Southeast Asia is arguably home to the best diving on Earth. Flourishing coral reefs, jagged rock formations and sheer underwater walls that drop off into open water attract tropical fish and pelagics of all kinds. A liveaboard trip is hands-down the best way to experience this diving mecca.
The Coral Triangle encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is known to have the richest marine biodiversity on the planet, with over 2000 fish and more than 500 species of coral. Further to the west, the Mergui Archipelago and the Similan Islands offer exhilarating diving with rare marine creatures of their own. Wherever you go in Southeast Asia, you can be assured of an unforgettable dive vacation.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
3. WHEN TO GO
WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT
PELAGICS OF ALL KINDS: Plankton-rich waters and abundant food draw manta rays and several species of sharks. Tubbataha Reef also has whales and dolphins.
HEALTHY CORAL REEFS: The volcanic origins of this region combined with the designation of many reefs as protected marine areas have allowed coral to flourish across Southeast Asia, and macro life along with it.
VISIBILITY: The aquamarine waters almost always offer amazing visibility; the water at the Similan Islands is especially clear.
CURRENTS: Many of the dive sites in Southeast Asia, in particular Komodo Island, Raja Ampat and the Similan Islands, have strong currents well-suited for drift diving.
MAP OF THE AREA
WHEN TO GO
NOVEMBER TO APRIL: This is diving season at Raja Ampat, the Mergui Archipelago and the Similan Islands, when weather is drier and a little warmer. Raja Ampat has calm waters during this time, but the Similan Islands can be a little choppy in December and January. It is the hot, rainy season at Komodo Island and waters can be rough in the north. Sipadan will be wet and cool, while Tubbataha Reef experiences monsoons between December and March.
APRIL TO AUGUST: Diving season at Komodo Island, when weather is cool and dry, although waters can be choppy in the south. Sipadan’s diving season is also during this time and extends to December, with the best months being July and August. At this time Raja Ampat will be rainy and windy, Mergui will be hot and rainy, and neither will be optimal for diving. After a brief reprieve from the monsoon winds, typhoon season at Tubbataha starts in late May.
SEPTEMBER TO NOVEMBER: Sipadan receives some rainfall during this time, as do Mergui and Similan which continue to be hot and rainy. Mergui’s diving season begins in October, at the end of the rainy season. Tubbataha’s typhoon season continues through October.
Raja Ampat, Komodo Island and Sipadan can be dived year-round. The Mergui Archipelago is closed from June to September and the Similan islands from May to October. Tubbataha Reef is only open for diving between March and June. Visibility in general is excellent in Southeast Asia and temperatures tend to hover between 77 to 86° C (25 to 30° C).
DESTINATION 1: KOMODO ISLAND, INDONESIA
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/ribeirodossantos
A protected area and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Komodo National Park is located in the Coral Triangle off the coast of Indonesia. It consists of 29 islands and an underwater paradise with a multitude of marine life. Komodo National Park is enormous, so a Komodo liveaboard is essential if you want to make the best of your dive trip.
Diving at Komodo is challenging and exciting, with powerful currents that provide opportunities for great drift diving. Underwater landscapes range from rolling sand dunes to sloping walls to sea fans, while the sheltered coral reefs host a diversity of fish and macro life. Liveaboard divers will see manta rays on almost every trip, as well as sharks that gather to feed at the underwater seamounts.
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Labuan Bajo, Indonesia
PRICE RANGE: $1,500 – $3,000
LENGTH: 3 to 7 days
WATER TEMPERATURE: 80 to 87° F (27 to 30° C)
HIGHLIGHTS: Manta rays, drift diving
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN KOMODO ISLAND, INDONESIA
DESTINATION 2: RAJA AMPAT, INDONESIA
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/velvetfish
Nestled in the center of the Coral Triangle off the coast of West Papua, Raja Ampat is an archipelago made up of more than 1,500 islands. Raja Ampat is chock-full of rare marine species, including the unique wobbegong shark. The best way to discover the area is with a Raja Ampat liveaboard.
Diving at Raja Ampat offers something for everyone, from easy reef dives to more difficult deep and drift diving. The vibrant coral reefs are teeming with seahorses, pipefishes, nudibranchs and other colorful fish, and the macro diving is some of the best in the world. Pelagic lovers will not be disappointed, as it is virtually impossible to go diving without catching sight of a shark or a manta ray.
