N I G E L    M A R S H    P H O T O G R A P H Y

U  N  D  E  R  W  A  T  E  R      I  M  A  G  E  S     A  N  D     A  R  T  I  C  L  E  S


By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose


When most Aussie divers think about Malaysia they automatically think Sipidan. But this wonderful Asian nation has a lot more to offer the intrepid diver prepared to explore off-the-beaten-path. Located off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula is Pulau Perhentian, a collection of granite islands that offer amazing diving.


The Perhentian Islands are made up of two main islands and dozens of smaller islands, not far from the town of Kota Bharu. Dozens of dive resorts are located on the two main islands, with most of these packed together on two tourist strips. But we found a more remote resort that has its own private beach and is surrounded by jungle, the lovely Bubbles Dive Resort.


Getting to the resort was no easy task, a flight to Kuala Lumpur, then a domestic flight to Kota Bharu, then a one hour mini-bus ride south and finally a forty minute boat trip to the island. But it was well worth the effort, as Bubbles Dive Resort is set in one of the most picturesque locations we have ever seen.


You couldn’t have asked for a better resort location; a long clean beach with a rocky headland at each end, palm trees, thick jungle covered hills and clear blue water. The resort is quite low-key with 30 air-conditioned cabins and a large dive centre, with four dive boats ready to take you to the best dive sites in the area.


For our first dive we headed straight to the area’s premier dive site, the Sugar Wreck. Diving in August we couldn’t have asked for better conditions on the 30 minute run to the wreck; flat seas, blue water and sunny skies. Tying up to the mooring we could see the wreck only 8m below, and once in the water found the visibility 25m and the water temperature 28°C.


The Sugar Wreck, or MV Union Star, was a 90m freighter that sank in 2000 and today lies on its starboard side in only 19m of water. We spent almost an hour exploring this incredible shipwreck and were amazed by the marine life and the wreck itself. For a start the ship is almost completely intact, with winches, light fittings, rigging, portholes and the prop in place. Touring the ship we got to explore the cargo holds, bridge and the masts.


Schools of snapper, barracuda, damsels and cardinalfish cover the wreck, but we also encountered rabbitfish, moray eels, stingrays, lionfish, pipefish, gropers, pufferfish and hidden under the wreck coral catsharks and brown-banded bamboo sharks. The Sugar Wreck is easily one of the best wreck dives in Asia and we surfaced from the dive on a very big high.


The next dive was closer to the resort, a rocky reef only minutes away called Tiger Rock. This site is typical of the area, a jumble of granite boulders in depths to 20m that form walls, caves and swim-throughs. The corals growing over these rocks are just incredible – gardens of sea whips, large barrel sponges, huge gorgonians, soft corals, black corals and lots of candelabra corals. Doing a circuit of the rock we saw countless reef fish, nudibranchs, moray eels, cuttlefish, snappers and stingrays.


The dive shop generally schedule 3 to 4 dives a day, depending on demand, with most run as single dives as many of the dive sites are only minutes away. For our late afternoon dive we headed to the Police Wrecks, three small police boats resting in 19m. These vessels were scuttled in 2012 and are already home to masses of fish – snappers, barracuda and cardinalfish. The sand around the wrecks is also a good place to find stingrays; we found three species, the more common blue-spotted lagoon ray and blue-spotted maskray, plus a rarer Jenkins whipray.


The next day we explored Sea Bell, a popular snorkelling spot with lovely gardens of hard coral. Beyond the coral gardens are extensive fields of sea whips, but we also found wonderful sponges and soft corals decorating the reef at this site. We had a great dive, going no deeper than 16m, and encountered moray eels, nudibranchs, stingrays, barramundi cod, angelfish and schools of snappers.


In the afternoon we explored pretty reefs at Batu Layar and D’Lagoon. Both had a good collection of reef fish and invertebrate species, with a highlight at D’Lagoon being three pairs of mating cuttlefish and a large Jenkins whipray.


