best diving is around the smaller islands and rocks 13km (8 miles) to the northwest. The east coast is too exposed for coral growth apart from a few encrusting species and soft corals.
Again, most of the dive sites are jumbles of boulders dropping to various depths between 12m (40ft) and 30m (100ft), covered in stony corals, black corals, Tubastrea corals and Den-dronephthya Soft Tree Corals. The prolific fish life includes Leopard (Variegated) Sharks, Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, lots of small shoaling fish and their predators and many species of butterflyfish and angelfish including the Yellowmask (Blue-face) Angelfish (Pomacanthus xanthometopon) and the rarer Blue ring Angelfish (Pomacanthus annularis).
Red Feather Stars (Himerometra robustipinna), Stony Cup Corals (Tubastrea micranthus) and Dendronepthya Soft Tree Corals form a colourful carpet on the volcanic boulders off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
Christmas Tree Worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) and Sea Squirts (Atriolum robus-tum) are further colourful animals.
Magicienne Rock 29 lies north-northwest of the northern end of Pulau Tioman. It is a pinnacle that rises to within 8m (25ft) of the surface. Colourful corals and sponges in strong currents attract pelagic and reef fish. Malang Rocks 31, west of the northern end of Pulau Tioman is a pretty, shallow dive around volcanic boulders with large patches of lettuce corals, sponges and big Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. There are invertebrates, occasional Variegated (Leopard) Sharks and shoals of barracuda and trevallies in the open water.
These colourful Squat Lobsters (Lauriea siagiani) are usually found in the central cavity of barrel sponges. Covered in white and pink bristles, these animals are a brilliant pink with purple stripes on their carapace. The chelipeds have sharp spines and purple spots.
A Gorgonian Dwarf Goby or Seawhip Goby (Bryaninops yongei) hides on a Gorgon-ian Whip Coral. This muck-diving subject reaches a maximum length of 4cm (1½ in) and lives and spawns on Gorgonias.
The best dive off Pulau Tioman is Tiger Rocks 33. A jumble of volcanic boulders rise to within 10m (33ft) of the surface with swim-throughs teeming with shoals of fish, including barracuda, rainbow runners, tuna, batfish, trevallies and countless colourful reef fish and turtles. West of the southwest corner of Pulau Tioman, Bahara Rock (Tokong Bahara) 38 has a mini drop-off down to 18m (60ft) with some different corals and many pelagic species as well as most of the local reef fish. This area is not dived often, so on a calm day you can find plenty of marine life here.
EAST COAST JOHOR MARINE PARKS
The marine parks of Johor are situated around the islands of Pulau Rawa 42, Pulau Babi Hujung 43, Pulau Babi Tengah 44, Pulau Babi Besar 49, Pulau Tinggi 50, Pulau Mentinggi 51 and Pulau Sibu 52 . The diving on these islands is not that good, but 65km (40 miles) off the coast at Mersing, there is excellent diving around Pulau Aur 46 and the three smaller islands of Pulau Dayang 45, Pulau Lang 47 and Pulau Pinang 48 . Pulau Pemanggil 41, 15km (9 miles) northwest of Pulau Aur, is also good. Well offshore and with deeper and clearer water, sightings of large pelagic species are common, shoals of hammerhead sharks, lone Whale Sharks and Manta Rays and lobsters and octopuses can still be found. At the southeast of Pulau Aur, pinnacles rise to within 10m (33ft) of the surface and Pulau Pinang 48 has good wall diving down to 60m (200ft) with caves and overhangs.
The beach opposite Pulau Pinang on Pulau Aur 46 and the beaches on the north side of Pulau Dayang 45 slope gently down with coral heads, staghorn and table corals. A sea mount called Rayner’s Rock is northeast of Pulau Dayang and there is some deep wreck diving for technical divers.
SABAH AND SARAWAK
SOUTH CHINA SEA
TERUMBU LAYANG LAYANG
Diving at Layang Layang, 306km (190 miles) northwest of Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu, is like diving a remote reef from a live-aboard, but without the rocking boat. The dive sites with strong currents are very good. There is good muck diving with sea horses and ghost pipefish in the lagoon, but this is a waste of time with such good visibility outside the reef. Most sites are treated as drift dives and there is a chance of seeing larger sharks on any dive outside the lagoon. The Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks are usually deeper down, but there is always the chance of one or two appearing at 10m (33ft).
Off the northern edge of the atoll are Wrasse Strip 53, Crack Reef 54 and Navigator Lane55. A gentle shelf with a rich growth of healthy stony and soft corals, gorgonians, sponges and clownfish in anemones, the best diving is from the surface to 20m (65ft) with Blacktip Sharks in the open and Whitetip Reef Sharks resting in crevices. A steeper slope goes down to 50m (165ft) and then it drops to the depths. There are giant clams; turtles are common, while Manta Rays and other fish gather at cleaning stations.
