Thursday, June 28, 2012

Diving off Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Logged dives #1139-1146
Sister Marylin, son Dusty, Vance and Bobbi, auntie Clara, uncle Alouyshious, and Dusty's good friend Michelle, having shave ice in Kota Bharu

To make a long story short, Dusty and his Malaysian girlfriend Michelle were in Kuala Lumpur so Bobbi and I flew there from Cebu, spent the night at their place and met her parents, and flew out the next day to Kota Bharu. To go to the Perhentian Islands from Kota Bharu you need to get a taxi to the Koala Basut jetty, 78 ringit official airport cab rate, and from Koala Basut we were charged another 70 for two to go one-way in the water taxi to Perhentian. We arranged the water taxi through the Coral View office at Koala Basut but I think it was the public taxi. We had defaulted on the Coral View because Michelle and her family were flying out there and planning a stay at that resort, and our intent was to be with them.

Rooms at the Coral View cost about 200 ringit a night (for two, excellent rooms steps from the beach, but no meals) which is expensive I think. If you were doing this on your own and want to do it cheaper you should probably find an area in advance via Lonely Planet and then get the water taxi to there, then scout around and see what's available. I hear the place packs out in July. But when we arrived late June it seemed rooms were available but the water taxi needs to know where to drop you off. The last of the water taxis from Kota Bharu might be at around 5 or 6. It's an hour taxi ride there so you need to arrive in Kota Bharu at 3 at the latest if you want to make Perhentian that evening.

Since we were meeting up with Dusty and Michelle and Michelle's family next day we found a nice room at Coral View just 25 meters away from the dive shop. The Coral View observes Islamic prohibitions on alcohol. They should probably be a bit more up front with that on their web site, but you can walk 100 meters down the beach to the Reef and buy beer and rum in cans and bottles on a takeaway basis and do what you like with it. You can also jungle trek to the next beach over, about 15 min following a water pipe line, so there is little chance of getting lost though it's an up and downhill track, and have a couple more options for alcohol with your meal. You can water taxi back if you are willing to negotiate after 7:30 rates, or if you walk back (because it's only half an hour even though it's dark and unfamiliar, and you get fed up with negotiating all the surcharges), be sure you have a flashlight.

You don't need to jungle trek to see animals. You can see monkeys, birds, flying squirrels (very impressive when stretched out and on the fly), bats, and large monitor lizards around the rooms at the resorts, since the mountainous islands are still mostly jungle. I guess the animals come to the resorts for the food and the lizards are shy when spotted but otherwise appear to be the most brazen.

The morning after our arrival we started diving. The first site had no name because it was an exploratory dive, but it was to the north-west of Perhentian in the island group in the vicinity of Takong Laut (see the map on the Pro Divers World web site: We were pleasantly surprised at how warm the water was. Visibility was decent, but it was not a heart stopping dive. We saw a small red scorpion fish and some warted sea slugs. Others saw a blue spotted ray and some turtles. It was a pleasant dive, comfortable, lasted an hour.

No sooner had we returned to the Pro Divers World dive center but we were off to the Sugar Wreck at noon. The wreck was in about 20 meters of water. You see pics and a video at the shop web site by pulling down the link in the list of dive sites, but there doesn't seem to be a direct link. I'm not enthused by wrecks per se but I like the sea life that lives on them. I found what looked like the catfish in the cave at Gato Island under the stern, but could have been a bamboo shark, as we found more of those nearer the bow, interesting quivering, gaping animals less than a meter long. We also found a scorpion fish on the hull resting on a living clam shell, really difficult to see, camouflaged exactly as the wreck.

The last dive of the day, since we didn't do any night dives, was at Shark Point. There was a group of open water students doing skills on the same boat with us. We were totally separate in our diving, so our dive with our dive guide Marion could be as long as we wanted, and lasted 85 minutes for us. It started with descent onto a green turtle trailing stingers from a jellyfish he was eating. In cracks in the rock and at the bottom of the crack we found two types of pipe fish. The first kind was orange and blue and tiny, just a couple of centimeters, sharing space with the crouching shrimp we often see. The other pipefish was all white and on the bottom in the sand. One disappointment was that the reef there seemed to have been a fossil of what must have been thriving and colorful ten years before. Our dive ended with a swim with a hawksbill turtle, following him as he munched coral here and there, quite pleased to trundle along and ignore what we were doing.

Our second morning and the one after we did dives on Tokong Laut, the prize dive site of the Perhentian Islands. The dive proceeds like this. We endure a 20 minute boat ride over emerald waters then get wet and go down to 23 meters or so and find morays and funky little blue spotted rays. Eventually we come upon a bamboo shark gaping and quivering in a cave. Then we find more, maybe 4 together. There is a small cave we went to both mornings with 6 of them inside, always there, our dive guide said. They are like meercatfish, snuggled together under rocks and in caves, hiding out, possibly feeding at night, somehow surviving till next morning, then back to the shark cave.

