Don’t forget the sunscreen.
If you think our planet’s terrestrial wildlife is fantastic, wait until you duck beneath the waves. The Earth’s oceans are a vast wilderness where fantastic beasts swim, crawl, and shuffle through ever-changing landscapes. Graceful whales, inquisitive turtles, candy-coloured coral gardens—they all thrive in the warm, tropical, crystal-clear waters around South East Asia.
Listed below, are the places for diving and snorkeling holidays. To make things easier, we’ve included the best time to visit, the easiest way to get there, and highlighted the animals for which each of these spots is known. For instance, Sipadan in Malaysia is prime turtle territory while Malapascua in the Philippines, promises sightings of rare thresher sharks.
Where applicable, we’ve also included land-based island activities for those who prefer feet to fins. The list isn’t exhaustive but a compilation of tried-and-tested places that our writers and photographers recommend.
1. , North Maluku, Indonesia
Halmahera’s natural wonders are found on land and under water. The island’s emerald forests are home to the standardwing bird-of-paradise: a flamboyant bird with a peacock-blue collar and two pairs of long white plumes. Under the surface, spot coral, dolphin and species like the Napoleon wrasse, a large fish identified by a prominent bump on its forehead. The waters are calm, making Halmahera a great dive destination for snorkellers and beginner divers (there’s also a WW II shipwreck). Spend the morning working up an appetite underwater and the evening lounging on its white sandy beaches. Reefs are located about 10km from the shore, and can be easily reached by boat. There are a handful of comfortable hotels on the island.
Getting There: The neighbouring island of Ternate has the closest airport, and is connected to Halmahera by ferry. Ternate is connected to the busier Indonesian city of Manado by daily flights. Silk Air—the regional arm of Singapore Airlines—operates flights from Singapore to Manado; flight time is 3hr30min.
When to Visit: May to September
2. Malapascua Island, Central Visayas, Philippines
Malapascua is a stamp of an island known for its resident hammerheads and thresher sharks, which have tails that are nearly half the length of their bodies. The otherwise shy sharks come closer to the surface (about 25m-30m) early in the morning, pushing divers to set out at the crack of dawn. Monad Shoal is a great dive site to see these creatures as well as manta and eagle rays. Nearby, Gato Island has sea snake, cuttlefish, nudibranch, and an underwater cave that leads to coral canyons. Most of Malaspascua’s treasures are found below 18m, so it’s best suited for advanced divers. Snorkellers can explore reef systems that are a quick boat ride away. Hotels on the island are clean, fuss-free, and with easy access to the beach. Lovers of pork might try scoring lechon: a local favourite of crunchy pork roasted over an open spit.
Getting There: The Filipino city of Cebu has the nearest airport to Malapascua and is connected to international Asian cities like Manila by daily flights. From Cebu, travellers take a 3-4hr bus or taxi ride to the town of Maya-Bagay, followed by a 40min boat ride to Malapascua.
When to Visit: February to May
3. Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Lembeh Strait, the narrow strip of water that separates Lembeh Island from mainland Indonesia, is a mecca for those interested in the ocean’s smaller creatures. Like the delicate nudibranch, a type of sea slug known for its trippy, neon colours and shapes. Go here to see the pygmy seahorse, blue-ringed octopus, and zany beings like the rose-hued cuttlefish. There are also a few coral-coated shipwrecks in the area. Diving is the only way to access the strait’s marine treasures, so snorkellers may want to skip the island. Most resorts and hotels are located along the western coast of Lembeh Island, along the strait, and have in-house dive shops.
Getting There: The Indonesian city of Manado is the closest airport to the island of Lembeh. From Manado, drive to Bitung and then take a boat to Lembeh. Most resorts organise transport from Manado to Lembeh Island. Silk Air—the regional arm of Singapore Airlines—operates flights from Singapore to Manado; flight time is 3hr30min.
When to Visit: April to November
4. Ko Tao, Thailand
Ko Tao’s beaches are frequented by ocean-loving travellers, and for a few months every year, by hawksbill turtles and green turtles that breed in its secluded coves.
Picture this: Mornings dedicated to exploring waters full of neon corals and sting rays, afternoon naps on beach hammocks with ocean views, and evenings spent drinking at beach shacks with your toes in the sand and sea breeze in your hair. For many, Ko Tao is the ideal island. There are bountiful home reefs for snorkelling, hiking trails on land, and a wide range of accommodation options, from budget stays to luxury resorts. Many divers visit Ko Tao to get their beginner’s license, which includes reading theory chapters and prepping for the (relatively easy) diving test. Take a ferry to nearby Koh Phangan Island, to attend Thailand’s legendary Full Moon beach parties.
