Many watch underwater documentaries on TV with open mouths, marveling at the cornucopia of color on coral reefs, and the amazing cast of marine critters that play out their lives in front of the camera lens. Much more exciting – and satisfying – is to observe this world in all its glory not through the thick glass of a TV screen, but with only the thin, tempered glass of a face mask between your goggle eyes and the action.
The underwater world is a truly awe-inspiring place, but if you want to make the most of it – and believe me, it’s worth the effort – then here are a few tips to set you on the right course. First, diving isn’t a one-experience wonder – it offers a huge variety of adventures, from air-suckingly exciting drift dives surrounded by scores of sharks, manta rays and other large pelagics, to fascinating explorations of old sunken WWII wrecks; from eerie night dives along vertical, coral-encrusted walls that drop into the abyss, to gentle but incredibly satisfying shallow dives through submarine gardens where myriad coral creations are covered by shoals of brightly colored fishes. Everyone has his or her own personal preference – and what you like will very often dictate where you go for your dive fix.
Second, be sure to choose the right dive shop or liveaboard boat to host you. Asia and the Pacific region are brimming with excellent places to dive, and everywhere you go you’ll find diving operations eager to take your money. As with most industries, however, quality varies. You will find both good and bad operations in all destinations, so check out all the options available, compare them, and choose the operator that impresses you most.
When you enter a dive shop, look for the following indicators. Is it neat and tidy? Are the wetsuits and other equipment hung up carefully, or just thrown in a corner? Ask for a tour of the shop, including the back rooms where the tanks are filled with air – ask to see the dates on the tanks to show when they were last quality checked, and check to see that the tank compressor intake pipe sucks in clean, fresh air (air contaminated with smoke from a local kitchen can be fatal when breathed underwater).
Third, stop worrying about sharks! Contrary to popular belief, sharks are not something to be worried about for the recreational diver. Most sharks you’re likely to encounter will be smaller than you (especially with all your gear on) and nervous of your presence. Self-preservation figures strong in a shark’s instinctive behavior: your size, and the noise you make in exhaling all those bubbles, makes you something to steer clear of. Much more dangerous are smaller critters like stonefish or scorpionfish, which use camouflage to hunt for prey, and have strong venom in their dorsal spines. Cone shells are also hazardous to your health: that gorgeous shell lying in the sand may contain a mollusk that shoots a tiny venomous dart from its prehensile proboscis. The effects are potentially lethal, so never touch or pick up shells while diving, no matter how pretty they are.
Do that, and you’ll be ready to explore some, if not all, of the following diving hotspots.
Papua New Guinea
Ask seasoned dive enthusiasts where the best diving in Asia is, and odds are you’ll get PNG as a response. What’s it got? Everything – endless world-class diving in wild surroundings. Want big fish action? Then head to Kavieng on the northern tip of New Ireland, where the channels between islands serve up ripping currents and host silvertip sharks, manta rays, huge schools of barracuda – ad infinitum. Walindi on New Britain is another world-class site, with kaleidoscopic reefs carpeting seamounts with hard and soft corals galore. Or if muck diving (exploring the sedimentary bottom of the sea for small and fascinating creatures) is your bag, Milne Bay hides a bevy of bizarre critters.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
This is where recreational diving in the Asia-Pacific region really took off. The world’s longest reef still has what it takes to excite – especially in the northern areas of the Coral Sea. The Ribbon Reefs, in particular Cod Hole, are renowned, while Osprey Reef and the Eastern Fields are remote, pristine attractions for liveaboards. One of the best wreck dives in the world, the passenger ship SS Yongala, sees thousands of scuba-clad visitors each year, who swarm over its 357-foot length in a hundred feet of clear water.
Paradise found – and that includes underwater. The atoll archipelago’s reefs suffered from the 1998 El Nino, but they have recovered well, and this is still one of the most idyllic places to dive. Luxury resort diving thrives in dozens of locations, but the best way to dive here is by liveaboard, cruising from one atoll to another as you take in the wealth of this island nation’s watery offerings. If you’re lucky, you may see manta rays gathering in large numbers in Gaafu and Laamu atolls in the far south, or in Baa Atoll in the northwest, you’ll be telling that fishy tale for the rest of your life.
