Indonesia is a vast nation with its main islands straddling the Equator. The enormous islands of Sumatra in the west and West Papua in the east lie thousands of miles apart. The capital is Jakarta on the island of Java.

One of the Moluccas positioned in the Banda Sea, this island attracted attention in Elizabethan times as the sole source of nutmeg, thought to have magical medicinal qualities. Famous for its unusual macro-life, it became a magnet for divers in the later years of the 20th century before internal religious conflicts drove tourists away.

BALI 2 *
Of the southern chain of smaller islands, each has its particular characteristics. The southern part of Buddhist Bali with its white sands is a budget-holiday destination for Australians, but the north coast boasts fantastic dive sites just off beaches littered with shiny black boulders spewed from nearby volcanoes. The critters of Secret Bay and Seraya, the Liberty wreck at Tulumben, and the manta and sunfish encounters near the offshore island of Nusa Penida have put Bali on the diving map. Denpasar airport has a direct link with both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Positioned on West Papua’s north-east coast, the bay is now known for its population of whale sharks tamed by interaction with fishermen.

One of a group of islands off the east coast of Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, Derawan lies near the edge of the continental shelf and deep water, so enjoys visits from some of the more spectacular marine animals. However, visibility is often better at Sangalaki, further off-shore.

This region of Indonesia includes most of the island of Borneo, and the border lies immediately south of Malaysia’s Sipadan Island. The area has a vast coastline and there are established resorts and others being opened. Watch this space!

Strong currents between the Indian Ocean and Sulu Sea feed nutrients to vibrant reefs, resulting in spectacularly colourful coral growth. Komodo and nearby Rinca are home to the world’s largest predatory lizard. Male Komodo dragons grow as large as crocodiles! Komodo is usually dived from liveaboards out of Denpasar, Bali, but some dive centres are now setting up on the island.

Kri, in the Raja Ampat, is an island in the Dampier Strait and offers spectacular experiences for divers who can handle strong currents. There are two small diving resorts, and access is via a three-hour small-boat transfer from Sorong.

If marine-life minutiae is your thing, the strait between Lembeh Island and the main landmass of North Sulawesi is famous for the diverse and prolific marine species living on its mucky bottom (see feature in this issue).

Lombok 9
Together with the tiny Gili Islands, Lombok is an emerging diving destination. It separates
Bali from Sumbawa in a volcanic chain of islands and its north-east coast is protected from powerful Indian Ocean surges. A well-respected dive guide has recently set up shop there after a long stint in the Red Sea.

Located at the northern tip of North Sulawesi, Manado has become popular with the British because it is relatively easy to reach, with a direct flight from Singapore, yet is unmistakably tropical, with active volcanoes dominating the skyline and both Bangka and the Bunaken Marine Park supplying memorable dives, with shedloads of animals both big and small to look at. Many dive operations around Manado have a familiar British feel to them.

Misool Island in Raja Ampat has an eco-resort managed by a British/Swedish couple and offers diving more sedate than, yet equally rewarding as, the Dampier Strait. It is accessed by its own vessel from Sorong.

This island lies off Sumatra at the westernmost extremity of Indonesia, accessed by ferry from Banda Aceh. It’s Indonesia in the raw, with friendly people but basic and therefore inexpensive infrastructure. The undersea terrain is distinctly different from that further east, with coral clinging to big boulders, but the currents where Indian Ocean meets the Strait of Malacca encourage a profusion of marine life.

This only-recently celebrated diving destination in West Papua is an area of rock islands similar to those of Palau, and is named after the mythical story of five kingdoms. It is among Indonesia’s most easterly reaches.

Visitors to this location in east Kalimantan travel from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Balikpapan, with a connecting flight to Berau. Part of an Indonesian marine park, it’s another place with claims to be a world capital for manta sightings. It also has a jellyfish lake and as many turtles in evidence as Sipadan to the north. Liveaboards like the pinisi-rigged Seafari boats visit the area.

