Underwater wonderlands: the best scuba diving sites in Asia

Warm waters, clear oceans and marine life sightings … Asia is the scuba-dive mecca of the world. However, a continent this big is not easy to navigate – especially underwater. Together with travel blogger and scuba pro Sarah Richard, we’ve rounded up the best scuba diving destinations in Asia.

Grab your fins – you’re in for a wild ride!

The place that has it all – Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Stand still and let the fish spin around you

Stand still and let the fish spin around you © papertygre

Raja Ampat is the dream. A relatively new player on the dive scene, it’s turned out to be an epicentre of marine biodiversity. You can see anything from tiny pygmy seahorses to mantas and wobbegongs.

There are more species recorded here than anywhere else on the planet and more are constantly being discovered. Depending on where you are among over 200 dives sites (and counting!) you can do drift dives, muck dives, dives among mangroves, wreck dives, seagrass beds, shallow reefs, drop-offs, caves, areas with hard or soft coral, or areas with black or white sand. The possibilities are endless.

Pro tip: the best way to dive Raja Ampat is by liveaboard.

How to get there: fly to Jakarta or Bali, take a connecting flight to Sorong in West Papua and from there reach the islands by ferry.

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Diving on oil rigs – Rig Reef, Brunei

Catch the barracuda swirls in-between oil rigs diving

Catch the barracuda swirls in-between oil rigs diving

When most people go to Brunei to dive, it’s for the wrecks. However, if you’re after a bit of variety and something slightly extraordinary, Rig Reef definitely ticks all the boxes. This artificial reef is the product of Shell’s decommissioned oil rig jackets that have been placed on the ocean floor to foster marine life and coral growth. Now festooned with sea fans, sponges, feather stars and soft corals this is the perfect place to spot big pelagics such as schools of barracuda and jacks. Parrotfish, grouper and sweetlips can be found lurking among the framework. Look even closer for colourful macro. Pro tip: Brunei is a very conservative Muslim country. Be respectful and ditch those post-dive beers and make sure you’re covered up.

Find a flight to Bandar Seri Begawan

Escape the crowds on remote atolls – Tubbataha Reef, Philippines

At Tubbataha Reef you'll get to see all sorts of underwater marvels

At Tubbataha Reef you’ll get to see all sorts of underwater marvels

If you’re looking for something a bit more exclusive, the Tubbataha Reefs National Park is slap bang in the middle of the Sulu Sea and takes 14 hours to reach by boat.

This Unesco World Heritage Site is just under 100,000 hectares of pristine ecosystems and is the nursery ground for fish and coral larvae that go on to populate the Sulu-Sulawesi Triangle. This absolute gem is a handy pit stop for big pelagics looking for a meal. Tuna, hammerheads, jacks, barracuda, mantas, white sharks, silky sharks and whale sharks are common sights.

Pro tip: due to inaccessibility, diving only happens here March to early June so make sure you get your timing right.

How to get there: fly to Manila, catch a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa and from there dive operators will take you by boat to the park.

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Taiwan’s best-kept secret – Green Island, Taiwan

Beyond the underwater seascapes, Green Island's nature will keep you busy for a while

Beyond the underwater seascapes, Green Island’s nature will keep you busy for a while

Those in the know head to Green Island for the best diving and underwater photography in Taiwan. Once a penal colony, this tiny volcanic island currently attracts many visitors coming here to see over 200 species of coral and over 600 species of fish. Visit May to September for easy, shallow, beautiful shore dives.

For advanced divers, the main attraction is in the south near one of only three saltwater hot springs in the world. Shark Point is a site not for the faint-hearted – if you can cope with strong currents, massive swells, negative entries and deep dives, it is well worth hanging on with your reef hook to experience hundreds of schooling hammerhead sharks. Visit December to March for one of the most exhilarating dives of your life.

Pro tip: research your chosen dive centre thoroughly and book in advance.

How to get there: catch a flight to Taitung and take a ferry or a local flight to Green Island.

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One of the best wrecks in the world – Pattaya, Thailand

Pattaya is incredible not only below the water

Pattaya is incredible not only below the water © Living In Thailand

The Hardeep is a 64-metre long Indonesian freighter that was commandeered by the Japanese during WW2 to run supplies to Thailand. Sunk by British Allied forces near the end of the war, this now coral-encrusted wreck lies in deep waters on its starboard side. Swim through the cavernous cargo hold as shafts of light pour through the portholes, and penetrate the engine room and see the huge crankshaft. Alternatively, swim out from the funnel line to see two unexploded bombs on the seafloor. Pro tip: make sure you have taken the PADI Wreck Specialty course or equivalent. It’s not advisable to wreck dive unless trained to do so.

