Want to experience marine life like never before? We asked the experts at sustainable dive travel platform, ZuBlu, to share some of their favourite scuba diving destinations around Southeast Asia. Whether you want to swim with ocean giants such as whalesharks and manta rays, watch a turtle nest hatch, or encounter some of evolution’s most bizarre creations, these stunning locations offer something for everyone.
The Coral Triangle is a marine area located in the western Pacific Ocean. It includes the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands. This region is a 6km2 ecosystem which is home to 76 percent of the world’s coral species, 2,228 coral reef fish species, and six of the world’s seven marine turtle species. And the good news is, it’s right on Hong Kong’s doorstep! Here are some of the best locations in which to see incredible marine life.
1. The Marvellous Mola-Mola – Bali
The seas around the islands of Lembongan, Cenida, and Nusa Penida, just off Bali’s southeastern coast, are home to one of the world’s most unusual fish – the extraordinary mola mola, also known as the ocean sunfish. These giant pelagic animals gather in the cold water upwellings that surround the islands in the summer months from June to September, feeding on jellyfish and visiting ‘cleaning stations’ deep on the reefs to have parasites and dead skin removed from their bodies by small fish. These strong currents also mean some dramatic, swirling drift dives with sharks and schooling fish, and also bring in plenty of plankton for reef manta rays that feed around the islands year round.
• Diving with mola mola when cold water upwellings surround the islands in the summer months of June to September
• Snorkeling or diving with resident manta rays at sites along Nusa Penida’s south coast
• High energy drift dives amongst schools of fish, reef sharks, and turtles
2. Thresher Sharks of Monad Shoal – Cebu
Off the tip of Cebu, a sunken island rises out of the depths of the Visayan Sea. Known as the Monad Shoal, this unique location provides recreational divers year-round opportunities to see the elusive thresher shark. These extraordinary animals – with their bullet-shaped heads, metallic-sheen bodies, and long scythe like tails – congregate here to take advantage of a series of cleaning stations, making Monad Shoal probably the world’s best destination to encounter these remarkable animals. Divers stay at the nearby island of Malapascua with great macro diving found on the encircling reefs but a day-trip to Gato Island, with its interesting structures and underwater tunnel filled with whitetip sharks, makes for a great alternative. And when the diving is done, there are white sandy beaches to relax on and a range of bars and restaurants to enjoy in the evening.
• Diving with Thresher sharks, one of the world’s only locations easily accessible to recreational divers
• All-round diving experience with wrecks, macro critters, and nearby Gato Island
• Ideal as a location to learn to dive as well as improve your diving skills
3. Macro Madness in Dumaguete – Philippines
Located in the southern Visayas along the heel of Negros Island, the waters around Dauin and Dumaguete reliably provide some of southeast Asia’s best encounters for critter-loving enthusiasts. Its gently sloping sand plains, dotted with coral patches, are home to the rare, the bizarre, and the ugly. From yawning frogfish to camouflaged ghostpipefish, mating flambuoyant cuttlefish and hunting coconut octopuses, Dauin is a dream location where visitors can start ticking off lots of ‘must sees’ from their diving wish list.
Aside from muck diving, nearby Apo island is surrounded by coral walls and bustling reefs, and makes a great day trip. Just 30 minutes on a traditional Filipino bangka, divers visiting Apo Island can see large schools of jacks, plenty of turtles, and the occasional roaming pelagic – a testament to the conservation efforts that have protected these reefs for so long. Keep an eye out for the volcanic gases bubbling up through the sand – it’s not every day you can say you have dived a geothermal vent!
• Bizarre critters with November a prime month for unique octopus and cuttlefish species
• Beautiful reefs at nearby Apo Island
• Luxury resorts in a lush tropical setting
4. Hammerheads of Layang-Layang – Borneo
Rising up 2,000 metres from the depths of the South China Sea, Layang Layang is an atoll of thirteen linked coral reefs that lie 300km off the coast of Borneo. Although only covering an area of 14km2, it delivers experiences well beyond its size with this isolated atoll acting as a hub for many of the ocean’s big hitters – manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins, melon-head whales, and even orcas all make appearances here. Yet, it is the schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks patrolling the reef’s borders that are the highlight, with the greatest frequency of sightings around the March to May period. Other reef residents include barracuda and big-eye trevally and, with visibility often exceeding 30 metres, there is some truly epic diving to experience.
