Diving in Malaysia is often overlooked – but with its endless array of marine life and dive sites, it really shouldn’t be. We explored the depths of Malaysia along with its many creatures that call it home.
Malaysia is not often considered as a first choice for scuba diving with locations like Fiji, Florida and Mexico earning the top spot on many divers’ bucket lists. However, the Malaysian waters are growing in popularity as scuba enthusiasts learn of its choice of dive sites, great for beginners through to seasoned pros, its comparatively cheap course costs and its immense array of marine life.
The country boasts three diverse and fascinating bodies of water surrounding its territory: the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. Some of its waters are even part of the Coral Triangle, a biodiversity hot spot with over 3000 species of fish and over 500 species of coral, and the country is rated 12th on the National Biodiversity Index. The area houses an array of infamous sea predators, including species of Sharks, Barracudas and Stingrays.
But perhaps even more interesting than the larger residents are the tiny ones. Malaysia is becoming an incredibly popular stop for ‘muck diving’, a term used to describe exploring the land at the bottom of dive sites where much smaller creatures known as ‘macro’ can be discovered.
So what’s worth going beyond the water’s surface in Malaysia? These are some of our favourite fishy friends in the Malaysian sea – each a worthy cause to pull on the wet suit and go underwater exploring!
Turtle Cavern, Sipadan Island
Of course, no marine life list would be complete without an appearance from this beloved reptile. Nearly all Sea Turtles are considered endangered and there are many organisations in Malaysia making a great effort to protect the animals as well as conserve their natural habitat.
Despite their teetering numbers, Turtles seem to appear in hordes throughout the Malaysian waters. Turtle Cavern, as the name suggests, provides ample opportunity to swim with both Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. Legend has it that this is a kind of mausoleum where many turtles come to die but a more likely suggestion is that the creatures often become lost in the complicated cavern at night and drown. Unsurprisingly, this is a difficult dive site that requires a diving professional to assist you at all times.
If you don’t fancy your dive site being scattered with unfortunate skeletons, you can find Giant Turtles at the nearby Turtle Patch. These large animals are used to seeing divers on a regular basis and can often be quite inquisitive and friendly. This is the perfect opportunity if you like to get close and personal with nature without causing a disturbance.
Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island
The Blacktail Barracuda, also known as the Chevron Barracuda, has a long thin body with black markings on its body and a dark tail. It grows to about 90cms and often eats fish with golden or silver scales as it is attracted to shiny objects. This species of Barracuda can be found living in large groups which often create ‘barracuda vortexes’, which are just as impressive as they sound.
Living among Dogtooth Tuna, Triggerfish, Grey Reef Sharks and Trevallies, these are just one of many fishy predators in these waters. Other types of Barracuda can be seen at Mataking Island and juvenile Barracudas are often spotted at The Artificial Reef, Mabul.
Blue Spotted Stingrays
Batu Tokong Kamudi, Tenggol Island
Stingrays are strange-looking fish that are actually closely related to sharks. Their flat bodies allow them to hide from predators under the ocean floor sand and their long tails often harbour a venomous stinger used for self defense. Their interesting physicality makes them a revered sight for many divers who can watch them flapping their sides like wings or billowing their bodies like waves.
Blue Spotted Stingrays can frequently be seen scowering the ocean floor for their next meal at Batu Tokong Kamudi, Tenggol Island which is also home to Eagle Rays and Manta Rays. Ray Point, also known as Stingray City, is also unsurprisingly the great place to catch a few rays.
Eel Garden, Mabul
At first sight, these strange creatures look a little bit like swaying blades of grass but on further inspection have eyes and scales. These snake-like creatures burrow their tails into the sand and cement themselves there for long periods of time. Garden Eels live in colonies of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, with the strongest males planted in the middle.
Eel Garden, another aptly name dive spot, is home to both the Garden Eel and the Blue Ribbon Eel, appearing black, blue or yellow depending on the stage of its life. These eels live along side Gobies, Yellow Morays, Frogfish and various types of Wrasse which makes this area a colourful and diverse spot to visit.
Tanjung Cina Terjun, Tenggol Island
Leopard Sharks are generally harmless to humans and can be easily scared, so only the most tactful of divers are likely to catch a glimpse. This species of shark is much less aggressive than many of its cousins and catches its prey much more methodically. It can often be found swimming on the surface of the water in an anti-clockwise motion as schools of anchovies swim in the opposite direction and unknowingly into its open mouth.
Leopard Sharks can be found at Tanjung Cina Terjun, Tenggol along with small Cat Sharks and Bamboo Sharks. Less shy sharks can be found nearby with Whale Sharks, Threshers and Whitetips all present in Malaysian waters and Hammerhead Sharks frequently sighted in Layang.
Northern Valley, Pom Pom Island
Pygmy Seahorses are one of the most recently discovered species of Seahorse, found in 1969 when they were accidentally placed in captivity on some coral reef. This is unsurprising with such impressive camouflage techniques such as growing skin appendages to match their surroundings and changing colour. Add to this the fact that they are no more than 2.4cms long and you’ll realise why you’ll need to pay absolute attention to spot one of these critters.
For those who have the dedication to look for these tiny creatures, Northern Valley is an ideal space to search with many seahorses sheltering on large and prominent Gorgonian fans. If you’re not lucky enough to spot a Seahorse, though, there’s plenty more to see including Batfish, Lionfish and even an Octopus or two.