The town with the nearest airport to the Raja Ampat and flight connections through to Manado and Makassar (and onwards to Jakarta), the clue to its character is in its name (just say it aloud!) Many diving liveaboards that visit the Raja Ampat embark their passengers here.

The Wakatobi Islands and their Marine National Park lie to the south-east of Sulawesi and promise pristine reefs combined with luxury accommodation either on the islands or on
a liveaboard, although a less-expensive resort has now opened there. It has its own local
air charter for international connections.

The Bird’s Head peninsula of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) has become a chic destination for knowledgeable divers, with the small island group of the Raja Ampat at its western end. Positioned at the centre of the “Coral Triangle”, more species of marine animals and corals have been identified here than in any other region.

Malaysia is split into three main parts, separated by the island-nation of Singapore. The capital Kuala Lumpur is on the main peninsula but Sarawak and Sabah occupy the northern part of Borneo with the independent Sultanate of Brunei. Sabah’s eastern side abuts the Celebes Sea; its western coast is lapped by the South China Sea.

A resort with accommodation built on stilts in the Celebes Sea and close to diving flagship Sipadan, Kapalei is gaining a reputation for good muck-diving as well as easy boat access to Sipadan itself.

Even smaller than nearby Sipadan, this lush tropical island has a dive resort that can offer both muck-diving and vibrant coral reef-diving. In April and May, whale sharks frequent the area.

Enjoying the warm clear waters of the Andaman Sea and a thriving eco-system, this almost uninhabited archipelago off peninsular Malaysia and abutting the Strait of Malacca is almost as big as Singapore.

This artificial island atop a reef in the Spratley group was built to extend Malaysia’s territorial waters during the Vietnam War. You fly in from Sabah’s capital city of Kota Kinabalu.
Impeccable reef formations are visited by the usual suspects, but many divers also report regular great encounters in the blue with massed schooling hammerheads .

MABUL 22 *
Home to the Sipadan Water Village, Mabul is noted for its proximity to Sipadan, but has developed a reputation of its own for critter-diving, and the minutiae of marine life revealed by macro cameras.

Close to the border with Thailand on peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, these offshore islands rarely visited by European divers seem by all accounts to offer the prolific marine life we crave. The dry monsoon here runs from April to October.

On the Eastern side of Sabah, Borneo, in the Celebes Sea, is Malaysia’s only truly oceanic island, made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Resorts can no longer operate on this unique eco-system, but the Malaysians provide accommodation on obsolete oil-research platforms and liveaboards so that divers can enjoy encounters with the huge numbers of green turtles that call Sipadan home, and the numerous whitetip reef sharks that pick off the turtle hatchlings. A resident school of bumphead parrotfish rampage around, crunching up the hard coral and excreting the white sand that makes up the beautiful beaches. You fly to Tawau from Kota Kinabalu and take a minibus to Semporna and then a boat.

Lying like a dragon in the sea off the south-east coast of peninsular Malaysia, the mountainous island of Tioman is one of its most popular diving destinations, with caves, tunnels, canyons and huge boulder formations. It enjoys direct flights from both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Filipinos man most merchant vessels, and seek out work in any part of the Western world, so they have an international perspective that surprises some visitors. The diving is as varied as the islands, with spectacular reef diving in the Visayas and the Camotes Sea; Japanese war-time wrecks off Coron; and the far reaches of the Tubbataha Reefs, Palawan, where anything from a pygmy seahorse to a whale shark cen be found. The Philippines archipelago covers more than 116,000 square miles and has something for every diver.

Often regarded as the birthplace of scuba-diving in the Philippines, Anilao is a 150-minute drive from Manila. In the mid-1960s, a whole coral reef was transplanted to a large rock formation near the shore and, unexpectedly, flourished.

APO 27
Positioned at the southern end of the larger land mass of Negros Oriental, this volcanic undersea mountain breaks the surface to form a dramatic and beautiful island, said to offer some of the best diving in the Philippines. Dumaguete is the major city in the province of Negros Oriental.

