Sipadan and Barracuda Point in particular are regular features on lists of the Top 5 scuba diving spots in the world – no surprise for whoever has had the chance to actually visit the reef. Barracuda Point is located on the north point of Sipadan, where the currents meet and where pelagic species like to hang out. And it is impressive! There are thousands of them. You will dive surrounded by barracudas and giant jackfish, blacktip reef sharks and turtles will pay you a visit, and you will be able to swim over endless coral gardens.
One of the must-dos over there? Get up early – we’re talking 4am – and sign up for a dawn dive. Just hang around five metres deep in the water and wait for the hundreds of bumpheads to begin their morning feeding frenzy. This is guaranteed to be an experience you’ll never forget! However, be aware that currents at Barracuda Point can be quite strong. Just sit back and relax – you might even be taken into a barracuda swirl. It can be so big that you won’t see the sun anymore, but it makes for a photo opportunity like no other.
Besides Barracuda Point, however, there are numerous other spots that are equally as beautiful and interesting to dive at. The most famous ones are Coral Garden, Hanging Gardens, South Point, Turtle Patch and White Tip Avenue – their names are self-explanatory in terms of things that you can expect to see on location. If you’re an experienced cave diver, you can explore Turtle Tomb, a network of caves that stretches more than 200 metres long.
MABUL – KAPALAI
Since staying on Sipadan Island is not permitted anymore for conservation purposes, you will have to check yourself into one of the resorts on Mabul Island or Kapalai. The former lies about 15 minutes away from Sipadan and is renowned worldwide in its own right for its macro biodiversity. One can expect to encounter the rare mandarin fish, frog fish, cow fish, and hundreds of nudibranchs. Watch out where you put your hands though as the venomous stone fish is also a regular neighbour.
A bit further west from Sipadan is Kapalai. Unlike Mabul, it’s not an island but a large sandbank that hosts one resort – the Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort – and is also home to about 20 different dive sites. Be prepared to get your magnifying glass out as it is heaven for macro-life lovers, which refers to tiny sea creatures. Squids displaying their amazing flashing colours will rub shoulders – or tentacles – with mysterious and rare yet sumptuous creatures.
Mataking Island is heaven on earth for scuba divers. Made of two islands (Mataking Besar and Mataking Kecil), it will take you approximately 44 minutes by boat from Semporna to reach this diver’s paradise at the Malaysian-Philippines border. Far away from civilisation and pollution with only one resort on location, the unspoilt white beaches and turquoise waters have served as the setting for the first season of the popular reality television show ‘Survivor’.
With Mataking’s location in the 100m-deep Alice Channel that connects it with Sipadan, the macro biodiversity found here is no less phenomenal than that of the world-famous dive site – thanks in part to the strong ‘washing machine’ currents on the north side. You’ll be able to spot reef and hammerhead sharks as well as manta rays – and if the north is the rendezvous point for pelagics, southern points like the House Reef, The Shipwreck and Sweetlips Avenue are dedicated to the macro lovers.
If you plan a trip to Mataking, make sure you include one or two dives at D-Wall, which is only a short boat ride away on the eastern side of the island. Here, coral and gorgonians are found in abundance, home to many schools of different species of fish – parrot fish and frog fish are particularly numerous and their colours are impressively vibrant against the azure backdrop of the deep blue sea.
The best-kept secret in Borneo, Lankayan is a superb destination for divers and non-divers alike. This small island, located north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea, is a pristine jewel in itself with crystal blue waters and colourful reefs that enjoy the protection of being within a marine reserve.
Lankayan Island is one of the three islands comprising the Sugud Island Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA), created in 2001 to actively protect the coral reefs and the environment in general. As a result, both the coral reefs and the sea life that depends on them for survival have flourished tremendously and today, the vivid beauty of the reefs is accessible even to non-divers. Meanwhile, upon the island itself, Reef Guardians patrol night and day to guard the numerous turtles that lay their eggs in the sand.
A staggering 32 dive spots, including two shipwrecks, offer an endless array of opportunities to see an extensive variety of sea creatures. Whether your interest lies in the fragile beauty of the tiniest macro-life or the stunning majesty of large corals and whale sharks (April-May is your best chance), be prepared to be flabbergasted!
Layang Layang, or ‘Swallows Reef ’ in Malay, is a small atoll right smack in the middle of the South China Sea, about 300km away from the Malaysian coast. Created from 13 coral reefs that are linked together to form a quiet lagoon, the unique layout of Layang Layang means that it is completely protected from fishing boats and the atoll itself features only one resort with its own airstrip, leaving it and the surrounding waters virtually untouched by civilisation.
Shark’s Cave is, without a question, the highlight of any diving trip to Layang Layang. About 24m below the surface of the ocean, you will find the entrance of a cave that is home to nurse sharks, leopard sharks and whitetip sharks. However, if you plunge down to a depth of 30m, there will be a rocky ledge that is a favourite haunt of hammerhead sharks and manta rays.
