Glimpses of Malaysia

Depending on your yardstick, or which encyclopedia you consult, Malaysia boasts a colossal coastline of 4,675 km. This area includes 2,068 km for Peninsular Malaysia and 2,607 km for eastern Malaysia.

Coral garden, Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Michael Aw

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For most divers, Malaysian diving means the island of Sipadan off Sabah in Borneo — even novices tend to get that glazed look on their faces when the word “Sipadan” is uttered. Sipadan is still a true gem, but the environmental restraints, which always meant that the island had limited space to offer, have recently been increased.

Authorities have forced a number of dive operators to vacate their structures on the island. Sipadan, Mabul and Layang Layang are all famous names, but maybe the time has come to take a further look at what Maylasia has to offer?

Aside from so many new dive sites just waiting to be discovered, there are also an incredible amount of exciting adventures above water. This country boasts cultural and natural riches like few other territories.

While this magazine may be primarily for divers by divers, diving is not just diving anymore. It would be gross negligence not to take at least a brief look at a few of the cultural and land excursions that can be conveniently and easily included in a dive trip to the region.

Be it her dense, mysterious rainforests once haunted by head-hunters and now the home of proboscis monkeys, hornbills and of course orang-utans, or the exciting, dynamic capital of Kuala Lumpur, where modernity rubs shoulders with tradition and where you can shop till you drop before exploring the vibrant restaurant scene, or the white sand-fringed resort islands of Penang, Langkawi and Pangkor, with villas built on stilts over the water in the manner of a traditional Malay fishing village — all over Malaysia you’ll find coral reefs, tropical jungles and friendly locals who speak English as well as Malay. Borneo is also home to Mount Kinabulu, the region’s highest summit.

In this way, Malaysia can be likened to a treasure trove of adventures. Some gems are already found and polished while others are still waiting to be discovered. It is so hard to choose — there are so many good dive operators in the area that it is impossible to be equally fair to everyone who deserves an overview here.

The East Coast Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast is often quoted as the real Malaysia. A collection of fishing villages, beaches and picturesque islands and, with little industry to pollute its waters, it offers great diving. For a long time, these islands were a secret of divers.

Later, the exclusive resorts moved into the area. As a result, a 45 km stretch of the Terengganu coastline — including Pulau Redang and its neighbouring islands, Pulau Pinang, Pulau Lima, Pulau Ekor Tebu, Pulau Lang Tengah, Pulau Perhentian Besar, Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Pulau Susu Dara and Pulau Kapas — was declared a Marine National Park in 1991 in order to protect the area.

The reserve is an attempt to preserve the wonders that are found here, and to reverse some of the damage wrought by resort construction and over fishing. Snorkelling is restricted to certain areas, and the Malaysian Department of Fisheries is busy building artificial reefs.

The Perhentian Islands have a relaxed diving atmosphere in an idyllic, laid-back setting. They consist of two main islands — Perhentian Besar (Big Stopover Island) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Stopover Island) plus several small rocks and islets to the north-west, the latter giving the best diving. Most tourist accommodation is on Perhentian Besar.

Due to the annual monsoon, the islands are virtually inaccessible from November to January. Dive sites are very varied, from current-swept rocks close to the Perhentians and Bidong, to gentle slopes covered with sea anemones around Redang, to underwater mounds in Lang Tengah. All these places also have excellent house reefs that are good for night dives or snorkelling.

The underwater topography usually consists of jumbles of boulders that form caves, crevices and tunnels carpeted with soft corals. In this shallow, warm water, the growth of marine life is prolific. While the visibility in these waters is generally excellent, extending up to 30 metres in fine weather conditions, a combination of tides and an overnight rainstorm may stir up the seafloor resulting in less than optimal visibility.

Among the many varieties of marine life, regular encounters include Jacks, Yellowtail, Giant Clams, Triggerfish, Puffers, Spotted Porcupinefish, Blue and Yellow Fusiliers, Pencilfish, and huge Lionfish — that’s not forgetting the myriads of tiny silver cardinalfish that jet around in an amazing display of synchronicity. But even when less than ideal visibility is encountered, the unspoiled table coral formations are spectacular and the abundance of hydrozoans, anthozoans, brain coral, sea fans, sea whips and sea cucumbers is breathtaking. Dolphins and pilot whales can be seen in the area during July and August. Whalesharks are spotted a few times every year.

