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.
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
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
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
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.