Another attraction of note around this little atoll is the Dog Tooth Lair. Named after the huge schools of dogtooth tuna that regularly surround the gorgonian-covered wall, you should expect to see an enormous diversity of sea life here including hammerhead sharks, manta rays, giant garoupas, barracudas, turtles and more.
Miri, which is touted as a large resort city in the state of Sarawak, has over 37 dive sites that cater to all levels of divers – each with their own unique charms. Some of them were only discovered as recently as five or six years ago and most, according to a 2013 report in local daily The Star, are blessed with some of the world’s healthiest hard and soft corals.
The excellent preservation of these aquatic treasures is credited mainly to the lack of dynamite fishing by the local fishermen, which has a tremendously adverse effect on coral growth. Prime beginner diving spots include Eve’s Garden, a shallow reef of 20-40 feet where you can find giant anemones and clownfish aka 'Finding Nemo'; the Anemone Garden is also one of the most attractive reefs with a huge variety of corals that includes bubble, anchor, dendronepthya soft corals and more.
If exploring the underwater wrecks of grand old sailing ships is more your cup of tea, you’ll be pleased to know that the Atagu Maru lies just 10 metres below the surface of the water near Lutong. This World War II Japanese warship is frequented by travelly, jacks and barracudas plus a resident moray eel. Further away is the Sri Gadong, a 30-metre cargo ship on a sand bottom that receives visits from batfish, yellow grunts and giant groupers.
On the east coast of the main peninsula, the Perhentian Islands are part of the Terengganu Marine Park and are a favourite among West Malaysian holidaymakers for their pristine surroundings. There are some 20 dive spots scattered around the area, with most being characterised as relatively easy thanks to gentle currents and fair visibility of eight to 20m depending on location.
Among the most popular of the Perhentian dive sites is Tokong Laut, which means ‘Temple of the Sea’ in Bahasa Malaysia. An abundance of sealife pays homage to the enormous underwater pinnacle, among them boxfish, pufferfish, scorpionfish and even the occasional turtle. For better visibility and diversity of marine life, head further out into the ocean to seek Terumbu Tiga, or ‘the Three Brothers’; a rock-strewn site with small caves and swimthroughs to explore while surrounded by blacktip sharks and angelfish.
Perhentian has its own share of interesting wrecks to check out. The Pasir Tani wreck – also known as the Vietnamese Wreck – is full of coral and gorgonians that began growing since the ship sank in 1976. You can even swim through it to find great barracudas and leopard sharks, but beware the strong current. A more recent addition to the list is Sugarwreck, which is a 90m sugar hauler that fell foul of a monsoon storm in 2000 and now hosts new residents such as barracuda, lionfish, stonefish and more.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Perhentian Islands is the Redang Archipelago, which comprises nine islands that form a marine park teeming with life. Like its island counterpart, Redang features around 20 dive sites that range from shallow reefs to boulder-enclosed tunnels – and the biodiversity found here is unparalleled, with some 80 per cent of species found in the ‘coral triangle’ area bordered by the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea also sighted right here in Redang.
Tanjung Tokong and Tunnel Point are among the more popular northern dive sites as they are farther away from civilisation, resulting in healthier coral and more abundant sealife. If you’re keen to see a turtle, your best chance is at Tanjung Tokong, which is very close to the Sea Turtle Research Unit’s turtle conservation efforts at Turtle Bay; or get adventurous and explore the creaking ‘tunnels’ formed by large boulders at Tunnel Point, where you can find gorgonian fans and bumphead parrotfish.
The area around Teluk Kalong is a haven for macro photography, particularly at Tanjung Cina Terjun, where divers can plunge into the waters up to a depth of around 18m day and night. You’ll see stingrays, scorpionfish, bamboo and leopard sharks as well as an abundance of eels and lionfish, particularly at night. Not far away are the shallow reefs of Kerengga Island, whose sandy bottoms house a garden of hard and soft corals frequented by snappers, tuna, jacks and more plus shrimp and crabs.
The beauty of Tioman Island, 32km off the east coast of Pahang, is well-documented in respected publications such as TIME magazine, who named it the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Island’ in the 70s. Besides the white sand and tranquil island atmosphere that forms the stuff of most holidaymakers’ dreams, the treasures contained within the surrounding azure seas are no less impressive, earning the island Marine Park status in 1994 to preserve the biodiversity of marine life.
Most of the dive sites are located on the west side of Tioman, and foreign shipwrecks constitute a large portion of these locations. Among them include the HMS Repulse battlecruiser and the HMS Prince of Wales battleship, both from Britain; smaller Dutch submarines named O16 and KXVII; Swedish supertanker Seven Skies and more. While you’re bound to see a variety of sea life around these wrecks, what makes them truly interesting is being able to see the aftermath of their role in history.
For more conventional dives, the submerged Tiger Reef between the neighbouring Sepoi and Labas Islands is popular for its sea whips and sea fans alongside blacktip sharks, Napoleon snappers and more. The area around Tioman is generally rocky and sites like Magicienne Rock and Gua Laya (Northpoint) are interesting rock formations favoured by marine life; you’ll find coral plateaus, manta rays and whale sharks at the former, while the latter is notable for the sheer volume of nudibranches that call it home.