Malaysia is a southeast Asian country popular among travellers, especially backpackers. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is sleek and modern but many parts of the countryside are still rustic and rural. Malaysia, especially Malaysian Borneo, is also incredibly popular for animal enthusiasts and those interested in eco travel. Not only is the country home to elephants, and orangutans, but it’s also home to some pretty incredible marine life as well. Scuba diving in Malaysia is an absolute must.
Scuba diving in Malaysia is divided into two areas; peninsular Malaysia, and Malaysian Borneo. Both areas offer incredible diving opportunities that will be discussed in this article. Each site will be identified as being either in peninsula Malaysia, or Borneo, to help avoid any confusion.
Remember, while there are many dive sites in the county this guide will focus only on the top ‘must-see’ spots. With that being said, be sure to inquire in other areas around the country about the local scuba diving. You never know what you may find.
– NOTE: The locations on this list are indeed the best in the country, but are not ranked from 1-7. The list is random, in order of when I arrived at each. Number 7 might be just as good as number 1. You decide.
GUIDE TO SCUBA DIVING IN MALAYSIA
Sipidan is a small island off the eastern coast of Malaysian Borneo that is known for its incredible diving. Not only is it some of the best scuba diving in Malaysia, but it is some of the best scuba diving in the world. I dove with Seaventures dive rig, which is a dive resort converted from a old oil rig platform. It is the most unique dive resort I’ve ever dove from, and probably one of the best experiences. They have an all exclusive setup, with a sweet restaurant, a dive center, great boats, and great accommodation. Its situated next to Mabul Island, but they do short daily trips to Sipadan and Kapalai as well. They also have one of the best house reefs I’ve seen, right under the rig.
It’s important to note that visitors to Sipadan do need a permit. As there are only 120 permits allowed each day, these permits are more likely to be given to scuba divers over snorkelers, and scuba divers who plan to spend a few days. Many dive centres require minimum 3 or sometimes minimum 5 day stays. Keep this in mind when planning your Malaysia diving trip. When you make a booking with Seaventures they will make all the arrangements you need.
How to get to Sipadan:
Sipadan isn’t necessarily the easiest place to get to, but it is worth it. The closest airport is Tawau. From there, you can continue by minivan or taxi to the town of Semporna (about 1-2 hours depending). From Semporna you take a 1 hour boat out to Sipadan island. Again, if you are diving/staying with Seaventures, take a taxi from the Tawau airport (15 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu), to the Seaventures offices. They will then taxi you to the resort. It will be the same directions for Mabul and Kapulai.
Dive sites in Sipadan:
- South Point: Best known for a big wall covered in healthy corals. Look for barracuda, trevally, and turtles. Keep an eye on the blue for manta rays and, if you are an experienced tech diver, consider going for an early morning deep dive. You just might see a school of hammerheads.
- Turtle Cavern: A cave dive, turtle cavern is a unique dive to, essentially, a turtle graveyard.
- Barracuda Point: Possibly the most popular site in Sipadan, Barracuda point is home to a massive shoal of barracuda. Keep an eye in the blue for hammerhead sharks as well.
- Hanging Gardens: A large wall covered in brightly coloured corals, sponges, and sea fans. Home to plenty of turtles, reef sharks, clown fish, damselfish, and more.
- Lobster Lair: A big wall with plenty of cracks hiding, you guessed it, lobster! This site is great for macro photography as it is also home to frogfish, seahorses, and pipe fish. If you are lucky, you might also get a visit from a manta.
*Note: Many of the dive sites at Sipadan are better suited for advanced and experienced divers
A small island also located off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, Kapalai is famous for its macro diving. It’s a favourite among underwater photographers. Kapalai also has easy, shallow, dive sites making it a great spot for novice divers looking to experience some of the best scuba diving in Malaysia. I ran into more nudis in one dive then ever before!
How to get to Kapalai:
Its the same directions as Sipadan. If you are staying with Seaventures near Mabul, it takes about 30 minutes to get here from the resort.
Dive sites in Kapalai:
- Spotted Ray Channel: A sandy slop that goes to a depth of about 14m. Keep you eye on the bottom for dozens of blue spotted rays. Other things to see include butterflyfish, gobi, nudibranchs, frogfish, lionfish and wrasse.
- Mid Reef: A great spot for macro; especially known for the pygmy seahorse. Also, be on the lookout for octopus, nudibranchs, ribbon eels, lobster, mantis shrimp, and stonefish. It’s also possible to see hammerhead and whitetip sharks here.
- Mandarin Valley: a coral slope with a shallow bottom makes this a favourite place for underwater photographers. Watch for ghost pipe fish, frogfish, and octopus. If you are lucky, you will see mandarin fish. This is also a great spot to come at night.
- The Jetty: An artificial reef made from old fishing boats, there is a lot of marine life to be found in this area. Clownfish, crabs, shrimp, frogfish, lionfish, moray eels, snappers, and groupers are just some of what you will see.
