Ask any diver worth his weight in lead dive belts and he’ll tell you some of the best diving in the world can be found in our very own Asian back yard. Text by Nick Walton.
Similan Islands, Thailand
Acclaimed as not only one of the best dive spots in Asia, but in the world, the tiny Similan Islands, off the western coast of Phuket, are on National Geographic’s world’s top 10 list. Established as a national marine park in 1982, the islands are still off the beaten path for almost anyone but sailors and die-hard divers, and the coral plumes and rock formations of the more than 20 dive sites off its nine islands are well worth the trip.
The Similans offer two diving experiences: on the island’s eastern side, facing the mainland, the dive sites, including ‘East of Eden’, are gently sloping, with sandy bottoms that are popular with reef sharks bedding down for the day. The west side by contrast is home to giant boulders and rock swim-throughs better suited to advanced license divers who are comfortable under the water. The Elephant Head Rock, famed for its swirling currents, is a suitable challenge. Other interesting spots include Richelieu Rock, famed for its abundance of marine life, including whale sharks, and Fantasy Reef, which is currently closed to divers, much to the disdain of local operators.
Because of a lack of infrastructure, many divers choose liveaboard accommodation which depart from Phuket or Khao Lak. The liveaboard excursions typically last four days and afford divers the chance to dive several times a day on a wide range of sites. There is a huge variety of diving liveaboards that meet every budget, and for the time poor, overnight dive cruises are also on offer so you can enjoy some of the best diving in the world, and then sleep during the cruise home.
Gili Islands, Indonesia
The island of Lombok, located east of Bali, is the gateway to the awesome diving of the Gili Islands, an emerging diving destination with massive potential. The three islands that makes up the Gilis (which translates simply as ‘little islands’) offer a laid back ambiance, untouched beaches and some of the region’s best marine life, giving rise to the title ‘turtle capital of the world’. With year-round water temperatures around 28-degrees celsius, the Gilis are a fantastic dive destination for frogmen and women of all levels. There are approximately 25 dive sites surrounding the three tiny islands, with amazing diversity and great marine life, from black and white tipped reef sharks to hawksbill and olive ridley turtles, lion fish, moray eels and even sea snakes. Whale sharks are also increasingly common in the right season.
Head to the main island of Gili Trawangan, a mecca for Asian divers for the past decade, where divers can access great coral gardens in just 20 minutes. Key dive sites here include Shark Point, an easy dive that is home to reef sharks, cuttlefish, stingrays and plenty of turtles; Manta Point, another easy diver on Trawangan’s north coast that’s also popular with inquisitive turtles, octopus and, in season, manta rays; and Halik, an all-levels dive site with a fine selection of soft coral. For more experienced divers, Deep Turbo is a 30-metre dive to a coral garden populated by leopard sharks and giant rays. Lombok proper also boasts some significant dive sites of its own, including The Magnet, a sea pinnacle that’s popular with schools of hammerhead sharks, tuna and barracuda, while several operators offer dive liveaboards that cover the whole region.Click to view slideshow.
Affectionately known locally as ‘KK’, Kota Kinabalu is a popular diving destination on Malaysian Sabah, and the gateway to the nation’s largest marine reserve, the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park or TARP. Home to more than 25 dive sites catering to divers of all skill levels, the park was named for Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and includes five islands offering pristine beaches and colourful coral formations that are easily accessible, making the park a popular diving and snorkeling destination.
The liveaboard excursions typically last four days and afford divers the chance to dive several times a day on a wide range of site.
The reefs are ideal for divers in training, with little to no current, sheltered bays and dive sites rarely deeper than 25 metres. It’s the perfect spot for newbies to prepare for even better diving in other Sabah hotspots like Sipadan and Layang Layang, which require a little more experience.
Head for Mid Reef, a popular training dive spot that’s home to healthy coral species, as well as a few underwater exotics, including lion and scorpion fish, clown fish and even stingrays napping in the sandy bottom. Another popular site is off Pulau Gaya, the largest island in the park and home to a handful of eco-retreats that offer great diving excursions. Here you might spy olive ridley and hawksbill turtles nibbling at coral, leopard sharks and the odd scurrying blue spotted octopus. Clements Reef near Sapi and the Soft Coral Garden near Gaya are also popular dive spots within the TARP. Each boasts a riot of hard and soft coral and an abundance of marine life that’s as curious as the divers which descend on them.
More advanced divers might want to dive the WWII-era Rice Bowl Wreck, so named because of its cargo of rice bowls. The wreck lies in between 26-40-metres of water and offers chance glimpses of yellow snapper, barracuda and nurse sharks. There are plenty of dive operators in KK catering to both beginners, students and experienced divers, with daily boat excursions reach out to the top dive spots throughout the park.
Once famed for its powder white sand beaches – including Bac My An or ‘China Beach’ as the American soldiers called it – Danang is now becoming Vietnam’s scuba diving hotspot, thanks to its close proximity to the coral gardens and turquoise lagoons of Phu Quoc Island and the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park near Hoi An, home to rare harlequin shrimp and ribbon eels.
Local hotels like the Furama Resort have realized the potential and set up modern dive operations that allow guests the opportunity to explore a wide range of easily-accessible dive sites. The local dive season is typically limited to February through September due to weather conditions and water clarity, but that’s plenty of time to get up there before the crowds.
The best diving can be found in the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park, also known as the Cham Islands Biosphere Reserve, a series of eight Unesco-recognized islets located in the South China Sea. The reserve covers an area of 5,000 hectares, including a staggering 165 hectares of coral reefs and 947 aquatic species. Many operators in Danang and nearby Hoi An conduct day trips to the Cham Islands, offering diving experiences for novice and advanced divers. At some of the curiously named dive sites of the Cham Islands, which include Smurf Village, the Crazy Pineapple, Rainbow Reef and Captain Snorkel, you’re likely to see an abundance of marine life that’s not at all wary of divers.
Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines
Located just across the Mactan Channel from Cebu City and home to the international airport, Mactan Island’s great infrastructure means divers can be off the plane and in the water within an hour of touch down. While it doesn’t boast the very best dive sites in the Visayas region, a landscape of idyllic tropical islands and azure seas, Mactan Island does offer the most diversity, with dive sites suitable for all skill levels easily accessible from the resorts that run along the island’s east coast. There are almost as many dive operators as there are dive sites and diving can be very affordable.
Off Mactan you’ll find everything from easy shallow reef dives to wrecks, superb corals and an awesome array of marine life. Almost all of the island’s dive sites can be found a short distance from the coast, in between Macatan and neighbouring Otango Island, making diving an ideal day trip as part of a longer visit. Here, the Hilutangan Channel offers great depths and plenty of opportunities to see bigger fish like thresher sharks, sturgeon, and even hammerheads. Water depth at most sites is between 20-60m with an average visibility of 20m making it an ideal destination for novice and advanced divers.
The most popular dive sites, best visited between July and September, include the Kontiki House Reef, an easily accessed spot that’s great for divers and snorkelers alike; Tambuli, an easy dive in good conditions located just a 15 minutes cruise from Tambuli Beach Resort; and Mabini Point, which, due to strong currents is more suited for experienced divers but which boasts visibility that reach 30-metres. There are also two wreck dives for more experienced scuba tourists, one of an aircraft fuselage that was placed there to create an artificial reef, and the other of the MV San Juan, a ferry which sunk in bad weather (no one was hurt).