All images by Harun Rahman
Marine life thrives in Malaysia’s tropical waters. The best way to see it is to either scuba dive or snorkel. While snorkelling is limited to the islands’ edges where coral reef is abundant, divers have plenty of other sites to choose from. Water visibility between the months of April to September is often more than 30 metres. Here is a selection of some of our beautiful islands, what usually can be seen and how to get to the island. Last updated: 27 September 2006.
WEST MALAYSIA: JOHOR
PULAU AUR & PULAU DAYANG
Dive season: April to October
Aur Island (left), together with the islands of Dayang, Lang, Pinang and Pemanggil, is part of the Johor Marine Park. Pulau Aur and Dayang are two islands in close proximity to each other, 65km east of Mersing off Johor’s east coast. Snorkelling is possible. Visibility: 30m. Maximum depth: 70m. Currents: Choppy with strong currents.
Marine life: Pelagics, giant stingrays, groupers, large schools of barracudas, yellowtails, rainbow runners, damsels, butterflyfish, scorpionfish, hard and soft coral reefs, pufferfish, lionfish, snappers and whale sharks and manta rays (occasionally sighted at Aur and Dayang).
Directions: From Kuala Lumpur, drive to Mersing (five hours). From Mersing, take a 4-hour boat ride to Dayang (2 hours by speed boat). The boat will usually stay with you during your stay and return with you to Mersing.
PULAU RAWA, PULAU BABI TENGAH & PULAU BABI BESAR
Pulau Rawa is located 16km off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia and is the most popular of the three islands. Pulau Babi Besar, just south of Pulau Rawa, is an outstanding dive destination. Between the two lies Pulau Babi Tengah, an uninhabited island, which possesses an abundance of marine life. Snorkelling is possible. Visibility: 20m. Maximum depth: 25m.
Marine life: Pulau Rawa: Although lacking in coral, there is a decent count of marine life such as grouper, fusiliers, lionfish, sea stars, moray eels, cuttlefish, nudibranchs and jacks. Pulau Babi Besar & Pulau Babi Tengah: Some soft corals, small sponges, sea squirts, wrasse, stingrays, flat worms, scorpionfish, and damselfish can be found here. In July, giant leatherback turtles emerge from the sea to lay their eggs here.
Directions: From Kuala Lumpur, drive to Mersing (five hours) and take a boat from there.
PULAU SIBU & PULAU SIBU TENGAH
These two islands lie further south of Johor’s coastline.
Marine life: Includes coral reefs, butterflyfish, angelfish and black groupers.
Directions: Take a ferry from Tanjung Sedili.
Pulau Tinggi gets its name from a high hill rising 2,000 feet above sea level. Snorkelling is possible.
Marine life: Include coral reefs, butterflyfish, angelfish and black groupers. Popular with divers and snorkellers.
Directions: Pulau Tinggi is approximately 45 minutes by boat from the Mersing Jetty.
This island is located 15km northwest of Pulau Aur. Clear emerald waters entice many a snorkeller. Visibility: 30m. Maximum depth: 40m. Currents: Choppy with strong currents.
Marine life: A wreck on the eastern side of the island attracts parrotfish, surgeonfish, lionfish, groupers and shoals of snappers, batfish and fusiliers.
Directions: Usually, one takes a boat from Pulau Aur to get here. From Mersing, it is a 4 to 5-hour boat ride.
WEST MALAYSIA: KEDAH
Located off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Pulau Payar is located south of Pulau Langkawi or 35km off the Kedah coast. The Pulau Payar Marine Park, comprises four uninhabited islands – the main Pulau Payar (maximum depth: 24m) and the smaller islands of Lembu, Kaca (maximum depth: 35m) and Segantang (maximum depth: 30m). This is Malaysia’s oldest Marine Park sanctuary. These islands offer the best diving site in Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast. Snorkelling is possible only at Pulau Payar and Pulau Kaca.