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Sorong, Indonesia
PRICE RANGE: $4,000 – $5,000
DIFFICULTY: Beginner – intermediate
LENGTH: 7 to 11 days
WATER TEMPERATURE: 81 to 86° F (27 to 30° C)
HIGHLIGHTS: The most marine biodiversity in the world
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN RAJA AMPAT, INDONESIA
DESTINATION 3: SIPADAN, MALAYSIA
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/mekoo
Sipadan is located off the coast of Borneo inside the Coral Triangle. Three decades after Jacques Cousteau raved about the island, Sipadan still offers unspoiled dive sites and pristine coral reefs. With a trip on the only Sipadan liveaboard, scuba divers are assured one of the coveted permits to dive this protected area.
Just off the shore of Malaysia’s only oceanic island, a steep wall covered in coral plunges 600m down into the seabed. Seahorses and schools of brightly colored fish on the lively coral reef contrast with the haunting shapes of pelagics and barracuda “tornadoes” that will get your adrenaline pumping.
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Semporna, Malaysia
PRICE RANGE: $1,000 – $2,000
DIFFICULTY: Beginner – intermediate
LENGTH: 3 to 7 days
WATER TEMPERATURE: 82 to 86° F (28 to 30° C)
HIGHLIGHTS: Large pelagics including rays, turtles and several species of sharks
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN SIPADAN, MALAYSIA
MV CELEBES EXPLORER
DESTINATION 4: MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO, MYANMAR (BURMA)
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/stevedeneef
The remote Mergui (or Myeik) Archipelago comprises 800 islands off the Burmese coast. Mergui is a protected area, and in recent years the government has made an effort to curb invasive human activity in the region. In terms of diving it is relatively unknown, meaning that with a Mergui liveaboard you’ll be one of few with access to the dive sites.
Day and night, amazingly uncrowded waters attract a plethora of marine life including barracudas, tuna and lobster as well as the less common bowmouth guitar fish. Whale sharks and manta rays can be glimpsed in the open water next to the deeper seamounts. Deep dive sites, drop-offs and harsh currents make the Mergui Archipelago a good choice for advanced divers.
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Ranong, Thailand
PRICE RANGE: $1,000 – $3,000
LENGTH: 6 days
WATER TEMPERATURE: 80 to 86° F (27 to 30° C)
HIGHLIGHTS: Spontaneous behavior from marine creatures who are unaccustomed to people
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN MERGUI ARCHIPIELAGO, MYANMAR (BURMA)
SY DIVA ANDAMAN
DESTINATION 5: SIMILAN ISLANDS, THAILAND
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/think4photop
The Similan Islands are a cluster of 9 islands off the southwest coast of Thailand particularly known for their manta rays and whale sharks. Turquoise waters, spectacular coral reefs and impressive rock formations will astound divers who choose to visit the area with a Similan liveaboard.
Visibility here is fantastic and divers will find themselves swept up in schools of barracudas, snapper and jackfish. On closer examination, you can glimpse octopus, pipefish, moray eels and the very attractive batfish. While many liveaboards offer the chance to explore the densely forested islands and their white sandy beaches, a few islands are kept off-limits in order not to disturb the nesting sea turtles!
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Khao Lak, Thailand
PRICE RANGE: $1,000 – $2,500
LENGTH: 4 to 6 nights
WATER TEMPERATURE: 83 to 87° F (28 to 30° C)
HIGHLIGHTS: Plentiful macro life
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN SIMILAN ISLANDS, THAILAND
DEEP ANDAMAN QUEEN
DESTINATION 6: TUBBATAHA REEF, PHILIPPINES
Photo by istockphoto.com/portfolio/vladoskan
Situated in the heart of the Coral Triangle, 81 miles off the coast of Palawan, Tubbataha Reef is one of the oldest ecosystems in the Philippines. The waters are crystal-clear and whales and dolphins can be seen even from above the water. Because of its isolated location, the only way to reach the area is with a Tubbataha liveaboard.
Tubbataha Reef offers incredible diving with an abundance of marine life. A 100m-deep coral wall hosts angelfish, barracudas and Napoleon wrasse, while large pelagics such as manta rays and schooling hammerhead sharks lurk in the deep blue ocean just around the corner. There are several small wrecks, and night dives afford the opportunity to spot moray eels and pufferfish.
WHERE YOU GO FROM: Puerto Princesa, Philippines
PRICE RANGE: $2,000 – 3,000
LENGTH: 6 to 7 nights
WATER TEMPERATURE: 79 to 86° F (26 to 30° C)
LIVEABOARD BOATS IN TUBBATAHA REEF, PHILIPPINES