• Schooling scalloped hammerheads between March and May
• Encounters with ocean giants if you are lucky
• Great for bird-spotting on the atoll’s protected bird sanctuary
Note: Layang Layang is for advanced divers only due to strong currents and deep diving. Plus, the island is closed between November and February due to the heavy monsoon rains.
5. Rich and Pristine Reefs of Derawan – Borneo
Off Borneo’s east coast lie a group of islands collectively known as the Derawan Archipelago – home to some of Asia’s best diving and plenty of spectacularly-beautiful islands. The area has been explored for many years and islands such as Sangalaki, Maratua, and Kakaban have become well known in diving circles, but the long travel times required to get to the islands has kept the vast majority of visitors away. As a result, the entire archipelago remains peaceful and close to pristine. Perched on the edge of the continental shelf is the atoll of Maratua, home to Virgin Cocoa Resort and the location of some of Borneo’s most exciting diving. The aptly named ‘Big Fish Country’ dive site has sharks, schooling barracuda, lots of pelagic and powerful currents – perfect for thrill-seeking divers looking for something a little different away from the crowds.
• Encountering sharks and schooling fish, and drift over beautiful reefs at Maratua
• Dive with manta rays and turtles around Sangalaki
• Snorkel the unique jellyfish lake at Kakaban
6. Turtles of Sipadan – Sabah/Malaysia
Sabah’s Sipadan Island is considered by many to be one of the best places in the world to dive with turtles. The resident green and hawksbill turtles can be seen anywhere on the island, but a dive around Barracuda Point reveals just how special Sipadan really is. Green turtles laze on the corals surrounded by schools of colourful reef fish, while others queue up at the so-called ‘Turtle Rock’ for a clean and a brush up by the resident cleaner wrasse. On a good day, divers may encounter 20 to 30 turtles on a single dive, particularly at low tide when the green turtles leave the shallow reef flats and move into deeper water. Divers are no longer allowed to stay on Sipadan, but there are plenty of nearby options on the islands of Kapalai and Mabul.
• Diving amongst one of Southeast Asia’s largest populations of green and hawksbill turtles
• Encounter Sipadan’s schools of barracuda and jackfish
• Stay at Seaventures, a converted accommodation platform with amazing 360 degree sunset views
7. Dream Big at Tubbataha Reef – Philippines
Only accessible by liveaboard for a few months of the year, Tubbataha Reef Natural Park is an isolated 100,000 hectare World Heritage site in the middle of the Sulu Sea. With over 600 species of fish, 300 coral species, as well as huge populations of barracuda, jacks, and other schooling fish, Tubbataha could already claim to be the crowning glory of the Philippines. However, it is the reliable encounters with whale sharks, manta rays, thresher sharks, and hammerheads that take the diving here to another level. Liveaboards make the 14-hour journey from Puerto Princesa between March and early June when sea conditions are calm enough. Expect challenging but rewarding diving.
• Big diving with big encounters
• Discovering a pristine biodiverse World Heritage site
8. Tranquility in Triton Bay – Indonesia
Located in the far south of the Bird’s Head Seascape in West Papua, Triton Bay is about as far from civilisation in Indonesia as is possible to be! The bay was first surveyed by scientists in 2006 who were drawn to the large numbers of bigger reef fish such as grouper and snapper, the unusual soft corals and black corals that dominate the underwater landscape, and the many endemic species that were discovered during the surveys. As well as its unique species and habitats, Triton Bay has become well known for its whale sharks that gather to feed around fishing platforms along with both wobbegong and walking sharks. While you might not encounter lots of reef sharks, Triton Bay’s whale shark population, wobbegong sharks, and the endemic walking shark make it one of our top – albeit, more unusual – destinations to dive with sharks in Asia.
• Whale sharks, wobbegong sharks, walking sharks, as well as unusual reefs and an incredible array of marine species
• Visiting between October to December to take advantage of the best seasonal conditions.
Inspired to get diving? Check out more stunning destinations and insights at ZuBlu.
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