Mataking Reef, Mataking Island
If you weren’t expecting to see something furry under the sea, this little guy could give you quite a shock. The Orangutan Crab isn’t half as scary as it looks, though, with a body only 2cms wide and feeding mainly on plankton that gets caught in its luscious locks. As part of the Decorator Crab family, the Orangutan Crab is incredibly skilled at camouflage and divers need to keep their eyes peeled to catch one.
Divers can spot this hairy creature on Mataking Reef, Mataking Island where it can often be found scuttling across Bubble Coral. However, if you aren’t fortunate enough to spot this unusual crab, there is an array of other colourful types of coral here that shimmers with all manners of interesting tiny creatures.
Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Pit Rock, Pom Pom Island
The word ‘shrimp’ is unlikely to evoke much excitement in many people, unless you happen to be a barbecue enthusiast. However, there are so many more species than most of us know about, many of them far too exotic to be on our supermarket shelves. The Mantis Shrimp is just one of the many interesting and beautiful species. They are not animals you want to get on the wrong side of, though, with their powerful claws can punch at prey with the impact of a 22 caliber gun.
There have been sightings of many different species of shrimps in Malaysia, from the Mantis Shrimp in Eel Garden, Mabul to the Hinge Beak Shrimp in Mandarin Heaven, Pom Pom Island. Banded Boxer Shrimps, Glass Shrimps and Cleaner Shrimps can all be found on the Magic Rocks, Pom Pom Island and a multitude of other species at Mataking Island. In fact, it’s hard to find a dive spot that doesn’t have some kind of shrimp in Malaysia!
Plants and mollusks may not sound like the most exciting thing under the sea but more often than not they exceed expectations. Giant Clams can grow up to 120cms wide and to a whopping weight of 500 pounds. They are found on the ocean floor, usually in areas where some sunlight can still reach them, and they come in a beautiful array of colours. In fact, like a snowflake, there are no two clams with the same colour combinations so you can be sure to see a one of a kind.
These huge mollusks are most likely to be found in the waters surrounding Mataking Island and unlike many of the miniature sea life on this list, you really can’t miss them. Other specimens to be found in Malaysia’s ocean gardens include Gorgonian Sea Fans, Trumpet Corals, Sea Urchins and Christmas Tree Worms, all in vivid varying colours.
Coral Garden, Sipadan Island
Triggerfish aren’t known for being the friendliest of creatures. In fact, many scuba divers have experienced their instructor valiantly fighting off one of these fiercely territorial beasts. Despite their inhospitable behaviour, they are often covered in beautiful colours and patterns which are more than worth the risk to see.
The Clown Triggerfish is most likely to be found in Coral Garden along with the Titan Triggerfish but there are all manners of other species to be found in Malaysian waters. To name a few, the Yellow-Margin Triggerfish and the Red-Tooth Triggerfish can be found around Barracuda Point and the Bluefinned Triggerfish has been seen swimming around Batu Tokong Kamudi, Tenggol Island.
Cleaning Station, Kapalai
These colourful fish are truly mesmerizing to watch, not only are they covered in beautiful patterns, they swim with absolute grace. They are about 6cms long and often hide in the safety of inshore reefs, hiding out for most of the day and coming out when there’s less sunlight. However, once they’re exposed, they’re impossible to miss with their bright blue outline and neon body.
Mandarin Fish can often be found swimming around the Cleaning Station, Kapalai at dusk when they come out to mate. They can also be found around Mataking Island and Mandarin Heaven, Pom Pom Island. Wherever you spot them, timing is of the essence, as well as keeping still so as not to scare them away.
The Artificial Reef, Mabul
Nudibranchs, otherwise known as sea slugs, are soft skinned animals that scale the ocean floor on their stomachs. They are eye-catching creatures with exposed gills that usually poke out of their backs like petals and with bright colours that they adopt from the food they eat. Their size varies massively with some species less than 1cm long and others growing as large as 31cms.
Nudibranchs can be found all over the Malaysian sea floor, particularly in Mabul in sites such as The Artificial Reef, Seaventure Platform and Froggy Lair. Although they are toxic to many of their predators, they are rarely toxic to humans. Nudibranchs also move very slowly, at a rate of about 10 metres per day, so you won’t have to worry about them swimming away at speed when you find one.
Painted Spiny Lobsters
Cliffhanger, Pom Pom Island
For most people, the word ‘Lobster’ conjures up an image of a red-shelled animal with large snapping pincers. However, Malaysian waters offer a different perspective of the critter with species such as the Painted Spiny Lobster regularly crawling the ocean floor. These animals do not have claws at all, instead they model long white antennas and striped legs.
You can spot these little guys at Cliffhanger, an 18-20m wall dive at Pom Pom Island suitable for divers of all levels. As you coast down, the lobsters are most likely to be found hiding in the nooks and crannies of the wall, often in pairs.
Lobster Wall, Mabul
Despite their misleading name, Cuttlefish are not actually fish at all but molluscs with an internal shell and soft outer body. Although they are colour-blind, these intelligent animals can change themselves into a multitude of colours, whether it be to camouflage themselves from predators, hypnotise prey or to communicate with their species. If that doesn’t intrigue you enough, you may be interested to know that these creatures have eight arms, two tentacles and three hearts!
A variety of Cuttlefish can be found throughout Malaysian waters including Batu Tokong Kamudi at Tenggol Island, Cleaning Station at Kapalai Island and Ray Point at Mabul Island. However, arguably one of the most exotic and rare examples of the species, the Flamboyant Cuttlefish, has known to be sighted at Lobster Wall in Mabul Island’s waters.
Ready to explore the depths of Malaysia? Connect with a travel specialist to find out how we can customise an adventurous undersea journey through Malaysia with us!