A small island located off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo, Mabul is world renowned for its muck diving. Mabul is an absolute must for those scuba diving in Malaysia with an interest in macro. I got to see a lot of different colored frogfish around Mabul, as well as lots of other cool stuff!
How to get to Mabul:
Check out the directs under Sipadan. From the Seaventures rig its only minutes to the Mabul sites.
Dive sites in Mabul:
- Seaventure: Underneath an old oil rig, this is a great spot for both day and night dives. Expect to see nudibranchs, frogfish, crocodile fish, eels, stonefish, and more.
- Froggy Lair: The most popular dive site here, it’s known as THE place for muck diving. Expect to see nudibranchs, frogfish, pipe fish, and maybe even some flamboyant cuttlefish.
- Eel Garden: Another great muck dive. This dive site is home to frogfish, eels, batfish, octopus, and mantis shrimp. It’s also a great spot for night diving.
- Lobster wall: A deep dive (the main area starts at 40m), lobster wall is home to lobsters who hide in the cracks. You can also see stonefish, ghost pipe fish, triggerfish, clownfish, and seahorses.
4. Tioman Island
Tioman island is a small island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia. The island is part of the Mersing Marine park and surrounded by white coral reefs making it a popular destination for those interested in scuba diving in Malaysia. There are over 25 dive sites, with spots suitable for all levels.
How to get to Tioman Island:
There are a few different ways to get to Tioman Island depending on where you are coming from. The most common way is to take the ferry from Mersing on the mainland. The ferry service is operated by Bluewater Express and runs 2-3 times per day, although it may be cancelled due to poor conditions. The trip takes 2 hours each way, and stops at several places along the Tioman coast. There are also speedboat options, however they are not usually very reliable as they require a minimum number of passengers.
It is also possible to get a ferry from Tanjung Gemuk; this ferry terminal is used primarily by dive tours operating from Singapore.
Tioman island does have a tiny airport however, it is only serviced by one airline; Berjaya air. Tickets should be purchased at least three days in advance for the best price, but note that the maximum weight limit is 10kg per passenger.
Dive sites in Tioman Island:
- Tiger Reef: A large pinnacle that goes to about 22m, lots of rocks covered in colorful sponges and corals, and plenty of fish. Expect to see wrasse, parrotfish, barracuda, lionfish, pufferfish, and turtles. It’s also a good spot to see whale sharks during the right season.
- Rennggis Island: Great for divers of all levels, Rennggis is home to a large variety of species of fish and corals. Lots of opportunities to see turtles and reef sharks. There a several spots to dive around the island.
- Soyak: Soyak is made up of two wrecks covered in a variety of corals. You might see some reef sharks during your dive, and will likely be followed by some curious lyre tailed wrasse.
- Chebeh Island : An island area made up of volcanic rocks with caves, tunnels, and swimthroughs, there are several dive sites around Chebeh island. The reef has been described to look like the reef in Finding Nemo and here is a good possibility of seeing whale sharks and giant mantas during migration season (April-October).
- Labas: Labas is another rocky spot, but best known for its swimthroughs. There isn’t a huge amount of marine life here compared to some of the other sites, but you will still see turtles, pufferfish, sting rays, and common reef species.
Other things to do in Tioman Island:
If you have extra time, it is worth renting a motorbike to explore the villages and beaches of Tioman Island. There are some beautiful waterfalls, Asah Waterfalls, that are worth a visit. Jungle trekking, kayaking, free diving, and golfing are all other activities you can enjoy on the island.
Layang Layang is part of an island complex located about 300km of the coast of Malaysian Borneo. It’s part of the Spratly Islands which are disputed territory between Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Philippines, and Vietnam. There is only one dive resort in the area, open between the months of March and August. There is a naval base in the area however, it is entirely off limits and comes with a warning that wandering the base will result in detonation.
Layang Layang, being essentially in the middle of nowhere, has clear, unpolluted waters and attracts plenty of large marine species including hammerhead sharks and whale sharks. There is no fishing permitted in the area, meaning there is an abundance of marine life. It is some of the best scuba diving in Malaysia.
How to get to Layang-Layang:
There are small charted flights to Layang Layang for scuba divers from Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. Flights are small, usually allowing for a maximum of only twenty passengers. Both divers and their equipment will be weighed before the flight to balance out the plane.
It is possible to dive Layang-Layang without staying on the island if you do a liveaboard that frequents the area.
Dive sites in Layang-Layang:
- The Point: One of the best chances to see hammerheads. Divers need to leave the reef and dive about 30-35m into the blue in the hopes of seeing the sharks. Stay down for about 5-10 minutes then finish the dive on the reef. April and May are the best times to see hammerheads.
- Crack Reef: This reef is filled with colorful corals including a rare black coral. Look close for pygmy seahorse. It is also another great spot to see hammerheads if you go deeper.
- Dogtooth Lair: Named after the shoals of dogtooth tuna that frequent the area, this site is a good place to spot sleeping reef tip sharks, schools of barracuda, and possible schools of hammerheads if you are lucky.