Pulau Kerengga Besar, a steep volcanic island that rises sharply out of the sea, appears to be home to various species of rays. Stingrays can be found resting on the ocean bottom or winging gracefully past with manta Rays hovering overhead. Harp corals, nudibranchs and feather stars are common. Deeper down, there are fields of stony corals and barrel sponges covered with alabaster sea cucumbers. Where the boulders meet the sand, there are many fish species, including stingrays, parrotfish and pufferfish.

Pulau Lang Tengah Island lies in the middle of the Marine Park sanctuary. Here, we find crystal-clear water, pristine beaches and untouched tropical jungle as well as a coastline of arresting beauty with white sandy beaches.

The Redang Archipelago consists of the island of Redang, the much smaller island of Pinang and seven tiny islets.* This group of islands and a marine park established in 1985 boasts white sandy beaches, crystal-clear water and spectacular coral reefs, which are among the richest in the country, making the area one of the best dive spots in the world.

The reefs of the Redang Archipelago are home to over 55 genera of corals, 100 species of fish as well as 52 genera of stony corals, including the largest boulder coral in this half of the country.

Fish to look out for are snappers, jacks, rabbitfish, silver barracudas, clownfish, triggerfish and parrotfish. Turtles are a common sight and you may also spot the occasional cuttlefish, squid and eagle ray. Featherstars, hydroids, black coral, anemones, sea fans and sponges dominate the reefs of Redang. For macro-lovers, there are also nudibranchs, mantis shrimps and occasional Spanish dancers. Green and hawksbill turtles are common. Reef fish are plentiful, and pelagic species, including manta rays and whale sharks, are frequently encountered.

The Redang Archipelago’s Big Seamount is considered by many to be the most spectacular dive site in peninsular Malaysia. Lying 50 m north of the island of Lima, it rises from 30 m to within 10 m of the surface and is covered in anemones, gorgonians, tunicates, hard encrusting corals and soft tree corals, with boulder coral, lettuce coral, staghorn coral and Acropora table corals.

Pulau Kapas (Kapas Island) and its neighbouring island, Pulau Gemia, are two popular day excursion and overnight destinations for locals and foreign tourists seeking a quick gateway, as the island is just four nautical miles from Marang. Kapas also seems to have become the refuge of those who want to avoid the Perhentian crowd. Places to stay range from camping sites to dormitories to island resorts with en suite facilities. The only thing that never changes on this island is the constant number of backpackers arriving and departing each day.

The key attraction for diving at Pulau Kapas is the World War II shipwreck located five nautical miles offshore. The outer reefs on her seaward side has good dive sites as well. Its shallow water makes it an ideal training ground for divers. Thai fishing boats caught on illegal entry in Terengganu waters are also sunk here as artificial reefs. It has good marine life and coral despite being located so close to the mainland.

Fish that populate the area include snappers, rabbitfish, jacks, silver barracudas, triggerfish, clownfish and parrotfish. You may also spot sea turtles, squid, cuttlefish and rays. The reefs here are home to feather stars, hydroids, black coral, anemones, sea fans and sponges as well as manta shrimp, nudibranchs and the occasional Spanish dancer. During the months of April to August, green and hawksbill turtles come onshore to lay eggs. Pulau Kapas has also become a popular place for squid fishing especially in the month of June.

The Tenggol group of islands is the most southerly of Terengganu’s Marine Parks. It consists of Pulau Tenggol, Pulau Nyireh, Tokong Timur, Tokong Talang, Tokong Burung and Tokong Kemudi. The main island, Pulau Tenggol, is about 50 hectors in size and is one of the most beautiful and serene islands off peninsular Malaysia’s east coast. It is also famous for its spectacular rocky cliffs that offer many excellent dive sites of pristine coral formations and a number of submerged rocks with excellent coral growths.

