by Anj Santos
To dive in Asia is to experience the best diving in the world.
It is home to the Coral Triangle, a protected marine area that has more marine species than anywhere else in the world. Above the sea, the days are long, packed with sunshine and the people are warm and hospitable.
If you feel like exploring our vast oceans, here are the best dives each country has to offer:
1. TUBBATAHA REEF
Cagayancillo, Palawan, Philippines
Tubbataha is made up of two atolls (North and South) rising in the middle of the Sulu Sea. It is home to 374 species of corals, almost 90% of all coral species in the country.
Divers come here for its undisturbed character and the guaranteed sightings of shark in almost every dive. There aren’t many macro species here; it’s known in the diving world for its concentration of large fauna such as tiger sharks and turtles, and big schools of pelagic fish like barracuda and trevallies. Colorful and diverse coral formations that cover two-thirds of the area also add to its beauty.shark in almost every dive. There aren’t many macro species here; it’s known in the diving world for its concentration of large fauna such as tiger sharks and turtles, and big schools of pelagic fish like barracuda and trevallies. Colorful and diverse coral formations that cover two-thirds of the area also add to its beauty.
It has a short diving season of only 3 months (mid-March to June). Beyond that, strong winds deter entry to the park and allow the reef to go into the regenerative state.
How to get there: The jump off point is Puerto Princesa, Palawan, followed by 10-12 hour sea travel to the island.
Best time to go: The dive season lasts only from Mid-March to early June.
2. SIPADAN ISLANDS
Sipadan is the only oceanic island and the pinnacle of diving in Malaysia. It rises from the deep-sea floor and forms a natural edifice that is home to thousands of species of fish, an abundance of rays and sharks, and the world’s largest concentrations of the endangered hawksbill turtles.
Like swimming in an aquarium, divers can spot the said species in one go, not just fleetingly, as they are present all the time. Sipadan has 12 dive sites, the most popular of which is Barracuda Point. As the name suggests, it is home to large schools of barracuda, and other big pelagic fish like hammerhead sharks.
A visit to the island requires a permit issued by Sabah Parks, which restricts the number of visits to only 120 people per day.
How to get there: Fly from Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu to Sabah. From Sabah, take another flight to the town Tawau. A 40-minute speedboat ride will take you to Sipadan.
Best time to go: During the dry season of April – June.
3. RAJAH AMPAT
West Papua Province, Indonesia
Rajah Ampat is fascinating both above and beneath the waters. The islands are known for the mounds of green islets on top of luminous turquoise seas, and waters so clear, you hardly need to don a mask to see fish.
Aside from its sheer beauty, divers go to the island for its biodiversity. Located at the center of The Coral Triangle, it is reported to have the most diverse marine life in the world today. It has 540 different coral species or 75% of all species present in the world.
Dive sites are also diverse as the species. Some areas have soft corals and sea fans, others with diverse hard corals, seagrass beds and mangroves. These serve as home for about every part of the food chain – 1,300 species of coral reef fish, 5 species of rare and endangered sea turtle, 13 marine mammals like the dugong, and the famous wobbygongs or carpet sharks.
How to get there: The common route to Rajah Ampat is through Sorong, which can be reached via direct flight from Jakarta or Denpasar. From Sorong, take a 1-2 hour ride via Marina Express boat or speedboat.
Best Time to Visit: The best season is October to April when manta rays are greater in number.
4. SIMILAN ISLANDS
Phang Nga Province, Thailand
While not as scenic as the limestone-ridded islands of Krabi or Koh Phi Phi, Similan is still a consistent favorite among yachts and tour boats. Considered the best place to go diving in Thailand, its beauty lies beneath its often deserted beaches.
Composed of 9 islands, each part of the Similans have something different to offer. The eastern section features coral gardens and sloping reef banks. The remaining parts have large, sunken granite boulders that form arches and tunnels to swim through.
Similan is not a ‘big fish’ island. Whale sharks and manta rays appear but only from time to time. The island is more abundant with smaller tropical fish like cuttlefish, ornate critters like pygmy seahorses, as well as octopus and squid.
Due to usually rough weather conditions, the islands are open only from the dry season of October to May.
How to get there: Cebu Pacific offers direct flights to Phuket. From the Phuket Bus Station, take a bus to get to Khao Lak. From Khao Lak, take a tour boat to Similan.
Best time to go: March, when visibility is clear and there is little to no wind.
5. ANDAMAN ISLANDS
Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India
Floating in isolation between Myanmar and India, the Andaman Islands are one of the most remote and least visited islands in the world. In fact, the adjacent islands of Nicobar are strictly off limits to visitors due to primitive hunter-gatherer tribes.
Andaman, while remote, remains on the bucket list of avid divers everywhere. While the rich marine life is a compelling reason to go, there are quite a number of experiences here that can’t be found elsewhere.
Should you be lucky enough to make it there, don’t miss the chance to snorkel with swimming elephants, go surfing in deserted reef breaks, and scuba dive at the foot of India’s only active volcano at Barren Island. Wreckages, sharks, tuna and large barracuda are often seen here, but colorful corals are sparse as a consequence of volcanic eruptions.
How to get there: The jumpoff point is its capital Port Blair, accessible by plane from Chennai or Calcutta.
Best time to go: During the dry season in mid-November to April.