Getting There: Koh Samui and Chumphon have the closest airports and are connected to Koh Tao by ferry. Both airports have connections to Bangkok.
When to Visit: January to October
5. Havelock, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India
Closer home, the aquamarine waters and white-sand beaches of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands beckon. There are a number of sites to explore but Havelock Island, with its warm waters and friendly instructors, is the most popular and suited for beginners. Its coral gardens, sunken cargo boats, and steep walls create a varied landscape that is home to the butterfly fish, octopus, seahorse, turtle, and starfish as big as frisbees. On land, unwind at Radhanagar on Havelock (voted amongst Asia’s best beaches), kayak through Havelock’s mangroves, or curl up with a book in your hotel. Stay options range from basic, thatched huts to boutique luxury resorts.
Getting There: Port Blair is the only commercial airport in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and is connected to Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai by daily flights. From Port Blair, take a public or private boat to Havelock Island (about 2 hr). Dive operators on Havelock usually include transfers from Port Blair in their packages.
When to Visit: October to May
6. Pulau Tiga Island, Sabah, Malaysia
Pulau Tiga in Malaysian Borneo has throbbing rainforests on land, and marine forests in the water. Explore the island on foot, while keeping an eye out for hornbills, monitor lizards, and proboscis monkeys that live here. Soak in the island’s bubbling mud volcanoes, known for their healing properties. Then, stick on your flippers to explore the calm, lagoon-like waters of Pulau Tiga Park, a protected marine area inhabited by clownfish, angelfish, and anemone in all shapes and sizes. The reef is only a few metres from the beach, making it ideal even for those who don’t know how to swim. There are only two hotels on the island—the Survivor Lodge Pulau Tiga and a basic chalet run by regional park authorities—so the beach is blissfully empty.
Getting There: The city of Kota Kinabalu has the nearest airport to Pulau Tiga and is connected to other South East Asian cities. From Kota Kinabalu, travel to Kuala Penyu (2hr by road) and then a 30-minute ferry ride to Pulau Tiga.
When to Visit: April to September
7. Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia
Diving and snorkelling in Sipadan is strictly regulated: only 120 permits are issued daily to ensure the island’s marine ecosystem is preserved. These permits are very sought after and it’s easy to see why: The tiny island has rich waters, inhabited by clouds of shimmering jack, barracuda, parrotfish—and plenty of turtles. Renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau counted it among the top dive sites in the world for its healthy coral reefs and steep underwater walls. It’s a diver’s dream, and a great place to get your beginner’s or advanced diving certification.
The island doesn’t have any resorts. Visitors stay on neighbouring Mabul Island, from where dive operators organise trips to Sipadan. The other option is to stay on a liveaboard, which is a large boat that houses divers, but it can be expensive. Mabul is great for macro diving and observing the ocean’s tinier wonders like scorpionfish and pipefish.
Getting There: The town of Tawau in Sabah has the closest airport to Sipadan and Mabul and has connections to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. From Tawau, travel by road to the town of Semporna, from where you take a boat (approx 45min) to Mabul.
When to Visit: April to September
8. Bunaken Island, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Situated in the Bunaken National Marine Park, the lush island of Bunaken has warm, crystal-clear water with thriving marine life. Snorkellers don’t have to swim more than 5-7 minutes from the beach to reach the reef, home to 13 species of colourful coral (including whip coral and green tree coral) and close to 100 varieties of fish, such as the parrotfish and white tip reef shark. Spot them as you swim through its sunny, shallow waters, or go on dive trips to its depths. There are over 20 dive sites, but the currents can be pretty strong: great for drift diving (diver-speak for riding the currents) but not ideal for divers without much experience. Bunaken’s beaches don’t see much action, though you can explore the island’s unmarked trails on foot. Stay options include comfortable resorts and rustic cottages.
Getting There: The Indonesian city of Manado is the closest airport to Bunaken, and is connected to the island by private and public boats; rides take about 40min. Silk Air—the regional arm of Singapore Airlines—operates flights from Singapore to Manado; flight time is 3hr30min.
When to Visit: April to November
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