|The joy on their faces said it all - while I had been concentrating on photographing smaller marine life, I was blissfully unaware that some novice divers were swimming with a whaleshark barely 50m away. The warm waters off Tioman island are a fine introduction to tropical diving.
For most divers, Malaysian diving means the island of Sipadan off Sabah in Borneo, but the environmental restraints and limited space have yet to be effectively controlled, and Sipadan, Mabul and Layang Layang have few facilities for non-divers. So what else can Malaysia offer divers
The real Malaysia
Peninsular Malaysias east coast has little industry to pollute its waters and has several get away from it all islands that are cheaper to reach from Europe, have good diving and are not crowded. A collection of fishing villages, coconut plantations, beaches and picturesque islands - from the tourism point of view it is often quoted as the real Malaysia. Predominantly Muslim, the weekend is officially Thursday afternoon and Friday, though it can drag on until Sunday!
The three most popular destinations are the Perhentian islands, the Redang Archipelago and Tioman island. The underwater topography in these areas usually consists of jumbles of boulders, carpeted with soft corals, which tumble down to sand at 30m and form caves, crevices and tunnels. In such shallow, warm water the growth of marine life is prolific.
The Perhentian Islands, 20km off Kuala Besut, have relaxed diving in an idyllic, laid-back setting. They consist of two main islands - Perhentian Besar (Big Stopover Island) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Stopover Island) - plus several small rocks and islets to the north-west, the latter giving the best diving.
Most tourist accommodation is on Perhentian Besar. It tends to be fairly basic, but Perhentian Island Resort and Coral Island Resort are very comfortable, and have 24-hour electricity.
Harp corals, nudibranchs and feather stars are common. I even found a Spanish dancer nudibranch out in daylight. Deeper down, there are fields of stony corals and barrel sponges covered in alabaster sea cucumbers. Where the boulders meet the sand there are many fish species, including stingrays, parrotfish and pufferfish.
An artificial reef built here out of pvc drainpipes is now a substrate for many metre-long soft tree corals.
Dolphins and pilot whales can be seen in the area during July and August.
The Redang Archipelago consists of the island of Redang, the much smaller Pinang and seven tiny islets, lying 45km north-east of Kuala Terengganu. Prohibited Fisheries waters since 1983, and Malaysias first Marine Park since 1985, the archipelago has the richest coral reefs in peninsular Malaysia. There are 52 genera of stony corals, including the largest boulder coral in this half of the country.
Green and hawksbill turtles are common, reef fish are plentiful and pelagic species, including manta rays and whalesharks, are frequently encountered.
On my first visit several years ago, I had to take all the necessary diving equipment with me, but now there are several dive operators and a range of accommodation.
As I began my first dive, having rolled off the boat into the water, I checked my descent to take in the scene below - unlike most peninsular Malaysian diving, the view was just like Sipadan. In crystal-clear water, boulders led down to fields of healthy stony corals and shoals of reef fish, jacks, snappers and fusiliers dashed about while fish that feed at night hovered under overhangs.
A leatherback turtle was eating a jellyfish at 20m, while several green turtles were taking a nap at 30m. Butterflyfish, angelfish and pufferfish cruised around and a zebra lionfish rested on a small patch of sand.
The Redang Archipelagos Big Seamount is considered by many to be the most spectacular dive site in peninsular Malaysia. Lying 50m north of the island of Lima, it rises from 30m to within 10m of the surface and is covered in anemones, gorgonians, tunicates, hard encrusting corals and soft tree corals, with boulder, lettuce, staghorn and acropora table corals. It was hard to know where to start.
I chose to get close to the leatherback turtle, but it sensed me approaching and always kept too far away for a good picture. I was bored with photographing co-operative green turtles, so I turned to barracuda, batfish, groupers and a lone zebra lionfish.
Having used up the film in both my cameras, I ascended to the boat. Before we left I attached a beacon to the mooring buoy so that we could find it for a night-dive - this site had to be visited again.
The largest and best known of the east-coast islands, Tioman is 56km north-east of Mersing. The most developed of the 64 volcanic islands in the Seri Buat archipelago, it is considered to be one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world and was chosen as the mythical Bali Hai for the filming of the 1958 Hollywood classic South Pacific.
The main island has good sandy beaches along its west coast and a mountainous forest interior - a haven for birds, bats, lizards, squirrels and insects.
During the day, the jetty at Tiomans largest resort is busy with ferries and water buses, so very little diving can take place. But at night the boat traffic ceases and divers take over.
I had a memorable night-dive here. I set off late to give the sediment time to settle, and I headed off from the jetty to the west (seaward) side of the tiny island of Renggis nearby. The angelfish, butterflyfish and pufferfish were trying to sleep, the parrotfish were already ensconced in their mucus cocoons, but small blacktip reef sharks followed me around.
Moray eels, nudibranchs, stingrays, shellfish, sea urchins and sea stars were out and about, while the polyps of black corals and other gorgonians were feeding. The water was warm and there was no current - night-diving just doesnt get much easier.
Rocks to wrecks
The best diving is around the small islets and rocks to the west and north-west. The number and variety of angelfish and butterflyfish is incredible, and night dives are easy and rewarding. Turtles and cuttlefish laying eggs are common in July and August.
There are some other islands off the east coast that have good diving but are less visited, and a few liveaboard boats. Sadly, the beaches that were once famous for hundreds of nesting leatherback turtles are now almost deserted.
If youre into deep technical diving, then 95km off Kuantan lie the wrecks of two of the most powerful ships in the British Royal Navy from World War Two: the 35,000-ton battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the 32,000-ton battle cruiser HMS Repulse.
Suitable for all standards of diver, as well as non-diving partners and children. Relatively cheap to reach and inexpensive accommodation available. Shallow diving with few currents in warm water, diverse marine life and generally good visibility.
It takes one and a half days to reach from the UK. Most of the better dives are reached by boat, so unless youre on a liveaboard you will be limited to two or three top dives per day. Little organised nightlife.
Many airlines fly from the UK to Singapore; Malaysia Airlines flies to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. High-speed catamarans and small aircraft connect Singapore with Tioman. There are connections by both air and road from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.
DIVING & DETAILS:
Dive centres have modern equipment and qualified BSAC, PADI or SSI instructors. Liveaboards sail out of Kuala Terengganu. Nitrox and rebreather facilities are limited. Hyperbaric chambers are available in Kuantan and Singapore. Tourist Development Corporation Malaysia 0171 930 7932.
Hotels can be extremely cheap - check with your travel agent.
English is widely spoken.
The Malaysian Ringgit (but locals refer to it as the dollar and write it as $ on paper). Most credit cards and travellers cheques are widely accepted, as are cash notes of the worlds major trading currencies.
Great beaches that are safe for children, other watersports and rainforest walks. Tioman has the most activities.
HAZARDS:Malaria is prevalent, so take sensible precautions. No vaccinations are required, and in towns and resorts it is safe to drink the tap water.
BEST TIM TO GO:
April to October. Only the Perhentian group close down for the monsoon season (end of October to beginning of March). All the other islands on the east coast remain open all year.
WATER TEMPERATURE:26-29*C - wear a Lycra-skin or thin wetsuit.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Beginners to advanced.
COST:The currency crisis in South-east Asia means the area offers excellent value for money. Flights from the UK from£400 with Malaysia Airlines. Accommodation from£10 per night. Diving is roughly£35-40 for two dives in one day.
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