BOHOL 28 *
Panglao is a small island off the coast of Bohol at the southern end of the Camotes Sea. Cabilao Island, a marine park off its west coast, offers brilliant diving on its coral reefs. Balicasag island is one of the most popular dive resorts on Bohol itself. It is reached by road and ferry from Cebu.

About 200 miles south of Manila, in the Visayas, this island is famed for its white sandy beaches. It offers divers clear water, deep walls, wrecks and beautiful coral reefs.

A major landmass that contains Moalboal, gives access to Malapscua and has good flight connections to Hong Kong and Singapore, it borders the western side of the Camotes Sea.

CORON 31 *
Often said to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, perhaps its most famous aspect for divers are the wrecks of Japanese supply ships, plus a couple of fighting ships, sunk by the Americans in 1944. Another unique attraction is a lake that has brackish water near the top and yet is home to large barracuda. Fly to Busuanga (and by road to Coron) from Manila.

Malapascua 32 *
Another tiny island in the Camotes Sea and accessed by road and ferry from Cebu, Malapascua won its scuba reputation thanks to a population of thresher sharks that can be encountered by those prepared to get into the water before dawn. Gato Island is nearby.

On the west side of Cebu Island, Moaboal is most famous for the island dive site called Pescador, a lonely outpost in the Tanon Strait, where huge shoals of baitfish congregate together with the fish that predate upon them.

This town at the southern tip of South Leyte is famous for the night dives under its pier, or at nearby Sogod Bay, where macro photographers encounter the full gamut of the weird and wonderful.

One of the oldest Spanish settlements, Puerto Galera lies some 100 miles from Manila on the island of Mindoro. Separated from the island of Luzon by the Verde Island passage, waters are flushed by a current from the South China Sea, making for exhilarating drift dives.

Relatively close to Manila and formerly the location of a massive US Forces base (and before that, used by the Spanish as a base for their colonising forces), Subic Bay affords divers access to the USS New York as well as the San Quentin and El Capitan wrecks.

Situated in the middle of the Sulu Sea, this 33,000 hectare site is now a National Marine
Park and World Heritage Site. The season is limited to March-June, and the site is accessible only by liveaboard.

One of the most popular tropical destinations with European holidaymakers, the Thai people have a tradition that welcomes visitors. It’s a good place to learn to dive and, positioned as it is, the Thai peninsula’s two coasts each have distinct characteristics and seasons.

These islands in the Gulf of Thailand, on the eastern side of the main land-mass, enjoy very different weather patterns to the Andaman Sea resorts. The best time to go is between January and September. The islands are now synonymous with technical diving in Thailand.

This is a popular area for European tourists on the Andaman Sea side, near the Strait of Malacca. Diving from Ao Nang Beach, the area has seven main islands that offer varied underwater encounters, though conditions are unchallenging. It’s a great place to learn to dive.

Accessed by liveaboards based at Kawtong, just across the river from Ranong in Thailand,
the Mergui Islands are part of Burma and one of the few diving areas with visibility not too badly affected by the outpourings from the Irrawaddy delta further north. The Mergui is home to the Moken, stateless sea gypsies, who spend their lives on their boats.

Set in the Andaman Sea, the holiday island of Phuket has well-known diving locations such as the nine Similan Islands, a national park 50 miles off its coast. Each island has a number as well as a name. Phuket is well served by dive schools, and many liveaboards embark passengers here.

SURIN 42 *
Fewer than 40 miles north of the Similans is the Mu Koh National Park of the five Surin Islands, an overnight trip from Phuket. The big diving draw is Richelieu Rock, probably named by Jacques Cousteau for its rich marine life, and promising encounters with pelagics such as whale sharks.

MANTA RAYS Bali, West Papua, Surin reefs Komodo, Manado, Wakatobi
Wobbegong in the Raja Ampat.

TURTLES Sipadan!
CRITTERS Mabul, Lembeh Strait, Ambon

Coron, Subic Bay

The Raja Ampat, Apo, Malapascua
Cenderawasih Bay, Boracay, Surin