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
THE PERHENTIAN ISLANDS – A GREAT PLACE TO GET WRECKED
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
The waters of Southeast Asia contain some incredible shipwrecks, especially ships lost in World War II. However, most of these wrecks are in deep water and only enjoyed by tek divers. But we recently explored a collection of wonderful wrecks in Malaysia that all divers will enjoy, not only because they are in shallow water, but because they are also covered in marine life. These shipwrecks are found at the Perhentian Islands, a great placed to get wrecked!
The Perhentian Islands are located 19km off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, just south of the Thai border. Located in the shipping channel of the South China Sea, the Perhentian Islands have always been a stop off point for boats sailing between ports in Malaysia and Thailand, with the name Perhentian meaning ‘a place to stop’ in Malay. But some of these ships stopped permanently at the Perhentian Islands and now rest in the shallow waters around these lovely islands.
Diving has been popular at the Perhentian Islands for a long time as these granite islands are surrounded by coral reefs and home to a diverse range of marine life. The islands are a marine reserve and diving is the main tourist attraction, with dozens of resorts dotted around the two main islands, Pulau Perhentian Besar (Large Perhentian Island) and Pulau Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian Island). While most of these resorts are jammed together in two main tourist strips, we stayed at a more remote resort located at the southeast tip of Pulau Perhentian Besar called Bubbles Dive Resort.
Arriving by boat we knew we were going to have a great time at Bubbles Dive Resort as soon as we saw the spectacular location. A golden beach, blue waters lapping the shore, rocky headlands and surrounded by jungle covered hills – paradise. Once ashore we quickly encountered some of the locals, the island wildlife. Birds, squirrels, butterflies, monkeys, bats, monitor lizards and other wildlife live around the resort and nearby jungle. We thought it was great to see so much wildlife thriving around the resort, but Ah Gan, one of the owners of Bubbles Dive Resort, informed us that they have had some guests arrive, see all the animals, and leave on the next boat back to the mainland. Their loss.
Bubbles Dive Resort has 30 air-conditioned cabins set back from the beach, a large dining area and a very busy dive centre. While many come to the resort to dive, others come to snorkel or just relax. The lagoon in front of the dive centre is used for diver training and is a great place to snorkel with some average coral, but plenty of fish and even small reef sharks. The beach is also a turtle nesting site, with the resort working in close partnership with conservation groups to protect and study the turtles, and ensure the hatchlings have the best chance of survival.
Bubbles Dive Resort operates four dive boats to the dozens of dive sites around the Perhentian Islands. Three to four dives are scheduled daily, with most trips run as single dives, as many of the dive sites are less than ten minutes from the resort, and thirty minutes at most. While they dive the popular reef sites around the Perhentian Islands, Bubbles Dive Resort also take divers to all the shipwrecks in the area, including a few that no one else dives.
Our first dive at the Perhentian Islands was on the area’s best known shipwreck, simply called the Sugar Wreck. This 90m long freighter (really called the MV Union Star) sank southwest of the islands in 2000 and today lies on its starboard side in only 19m of water. The ship was carrying a cargo of sugar when it sank, so is just known as the Sugar Wreck, and how sweet it is.
Slipping into the water we could see the shipwreck only 8m below, as the visibility was a lovely 25m. Following our guide Natalie we then spent almost an hour touring this incredible shipwreck, which is easily one of the best wreck dives we have done in Asia.
First stop was the aft mast, stretching from the hull and almost touching the bottom. We followed the mast to the bottom, careful to avoid the urchins that covered the sand. Swirling around the mast were schools of snapper, damselfish and cardinalfish, they may have been small but there were thousands of them. We then realised that the mast still had all its fittings in place; lights, rigging and shackles, nothing had been removed or salvaged (except for a few portholes) unlike most wrecks in Asia.
We then had a look inside the enormous cargo holds, now empty of sugar but home to pufferfish, angelfish, squirrelfish and lionfish. Natalie then pointed to a narrow gap in the hull where half a dozen coral catsharks, a rarely seen species, were packed tightly together.
We then moved to the forward mast and hiding under this were a group of brown-banded bamboo sharks and a blue spotted lagoon ray. Heading towards the bow we found more fittings, winches and several fishing nets from fishing boats that had got a little too close to the wreck. A quick look around the bow, hoping to see a leopard shark that sometimes gather here, before returning along the ship at a higher level.