Around the East Point, Gorgonian Forest 56, The Point 57, Dogtooth Lair 58 and Wreck Point 59 are spectacular because of the strong currents. It starts with a gentle slope to 30m (100ft), flattening out as a terrace before plunging to the depths, where small crevices and terraces shelter reef fish. Out in the blue large Dogtooth Tuna, barracuda, Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, Bigeye Trevallies, and Scalloped Hammerhead, Grey Reef and Whitetip Reef Sharks abound.
Off the northern point of Sabah there is exploratory diving out of Kudat, while 35km (29 miles) offshore from Kota Belud, Pulau Mantanani Besar 60 and the smaller island of Pulau Lungisan have wrecks including the Nittetsu Maru and Eiko Maru in deep water. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, 3-8km (2-5 miles) off Kota Kinabalu, incorporates five islands: Pulau Gaya 61, Pulau Sapi 62, Pulau Manukan 64, Pulau Mamutik 66 and Pulau Sulug 65. The coral reefs are generally shallow and have seen some blast fishing, but where they are still intact there is a profusion of colourful stony corals. Whale Sharks are seen here from January to April. The north and west shores have been ravaged by monsoon weather resulting in rocky cliffs and banks of rubble, but the eastern and southern shores have beaches slowly shelving to coral reefs. Large areas of staghorn, Acropora table and lettuce corals and smaller areas of boulder, mushroom, whip and bubble corals and large brown vase sponges. The fish life is limited to the smaller reef fish.
Among the best dives is Mid Reef 63, directly east of the east point of Pulau Manukan. It slopes gently from 6m (20ft) to 20m (65ft) with good stony corals, encrusting corals and vase sponges, but few soft corals. The invertebrates include turtles, Christmas tree, flat and fan worms, nudibranchs, sea squirts, sea stars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. The fish life includes barracuda, groupers, lionfish, scorpionfish, stonefish and shoals of catfish. Most anemones do not have clownfish.
Now made famous by a reality television show, Pulau Tiga 69 and the two smaller islands of Pulau Kalampunian Damit 67 and Pulau Kalampunian Besar 68 were gazetted as The Pulau Tiga National Park in 1978. The main island, 48km (30 miles) southwest of Kota Kinabalu, has active mud volcanoes, which last erupted in a big way in 1941. The reefs of the smaller islands and the north side of Pulau Tiga are heavily blast-fished, but there are two good dive sites either end of Picnic Bay to the south of Pulau Tiga. Most of the stony corals are damaged, but small soft corals and other invertebrates thrive. This park is noted for having more gorgonias, including and whip corals than can normally be found on the west coast of Sabah.
At the northern mouth of Brunei Bay, just 8km (5 miles) off mainland Sabah, and 115km (71 miles) south of Kota Kinabalu, the reefs of Pulau Labuan are too near the outlets of sediment-laden rivers to be good for diving. However, there are four good shipwrecks. All the wrecks experience strong surface currents, but in each case divers can quickly descend to the lee of the wreck.
The Blue Water Wreck 70 30km (20 miles) directly west of Labuan island, is the 80m (260ft) Philippine stern trawler MV Mabini Padre, which sank in November 1981. The ship is lying on her port side at 35m (115ft) with the starboard side at 24m (79ft). The fish life is quite good but the coral is poor.
The Cement Wreck 71, 20km (12 miles) south-southwest of the Labuan Marina, is the 92m (302ft) Japanese freighter Tung Hwang, which foundered in September 1980. Easy to penetrate, she lies upright on the bottom at 30m (100ft) with some broken masts rising to 8m (25ft). The main deck is at 19m (62ft). This wreck has extremely colourful soft corals, sponges and feather stars carpeting the entire superstructure, and the fish life is prolific. The visibility is usually better than that on the other Labuan wrecks, but there are several fishing nets that have snagged on the wreck.
The American Wreck 72, 24km (15 miles) southwest of Labuan Marina, southwest of the island of Rusukan Besar, has been identified as the US Navy’s 56m (184ft) Admiral Class mine hunter, USS Salute, which was sunk by a Japanese mine in June 1945. She now lies at 30m (100ft), broken in half and folded back on herself with the bow lying on top of the stern. The fish life is good but there are few corals.
The Australian Wreck 73, 23km (14 miles) southwest of Labuan Marina, southwest of the island of Rusukan Besar, has now been identified as the 85m (280ft) Dutch Steamship SS De Klerk. This passenger/freighter was scuttled in Singapore, but salvaged by the Japanese and added to their fleet as the Imabari Maru. Now lying at a fifty degree angle on its port side at 33m (110ft), with the starboard side at 21m (69ft), the wreck has abundant marine life.
WEST COAST SARAWAK
South of Labuan, Sarawak has good diving, including shipwrecks, when far enough offshore to be clear of the river sediments.