Consistently rated among the top three dive spots in the world, Palau has classic wall diving, WWII wrecks and pelagic action to take the breath away. Top sites include Blue Corner and Peleliu Express, where face mask-ripping currents draw squadrons of gray reef sharks – and even oceanic whitetips and marlins if you’re lucky. Jellyfish Lake is another spellbinding dive, through clouds of pulsating, stingless jellyfish.
Sipadan and Layang Layang, Malaysian Borneo
Father of scuba diving Jacques Cousteau named Sipadan one of the best tropical dive sites he’d ever seen. Who are we to argue? Though you can no longer stay on the tiny island, it’s easy to get there from resorts on the mainland. Swimming through massive schools of barracuda at the eponymous Barracuda Point is a favorite dive, or exploring vertical coral walls that drop into the deep abyss, while bumping into bumphead parrotfish or green turtles along the way… every dive is an event. For those wanting even bigger fish to spy, however, make the short flight from Kota Kinabalu to Layang Layang, part of the Spratly Islands archipelago, where schools of hammerhead sharks in the hundreds are on the dive menu, along with vertigo-inducing visibility and unfished, undamaged reefs that are probably Malaysia’s best.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
The latest diving hotspot in Asia is the incredibly beautiful ecosystem – both over and under water – found in and around the scores of small bays and islands off the far northeastern tip of the island of New Guinea. It is said to contain the richest marine biodiversity on the planet with over 1,300 species of coral reef fish, 600 species of hard coral (75% of the world’s total) and some 57 species of mantis shrimp. Raja Ampat can be explored from island resorts or on liveaboards, which meander through the island maze, seeking out great dive experiences from whale sharks to wobbegongs (carpet sharks), from phantasmagorical nudibranchs to cloudlike shoals of dainty damselfish.
Tubbataha Reef, Philippines
Accessible only by liveaboard, this is the Philippines’ premier dive destination, its underwater tour de force. Situated in the Sulu Sea 100 nautical miles southeast of Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa, these submarine pinnacles are a Unesco World Heritage site, and with good reason — you never know what you’re going to see, but anything is possible, the water clarity is phenomenal, and many divers rate this among Asia’s best diving.
Manado and Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
For a long time the “hidden secret” of the Asian diving community, northern Sulawesi still scores big with all who go there. Manado’s Bunaken Island has sheer drop-offs teeming with reef life, while the muck diving on the sheltered eastern Lembeh Strait is considered some of the best in the world, a heaven for those who love spotting a stargazer’s bizarre upturned face or the fast-changing form of a mimic octopus.
A mecca for dedicated wreck divers, Chuuk’s massive lagoon harbors a treasure trove of sunken wrecks in excellent condition. Japan’s main stronghold during WWII, it was attacked by waves of US Navy planes in 1944, which sank more than 40 ships within the atoll’s sheltered waters. Today the wrecks are festooned with coral encrustations and home to myriad fishes; many hulks can be penetrated to find remnants of the past still lying in the cargo holds or personal quarters. If wreck diving is your thing, it doesn’t get better than this.
Pacific reefs are known mostly for their hard corals, and Fiji has wonderful examples of these, accessible from resorts on the idyllic Mamanuca Islands off the west coast of the main island of Viti Levu. But fly to Vanua Levu to the north, to the eco-resort made famous by Jean-Michel Cousteau, and within a short boat ride you can find yourself swimming through probably the best soft coral in the planet’s largest ocean. Bring an underwater flashlight to fully appreciate the mesmerizing range of rainbow colors. Another Fiji must-dive is on Viti Levu’s south coast, where carefully orchestrated dives allow you to watch sharks being fed – not just reef sharks, but 10-foot bull sharks and, if you’re “lucky,” a massive tiger shark! Only divers with nerve need apply.
By Jon Turin