Overview – Diving in Malaysia

October 20, 2016
Boby Norman

Malaysia is home to a magnificent number of dive sites suitable for scuba enthusiasts of all levels. There are wrecks, reefs, and caves to explore. An overwhelming number of marine species call Malaysia’s waters home. Turtles, rays, sharks, and schools of big pelagics can be found patrolling reef drop offs, and sea mounts. Closer to shore, there are incredible muck diving spots for macro photographers and those who love the little fish. Underwater Malaysia truly has something for everyone when it comes to diving.


When to visit?

The diving conditions you can expect when you visit Malaysia will depend on when and where you plan to visit. If you are headed to the west coast of the peninsula, the dry season is from December to May, and this is the best time to dive the area. However there are usually some places accessible anytime of year.

The east coast of the peninsula enjoys optimal conditions between March and October, with visibility generally the best from April to August. As the islands off the east coast are relatively sheltered, it may be possible to visit some sites year round. However certain smaller resorts shut down altogether during the rainy season. A good rule of thumb when diving peninsular Malaysia is to remember that when one coast is wet, the other one is dry.

To many divers, the islands and dive sites around Sabah province (the northeastern portion of Borneo) are some of the best in the world. Even better, many sites are accessible all year. Beware of the busy seasons around Chinese New Years, July through August, and December and January. Prices go up, and vacancy rates plummet!

Where to go?

The best diving in Malaysia can be divided into two distinct areas. The first, and many say the best, is to the far east off of the island of Borneo. Sabah province is where you will find the world-famous islands of Sipidan, Layang Layang and Lankayan. These are hot spots for divers who like to swim with the big fish. Several shark species are always in residence, Manta and other rays fly by on virtually every dive, and huge congregations of Bumphead Parrotfish swarm through warm waters of the Sulu Sea. Turtle sightings are very common.

Another island in the area off Sabah province is Mabul. By contrast, this is one of the premier muck diving sites in Asia. Macro photographers will think they have died and gone to heaven. Thousands of species of unique fish, crustaceans, and anemones have been recorded here. The visibility is not as good as at the open water sites where the large pelagic species are, but the diversity of marine life and calm conditions at Mabul more than make up for it.

The second diving area would encompass peninsular Malaysia, in particular the islands that lie off the east coast. These would include Redang Island which is located inside the Terengganu Marine Park, not far from the city of Kuala Terengganu. Kapas Island is one of several smaller islands in the area that also comes highly recommended.

The Perhentian Islands are the furthest north, and usually accessed by ferry from Kuala Besut. The diving here is cheap and easy. The Perhentians are an excellent place to get certified, and opportunities for superb snorkeling are always just steps from the beach. Calm conditions and healthy reefs attract visitors from Asia and the world. To the southeast, approximately 30km offshore is the famous Tioman Island. Tioman is known for great diving, but also as the spot where the movie “South Pacific” was filmed in 1958. It has been named by Time Magazine as one of the most beautiful islands in the world.

There are a few spots on the west coast of the peninsula that may be worth visiting if time is not an issue. Langkawi Island is just southwest of the Thai border, and should you venture out, there are a few wrecks to visit. Generally speaking, people do not head to the west coast for diving.

Diving Highlights

Malaysia is blessed with a diverse marine environment that makes for varied, and very good quality diving. The sites off the east coast of Sabah on Borneo are widely regarded as superior to those off the Malaysian peninsula. Spots like Sipidan, Lyang Lyang and Mabul Islands are world-renowned. Marine creatures big and small, shy and bold, can be found in the the waters surrounding Malaysia. There are caves and wrecks waiting to be explored, and some of the healthiest reefs in Southeast Asia.


Huge schools of hammerheads are frequently spotted off of Layang Layang and sometimes congregate near Sipidan as well. Hammerhead season is from April to May and draws hundreds of divers from all over the world. This is a busy time and the number of boats allowed at certain sites can be restricted to protect the marine environment. Plan your visit well in advance, and book early to avoid disappointment.

Other big fish that frequently pass through the seas off Sabah include Manta Rays, Reef Sharks and several species of turtle. Huge schools of tuna, jacks and other fish frequent the area. Mabul Island offers fantastic muck diving, and macro photographers may never want to leave. Kapalai Island is another spot where you will find tonnes of tiny, terrific, critters lurking under the rocks and in the underwater rubble.

Several unique species of Frogfish are found in Malaysia, and there are wrecks at Tioman and the Perhentian Islands worth a visit. There are several marine parks in Malaysia, and many of the reefs are in remarkably good condition. Beginner divers or those looking to get certified often head to the Perhentians. The waters are calm and clear, and the competition is fierce amongst shops on the island. The result? Great deals for divers!

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