The deep waters surrounding the island offer good visibility especially during the months of April until June. Marine life that can be seen here includes sharks, rays, nudibranch and a wide variety of hard and soft coral. Before being declared a marine park, Pulau Tenggol was a favourite hunting ground for spear-fishermen, particularly for snappers and groupers.

Tioman is the largest and most developed of the 64 volcanic islands in the Seri Buat archipelago that make up the Pahang Marine Parks. In 1958, Pulau Tioman was chosen to be James Michener’s fictitious Bali Hai for the filming of the Hollywood classic, “South Pacific.” Since then, Pulau Tioman, which is easily accessible by air or boat, became a popular tourist attraction, especially among underwater explorers.

The Tioman Marine Park is zoned as a sanctuary for the coral reef community and the shallow, still waters near Tioman, such as at the sites of Pirate Reef and Renggis Island, are perfect for training the less experienced diver. Further out to sea, the Tioman Island dive sites such as Chebeh and Tiger Reef, are set in deeper waters where you may encounter challenging currents and also the chance to see larger species.

There is plenty of coral circling most of the island including alcyonarian soft corals and multi-coloured staghorn coral. You will most likely run into all the usual reef life, the most numerous of which being parrotfish and butterflyfish. The best diving is around the small islets and rocks to the west and north-west where an incredible variety of angelfish and butterflyfish can be found. The water is clear to a depth of about 30 metres. Turtles and cuttlefish laying eggs are common in July and August.

There are some other islands off the east coast that have good diving but are less visited. Dive sites also include over a dozen wrecks — mainly scuttled wooden-hulled fishing trawlers. Even big wreck fans and technical divers will enjoy Tioman as there are several South China Sea wrecks in the area. These Second World War treasures — including the Prince of Wales, the Repulse, Varella and various submarines and battleships — lie all around Tioman, normally at a depth of 40 m or more.

Pulau Aur is located 65 km east of Mersing on the east coast of Johor. Together with surrounding islands Pulau Dayang, Pulau Lang and Pulau Pinang, it makes up for about half of Johor Marine Park. The blue waters here are deeper than around the inner islands.

Due to its remoteness from the mainland, visibility is excellent and sightings of big pelagics are common. However, the cost of boat rentals is high and scuba diving has been possible only in groups pre-arranged by dive shops in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Spectacular dive sites include Teluk Teluran with large undulating corals — which are home to various octopuses, crabs and moray eels — the Ming dynasty wreck at Teluk Mariam and the wall diving at Pulau Pinang, which is also good for drift diving.

Accommodation is available only on Pulau Dayang and Pulau Aur. Amenities are pretty basic as electricity to the rooms is limited and there is no hot running water. It is a popular getaway for divers based in Singapore for which reason it can be quite busy at weekends. However, you may have the island practically to yourself on weekdays.

More than 30 ethnic groups live together harmoniously in Sarawak, including 21 native ethnic groups, Malay and Chinese. Even with such diversity, individual groups have retained their cultural identity, observing traditional customs and rituals on a day-to-day basis. Tourists are welcome everywhere and the people are all very friendly. English is widely spoken although the national language is Malay.

Despite the fact that three-quarters of its landmass is still covered with the world’s oldest tropical rainforests and latticed with rivers and tributaries, travel around Sarawak is easy. Ten national parks scattered throughout the state make for easy access to Sarawak’s splendid natural treasures. Residents include the endemic proboscis monkey, the famous bearded pig, silver leaf monkeys and long-tailed macaques. The  park also showcases a wide variety of vegetation found in Borneo including carnivorous pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts and the world’s largest flower — the one-metre wide Rafflesia.

Miri, near the border with Brunei, is the gateway to the north of Sarawak and its spectacular national parks, rivers and highlands. Niah and Gunung Mulu National Parks in Northwest Sarawak are perhaps the best known in Sarawak with their spectacular limestone cave formations. The famous limestone caves here include the world’s largest cave passage and the world’s largest natural rock chamber.