Our cameras were on over-drive as there was just so much to photograph on this wonderful wreck. We had a quick look at the bridge area, which looked like it offers some interesting penetration, but didn’t have time to have a thorough inspection. We then moved onto the stern and were surprised to see the prop still in place, though it was hard to see as it was swarming with schools of barracuda, snappers, rabbitfish and fusiliers. We then spent the last minutes of the dive exploring the coral and fish covered side of the ship.
We all surfaced from the dive on a big Sugar Wreck high, but the dive guides from Bubbles Dive Resort later informed us that we were very fortunate to have such great visibility, as it is not always so good. Ah Gan explains “the visibility around the Perhentian Islands changes every day, clear one day, murky the next, then clear again. And murky thermoclines below 15m are common.”
We experienced this ourselves when we dived the Vietnamese Wreck. Descending on the wreck we had 20m visibility in the top of the water column, but once below 15m the visibility dropped to a cloudy 8m. While it did make wide-angle photography more of a challenge, it didn’t spoil the dive on this colourful wreck. This American Landing Craft sank in 1976 and today rests upside down in 24m. Identifying parts of the ship is difficult in its upside down position, but it still makes for a wonderful wreck dive. The wreck is completely covered in beautiful corals – barrel sponges, sea whips, gorgonians and lovely spikey soft corals. Masses of reef fish call this wreck home, including schools of snapper, barracuda, fusiliers, angelfish, pufferfish and triggerfish, but divers are warned to keep an eye out for stonefish.
Fish Ball was another wreck where we hit the Perhentian thermocline. This timber fishing boat is only dived by Bubbles Dive Resort, as it rests in 27m of water and is 30 minutes boat ride east of the resort. We had over 30m visibility when we jumped in, but below 20m the visibility dropped to 8m. This compact ship, only about 20m long, was very difficult to see, not because of the visibility, but because it was covered in a giant ball of fish. Millions of snapper, barracuda, cardinalfish, damselfish and fusiliers swarm on this wreck. We explored the open bridge and hold, and found the timber structure covered in oysters and sponges.
Our favourite shipwreck, after the Sugar Wreck, was an old barge, simply called The Barge. This tennis court sized barge is another site that Bubbles Dive Resort dive exclusively, as it rests in 26m and is a 30 minute boat ride away. Visibility was again a problem at this site, not because of a thermocline, but because we had a dense cloud of fish hanging above the wreck that blocked out the light! We could have spent hours exploring this lovely little wreck as there was plenty to see. The wreck itself is fascinating with bollards and some interesting structure, but covering almost every square inch of the hull are sea whips and gorgonians that are home to numerous reef fish, sea whip gobies, sea whip shrimps, zeno crabs and spindle cowries. Beside the blanket of snappers that covered the wreck, there were also trevally, batfish and boxfish, but a close inspection of the structure also revealed nudibranchs, moray eels and over a dozen bamboo sharks.
Over the last few years the dive operators at the Perhentian Islands have added to the shipwreck experience by sinking a few artificial reefs. The Police Wrecks, three small patrol boats, were scuttled in 2012 in 19m of water and are now home to schools of fish and stingrays. While the Maritime was only sunk in 2015 in 22m and is a good spot for wreck diver training as the 30m long vessel can be penetrated.
ROCK THE REEF
While the wreck dives at the Perhentian Islands are brilliant, these islands are more famous for their fabulous rocky reefs. With the islands built of granite, this hard rock is the perfect base for corals to grow, so every rocky outcrop in the area is covered in wonderful corals.
The most famous reef dive at the Perhentian Islands is Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea), an amazing pinnacle of rock that rises from 27m to break the surface. A very popular dive site, this was the only location in the Perhentians where we had to share the water with divers from other resorts.
Descending on this incredible pinnacle it is easy to see why it is so popular with beautiful corals, masses of fish and a few special treats. We did a slow circuit of the pinnacle, admiring the giant barrel sponges, lovely hard corals and forests of black coral trees. These corals are home to a great range of reef fish and invertebrates, including shrimps, flatworms and nudibranchs. Schools of snapper covered the reef at times, and bombarding them from above were groups of trevally.