- Gorgonian Wall: Descending down to 40m , this wall is full of big gorgonians, schools of jacks, and during the season huge schools of hammerheads swim in the blue.
- Sharks Cave: Best known for the variety of species in sharks you can find here, including reef sharks, leopard sharks, nurse sharks, and of course schooling hammerheads during the right season. Also keep an eye out for manta rays.
- Wreck Point: Sadly this is no longer a proper wreck, just a bunch of debris on the sea floor, but there is still plenty to see. Manta rays, whitecap reef sharks, barracuda, black coral, and possible schooling hammerheads.
Other things to do in Layang-Layang:
If you are not a scuba diver, there really is no point in going to Layang Layang as the main interests here are all underwater.
6. Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian Islands are a small group of islands surrounded by coral reefs. The islands are off the coast of Northern Malaysia, close to Thailand.
There are two main islands: Palau Perhentian Besar, and Palau Perhentian Kecil. Kecil is the smaller of the two islands, known for its more budget friendly accommodations and therefore popular with backpackers. Besar is catered more towards family and luxury travel, and is home to a few resorts.
The Perhentian islands are part of a protected marine park, which means no fishing or collecting corals; making is a great destination for anyone interested in scuba diving in Malaysia.
How to get to the Perhentian Islands:
There is no airport on any of the Perhentian Islands, so the only way to access is by boat. A ferry runs from Kuala Besut, which is a small town known as the gateway to the Perhentian Islands. Make sure you take a licensed speed boat, as the unlicensed ones have a reputation of not picking you up to bring you back at the end of your day. That being said, the licensed speed boats are also known to go over the limit of how many people should be in each boat. So keep that in mind. Please note that visitors are required to pay a marine park fee on top of the cost of the boat trip.
Dive sites in the Perhentian Islands:
- Sugar Wreck: A 90m long super boat that was sunk during a monsoon in the year 2000. Coral hasn’t covered the entire ship year, but it’s home to plenty of fish and some larger pelagic species can be seen occasionally in the area.
- Tokong Laut: Possibly the best dive site in the area, there is a large pinnacle, sandy sea floors, and caves perfect for underwater photography. Expect to see scorpionfish, cuttlefish, turtles, and plenty of hard and soft corals.
- Vietnamese Wreck: This ship was sunk in 1976 and today is home to all kinds of marine life including stonefish, scorpionfish, nudibranch, and the occasional barracuda and leopard shark. It can be dark, so bring a flashlight.
- Terumbu Tiga: Clear waters with coral reefs, caves, and swimthroughs. Lots of marine life in the area including blacktop reef sharks, trevally, barracuda, and more.
Other things to do in the Perhentian Islands:
The marine park, perfect for scuba diving and snorkelling, is the big draw for tourists visiting the Perhentian Islands. However, those staying awhile may also enjoy kayaking, jungle trekking, and turtle conservation activities
7. Lankayan Island
Lankayan island is a small island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. It is one of the best known places for scuba diving in Malaysia and is known for its wrecks, macro diving, and whale shark sightings from the months of March to May. There is only one resort on the island, so it’s advised to book well in advance.
How to get to Lankayan Island:
There is only one resort on Lankayan Island that is accessible by boat. To get there you need to arrive in Sandakan (which does have an airport) and take the boat across. The boat leaves from the Sandakan Yacht Club and takes approximately two hours to reach the resort.
Dive sites in Lankayan Island:
- Jawfish Lair: Named after the funny looking jawfish that can be found here.
- Jetty Wreck: This wreck is a small fishing boat, but its home to plenty of blue spotted rays and schools of batfish and jackfish. It’s also a great place for a night dive, with lots of frogfish to be seen.
- Mosquito Wreck: One part of Japan’s WWII fleet, today it’s home to a lot of jacks and barracuda. Its also one of the best places to see whale sharks during the season, so keep an eye out on the blue.
- Froggie Fort: best known for all the frogfish. Batfish, angelfish, and pufferfish are also common, and keep an eye out for nudibranchs and lobster.
- Lankayan Wreck: Ironically enough, this wreck was once used for poaching marine life. Now it’s the home to a variety of fish including groupers and tiny ghost pipefish. Whale sharks pass by here during the season, so remember to look out into the blue!
Other things to do in Lankayan Island:
The only reason to go to Lankayan island is for scuba diving.
Best times of year to scuba dive Malaysia:
Scuba diving is available in some places year round such a Sipadan, year round. However, other destinations are only seasonal. April to October are the best months as November to March is monsoon season. If you are most interest in seeing whale sharks, plan to come earlier in the season for the best chances. But, keep in mind, this is the most popular time so you will likely have to book in advance.
Malaysia is an incredible country with plenty to offer its travellers. But, while the land itself is spectacular, scuba divers will agree that some of the best of what this country can offer lies under the sea. Diving enthusiasts should definitely put scuba diving in Malaysia near the top of their bucket list.