My goal with this article (part of a series on the best snorkeling and diving destinations around the world as born out by the data) is to provide non-academic snorkelers and divers who nonetheless have a more-than-casual interest in the ecology and natural history of the regions they visit with a road map of what truly deserves to be included on a best Malaysia scuba diving list.
For further reference, you can check out my article on the best snorkeling and diving along Central America’s Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (MAR) as concluded by regional reef watchdog and monitor Healthy Reefs.
Too many outdoor/”adventure” travel bloggers out there have absolutely no idea what constitutes a good snorkel or dive site or what you could accurately describe as a reef in good condition (“good” for the third decade of the 21st century, that is).
I want my website and these articles to be a repository of what might accurately be deemed “the best.”
To that end, what I’ve done for this article is go through the 2021 Status of Coral Reefs in Malaysia Report (the most recent and most comprehensive reporting on Malaysia’s various marine ecoregions)–a 140-page report put together by Reef Check Malaysia.
This is the most recent and most comprehensive survey of Malaysia’s coral reefs and, therefore, represents the most accurate and research-backed assessment of diving and snorkeling destinations in Malaysia for serious divers and snorkelers.
Out of the 206 survey sites covered in the report, I’ve only selected those that featured coral cover of above 50%.
I know that coral cover is not the only indicator of ecosystem health and productivity, but high live coral cover scores also tend to accompany high scores for other important indicators like macroalgae, herbivorous fish, crown of thorns starfish density, and general species diversity.
North Borneo is by far the best-known and most diverse. Sites like Sipidan are world-renowned and, in some areas, can be counted among the best places in the Coral Triangle.
Malaysia’s Malacca Strait sites are not really worth covering for serious divers and snorkelers. There is one site (Port Dickson) with over 50% coral cover, but because visibility conditions in the Malacca Strait are generally not great (5m), I’m excluding it.
Visibility, at least for me, is such a large part of the enjoyment when snorkeling and diving in Malaysia or anywhere else.
Trying to decide on snorkeling or diving gear for an upcoming trip? Checkout my detailed breakdowns of everything from fins to BCDs to dive watches and more.
I just returned from a month-long trip to Pulau Weh off Banda Aceh in Indonesia, for example, and the first two weeks were mesmerizingly beautiful snorkeling and free diving–the kind of conditions that make you not want to leave the water.
The second two weeks, at least on the side of the island I was staying on, were more akin to what I was used to growing up on the Pacific coast of Canada (which is to say, not good).
However, it is the quality of Malaysia’s Sunda Shelf sites that might be the most surprising to serious snorkelers and divers. Islands like Tioman, for instance, that are not really frequented by divers and snorkelers outside of the ASEAN region, have fantastic diving and snorkeling opportunities on, comparatively, quite health reefs.
Let’s get into the best snorkeling and dive sites in Malaysia for serious snorkellers and divers.
Table of Contents
The Sunda Shelf is comprised of the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak.
Reef health in the Sunda Shelf Ecoregion is mixed.
From 2015 to 2020, the reefs in the Sunda Shelf region experienced a decline in live coral cover. However, in 2021, there was a notable improvement, primarily attributed to the recovery of reefs in Terengganu following the damage caused by storm Pabuk in 2019, particularly affecting reefs at Bidong & Yu, Perhentian, Redang, and Tenggol.
The available substrate for coral recruits is high, suggesting the potential for further reef recovery if human impacts and the crown-of-thorns population are effectively managed.
In terms of fish abundance, those targeted for the aquarium trade remained relatively consistent over the years. Similarly, the abundance of fish targeted for food did not fluctuate significantly, with the high abundance from 2008 to 2011 attributed to snappers. The abundance of fish targeted for the live-food fish trade showed occasional spikes in 2016 and 2019, linked to non-resident bumphead parrotfish communities.
Regarding invertebrates, there is a consistently low abundance of those targeted for the curio trade (i.e., the trade in marine “curiosities,” including dead coral, seashells, turtle shells, and nautilus shells).
Indicators targeted for food have maintained a relatively stable trend over the years. However, indicators for ecological imbalance or predator outbreaks have shown inconsistency. Notably, the abundance of crown-of-thorns is high in the Sunda Shelf region, surpassing levels that a healthy reef can support.
Tioman Island, situated around 50km from Mersing off the East coast of Pahang, stands as the largest island on the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Hosting seven villages with a population of approximately 3,700, the island’s economic focus revolves mainly around the tourism industry.
Gazetted as a Marine Park in 1994, Tioman has witnessed a recent surge in tourism, now boasting over 100 resorts and 40 dive operators.
Diving and snorkeling take centre stage as the island’s primary tourist activities. In terms of infrastructure, Tioman features a small power generation station catering to all areas, freshwater sourced from river systems in hilly forested regions, a municipal incinerator, and ferry services facilitating transportation needs.
