I've never seen such crystalline seas as those in Malaysia. The turquoise water is overwhelmingly clear and deliciously warm, a delightful combination for divers.
This, alongside white sandy beaches and fabulous reefs, coral and range of aquatic life, makes scuba diving in Malaysia very popular with both amateur and experienced scuba aficionados.
Malaysia spans the South China Sea. Part of it sits between Thailand and Indonesia and another forms part of the island of Borneo, meaning as a whole, Malaysia offers great diversity across its geography, people, language and culture, as well as some superb diving destinations.
I was fortunate enough to learn to dive in Malaysia, during my time on the Perhentian Islands, over 12 years ago. I am sad to say I've not yet had the opportunity to go back, but if I was to return, or should I say, when I return on a scuba diving holiday, I'd use the following list as a starting point for the top dive sites in Malaysia.
Unusually, I'm leaping straight in with a big fat giant stride, to my number one destination, which, for Malaysia, has to be Sipadan. It feels only right that this should be the focus of this post.
Scuba Diving in Sipadan
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in East Malaysia.
It is located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, on the island of Borneo and in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin - the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
Rising 600m from the seabed, it was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop.
Now, this ecosystem features more than 3,000 classified species of fish, plus hundreds of coral species. No great surprise then, that it regularly frequents the world's best dive site lists and is pretty much my number one on my list of 'places-to-dive-before-you-die'. Morbid maybe, but truly, this place is super special.
There are several outstanding dive sites dotted around Sipadan's local reef system where it's possible to see sharks, including hammerheads, turtles, manta and eagle rays and other big pelagics.
Diving here is great for walls, drop offs and drift dives, and it is claimed that the waters around Sipadan have the largest turtle population anywhere.
Multiple green turtles can be seen on pretty much every dive at Sipadan and are often accompanied by enormous schools of barracuda in tornado-like formations, as well as large schools of big-eye trevally, and the ugly, yet somehow charming, bumphead parrotfish.
I love the small stuff too and Sipadan has it all including nudibranchs, frog fishes, leaf fishes, and the ridiculously gorgeous pygmy seahorses. The coral is apparently pristine, with shallow coral gardens and deeper, sea gorgonians fans and barrel sponges along the walls.
Amazingly and many would say, thankfully, Sipadan was only discovered as a dive destination in 1984 and only became popular for scuba diving holidays later. It received an international boost when Jacques Cousteau spent several weeks filming there, but in order to preserve its rich marine diversity, the island was declared a protected national park reserve from January 2005.
All resorts based on the island of Sipadan itself closed down, so now the best way to dive Sipadan is from one of the local resorts on the neighbouring islands of Mabul and Kapalai.
There are over 20 sites to dive. It's impossible to pick one, but a couple of highlights could be:
South Point, for being one of the few dive sites in the area where there is a chance of spotting something big.
Deep waters and strong currents have been known to bring in Hammerhead and Thresher sharks to this spot though they are usually at around 40m, so for the experienced diver only. Although they are rare it is still worth finning off the wall and into the open water a little way for the hope of a glimpse, watch the currents though.
The Drop Off is probably one of Sipadan's most famous dive sites. It is also rated in the best ever beach dives of the world. Just ten metres from the beach this abyss drops down over 600m. The wall is covered in many varieties of coral and some big pelagics often visit the area, keep a lookout for grey reef sharks in the deep blues.
There will undoubtedly be huge schools of jacks circling above you, a truly magical sight on this fantastic wall of marine life. This spot is also popular for night dives where huge bumphead parrotfish can be seen sleeping on the wall.
You can experience strong currents at Barracuda Point, but they are laden with food laden that attracts thousands of fish to the area including huge schools of chevron barracuda. Topography starts off with a wall which merges into a ledge at around 22m where resting white tip sharks can be seen.
Watch out for grey reef sharks, eagle rays, turtles and bumphead parrotfish. The sheer numbers of fish are astounding here and drift diving is the best way to go at this absolutely awesome dive site.