Most of the waters around Sarawak are not great dive locations because of the shallow waters and a number of muddy and swampy estuaries lying off the coastlines.

The best spot for diving in West Sarawak is around the Talang-Talang islands, a marine turtle sanctuary. The corals surrounding this island are remarkable in their variety. There’s a colourful palette of fish, and the waters are pleasant and very safe. The area around the Talang-Talang islands was, however, recently gazetted as a national park. This change has brought about some confusion as to how the public may enjoy the natural beauty, which is now preserved as pat of the national heritage. At turtle nesting time, no marine traffic is allowed near the islands at all.

The underwater scenery around Satang is not as attractive as Talang-Talang. Visibility is not too good and the nearer you are to the mouth of Sarawak River, the cloudier the water gets.

Off the river mouth there is some wreck diving, but these dives are regarded as quite challenging. Also challenging are the waters around Tanjung Datus, the rocky headland at the northwest cape of the great island of Borneo. Here, two ocean currents clash together creating underwater turbulence that can only be managed by experienced divers.

The artificial reefs at Talang-Satang National Park were constructed for marine conservation using concrete reef balls. Since 1998, about one thousand reef balls have been deployed around the coast of Sarawak. This is the first reef ball project in Asia and was instigated for conservation purposes.

The National Park has important turtle nesting beaches, and reef balls are used to stop trawlers from trawling within the resting areas used by turtles during the nesting season that falls between May and October. A permit from the Forest Department is necessary for entry into the park.

Gunung Gading National Park

Trek through the mountains to view beautiful waterfalls and rare plants. You may come across the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, whose blooms measure a metre across. Mountains sweep down to the sea. This park lies on the extreme western tip of the State.

The debris-free mountain streams ensure crystal clear waters off some of Sarawak’s finest beaches. There are also coral formations close in to shore that make this yet-to-be-explored dive site ideal for scuba diving. On shore, the park is rich in flora and fauna.


Just 30 minutes off the coastline of Miri, there are several diving spots where natural reefs provide diverse marine life. The dive locations have next to no current most of the time and water temperature averages 30 degrees Celsius. The reefs here are all patch reefs with varying depths from 7 to 30 meters with an average visibility of 10 to 30 meters. You can explore old shipwrecks and spectacular coral reefs. South Luconia Shoals, Eve’s Garden, Anemone Garden, Royal Charlotte Atoll Grouper Patch Reef, Sri Gadong and Atago Mari Wrecks are just some of the newest attractions for diving enthusiasts. There are more than 15 dive sites with the latest one dubbed “Rig to Reef”– a recently submerged decommissioned oil platform that is the only one in Malaysia. The est dive season is April to October.

Labuan island is located 115 km south of Kota Kinabalu and 8km off the mainland of Sabah at the northern mouth of Brunei. Its deep harbour and duty free port attract shipping from all over the world and in 1990, Labuan was declared the International Offshore Finance Centre of Malaysia. Although three islands – Pulau Kumaran, Pulau Rusukan Kecil and Pulau Rusukan Besar — are designated as Marine Parks, the special underwater attractions of Labuan are its shipwrecks.

Four well-researched and regularly dived wrecks to the southwest make this area “the wreck diving center of Malaysia.” Two of the wrecks are from World War II, the U.S. Navy minehunter, the USS Salure, also known as the “American Wreck,” and the Dutch vessel, the SS De Klerk, also  known as the “Australian Wreck,” which was thought to have been sunk by the Royal Australian Air Force.

The other two wrecks were sunk in the 1980’s, the Philippine stern trawler, MV Mabini Padre, locally called the “Blue Water Wreck,” and the Tung Hwang, a Japanese freighter locally known as the “Cement Wreck.” All four ships lie in
30 m to 35 m of water, with the top portions lying at 8 m to 12 m. The water visibility varies greatly season to season from 6 m to 20 m. The type of diving on these wrecks ranges from novice to experienced wreck divers with penetration possible into the hulls, but the wrecks are great dives even if you choose not to enter them. Diving the wrecks can be arranged through Borneo Divers.