This site is riddled with nooks and crannies, and we spent a fair amount of time seeing who or what resided in each hole. Moray eels, boxfish, a demon stinger, blue spotted lagoon ray, bamboo sharks and a coral catshark just some of the species we saw. The highlight of the dive was a lovely hawksbill turtle that was so busy eating sponges that it completely ignored us.
Tiger Rock proved to be one of our favourite reef dives. This pile of rocks is a wonderful dive with caves and swim throughs to explore in depths to 20m. The corals at Tiger Rock are just spectacular – sea whips, gorgonians, sponges, black corals, soft corals and lots of candelabra corals – a beautiful tapestry of colour. Nudibranchs are very common at this site, and we found close to a dozen different species, but also encountered anemonefish, moray eels, rock cods, angelfish, stingrays, pipefish, snappers, boxfish and cuttlefish. One thing we found delightful about Tiger Rock is the number of cleaner shrimps. We spent several minutes watching a blue-lined rock cod leaning against a rock with its pectoral fin stretched out to entice a cleaner shrimp to get to work. The shrimp then dutifully climbed onto the rock cod and groomed the relaxed fish.
At Sea Bell we found wonderful gardens of hard coral in the shallows and a great collection of reef fish. This site is very popular with snorkelers as an abundance of clown anemonefish can be seen in only a few metres of water. But we found the best of this reef was down deeper, beyond 15m, where immense forests of sea whips flourish and shelter shrimpfish, pipefish, leatherjackets, stingrays, boxfish and nudibranchs.
We dived almost a dozen reef sites around the Perhentian Islands and enjoyed visibility of 10m to 30m, and found no shortage of subjects to photograph. At D’Lagoon it was a large Jenkins whipray and groups of mating cuttlefish, while at Batu Layar it was shrimp gobies and mantis shrimps, and at Batu Butu it was sea whip shrimps and demon stingers.
Like a lot of good dive resorts Bubbles has a house reef in front of the dive centre. It is mainly used for diver training, but makes for an interesting night dive as a diverse range of critters emerge from the coral, sand and rubble. This reef is only 14m deep and has a few pretty coral heads to explore. Under torch light we found numerous urchins, tube worms, coral crabs, tiger cowries, flatworms, mosaic shrimps, decorator crabs, hermit crabs, commensal shrimps and several hunting moray eels.
But the highlight was finding three coral catsharks stalking the reef for prey. These shy sharks are common to the area but spend the daylight hours hidden away in the coral. The dive guides from Bubbles Dive Resort mentioned that they often see them on night dives in quite shallow water, and sure enough at the end of the dive there they were. The first two sharks were busy looking for a meal, and quickly took off before we could get a photo, but fortunately the third shark we encountered paused on the bottom and posed perfectly for a few images of this rarely seen species.
While most visitors to the Perhentian Islands come to explore its reefs and wrecks, we were surprised to discover that the area also has a few good muck dives. The guides from Bubbles Dive Resort rarely get to dive these muck sites, unless a visiting photographer requests to see some of the local critters.
Turf Club is easily the best muck dive in the area, with the 24m deep sandy bottom covered in lovely soft corals and sea pens. Strong currents rip across this site, so promoting the rich bottom growth and making drift diving the only way to go. We dived this site twice and found a wonderful range of nudibranchs, shrimp gobies, pipefish, flounders, leatherjackets, stingrays, commensal shrimps, tube worms, cuttlefish and even a coconut octopus. Sea horses are often found here, and the guides told us that blue-ringed octopus, fire urchins, zebra crabs, sea moths and many other critters have been found at the site.
We dived Nudi Playground on a bad day. The sandy bottom at this site is 16m deep and while we did see mantis shrimps, shrimp gobies, sea pens, hermit crabs and many anemones, we didn’t see one nudibranch.
Flea Market was probably the most fruitful of the muck sites we explored, and being only 4m to 12m deep it gave us a longer bottom time to explore. The sandy/weedy bottom at Flea Market is a good place to find pipefish, flatworms, nudibranchs, shrimp gobies, mantis shrimps and sea pens, but we also found an imperial shrimp on a sea cucumber and a bizarre golden fireworm. Numerous anemones dot the bottom and are occupied by commensal shrimps and panda anemonefish. These panda anemonefish have a colour variation we haven’t seen before, bright orange lips that made them very cute.
We had a wonderful week of diving the Perhentian Islands and found that the area has great mix of dive sites and marine life, and if you love shipwrecks, this is a great place to get wrecked.
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