Marine Life: Pulau Payar: The southwest tip is known as the Coral Garden where one can see soft-tree corals, boulder corals, whip corals, shoal of jacks, rainbow runners, tuna, and goatfish. Several species of barracuda and pufferfish live here too. A shallow house reef in front of the park’s staff quarters is good for snorkellers. Pulau Kaca: The northwest side has the island’s best reef. A variety of colourful corals and fish life can be seen between 2-10m such as sea anemones with clownfish, shoals of jacks and snappers, moral eels, stonefish, angelfish and nudibranchs. Pulau Segantang has gorgonian sea fans, yellow cup corals, sea anemones and clownfish, giant groupers, ghost pipefish, spiny lobsters, jacks, garfish, whitetip reef sharks, leopard sharks, and giant stingrays. Pelagic species including whale sharks can be seen at the two outcrops.
Directions: Access is not a problem as speedboats and catamarans ply the route on a regular basis from Langkawi and Penang. Most people depart from Kuah Jetty in Langkawi by speed boat or catamaran. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
WEST MALAYSIA: PAHANG
Dive season: April to September
Located about 36 nautical miles off Malaysia’s east coast, Tioman Island is one of eight islands in this marine park. Tioman’s underwater scene has a diverse marine life. There are patches of coral gardens and boulders covered with soft tree corals and sea fans. There are over 20 dive sites around Pulau Tioman such as Kador Bay, One Tree Bay, Magician Rock, Tiger Reef (a variety of sea fans), Golden Reef and Renggis Island.
Marine life to be seen: Blue-spotted stingray, reef sharks, turtles, moray eels, sweetlips, jacks, barracudas, and angel fishes.
Directions: By air, you can fly to Pulau Tioman by Berjaya Air. Alternatively, you can take a 1.5-hour boat ride from Mersing.
WEST MALAYSIA: PERAK
Pulau Pangkor is located off the shores of Lumut town, about 90km southwest of Ipoh. The name Pangkor actually originates from the Thai word “Pang Ko” meaning “beautiful island”.
Directions: Take the 40-minute ferry from the Lumut Ferry Terminal. Berjaya Air also flies to a landing strip at Teluk Dalam on the island itself.
WEST MALAYSIA: TERENGGANU
PULAU KAPAS & PULAU GEMIA
Dive season: May to October
Pulau Kapas and its neighbouring island Pulau Gemia are popular with snorkellers and divers. Pulau Kapas is located just 6 km off the coastal village of Marang, yet its marine life is still healthy. The reefs surrounding Pulau Kapas ranges in depth from 3-20 metres.
Marine life: Varieties of fish that can be seen here include moorish idols, wrasses, and butterfly fishes. Between the months of April and August, green and hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay eggs.
Directions: Pulau Kapas is a half hour boat ride from the Marang jetty which is 30 minutes south of Kuala Terengganu. Catch a bus from Marang to Kuala Terengganu.
Located 21 km off the coast of Kuala Besut, the Perhentian Islands comprises Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil and are within the Terengganu Marine Park.
Marine life: Black corals, giant soft corals, gorgonian sea fans, dolphins and pilot whales (July and August), large schools of pelagic fish, nocturnal shellfish and black-tip sharks and nurse sharks.
Getting here: From Kuala Lumpur, fly to Kota Bharu. Take a one-hour bus or taxi ride to the Fisheries Complex at Kuala Besut, which is a small fishing village on the mainland. From there, take a 1.5-hour boat ride to Pulau Perhentian or half an hour by speedboat.
Dive season: April – October
Located north of Kuala Terengganu, the Pulau Redang Marine Park contains nine islands, the largest being Redang Island. Snorkelling is possible around the islands. Other islands in the archipelago: Kerengga Kecil, Kerengga Besar, Ling, Ekor Tebu, Pinang, Paku Besar, Paku Kecil, and Lima.