Pulau Tiga is an island situated in Pulau Tiga Park, located about 35 nautical miles southwest of Kota Kinabalu. Three islands make up Pulau Tiga Park — Pulau Tiga, Pulay Kalampunian Damit (better known as “Snake Island”) and Pulau Kalampunian Basar. Pulau Tiga is believed to have been formed by the eruption of several mud volcanoes, which, with the combination of subterranean gas pressure and expelled muddy sediment, could have built up the island to its present height of approximately

100 m above sea level. The only resort on the island, Pulau Tiga Resort, offers PADI dive courses and many dive sites for the novice and experienced divers including some unexplored dive locations. A rich variety of marine life can be seen including nudibranchs, bamboo sharks, cuttlefish, marbled stingray and, of course, a visit to nearby “Snake Island” guarantees sightings of banded sea snakes. The surrounding reefs are shallow with healthy coral and water visibility ranging from 6 m to 20 m.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is easily accessed from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and is part of a larger protected ensemble that offers the double-splendour of land and sea adventures. The marine life that has been spotted here includes manta rays, turtles, lionfish, a multitude of pelagics and lots of coral. During the krill bloom from December to April, whale sharks are sometimes spotted. Located a short 15 minute boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Pulau Mamutik offers a fine site for macro photography.

Layang-Layang or “Swallow Reefs” is an atoll (14 sq. km) that lies about 300 kilometres north of Labuan near the famous and disputed Spratly group of islands. Its coral walls plunge a staggering 2000 metres down to the floor of the South China Sea. In 1985, the Malaysian Federal Government began reclamation work and created a 50-acre island on one part of the reef. The island now has a 1,067-metre airstrip and a comfortable 90-room three-star resort with a full-service PADI dive centre. It is now a world-class diving paradise dubbed the “big fish and wall diving Mecca of Southeast Asia.”

Its warm waters are crystal clear with visibility averaging the best in the underwater world. Large shoals of pelagics, including massive numbers of barracuda, jacks and an awesome school of hammerhead sharks, numbering about a hundred individuals, regularly visit Layang-Layang. Manta rays with fin-spans of over ten feet (3 m) are also found here. Other residents include the Napoleon wrasse, Hawksbill turtles, Dog tooth tuna, Giant hammerhead wrasse and the White tip reef sharks.

Mantanani Islands have a new exciting resort. Dugongs have been seen occasionally in many coastal regions, but they are most consistently sighted around the Mantanani Islands which are a group of three isolated islands northwest of Kota Belud and about 80 km north of Kota Kinabalu. Until recently, the islands were only known to a few locals.

The largest island houses the only dive resort, Mantanani Resort, which is situated at the western end on the edge of a white sandy bay. Three wrecks have been discovered and many species of rays can be found: Marbled stingray, Blue-spotted ray and large schools of eagle rays. For macro photographers, the “muck diving” is amazing. You will find seahorses, imperial shrimps, pink-eye gobies, jawfish, blue-ringed octopus, ribbon eels and many nudibranchs. There are now 16 dive sites identified by Mantanani Resort with many more still to be explored.

Kudat wreck diving is found off the northwest coast of Sabah where a group of islands lie with rarely dived reefs. These islands include Pulau Balambangan, Pulau Banggi, Pulau Jambongan, Pulau Molleangan, Pulau Balak and Pulau Malawali.

A number of wrecks have recently been discovered in this area. All thought to be merchant ships, two are lying at 20 m to 25 m and the third is lying a little deeper at 50 m. All three wrecks resemble coral gardens. They are completely covered in colourful sponge and soft corals. Marine life around the wrecks includes schools of glassfish, lionfish, scorpionfish and huge resident groupers.

The surrounding islands have shallow reefs fringing their shores with all the usual resident reef fish such as the coral trout, butterflyfish, angelfish and the occasional cuttlefish. Sipadan-Mabul Regal Tours, which is based in Kota Kinabalu, now has a live-aboard boat, the “Scuba Explorer,” regularly visiting the area. As these reefs have rarely been dived, new sites are being discovered on many of the trips.