When describing Sipadan, Jacques-Yves Cousteau summed it up: "I have seen other places like Sipadan... 45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art."
This is scuba heaven and I've never wanted to be a mermaid more.
Post Sipadan extravaganza, it's only fair to take a look at other scuba diving holidays and what else Malaysia has to offer in its underwater seascapes. All have something special.
Pulau Perhentian, Kecil & Besar
Going back to my diving roots, would take me to Pulau Perhentian, Kecil & Besar. Here we're off the coast of North East Malaysia and despite the fact that these are not large islands, they can get very busy during the summer months of June to August, although actually the best time to dive is March to October.
On most beaches, the water is shallow with lots of rays, cuttlefish and parrotfish. For scuba diving holidaysdiving, there are dozens of dive sites around both main islands, which you can do as shore dives, as well as several offshore sites just a short boat ride away.
Don't miss Tanjung Besi, Batu Nisan and Long Beach to enjoy turtles, pelagics and many bumphead parrotfish.
Scuba Diving in Redang
The island of Redang, located south of the Perhentians, is rapidly growing in popularity as a dive destination. Its waters offer ideal conditions for coral growth and there are many species of hard and soft corals found here.
Conservation on the island is a serious issue, which is good news for divers as fishing and collecting from the reef is prohibited.
There are several different levels of dive sites suited to both beginners and more experienced divers and most resorts around the island have their own dive operations and facilities.
Amongst the most famous dive sites, don't miss: Big Mount, Batu Terjun and Staghorn Garden.
The only negative part could be the number of divers. Redang is known for being overcrowded, so choose carefully your time there.
Scuba Diving in Tioman
Tioman Island has been a holiday island for many years and is popular with locals, Singaporeans and international tourists. It is the largest volcanic island on the east coast of the Malay peninsular and has a vast array of resorts, hotels, beaches and natural parks. Similar to other islands along the east coast of Malaysia, Tioman is protected for conservation by the authorities.
Diving here offers a wide range of sites from sheltered bays to volcanic rocky outcrops and pinnacles. The waters around Tioman also harbour several wrecks and an array of marine life to satisfy any scuba diver.
Don't miss Renggis Island, one of Tioman's top dive spots.
Renggis Reef is teeming with life with all manner of corals, sponges and anemones and a multitude of fish. This site is often used for training and night dives, and is one of the better places to spot turtles and blacktip sharks.
Scuba Diving in Miri
Located in Malaysian Borneo, Miri is a city (yes, you read that correctly) in northern Sarawak, with a population of about 300,000. Well known for its oil industry, this might not sound like your typical dive destination, yet internationally, it has become known for its great coral reefs, soft coral especially.
Miri is popular with scuba nuts due to an abundance of pristine patch reefs that make up the Miri-Sibuti Reef Marine Park, lying at depths from 7m to 30m with average visibility ranging from 10m to 30m. There are also some interesting wreck dives.
The best time to dive is from March to August, but diving is available all year round. Hard and soft corals cover the entire reefs, with abundant gorgonians, sea-whips, anemones, sponges and crinoids. Angel fish, butterfly fish, fusiliers, groupers, stingrays, trigger fish, parrot fish, wrasses are among the numerous reef species that can be seen and over 40 species of nudibranch have been recorded.
Eve's Garden, Santak Point, Kenyalang Rig, Tukau Drop Off and Siwa Reefs are not to be missed if you want to see some of the most beautiful corals, turtles, variety of fishes and even the occasional shark. Sunken vessels such as Sri Gadong and Atago Maru are also interesting sites.
All major dive sites are located 10 to 15 minutes by speedboat from the jetties.
It feels like this only really skimmed the surface of what Malaysia has to offer scuba divers, but hopefully enough to get you to start the internet search for the recommended dive shops and best priced flights. Don't wait, do it now!