Marine life & dive sites: “Mini Mount” is located off Kerengga Besar Island (sea squirts, corals, sponges and stinging hydroids); “Big Mount” is off the northern tip of Lima Island (clownfish, sea cucumbers, starfish, stonefish, groupers and parrotfish); the “Picture Wall” (dotted with sea fans and corals), “Cathedral Arches” (canyon network with huge arches); “Terumbu Kiri” (hard and soft corals, cardinal fish, damselfish, snappers, soldierfish, yellowtail, batfish and black tip sharks); and “Turtle Bay”, known for its sea turtles, is at the northern end of Redang Island.
Directions: Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu. From the Merang jetty, it is a 45-minute journey by speedboat. Ferry service is available from the Kuala Terengganu jetty and it takes 45 minutes to get there.
Dive season: April – June
Located south of Terengganu’s coastline, the Tenggol group of islands, set within a marine park, comprises Pulau Tenggol, Pulau Nyireh, Tokong Timur, Tokong Talang, Tokong Burung and Tokong Kemudi.The main island, Pulau Tenggol, is about 50 hectares 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.
Marine life: The waters around the island are home to fish, turtles, snappers, groupers, sharks, rays, nudibranch, pristine coral formations and a number of submerged rocks with excellent coral growths.
Directions: You can opt to fly to Kuala Terengganu and then board a bus or taxi to the fishing village of Marang. From here, take a 30-minute boat ride to Pulau Tenggol. You can also take a 40-minute speedboat from Kuala Dungun.
EAST MALAYSIA: SABAH
Kapalai Island is located between Sipadan and Mabul Islands and sits on top of the Ligitan Reefs, a very extensive stretch bordering the Celebes Sea.
Marine life: Squid, needlefish, cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, sea moths, mating mandarinfish, giant frogfish, ribbon eels, harlequin ghost pipefish, crab-eye gobies, leaf scorpionfish, pink-eye gobies, mantis shrimps, crocodilefish and lionfish.
Directions: Fly from KLIA direct to Tawau, then a one-hour trip from the airport to Semporna. Boat ride to Kapalai takes 90 minutes.
Located in the Sulu Sea north west of Sandakan on the north east coast of Sabah, the small Lankayan Island offers a variety of macro marine life.
Marine life: Leopard sharks, whale sharks, black-tip sharks, marbled stingray, giant grouper, schools of bumphead parrotfish, yellowtail barracudas, small glassfish, harlequin ghost pipefish, painted frogfish, seahorses, cuttlefish, jawfish, hawksbill turtles and green turtles. Nearby is Selingan Island, home to Sabah’s Turtle Sanctuary.
Directions: Lankayan Island is about 90 minutes by boat from Sandakan.
PULAU LAYANG LAYANG
This man-made island, located 165 miles northwest of Kota Kinabalu, was created in 1991 from a coral atoll in the South China Sea. Layang layang Island offers wall diving. This coral atoll consists of 13 coral reefs linked together and it has 2000m sheer drops to the ocean floor all around its rim. Visibility is between 50-60 metres and the water is warm (surface temperature is between 21-32 C).
Marine life: Many varieties of soft and hard corals, a gorgonian forest, school of hammerhead sharks, manta rays with fin spans of over 10 feet, napoleon wrasse, hawksbill turtles, dog tooth tuna, giant hammerhead wrasse and the white tip reef sharks.
Directions: Take a 2-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and then continue with a one-hour private charter plane to Layang Layang Island.
Mantanani is a group of three isolated islands northwest of Kota Belud, a one-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu.
Marine life: Dugong, lionfish, scorpionfish, octopus, glassfish, marbled stingray, Blue spotted ray, large schools of eagle rays, seahorses, imperial shrimps, pink-eye gobies, jawfish, blue-ringed octopus, ribbon eels and many colourful nudibranchs.
Dive season: March – December
Located an hour’s boat ride from Semporna on Sabah’s east coast is Sipadan Island; it takes just 15 minutes to walk around it. Jacques Cousteau who visited the island in 1988 said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan – 45 years ago – but now, no more, now we have found again an untouched piece of art.” Sipadan Island is Malaysia’s only oceanic island. Its coral reef is 160 hectares and has a circumference of 5.3km and is renowned for its wide range of rare marine species. At its northern tip, just 15 feet from the beach, the sandy bottom drops away to 600m. The vertical walls have been rated “one of the top five in the world” for wall diving.
