By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose.
A great dive destination for us is one that has healthy corals and a good collection of marine life. But if the location also has shipwrecks and muck diving we are guaranteed to love it. On a recent trip to Malaysia we found a wonderful dive destination that had all of this and more: the beautiful Pulau Perhentian.
Located off the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula, in the South China Sea, Pulau Perhentian is made up of two main islands and dozens of smaller islands. The closest town to these islands is Kota Bharu (close to the border with Thailand) that is serviced by regular flights from Kuala Lumpur. Not many Aussie or Kiwi divers make it to this area of Malaysia, which is a shame as during our week long stay we were exposed to a great variety of dive sites that really impressed.
Dozens of dive resorts are located on the two main islands at Pulau Perhentian and we were lucky to stay at one of the best, Bubbles Dive Resort. This lovely low-key resort is set on its own private beach and is surrounded by lush jungle. The resort has 30 air-conditioned cabins, a large dining area serving wonderful buffet meals and a very busy dive centre that offers a range of dive courses, snorkel tours and daily boat dives to the dozens of dive sites in the area.
Our first reef dive was at a nearby site called Tiger Rock. This collection of granite boulders, in depths to 20m, was typical of the area with the boulders forming walls, caves and swim-throughs. Decorating these boulders are some incredible corals – sea whips, gorgonians, soft corals, black corals, hard corals and huge barrel sponges. We did two dives at this site as there was just so much to see and photograph – batfish, lionfish, stingrays, moray eels, nudibranchs, commensal shrimp and four species of anemonefish, with clown anemonefish very common.
Another wonderful reef dive was Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea), a pinnacle that rises from 27m to break the surface. This dive site was just incredible, with beautiful corals and masses of fish. We encountered schools of snapper, barracuda, fairy basslets, fusiliers and damsels, but also saw moray eels, pufferfish, trevally, parrotfish, lionfish, rabbitfish, stingrays and a hawksbill turtle feeding on sponges. We also saw some of the local shark species at this and other sites, the rarely seen coral catshark and brown-banded bamboo shark.
We enjoyed other lovely reef dives at Sea Bell, which has gorgeous gardens of hard corals and forests of sea whips, Batu Layar, which had a great variety of corals and fish, and D’Lagoon, where we saw a large Jenkins’ whipray and mating cuttlefish.
One of our favourite dives at Pulau Perhentian was the night dive we did on the Bubbles House Reef, right in front of the dive shop. This reef is generally used for dive training and is a popular snorkelling spot with plenty of reef fish, clown anemonefish and even juvenile blacktip reef sharks. At night a great range of critters emerge, including moray eels, decorator crabs, hermit crabs, mosaic shrimp, commensal shrimp, coral crabs, molluscs and even coral catsharks.
While a good variety of macro critters can be seen on all the reefs in the area, there are also a few muck diving sites that are only dived on special request from underwater photographers. Turf Club is generally done as a drift dive, as the site is often washed by currents, but the 24m-deep sandy bottom is covered in soft corals and sea pens, and usually a good spot to find sea horses. We missed the sea horses, but did find nudibranchs, flatworms, stingrays, octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp gobies and pipefish.
A shallower muck site is Flea Market, the sandy/weedy bottom here only reaches 4–10m deep. While not as colourful as Turf Club we still found flounders, pipefish, a fireworm, nudibranchs, imperial shrimp, mantis shrimp and sea pens.
The thing that most impressed us about the diving at Pulau Perhentian was the wreck diving. The most famous wreck in the area is the Sugar Wreck, which is actually one of the best wreck dives in Asia. This 90m-long freighter (really called the MV <<<Union Star>>>) sank in 2000 and today rests on its starboard side in only 19m of water. We spent almost an hour exploring the wreck and were delighted to discover that it still has most of its fittings in place – portholes, lights, winches, shackles and the rigging. We explored the holds, bridges and the masts, and even found that the prop is still in place. The ship is also a haven for fish, with schools of snapper, barracuda and damsels everywhere, plus batfish, lionfish, stingrays, bamboo sharks and coral catsharks.
Another wonderful wreck we dived is called The Barge. Not much bigger than a tennis court, this compact barge rests in 26m and is covered in corals, fish and bamboo sharks. Not far from this wreck is another great site called Fish Ball. This is the wreck of a timber fishing boat sitting in 27m that is today home to masses of fish – snappers, cardinalfish and barracuda.
Other wrecks in the area are the Vietnamese Wreck, which is an old American Landing Craft, the Police Wrecks, which are three old patrol boats, and the Maritime, which was only scuttled at the start of 2015, but is great fun to explore.
We had a wonderful week of diving at Pulau Perhentian and enjoyed generally clear 28°C water, though the visibility did vary from 3m to 30m. Visibility can be a bit of an issue around the islands as thermoclines and cloudy water can sweep in at times, but the murky water generally stays below 15m and we didn’t find it affected our diving or photography. The diving in this area is also seasonal, with Bubbles Dive Resort only opened from March to October.
If you’re looking for a lovely tropical destination that is perfect for the diver or non-diver, or even for a family holiday, we can highly recommend Palau Perhentian for its great collection of reefs, wrecks and muck.
More information visit – www. bubblesdc.com