Malaysia’s Tioman Island has been establishing a reputation for itself as one of the best diving and snorkeling destinations in the South China Sea, with exceptionally healthy reefs and marine diversity, as well as a lot of dive diversity–shallow and deep dives, technical dives, caverns and swim-throughs, wrecks, pinnacles, and boulder fields covered in hard and soft corals.
Have a look at this preview from Scuba Diver Magazine:
- Coral cover is dominated by hard coral (reef-building species), with a mean cover of 57.12%.
- The health categories of surveyed sites range from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Poor’.
- Disturbance indicators, particularly rubble levels, are slightly elevated at specific sites.
- Live coral cover is prominent, accounting for the majority of substrate.
- Available substrate for coral recruits is very high.
- Impacts include boat anchor damage, discarded fishing nets, and trash at some sites.
- Discarded fishing nets caused turtle mortality at one site.
- Bleaching, Crown-of-thorns predation, and storm damage were recorded.
Fish and Invertebrate Abundance:
- Butterflyfish abundance is notably high.
- Fish targeted for food are low in abundance, suggesting heavy harvesting.
- Diadema urchin abundance is high, while indicators for the curio trade are absent.
- Crown-of-thorns is a concern, with a recorded population exceeding healthy levels.
- Blacktip shark and turtle sightings were recorded.
- Tioman Island’s coral cover and health, though facing challenges, align with or surpass regional averages.
- The island serves as a vital marine ecosystem, attracting tourists and supporting various marine life.
A three-year-old video of Redang (and Lang Tengah).
Redang Island, situated approximately 25km off the East coast of Terengganu, Malaysia, is home to around 1,500 residents, with only a small fraction engaged in the island’s main industry—tourism. Designated as a Marine Park since 1994, Redang has established itself as a favoured resort destination, boasting a more upscale reputation compared to its nearby counterpart, Perhentian.
Diving and snorkeling take precedence as the primary tourist activities, supported by 10 medium-large resorts, primarily located on Pasir Panjang.
These resorts, each equipped with an in-house dive operator, manage their power through individual generators as there is no centralized electricity supply. Redang Island is accessible through an airport with flights to KL and Singapore and boat services from the mainland and the surrounding area features both fringing off-shore reefs and submerged reefs, adding to the island’s allure.
Coral and Substrate Composition
- Dominated by live coral, primarily hard coral.
- Mean hard coral cover stands at 53.65%, considered ‘Good’ and surpassing the Sunda Shelf region average (50.49%).
- High availability of substrate for coral recruits to attach.
- Very high disturbance indicators, attributed to extensive damage from a major storm in 2020.
- Particularly high rubble levels at Pasir Akar, Pulau Pinang Marine Park, Teluk Mat Delah, and Mak Simpan.
- Extremely high levels of recently killed coral at Pulau Kerengga Kecil (61.25%), also high at Pulau Kerengga Besar and Pulau Paku Besar.
- Recorded trash at some sites.
- Reefs impacted by storm damage and warm water bleaching.
- Extremely high levels of recently killed coral at Pulau Kerengga Kecil attributed to storm damage.
Fish and Invertebrate Abundance:
- Parrotfish abundance is the highest.
- Bumphead parrotfish, targeted for the live-food fish trade, recorded.
- Banded coral shrimp, an indicator for the curio trade, also recorded.
- Crown-of-thorns not identified as an issue in Redang.
- Turtles recorded at many sites.
A shot of Tenggol’s Viking Scuba’s Instagram Page.
Tenggol Island, situated approximately 30km from Dungun on the East coast of Terengganu, Malaysia, stands as a small yet popular diving destination.
Designated a Marine Park in 1994, the island lacks a local population but has become renowned for its allure to megafauna, including frequent sightings of whale sharks. With four resorts, each equipped with its own operator, Tenggol Island relies on individual generators for power due to the absence of a centralized electricity supply.
The island’s reefs, mainly fringing and rocky, contribute to its appeal as a sought-after diving location.
Tenggol’s Coral Composition:
- Dominated by live coral cover, primarily hard coral.
- Mean hard coral cover is 46.35%, categorized as ‘Good’ and exceeding the Sunda Shelf region average (50.49%).
- Very high availability of substrate for coral recruits.
- Elevated disturbance indicators, particularly high rubble levels at Pasir Tenggara.
- Pollution indicators are not generally high, but nutrient indicator algae is notably high at Freshwater Bay.
- Recorded discarded fishing nets and trash.
- One site experienced warm water bleaching, and coral damage due to fish bites was noted.
Fish and Invertebrate Abundance:
- Snapper abundance is the highest.
- Absence of indicators targeted for live-food fish trade.
- Fish targeted for food are generally low in abundance, except for snapper and parrotfish, suggesting heavy harvesting.
- Very low abundance of invertebrates targeted for food.
- Absence of indicators for the curio trade.
- Crown-of-thorns is identified as an issue in Tenggol, with a recorded population of 0.46, exceeding the healthy reef threshold (0.2-0.3 individuals per 100m2).
- A juvenile green turtle was recorded.