Marine life: Soft and hard coral, sea turtles, big schools of barracuda, sharks, jacks, tuna, bump head wrasse, sea squirts, sponges, fusiliers, surgeonfish, leopard shark, bigeye trevally, batfish, humphead parrotfish, clownfish, sea anemones, sea fans, barrel sponges and cave dwellers (a 200ft deep underwater limestone cave is located 63ft below the surface). Dive sites: Barracuda Point (barracudas, green turtles, sharks, jack fish), Hanging Garden (soft corals, unicorn fish, clown or anemone fish, bright blue and yellow fusilier fish, sweetlips, and clown triggers), South Point (barracuda, manta rays, white-tip sharks, and hammerhead sharks.)
Directions: Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau. From there hop onto a bus for an hour to Semporna. Accommodation is available at nearby Mabul and Kapalai islands, and from there Sipadan is a short boat ride away. Entry into Sipadan waters is restricted by a daily quota.
PULAU TIGA PARK
Managed by Sabah Parks, the islands within this park comprise Pulau Tiga, Pulau Kalampunian Damit or “Snake Island” and Pulau Kalampunian Basar. Pulau Tiga Park is located in Kimanis BaySabah, about 48km south of Kota Kinabalu. The surrounding reefs are shallow with coral life and water visibility ranges from 6 meters to 20 meters. on the West Coast of Pulau Kalampunian Damit is a breeding site for the amphibious sea snake (sea kraits). You can find them resting under rocks, in cracks or on the trees during the day. At night, they swim back into the ocean. Although their venom is deadly, they have a relatively small mouth and are actually very timid. They can be dangerous only when mishandled or stepped on.
Marine life: Includes nudibranchs, bamboo sharks, cuttlefish, and marbled stingray. Banded sea snakes can be seen at Snake Island.
Directions: To reach Pulau Tiga, take a 30-minute boat ride from Kuala Penyu, a small settlement about 2 hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. Alternatively, charter a speedboat from Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Tiga or fly to Pulau Labuan and charter a boat from there. Both trips take about 90 minutes.
TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN PARK
A group of five islands – Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sulug – inhabit this Sabah Parks’ marine park. The islands can be reached between 10 – 20 minutes by speedboat from the city of Kota Kinabalu. Shallow waters reveal beautiful coral gardens and the little current make these islands ideal for snorkellers or novice divers.
Marine life: Scorpionfish, blue-spotted rays, cuttlefish, mantis shrimps, green turtle, hawksbill turtle, harlequin ghost pipefish and mandarin fish. Between December and April, plankton blooms attract krill, which will attract whale sharks, the world’s largest fish.
EAST MALAYSIA: SARAWAK
Sarawak has dive sites that have been compared favourably with Sipadan and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The visibility at Luconia Shoals is astounding as is the variety of marine and coral life. You can dive among World War wrecks and share them with giant manta rays. The Tocow and Siwa Shoals are just a 40 minutes boat ride from Miri while the Batu Mat Reef is an hour and 45 minutes away. The water near Kuching is not very clear but there are interesting dives to offshore islands where turtles breed. Tanjung Datu National Park has crystal clear waters and coral formations close to shore and should be good for snorkelling.
Getting around Sarawak: Express boats service an intricate network of rivers and main towns along their banks.
Miri is located north of Kuching and off the coast of Sarawak. Popular dive sites include “Sea Fan Garden,” “Atago Maru,” a Japanese World War II shipwreck and “Scubasa Reef,” a shallow reef which provides refuge for migrating turtles every August.
This uninhabited tropical island has white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters perfect for snorkeling. The coral reefs lie close to the shore, and colorful little fish can be glimpsed weaving through the coral. The island is also a popular nesting place for turtles.
EAST MALAYSIA: LABUAN
This is a popular wreck-diving destination. There are two World War II shipwrecks and one recent Malaysian wreck to explore.