The latest diving destination to be developed on the east coast is Pulau Lankayan, northeast of Sandakan. Declared a marine conservation area in 2000, uninhabited and protected from blast-fishing for the ten years before it was developed, the island is a macro photographers paradise. It also gets larger creatures, including Whale Sharks in April and the occasional Dugong. Recent research found less than five per cent of coral bleaching; healthy corals recolonizing the area; high biodiversity; and many of the commercial species that are harvested on other reefs are plentiful. A mixture of sandy areas on gentle slopes with sponges, gorgonians and coral heads, there can be strong surface currents. There are many pelagics and the smaller subjects include decorator and spider crabs, nudibranchs, porcelain crabs, gobies, jawfish, Ghost Pipefish, mandarinfish, Blue-ringed Octopus, Mimic Octopus, Bamboo Sharks and frogfish. There are two wrecks. The Lankayan Wreck 74 is an ocean-going fishing vessel caught poaching and purposely sunk here in 23m (76ft) of water. The other is the wreck of a Japanese armed barge (Mosquito Wreck) 75 that was sunk during World War II.
Situated within easy diving-boat distance of Pulau Sipadan, the diving resorts on Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai were originally developed as a way of having more luxurious accommodation than could be constructed on Pulau Sipadan for ecological and political reasons. However, divers soon realized that there was good muck diving. Being on the edge of the continental shelf, they are not surrounded by deep water.
South of Semporna and just north of Pulau Sipadan, Pulau Mabul lies on the northern end of a large reef. The diving is mainly sand and coral rubble, but every hole is inhabited with Ghost Pipefish, frogfish, gobies, shrimps, mandarinfish, crocodilefish, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, cowfish and nudibranchs.
The best dives include Ray Point 79, a succession of terraces down to 14m (45ft) on the southwest side of the reef with better corals and fish life. Lobster Wall 78 and Nudibranch Center 80 northwest of Lobster Wall, descend below 50m (165ft) on the west side of the reef. Crocodile Avenue 77, a shallow dive northwest of the Smart jetty, could be the benchmark for muck diving.
Only 15 minutes from Pulau Sipadan, between Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul, Pulau Kapalai has been the local divers’ macrophotography destination for two decades. The island is eroded so that only a sandbar is visible at low tide and the resort is built on stilts above the sea. A weak current produces better visibility and the site has all the species found at Pulau Mabul including Blue-ringed Octopuses, dragonets, mating Mandarinfish, frogfish, jawfish and Flamboyant Cuttlefish.
A favourite nesting site for Green and the occasional Hawksbill Turtle, the waters of Pulau Sipadan teem with turtles, so accustomed to divers that they ignore them. This juvenile is resting on the coral for a nap during the day.
Mandarin Valley, 81 the resort’s jetty on the north side of the reef and Gurnard Ground, 82 north of the northeast point of the reef, are similar dives down to 20m (65ft). There are also Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse and Mandarin Valley even has Bumphead Parrotfish. On the west side of the reef, Stingray City (Spotted Ray Channel) 83 drops only to 13m (43ft), but its fish life includes Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays.
The cream of Malaysian diving, and among the best in the world, the Pulau Sipadan Marine Reserve is just south of Pulau Kapalai, 35km (20 miles) south of Semporna. Malaysia’s only volcanic island, it is perched atop a volcanic seamount rising from 600m (1969ft), 10km (6 miles) south of the continental shelf. The island was declared a bird sanctuary in 1933 and re-gazetted in 1963.
Underwater, Pulau Sipadan has almost everything that exists in the Indo-Pacific. The coral and fish life is prolific, and in an effort to keep it that way the number of divers allowed per day is restricted. Visitors are also required to find accommodation on one of the nearby islands, as overnight stays are not permitted. In addition to many stony corals, there are soft corals, vase and barrel sponges and true giant clams. The drop-offs and walls also have Tubastrea species, Gorgonian Sea Fans and black corals. The water teems with fish, including a huge shoal of Bumphead Parrotfish, but the big draw is the countless Green and Hawksbill Turtles that nest there.
Originally named Chromodoris bullocki, these colourful nudibranchs have recently been renamed Hypselodoris bullocki. They can be found in many colour variations from the Maldives to tropical Australia.
The beach in front of what was Borneo Divers and Pulau Sipadan Resort is one of the top beach and night dives in the world, as the wall is just a few swimming-strokes away. East of the jetty, Turtle Cavern 84 is now limited to divers accompanied by a local divemaster, due to a number of fatalities.
There are other sites off southeast Sabah including Roach Reefs 85 off Tawau, Semporna 76 itself and the islands of the proposed Semporna Marine Park.
The long-running dispute over the ownership of Pulau Sipadan between Malaysia and Indonesia was resolved on 17 December 2002 when the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled 16 to 1 in favour of Malaysia.
The Lembeh Strait is critter heaven for muck divers. The style of diving is to fin slowly and look down.
A dive boat negotiates the channel cut through the fringing reef while leaving Pulau Sangalaki for a dive. All dives are outside the fringing reef.