On our third morning we explored the most spectacular reef dive in the area, Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea). This towering pinnacle of rock rises from 27m to break the surface. We jumped in to find the visibility 30m, but that quickly changed, as we got to experience a Perhentian thermocline. The dive guides from Bubbles Dive Resort had told us that they get murky thermoclines at times, with the water column above 15m clear, and below quite murky.


Descending on the pinnacle we found it covered in lovely corals and swarming with fish, but when we hit the 15m mark the visibility dropped to a cloudy 6m. It didn’t really affect the dive, but did make wide angle photography a challenge. We still had a brilliant dive, finding trevally, moray eels, parrotfish, stingrays, a demon stinger, a hawksbill turtle and schools of snapper, nannygai and cardinalfish. While we didn’t see any reef sharks, we did find several brown-banded bamboo sharks and a coral catshark hidden under the rocks.


The afternoon was spent doing more reef diving at Batu Butu and Tanjung Tukas, both provided plenty of subjects for our camera including nudibranchs, shrimps, pipefish, boxfish, crabs and a demon stinger. Anemonefish were common at all the sites we dived, especially clown anemonefish, they were just everywhere.


Night dives are regularly scheduled at Bubbles Dive Resort on the House Reef, straight in front of the dive shop. This spot is usually used for dive training, so we didn’t dive it during the day, but snorkelling here we saw a surprising amount of marine life, including a group of small blacktip reef sharks. At night the House Reef was full of critters, with decorator crabs, mosaic shrimps, coral crabs, hermit crabs and moray eels on the prowl. The reef only gets to 14m, but the highlight came in the shallows at the end of the dive as we encountered three coral catsharks stalking the reef for food.


Another wonderful wreck dive we did, that only Bubbles visit, was The Barge. This old barge lies in 26m and is about the size of a tennis court. This was one of our favourite dives, as the barge is completely covered in sea whips and engulfed by a thick cloud of snappers. Also schooling around this wreck were trevally, batfish and fusiliers, and hidden amongst the wreckage were moray eels, gropers and over dozen brown-banded bamboo sharks.


After this we visited another barge, called the Vietnamese Wreck, which sits upside down in 24m. The visibility was only about 6m on this wreck, but we still had an enjoyable dive as it is covered in soft corals and home to a multitude of reef fish, plus some very large barracuda.


The following day it was time for some muck diving, so we headed to the Turf Club. This site gets its name from the sea horses that are usually found here, we missed the sea horses but still saw a great collection of critters. The sandy bottom at this site is 24m deep, so limiting the bottom time, but is covered in lovely soft corals and sea pens. We found pipefish, nudibranchs, flatworms, commensal shrimps, shrimp gobies, cuttlefish, octopus, pufferfish and a snake eel.


Another good muck site we enjoyed was Flea Market. Only 4m to 12m deep we found nudibranchs, pipefish, an imperial shrimp on a sea cucumber, flounders, stingrays, a golden fireworm and numerous anemones that were home to a very distinctive local panda anemonefish with orange lips.


For our last day of diving we visited another of the wonderful wrecks in the area called Fish Ball. This is another Bubbles exclusive, an old timber fishing boat sitting in 27m and completely covered in a giant ball of fish. The compact wreck, only 20m long, is fun to explore, we were able to get into the bridge and hold. But the fish life is the main feature, with masses of snapper, barracuda and cardinalfish swarming inside and outside the wreck. We also saw lionfish, batfish, pufferfish, scorpionfish and several brown-banded bamboo sharks.


Bubbles Dive Resort is very popular with European and Asian divers. It is a great resort for families or non-diving partners as there is plenty to do; kayaking, snorkelling, jungle walks or just relaxing on the beach. The resort has a large dining area and bar, with all meals buffet style and very taste. One of the highlights for us was the amount of wildlife around the resort; squirrels, bats, butterflies, birds, monitor lizards and even monkeys. Turtles also nest on the beach, and the resort works closely with a conservation group to ensure that the hatchlings are protected from predators and given the best chance of survival.


We did over twenty wonderful dives during our stay at Bubbles Dive Resort and found it the perfect spot for a great dive holiday.



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