‘You’ll never forget the first breath you take underwater.’
This is the famous line from the open water manual book you get when you learn to dive, and it couldn’t be more true. Your first dive (and every dive after) is sure to be an amazing experience you will never forget.
Unless you’re an astronaut, diving is the only way to be completely weightless. Imagine that you can float and swim like a fish, in absolute freedom. It is one of the most relaxing and peaceful moments to be surrounded by openness and hear only the sound of your own breathing.
Tioman Island, Mersing, Malaysia
Located at Malaysia’s East Coast, Tioman Island is famous for its extensive coral reefs and wide varieties of tropical fish. The shallow and calm water is perfect for training and beginner divers as well as underwater photography. The journey takes 3 hours driving from Singapore to Mersing, and a 2 ½ hours ferry ride from Tanjung Gemuk jetty to Tioman Island. Remember to pay attention to the announcement on the ferry, it will stop at 3 different jetties, so make sure to check where your dive centre or hotel is to get off at the right location.
TIP: The best diving season for Tioman starts in late February and ends in late November. Keep in mind that the island will be closed for monsoon season.
01. Dive Site – Renggis
Renggis is one of the famous sites in Tioman Island for its beautiful coral reefs with marine life – angel fish, puffer fish, stingray, green turtles, moral eels at a pretty shallow depth (8-12 meters). This is usually the first boat dive for new divers where you get to experience the fish swimming right next to you in crystal clear water.
You can easily spot green turtles poking around the coral for food, and harmless black tip reef sharks around you throughout the dive. Another ‘permanent resident’ (named Charlie by the locals there) is the human friendly puffer, he hung out with us during our entire safety stop for 3 – 5 minutes! Diving at Renggis often feels like visiting friends underwater. ❤
TIP: If you are a certified advanced open water diver for night diving, Renggis is a great dive site to spot hermit crab, cuttlefish and lobster.
02. Dive Site – Labas
If you can master your buoyancy skills and enjoy diving through caves and swim throughs, Labas is a great dive site for you. There is an amazing spot at around 8-10 meters where you will be surrounded by fishes after a swim through, it truly is an incredible feeling to have these beautiful little creatures swimming all around you.
Labas is also a great dive site to spot lionfish, yellowtail snappers, green turtles and nudibranchs. I had no idea what nudibranchs were before I learned diving, these colourful little creatures are the favorites subjects for most underwater photographers. Nudibranchs are a group of soft-bodied, and immensely colourful molluscs (they look like little jellies!), and there are over 3,000 known species and more are being found and identified worldwide each day.
03. Stay near your dive centre
There are plenty of choices in Tioman Island, from basic homestay to 5 star resorts. Staying somewhere near to your dive centre would be a good idea, especially because after 3 dives a day a hot shower is seriously the best feeling in the world.
04. Restaurants around Tioman Island
There are plenty of restaurants in Tioman Island offering local Malay food, Chinese food and seafood where you can find them easily in Tekek. Also, barbeque at night with cold beer right beside the beach is a great option to end the night too. Oh and don’t forget to clean up after yourself and put your trash where it belongs (the bin).
05. Roti Canai opposite of the Tekek Jetty
Remember to check out the roti canai right opposite to Tekek jetty for the crispiest roti ever!
Malapascua Island, Daanbantayan, Philippines
Malapascua island is famous for thresher shark diving. Situated in Visayan Sea in the Philippines, it takes about 4 hours drive from Mactan-Cebu International Airport, followed by a 1 hour boat ride from Maya Port to reach Malapascua Island. Diving is the main attraction in Malapascua Island (everyone comes here for thresher sharks), if you don’t dive – snorkeling, island hopping or just relaxing on the beautiful white sand beach would be a good choice to spend your time there.
06. Dive Site – Monad Shoal
Malapascua Island is the only place in the world where you can spot this adorable shark with amazing long tail, because they usually live in the deep sea at around 500 meters as they are sensitive to light. It’s been said that there’s an 80% chance that you can spot thresher shark in Monad Shoal. There are a total of five cleaning stations around the shoal, each with a buoy for divers to descend.
