It is said that we know more about space than we do our own oceans and yet they are the largest and most diverse habitat on Earth. Beneath the waves hides an other-worldly ecosphere with creatures beyond our imagination, some of which are still to be discovered. However, as powerful as our seas might be, they are under threat. From us. Over-fishing, over-diving and untreated waste are just some of the human inflictions that have had devastating consequences, such as bleaching of coral and the wiping out of entire species of marine life.
Governments across the world, however, are waking up. Evidence of this can be seen with the recent closure of Boracay in the Philippines, and Thailand’s Maya Bay on Kho Phi Phi in a bid to allow their reefs and areas of natural beauty to recover from mass tourism. The diving community is also propagating a ‘responsible diving’ culture and clamping down on negligent dive companies.
Our choices in diving destination can also help in rescuing our waters. By opting for a lesser known destination, we not only increase our chances of experiencing an unspoiled environment and escape the hordes at popular resorts, we also avoid contributing to the overcrowding of tourist spots that are already on their knees. Here is a handful of quieter dive locations that showcase some of Asia’s most breathtaking underwater sites.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Located on the north west tip of West Papua province, Raja Ampat holds the highest recorded diversity of marine life with 537 coral species and 1,074 species of fish, according to The Nature Conservancy. In recent years the local government has battled against over-fishing, pollution and urbanization with reasonable success and the reefs surrounding the island are remarkably healthy. Reef sharks, manta rays and turtles live in harmony among the spectacular coral fans, but it is the clouds of tightly packed fusilier fish, moving in perfect unison, that steal the show. Dive conditions are at their best between October and April, but the island experiences strong winds from July to September, which create rough seas.
Diving around Komodo Island is usually upstaged by its eponymous land-going dragons; seemingly prehistoric lizards that can grow up to 2.5 meters, weigh up to 125 kilograms and have teeth coated in deadly bacteria. However, divers are treated to wonders in a variety of tropical environments from warm, serene and vibrant reefs packed with hundreds of colorful fish, to deep cool waters with fierce currents and sheer walls that drop into nothingness, patrolled by sharks, tuna and groupers. Given that dive sites are relatively far apart, a good way to ensure you get the most out of this part of the archipelago is to take a liveaboard tour. Cruises leave from Bali year-round, with most tours in Komodo from April to August; tours last from five to ten days, which allows plenty of time to visit the dragons, too.
Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar
Since Myanmar only opened up to tourism in 1997, the Mergui Archipelago has largely remained undisturbed and this has been helped by the fact that you can only reach the 11 islands by liveaboard. Many divers board their accommodation at Myanmar to go to the more frequented Similan islands of Thailand, but venture further north and the rewards will be bountiful. There is a sense of privilege exploring the untouched waters of the archipelago where, between February and May, the possibility of seeing manta rays and whale sharks is fairly high. Although there is plenty for all levels of expertise, more experienced divers will enjoy exploring the myriad of life on its expansive walls and its many caverns.
Similan Islands, Thailand
Where their neighboring islands have fallen foul of mass tourism and over-diving, the Similan Islands have seemingly evaded these perils and offer the very best of Thailand. This is chiefly due to its status as a protected national park that closes for six months between mid-May and mid-October to allow the reef to recuperate. Located to the north of Phuket and due west of Khao Lak where day trips to the Similans can be arranged, these nine islands are fringed with white sand beaches and the reefs are home to an astonishing array of sea life including black tip, white tip and leopard sharks, moray eels, barracudas, turtles and luminous coral cities. Conditions are at their most stable between February and April when visibility can reach up to 40 meters.
Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, Philippines
Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1993, the UN describes the Tubbataha Reef as “a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-meter perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and two coral islands.” Nestled in the Coral Triangle, containing the highest level of biodiversity on Earth, the reef hosts over 600 species of fish and 300 coral species, as well as providing a nesting site for green and hawksbill turtles. Accessible only between March and July when liveaboards are permitted to enter the park, emphasis is very much on conservation; dive groups frequently visit the North Atoll field station which is manned all year to learn about the protection of the marine system. Thresher sharks, hammerheads and whale sharks can be seen on the walls and the shallow reef is abundant with colorful reef fish, sting rays and mantas.
Pick an environmentally responsible dive center
Ask about their conservation ethos and their proactive approach to protecting the aquatic environments they visit.
Buy reef-safe sunscreen
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approximately 4,000 – 6,000 tons of sunscreen is washed off into the coral reefs every year resulting in fish toxicosis and coral bleaching. Reef-safe varieties are readily available and use chemical compounds that are far friendlier to sea life.
Don’t touch the coral
Corals are coated in a membrane that protects them from disease. Touching the coral breaks down this membrane leaving them vulnerable and it can take years for them to grow back.
Practice neutral buoyancy
Make sure you are correctly weighted before entering the water and that your equipment is tucked in properly to avoid it touching the coral.
Take nothing but photos
If it’s down there, it should stay down there – you are a guest in the home of the life that thrives there and respecting their environment is paramount. Unless, that is, you find litter which you should pick up and dispose of once out of the water.
Photo by Marianne Harvey