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The holy grail of diving – Sipadan, Malaysia

Spot the wonderfully-weird looking bumphead parrotfish

Spot the wonderfully-weird looking bumphead parrotfish

This extinct volcano provides stunning wall dives, with drop-offs straight down to the mesopelagic zone thousands of feet below. At Jacques Cousteau’s favourite dive site, you can back roll through glassy azure waters into swirling cyclones of jackfish then make your way onto the reef and spot hundreds of hawksbill turtles, barracuda, hammerhead sharks, mantas and whale sharks.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear a massive school of bumphead parrotfish chomping through the reef.

Pro tip: permits are limited to 120 divers a day and cannot be bought in advance. Stay as long as you can on neighbouring islands and expect to dive Sipadan one day out of four.

How to get there: fly to Kuala Lumpur, from there take a flight to Tawau and continue by minivan or taxi to port town Semporna from where you can take a boat to Sipadan.

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Where two oceans meet – Komodo National Park, Indonesia

The sweetlips fish are sure to put you in a good mood

The sweetlips fish are sure to put you in a good mood

Squeezed in-between the Flores Sea (as part of the Pacific Ocean) and the Indian Ocean and famous for its lounging lizards, Komodo is starting to become just as well-known for its spectacular diving.

Batu Bolong, probably the best diving spot, can be deceiving. The nondescript sun-scorched rock jutting out of the ocean doesn’t give anything away about the wonders that lie below. Sink beneath the surface for more colours of corals than you ever thought possible. A steep wall descending to the seabeds leads to a reef that is riotous with marine life. Expect turtles, sharks, rays, a two and a half tonne Mola Mola if you’re lucky.

Pro tip: currents can be unpredictable so make sure you have your own surface marker buoy.

How to get there: from Bali, fly to Labuan Bajo on Flores Island and from there you can take a liveaboard or diving day trip to Komodo.

Learn more about Komodo from Sarah’s guide to diving in Komodo.

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Marine mysteries – Okinawa, Japan

Explore the mysterious underwater monument off Yonaguni Island

Explore the mysterious underwater monument off Yonaguni Island © itsdesire

The breath-taking Japanese island chain of Okinawa is known as one of the greatest scuba diving destinations on earth. Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited island of Japan, is the home of a famous submerged monument, which is one of the most mysterious diving spots known. The site has been subject to wild speculation since it was first discovered. It is still unknown whether the flat parallel surfaces and perfect 90 degrees angles are formed by natural processes or carved by human hands.

Pro tip: some sites on the main island of Okinawa can get extremely crowded, try to avoid diving during weekends.

How to get there: from Okinawa, you can take a direct flight to Yonaguni.

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Sunrise dives with whip-tailed threshers – Malapascua, Philippines

Always wanted to see a thresher shark? At Malapascua you'll get to see them in all their glory

Always wanted to see a thresher shark? At Malapascua you’ll get to see them in all their glory

Malapascua is the place to go see the often-elusive thresher sharks. Dive on the Monad Shoal drop-off for almost guaranteed sightings of these elegant predators patrolling in the deep.

For the best experiences head out early with the sunrise to catch the threshers passing through their cleaning stations. Here you can witness an extraordinary symbiotic relationship first-hand as tiny wrasse delicately peck the dead skin and bacteria from the sharks’ skin, gills and even inside their mouth.

Pro tip: threshers are sensitive to sunlight so leave your torches and strobes on the boat.

How to get there: fly to Cebu, take a bus or taxi to the port in Maya and from there take a ferry to Malapascua.

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Azure opulence – Cocoa Island, Maldives

Enjoy the view from one of these overwater suites after long diving sessions

Enjoy the view from one of these overwater suites after long diving sessions © Chi King

Cocoa Island in the South Malé Atoll makes the perfect luxury getaway. With Insta-worthy rooms over the water, crystal clear seas and perfect white sandy beaches combined with world-class diving, this makes for a trip of a lifetime.

Drift dive through channels to see the big pelagics, have mantas flock to you on night dives or hang out near the reefs for beautiful coral and tropical fish sightings. This intimate private island is hot on marine biology, so why not help with coral propagation after indulging yourself at the wellness spa?

Pro tip: make sure your buoyancy is spot on so you can stay as close to the bottom as possible, avoiding the current.

How to get there: from Malé, you can take a speedboat to Cocoa Island arranged by COMO Cocoa Island.

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Check availability at COMO Cocoa Island

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