The cleaning station is a place where thresher sharks come for a ‘bath’ every early morning. How cute is that! You need to wake up at 4am to prepare your gear and dive 30 meters deep to look for their stunning long tail. Be mindful of how you are in their space – thresher sharks are shy and afraid of bubbles and sound, remember not to get too excited or chase after them, the sharks might not come back to the cleaning station if they get scared.
TIP: It is recommended to use Nitrox (with an oxygen content above 21%) for this deep dive to extend bottom time and reduce the risk of decompression sickness.
07. Dive Site – Kalanggaman Island
The infamous Kalanggaman Island is known for its turquoise water, palm trees and beautiful sandbar. A must-go if you already travelled all the way to Malapascua Island, it’s considered one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines. It takes another 1 ½ hours from Malapascua Island, so plan for 2 dives in Kalanggaman Island and lunch (or barbeque!) in between dives would be a good option. Remember to take sunscreen with you to avoid sunburn!
The dive site has an amazing reef wall covered with soft and hard corals, and you can easily spot snappers, fusiliers, clown fish, barracudas and nudibranchs. It is a relaxing dive site, especially after the early morning 30 meters deep dive for thresher sharks ☺ You can enjoy the extensive marine life at 12-18 meters.
TIP: Clear your ears before diving, it will help you with equalization if you are a new diver or going for discover diving. Cut your finger and toe nails, your nails might get a little soft after a 45-minute dive. Going for hair or nail salons are definitely not recommended before a dive trip!
The small island has plenty of dive centres and resorts right along the beautiful white sand beach. The dive centre usually include the dive trips and buffet for all meals, together with a resort stay. We stayed in Mabuhay (meaning ‘welcome’ in Filipino), they were building their biggest boat yet on the first day we arrived and we got on this boat on our last day to Kalanggaman Island! It is so impressive to see how they built the boat from scratch.
09. Reef-friendly Sunscreen
Oxybenzone and octinoxate chemicals are used in most sunscreens, and they’re known to cause coral bleaching. Coral reefs are home to marine life we love, so we should do our best to protect them. You can find some reef friendly sunscreen options here. (Hawaii just prohibited the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate by law in May 2018.)
10. Mosquito Repellent
Mosquito repellent is a must. There are sand flies on the beach at most of the islands, so make sure you get your mosquito repellent if you plan on spending time by the water.
11. Seasickness Pills
Seasickness pills are necessary if you get motion sickness easily. You’re gonna spend a lot of time on boat!
12. The beauty of diving
Apart from learning diving skills, gears and safety knowledge from the training course, diving will also open up a whole new, surreal world to you. You get to know all about this amazing side of marine life that you would never have imagined before. You’ll also learn the importance of ocean conservation once you see how amazing the underwater world is, and how necessary it is to protect all the beautiful creatures who call the ocean home. If you’re curious to learn more, I highly recommend watching The Blue Planet II it’s a beautiful nature documentary created by the BBC that explores the marine life.
Learning diving was a decision congruent of spontaneity and curiosity. I happened to be in a friend’s dive centre for a completely unrelated meeting, but one thing led to another and I decided to join because I was curious about the underwater world. I hadn’t even realized (until much later) that the purpose of this trip was to get licensed for open water diving. My first trip underwater I struggled with buoyancy and equalization. Honestly, it is challenging to remember and apply all the skills you’ve learnt and put them to practice underwater, to stay calm and continue deep and slow breathing. But it does get easier with every dive.
It’s been a year since I started and I have now logged 35 dives (still considered a newbie though) and recently took to taking photos underwater. Imagine taking a photograph of a 2cm nudibranch, you have to hold super still to capture this detailed and beautiful creature, all the while controlling your breathing and buoyancy. An instinct that comes so easily and without thought on land is one that takes so much control and precision underwater.
But it’s also a part of why I love diving so much. Being underwater makes me more mindful – of myself and my surrounding. You feel so small, and it’s a tangible and comforting reminder that in the vastness of things, we are so small. There’s a great sense of freedom when I’m surrounded by water, I feel so weightless and grounded all at the same time – it is truly arresting.
May Ee is a Malaysian-born Singapore-based diver with 35 dives logged (and counting). When she’s not underwater, she’s busy being the Product Creative at MATTER, drawing, and of course – thinking about the big blue sea.