By then we're at 17 meters, we're 30 min into the dive, and 6 min short of deco, so we come up to where the water is clearer and the coral is colorful and bright. There are so many fish here, schools of snappers, fusiliers, titan triggerfish, batfish, etc. on the reef and trevali and the occasional mackeral out in the blue. We see more morays and blue spotted rays. We are circling the pinnacle at 10 meters until we're an hour into the dive, the leader signals safety stop, and the dive goes for well over an hour. This was our first dive the second two days we dived there.

Our routine at Perhentian was to wake up around 7, decide NOT to have breakfast, and go back to sleep till 8 or 8:15, then crawl out of bed to negotiate the few steps to the dive shop outside our porch and get ready for our 9 a.m dive. That was the one to Tokong Laut our 2nd and 3rd mornings there. On return from that one we had only 45 minutes to get ready for the next one, but there's not much else to do on Perhentian unless you're keen on eating or lounging on the beach. We were there for the diving. Our second day, the dive site was at Batu Layar, the house reef just around the corner from the dive center, and we thought the briefing on what we might see there was better than the dive, which turned out to be in poor visibility until we reached the reef at the end with its interesting swim-throughs, but we didn't see much there of interest, apart from stacks of staghorn and other hard corals, and the usual calmingly tranquil schools of reef fishes.

On our third dive we went to a place called Terumbu Tiga, literally three rocks, but whose name has been bastardized to Tiger Rock. This was a nudibranch dive, with lots of warted sea slugs and the complication of currents wiping swarms of jellyfish over and around us. I recall a small pipefish in a rock. I don't recall much else, apart from constantly finding the white nudibranchs and dodging sting ray tentacles to see them. At one point one of the other divers stopped to take a picture of a pair of nudibranchs together, a jellyfish approached in the current, and I used my tank banger to divert the tentacles so they didn't pass across his cheek.

After diving we'd shower and make the walk to the beach outside our resort with its prohibitions and enjoy watching the sunset from places where these prohibitions were less stringent. One night we had dinner at the Reef bottle shop and restaurant, chinese malaysian mix, and the next night we went to the far beach for a really good meal at Tuna Resort of satays and seafood noodles and spring rolls. After Dusty and Michelle arrived with Michelle's family we started taking our meals, after briefer stops at the Reef, at our resort. Michelle's family had bought meal packages with vouchers and these vouchers seemed to cover plenty of food for all of us. Our last night there it was a barbecue of fish, squid, chicken, prawns, and some very tender chunks of meat.

Our last day of diving dawned beautiful as usual and began with Michelle and Dusty and Bobbi and I taking the speedboat into the channel between big and little Perhentian past the north point and out to the island to the north, to dive Tokong Laut, as described earlier.

The last dive of our trip was our second on that third day. Our computers were showing us 18-20 hours of no fly time and we wanted to stop and decompress and dry our gear. Michelle bowed out with a cough, so it was just Dusty, Bobbi and I on our last dive, with our kindly dive guild Marion from Koln. We chose to go to Seabell Rock, the reef west of little Perhentian that connects with the lighthouse reef. We descended right on top of an Indian Ocean Walkman, a very odd kind of scorpion fish that uses clamps beneath its pectoral fins to pull itself along the bottom like an insect. Its buggy eyes made its head look like a crocodile fish, but apart from that it was the size, shape, and color of a scorpion fish. Rounding the reef on a 60 degree heading toward the lighthouse, we found morays and blue spotted rays in the coral outcrops. We had hazy vis which improved as we crossed a sand flat on our way to the lighthouse. Here we found a rock covered in staghorn and green hard coral and teeming with fish. The vis became better the higher we circled on it and though we didn't see anything spectacular we ended our dive surrounded with fishes in a the extensive bed of staghorn coral and surprisingly amidst several boatloads of snorkelers we hadn't noticed until we were under the lighthouse near the surface.

If we compare Malapascua to Perhentian, on this trip we preferred the former, but the latter was by far the most relaxed. We slept very well at the Coral View resort (on Malapascu it was up at dawn each morning to see a thresher shark if we were lucky) but at Malapascua every dive was a fascination of small creatures and occasionally large ones. In both places we found top notch dive centers. There are a lot more people doing scuba courses in Perhentian, in fact it's an almost ideal place to learn to dive, with shallow coral near the dive center and black tips on the nearest reefs (we saw them snorkeling, babies in close to shore, and a big 2-meter monster lurking in deeper waters, which Dusty and I enjoyed seeing as it cruised the sand valleys between the coral patches). 

The dive shop did a good job of keeping the experienced divers separate from the beginners, and was able to cater to personal tastes despite having a dozen divers on a boat at times (or sometimes just us, or us and another couple). Tokong Laut gets crowded in the morning but the open water divers stay above 18 meters which leaves the bottom where where bamboo sharks are pretty much to the fewer advanced divers. The owner of Pro Divers World, Carl, is a kindly German who genuinely likes his customers and has big plans for his dive shop. He knows his business better than I do, but I liked it the way it is now :-)

Check the Pro Divers World blog at


  1. Hello Vance,

    Thanks for your nice review.
    If you like you can add a link to our blog.

    Greetings from Pulau Perhentian,


  2. I've been Scuba Diving in Indonesia but this review made me wanna try Malaysia too. Thanks for sharing this.