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Scuba diving in Southeast Asia: when and where to go

Trade in your boring office routine and fly from Kuala Lumpur for a week’s worth of sandy beaches, sunny days, and amazing dives in prismatic technicolour coral reefs at one of these diving spots, counted among Asia’s - and the world’s - best. This handy guide tells you where and when to go; think Tioman, Raja Ampat, and Sipadan just to name a few. Once you’ve made up your mind, book your tickets through Skyscanner’s handy app.

1. Sipadan

Malaysia’s only oceanic island, this Celebes Sea jewel off the east coast of Sabah is an easy flight from the mainland and features all the attractions of the best dive sites in Asia. Limited to 120 divers per day, the site offers up sea turtles and white-tipped sharks on nearly every dive. On luckier days, divers will catch glimpses of hammerheads and leopard sharks too. Rates for three dives are around RM900, and while year-round diving is possible, conditions are optimum in April through December.

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2. Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat, named for the ‘Four Kings’ of local myth whose stories are inextricably tied to this tetrad of islands, attracts dive enthusiasts from around the world eager for a glimpse of its sprawling coral reefs. Before coming, be sure to get a permit from the local Papuan police, though dive tour companies will be able to help you with the bureaucracy. The paperwork is worth it, because once beneath the waves you’ll find yourself amidst more than 500 types of corals and a thousand varieties of fish. Depending on when you fly, prices can be as low as RM78 a day, with the ideal time for diving being mid-October to mid-December.

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3. Gili islands

Conveniently close to Indonesia’s crown jewel of Bali, the Gili Islands offer a slightly off the beaten path dive site for those looking for something more rustic. As the turtle capital of the world, Gili promises extensive underwater flora and fauna, and with year-round temperatures hovering around 28 degrees, you’ll be in for a comfortable dive easy enough for beginners yet engaging enough for those with many hours of experience. The islands hold around 25 dive sites, and the diversity on display there is stunning. Introductory dives start from RM280.

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Clear water surrounded by light coloured sand in Gili.
Great for both beginners and vets alike, the Gili Islands are a beautiful place to dive.

4. Similan Islands

The Similan Islands are a series of uninhabited tropical dots off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea, famous worldwide for its amazing dive sites. The waters here feature a variety of seascapes to explore, from shallow coral reefs to soaring pinnacles rising from the depths. The ideal time to go is from late October through early May, when visibility is generally good and there are not many strong currents to worry about. A breeding ground for Hawksbill turtles, Similan offers divers many chances to glimpse exotic underwater creatures.

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5. Palawan

This gorgeous underwater empire lies of the western coast of the Philippines. Consisting of over a thousand islands and islets, this archipelago stretches from Borneo to Mindoro, and offers coral reefs, wreck dives and more, with a fantastic variety of fish, turtles, coral and more. As a result of fierce battles during the second world war, there are also plenty of stunning wrecks to explore. The ideal time to go is between October and May. Dives start from RM200.

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A turquoise bay with a sandy beach and some cliffs in Palawan.
From wrecks to reefs, Palawan has it all.

6. Tioman

One of the most popular islands in Malaysia due to its quality and accessibility, Tioman also has stunning underwater dive sites to explore and enjoy. Its white sand beaches offer a picture-perfect launch site to begin your dive, and sites are appropriate for a range of divers, from absolute beginners to hardened vets. Best from March to November, when the weather is fantastic and the water is clear, Tioman has all the creatures you’d hope to see on a dive in the region and leaves guests wanting to come back for more. A package of four dives start from as low as RM475. Ferries can be caught from Mersing, and flights from Kuala Lumpur depart regularly.

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7. Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park

This protected marine area in the centre of the Sulu Sea has been enchanting divers since its discovery by diving enthusiasts in the late 1970s. Due to its remote location, these sites are only accessible by liveaboard boats, but its remoteness is part of what makes it such an exciting spot. The dive season is quite short, consisting of three months: mid-March through mid-June. Whale sharks, turtles and more can be spotted gliding through the waters here, and the stunning biodiversity provides a view few can soon forget. The easiest way to access the reefs is to travel to Puerto Princessa and take a 10 hour boat ride, usually done at night so guests can enjoy an early morning dive upon arrival. A 6-night spot on a liveaboard boat can be booked for RM8,800.

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8. Kapalai House Reef

Not far from the reefs of Sipadan lies Kapalai house reef, a unique resort located miles away from any land. Off the eastern coast of Borneo, this resort offers unique accommodations for adventurous divers. Rising from a sandbank in a shallow stretch of ocean, huts rise from the water and offer an amazing base for you to dive from. Simply slip into the water from the dock and within minutes you are at your dive site. For those searching for larger and more expansive sites, the Sipadan reefs are a short ride away. The best time to visit is during dry season, from March to October, though the site is open year round. A 5 day stay at the house reef will cost around RM8000.

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Inspired for some diving action yet? Book cheap flights, hotels and car rental via Skyscanner today, or download our free mobile apps for easy browsing and booking on the go.

Originally published in June 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.