If you could only pick one region to go to then Sabah is your choice. Praised by Jacques Cousteau as “an untouched piece of art” with unique marine life, Sipadan (east Sabah), is one of the most celebrated diving destinations worldwide. Due to its strict conservation program, the waters here are crowded with turtles, sharks, barracuda, enormous schools of colourful tropical fish, and a great diversity of coral that is comparable to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Permits are limited and there is no accommodation on the island, so this is either a liveaboard destination or divers stay at one of the islands off Semporna, such as Kapalai and Mabul.
Kapalai is a popular base for Sipadan, but it’s also a good destination for muck diving. It has around 20 good, shallow divespots with a wide range of weird and colorful marine life that reside on the (sandy) bottom, including an extensive variety of nudibranch, cuttlefish, invisible frog fish, leaf fish and pygmy seahorses.
This is a great base for Sipadan, but apart from that it is also claimed to the macro diving capital of the world. Silky, murky bottoms provide a great stage for muck/macro diving with interesting macro life. It’s great for photography. You can find a variety of interesting and rare critters and fish here such as Crocodilefish, Frogfish, Ghost pipefish, Mandarinfish, Mantis Shrimp, and many other extraordinary marine life.
On the other side of Sabah, in the northeast lies Layang-Layang, a tiny, oval shaped atoll where people go out to for seeing enormous schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks and to see the amazing, untouched coral formations. The “island“ isn’t more than a military airstrip plus some land around it. It has only one resort.
The southern province on Borneo is Sarawak, which also has some interesting dive spots, such as Kuching where you can find several World War II wrecks.
Peninsular Malaysia: east coast
The best diving at Peninsular Malaysia is found at the islands (“Pulau’s”) on the east coast. These include the Perhentian Islands, Redang Island and Tioman Island. The Perhentians are known for their pinnacles, Redang for the rich coral gardens and Pulau Tioman for advanced (wreck) dives.
Pulau Perhentian is a gem, about 19km’s off the northeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It consists of two small islands that look like they are coming straight from a tropical travel brochure: waiving palm trees and white beaches that are touched by turquoise waters. The diving is good here and snorkeling is even better. There are over 20 divespots and just as many snorkelling sites. The Pinnacle (Tokong Laut, or Temple of the Sea) is the highlight. A nice wreck is the Sugar Wreck, a 3500-tonne transport vessel that is easily accessible. Marine life includes sea turtles and several species of shark. It’s possible to take a trip to Redang from Pulau Perhentian, which is recommended.
The Redang Archipelago is covering nine islands in the South China Sea. Redang offers 80% of species found in the ‘coral triangle’ Philippines – Indonesia – Papua New Guinea, which makes it a top diving destination. According to many, Pulau Redang is considered to have one of world’s most developed coral gardens, being protected by the Palau Redang Marine Park. Apart from its colourful coral, the sandy bottoms offer excellent muck diving. There are over 30 dive spots, most just a short boat ride away.
Pulau Tioman is 67 km (42 miles) of the Peninsula’s lower east coast. It is relatively undiscovered but a nice diving destination. There are many white sand beaches and waving palm trees with deep waters offering some interesting wrecks for advanced divers. The islands consist of many granite boulders so most dives offer rocky formations. The rocks are covered with soft and hard coral and there is plenty of marine life to be found. Tiger Reef is one of the highlights; a pinnacle with coral formations and sea fans.
The islands on the west-side of the peninsula, such as Langkawi, are popular tourist destinations with lots to offer from a cultural- and holiday perspective, but they are crowded compared to the Pulau’s on the east coast and the diving is less attractive. Pulau Payar (45mins from Langkawi) is a small island with some good coral, but it’s crowded with day trippers and snorkelers.