An aside about Tenggol
I included Tenggol for the mere fact that it satisfied my coral cover requirement (over 50%), but to be honest, the diving doens’t look all that impressive.
The available videos on YouTube are a lot of regional divers, and they don’t really do a good job of showcasing the diversity of the area. What’s more, general fish biomass looks unimpressive.
I’ve seen better diversity in the Andaman.
Borneo’s reefs, particularly in Eastern Malaysia (Sabah), stand out for their exceptional coral diversity, exceeding 550 species, compared to Peninsular Malaysia’s 360 species.
While Peninsular Malaysia’s reefs face challenges, the eastern coast showcases vibrant ecosystems, with the Acroporidae family dominating, especially the genus Acropora.
Sabah, hosting a rich array of marine life, features four marine parks for coral protection: Pulau Tiga National Park, Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, and Turtle Islands.
The 2021 Status of Coral Reefs in Malaysia Report highlighted two main sites in North Borneo that were worthy of inclusion on my best snorkeling and diving locations list for Malaysia: Larapan (a relatively unknown and underexplored destination in North Borneo) and the world-famous Sipadan.
Larapan Island, situated in the Sulu Sea off the southeast coast of Sabah, hosts two villages with a population of just over 1200 people. The island lacks proper sewage and waste management systems but features essential infrastructure such as a primary school, kindergarten, mosque, community hall, and solar and saltwater desalination systems.
Primarily a fishing village, Larapan Island faces challenges like fish bombing, although it is not a popular destination for diving or snorkeling.
Despite this, the island boasts rich marine biodiversity, particularly in its coral reefs. Recently, a community-led initiative has emerged to patrol the area, preventing encroachments and destructive fishing activities, while also conducting surveys to monitor and safeguard the reefs.
- Larapan’s live coral cover is predominantly hard coral, constituting a mean reef builder cover of 64.17%.
- The coral condition is categorized as ‘Good,’ surpassing the North Borneo region average of 39.50%.
- High availability of substrate for coral recruits to attach.
- Disturbance indicators show elevated levels.
- Except for Point 1, rubble levels are notably high.
- Coral impacts include boat anchor damage, discarded fishing nets, trash, and fish bombing effects.
- Warm water bleaching has affected all sites, excluding Point 1.
- Fish targeted for live-food fish trade are absent.
- Abundance of fish targeted for food, except snapper, is very low, indicating potential heavy harvesting.
- Diadema urchin is the sole recorded invertebrate, with a very low abundance.
Sipadan, the lone oceanic island in Malaysia, emerges 600 meters from the seabed, celebrated as a premier global diving destination. Nestled in the Celebes Sea off Sabah’s east coast, it formed over thousands of years atop an extinct volcanic cone through the growth of living corals.
Positioned in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, Sipadan boasts one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, hosting over 3,000 fish species and numerous coral varieties.
Here’s a 2023 video from Sipidan showcasing the large schools of pelagics and coral cover that characterize the area:
Permits from Sabah Parks are required for visits, with 178 daily permits available since 2019.
Sipadan’s underwater realm is characterized by dominant live coral cover, primarily hard coral, constituting a mean reef builder cover of 45.21%.
- Dominant live coral cover, primarily hard coral
- Mean hard coral (reef builder) cover is 45.21%
- Coral health is ‘Good,’ exceeding the North Borneo region average of 39.50%
- High availability of substrate for coral recruits
- Very high disturbance indicators
- Elevated rubble levels, especially at South Point, Lobster Lair, and Turtle Patch
Why not Mabul?
I excluded Mabul from the list (despite it being one of the more popular Malaysia diving destinations for the simple fact that coral cover here sits at a meagre 27.81 percent (well below the North Borneo regional average of 39.5%).
The report’s conclusion for Mabul is that it is an unhealthy reef.
Malaysia is something of a regional diving and snorkeling spot. Most International divers and snorkelers from further afield tend to choose places like the Philippines and Indonesia over Malaysia. And for good reason.
Diving and snorkeling in Malaysia is a very mixed bag.
Somewhere like Sipidan, in the heart of the Coral Triangle, is still widely regarded as a premier Indo-Pacific diving and snorkeling destination, at least insofar as easily accessible locales are concerned–rivalling very good places in the Philippines and Indonesia, although certainly not approaching the stunningness of some of the Philippines’ offshore reefs and the more remote parts of West Papua, the Banda Sea, or PNG.
The Malacca Strait is, by all accounts, nothing special. Polluted and with poor visibility, serious divers and snorkellers will likely be left unimpressed.
If, on the other hand, you were looking for the best snorkeling and diving destinations left in the heavily fished, polluted, bleached and over-touristed South China Sea, Malaysia’s Sunda Shelf Ecoregion and locations like Tinggol and Tioman are very likely home to the best of the best.
Either way, I’m confident that this list of the best Malaysian scuba diving destinations actually constitutes the best. This is based on my own evaluations as a serious snorkeler and scuba diver, and on the most recent large-scale environmental surveys of Malaysia (which are few and far between).