Lankayan Island is a virtually uninhabited island and one of the best spots for whale shark sighting. The location of the whale shark is usually indicated by flocks of seabirds screeching high above the placid surface. Lankayan Island is also a true macro-world paradise. Large stretches of beautiful hard and soft corals belonging to numerous genera are preserved, including colourful juvenile fishes. It is possible that some of the species found here are as yet to be identified.

Pelagics also abound here, from large schools of scads to yellow-tail barracudas and jacks. The many schools of medium to large humphead parrotfish are always exciting to encounter. Sometimes, divers are lucky enough to meet large rays, guitarfish and even manatees. Among the 40 dive sites is Lankayan Wreck, the remains of an ocean-going boat that was used in illegal fishing here.

This wreck now hosts many different species of fish from small glassfish, harlequin ghost pipefish, painted frogfish to giant grouper and marbled stingrays. Despite the remoteness, the island resort has all the amenities of a modern resort. Visitors stay in bungalows made out of local wooden materials to blend into the natural surroundings.

Mataking is a small island, about 45 minutes by speedboat from Semporna. There is only one resort on the island, the Reef Dive Resort, with a total of eight executive chalets and two lodges that can accommodate up to 60 guests at one time. The Reef Dive Resort is an eco-friendly dive resort and, from the very beginning, the management of the resort has placed a great emphasis on care for the environment and the surrounding sea.

Here, tourists can learn and participate in The Reef Ball project during their stay at the resort. ‘Reef Balls’ are made of concrete, which are then placed at various sites underwater to rebuild corals and to provide artificial homes to the underwater fishes. Since the start of the project, a total of 220 reef balls have been deployed. Coral plantings include Tubastraea Micrantha (Dark Green Tube), Knotted Fan Coral, Sea Fan (Red Gorgonian), pocillopora Verrucosa (Staghorn Coral) and Seriatopora Hystrix (Staghorn Coral).

There are about 30 dive sites around Mataking, its surrounding islands of Pandanan, Timba Timba and the Tun Sakaran Marine Park islands of Bohey Dulang and Gaya. The three best-known dive sites that surround Mataking are Magic Rick, Mantis Reef and Alice Wall. The Alice Channel, which is about 100 metres deep, connects Mataking to Sipadan Island, which is only a 45-minute boat ride away.  

Midway to Sipadan, we find two other famous dive sites. Mabul and Kapalai Islands are probably the most exciting diving places for macro marine life in the wild. First, on the Ligitan Reefs, a very extensive stretch bordering the deep and vast Celebes Sea, we find a long-kept secret dive destination called Kapalai.

Kapalai Island offers some of the best “muck diving” in this part of the world. Here, divers come face to face with amazing marine creatures. Testing your skills at spotting minute and cleverly camouflaged oddities is well-rewarded. Rare subjects such as cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, sea moths and mating mandarin fish are seen on a regular basis.

Although Kapalai is just a few minutes away by boat from Sipadan, one can expect a completely different diving experience. The only resort occupying the island is the Sipadan-Kapalai Resort, which is built on wooden stilts over the reef.

Mabul Island is where the phrase, “muck diving,” was coined. Here, many new species have been discovered. A sheltered bay just off the luxurious resort, Sipadan Water Village, provides natural protection to fish fry. Mabul Island sits just on the edge of the continental shelf, downstream from the mangrove delta off Semporna. Due to the pattern of the currents in the area,  Mabul  Island seems to act as a scoop catching the most amazing sorts of critters. Like Kapalai, the sea bottom at Mabul seems covered with mysterious creatures.

Sipadan Island  Just a 15-minute boat ride from Mabul Island is Sipadan Island — a unique island because it sits on the oceanic bottom. With Sipadan and Kapalai practically across the street from Mabul, the discerning diver has the best of everything within a few minutes ride, not to mention access to the Mabul’s magnificent housereef.

In the following pages, we devote a whole section to diving at Sipadan Island. But first, let’s go ape and check out the oran-utans at Sepilok. 


Press releases from Divers Alert Network (DAN)