DIVING vacations open up new worlds and the mysteries of the planet’s oceans. And for some, scuba diving becomes much more than a hobby. It becomes an obsession in which they plan their life around the next dive.
Many options are out there for snorkeling and diving lovers. Be it close or far from Shanghai, each destination has its own distinctive characteristics catering to the demands of today’s finicky travelers.
With the National Day holiday approaching, Shanghai Daily dons its wetsuit and starts exploring the depths of great dive sites in Asia.
Sabah, Malaysia, is a wonderful dive destination. Dive instructors offer three-day courses for beginners to obtain a license, which is required in order to join a dive.
Semporna Town along the east coast of Sabah in Borneo Malaysia boasts dazzling sunshine, enchanting salty sea breezes and great diving. Semporna is the gateway to Sipadan Island — one of the world’s top diving destinations. The island features numerous dive spots and is home to thousands of sea turtles, schooling sharks, swirling barracuda, pristine reefs and coral walls dropping more than 2,000 meters straight down to the ocean floor.
Chinese travelers are falling in love with diving. Due to the increase in flight routes provided by budget airlines, more Chinese are flying to Southeast Asia and trying diving.
“Almost 90 percent of those who sign up for our diving courses are from China,” says Kevyn Ng, course director at Borneo Speedy Dive, a Semporna-based diving center offering courses in Chinese. “The number rises at a steady pace annually.”
The first day of the beginner’s course includes a whole day of theory and written diving knowledge. The second day leads to basic and practical diving skills in confined water. Underwater for the first time, I feel reassured and a whole lot safer when I inhale and the air from my oxygen tank enters my lungs.
Then comes the most fantastic and surreal part. Our class heads to the sea. We dive slowly into the big blue under the guidance of our dive instructor, controlling buoyancy by adjusting our breathing. Gravity seems to disappear. I sink beneath the surface and feel free. I feel as weightless as an astronaut in space. The water is warm and it is so quiet and peaceful. The only thing I can hear is my own breathing.
After three days of training, I pass the examination and am now certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the world’s largest diver training organization. I participate in seven dives during the trip, going as deep as 18 meters below the surface.
On our dive at Sibuan Island, a seemingly bottomless cliff delving deep under the sea makes it seem like I am on a mysterious planet. All manner of reef fish pass through layers of corals. For a moment, I think I am swimming in a giant fish tank.
The world’s oceans are vast. Only about 1 percent of these waters are accessible to divers. The silver lining in that is coral and seaweed needs sufficient sunshine to exist. Most coral grows in shallow waters no deeper than 30 meters, thus making these areas accessible to divers.
Back from the week long vacation, I have been experiencing the longest “post-travel syndrome” of my life. My traveling mates and I miss the ocean. We just cannot stop sharing diving information with each other. Even a casual glance at diving pictures in magazines brightens my day.
I now understand the saying “divers are a different breed.” People who do not dive simply don’t understand the obsession.
Selina Zhang, a 35-year-old Shanghai native and Diageo’s head of brand assurance for China, is one of the converted. She schedules most of her holidays at dive destinations. She says she goes on five or six diving trips a year. Her favorites include Sipadan; Palau, a country 500 kilometers east of the Philippines; Chuuk of Micronesia and Subic in the Philippines.
Her fiancé was once her diving buddy. He proposed on a dive last May in Anilao, the Philippines.
The global diving community tends to be a friendly bunch. Meeting different people from all over the world is an added bonus for divers.
Alice Lu and Jojo Shi are two passionate divers who I met in Semporna. Lu, a pet shop owner in Shantou City in Guangdong Province is working toward becoming a qualified dive instructor. Shi who has worked as a schedule counselor for a travel agency in Kunming, Yunnan Province, recently was certified as an open water scuba instructor.
They say they enjoy sharing the fun of diving and the mystery of the sea with others. They are among those whose lives changed after diving for the first time.
Once you learn to dive, the beach may never be enough. All you will likely care about is what’s under the sea.
Often described as “God’s aquarium” or “an untouched piece of art,” divers will see green and hawksbill turtles, enormous schools of barracuda in tornado-like formations (especially around Barracuda Point), and large schools of big-eye trevally and bumphead parrotfish in the waters around Sipadan. With a bit of luck, you may see macro life like sharks without leaving the surface.
Among Sipadan’s multiple diving sites, the Turtle Tomb is the most famous. Lying underneath the column of the island, the tomb is formed by an underwater limestone cave with a maze of tunnels and chambers. They contain many skeletal remains of turtles that drown after becoming lost. Only cave-certified technical divers are allowed to dive in the Turtle Tomb.
Sipadan is a protected site and only 120 divers are allowed per day. All dive operators should begin and end dives around the island from 8am to 3pm. Only advanced open water divers or entry level divers with a minimum of 20 log dives are allowed to dive in Sipadan. Snorkeling is an option for non-divers or those without enough experience on Sipadan.
Sibuan is uninhabited and about a 30-minute speedboat ride from Semporna. Visibility here is excellent for divers and you may spot whale sharks and giant sea turtles. The calm currents and peaceful ocean environment make it suitable for dive beginners.
Renowned for great macro and muck diving, Mabul features floating resorts and white sands equaling the Maldives. Jellyfish, urchins and colorful corals are easy to spot in the shallow waters when snorkeling. Seaventure Rig Dive Resort is less than a kilometer off the island. The converted oil rig is a PADI 5-Star IDC Dive Resort and organized dive station fully equipped to handle a variety of scuba activities.
How to get there:
AirAsia sometimes offers round-trip tickets from Hangzhou to Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, for around 1,000 yuan (US$161). Take a domestic flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau and a one-hour taxi drive from Tawau (about US$31) to Semporna, the gateway to Sipadan. There are numerous diving training centers in Semporna. Speedboats from dive schools depart to islands like Sibuan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and Matabuan every morning. If you are coming for Sipadan, it is strongly recommended that you book a few weeks ahead — two or three months ahead for the peak season — in order to guarantee a permit to access the island as it is a protected marine reserve. The other islands do not require permits.
The Republic of Palau
Palau, an island country located in the western Pacific Ocean, is categorized as one of the 50 must-go destinations around the globe by National Geographic. The island is renowned for its rich marine environment that many professional divers crave, including its barrier reef walls and World War II wrecks. Flocks of travelers fly to Palau annually for its unique Jellyfish Lake, where millions of nontoxic golden jellyfish migrate across it daily. Scuba diving is banned to protect the jellyfish, but visitors can witness the spectacle with a snorkeling trip.
How to get there:
There are no direct flights from Shanghai to Palau at the moment. Tourists from Shanghai can take direct flights to either Seoul (which is highly recommended as regards to time and price), Tokyo, Manila, Macau, Hong Kong or Taipei and then transfer to a Palau bound flight.
Kenting, Taiwan, China
Kenting is on the Hengchun Peninsula of the southernmost tip of Taiwan and is known for its tropical climate with warm to hot weather year round. It is a popular diving spot among Shanghai divers due to its proximity to the city. It also offers cheaper diving courses and fun dives compared to diving centers on China’s mainland. Kenting Marine Park features a variety of reef fish, stony corals and soft corals. The best visibility for divers is during the dry season, which is late autumn to early spring. With a bit of luck, divers may witness various corals copulate around the end of March.
How to get there:
Take a direct flight to Taipei and then a high-speed train (about two hours) to Tsoying in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City. Then take the Kenting Express to Kenting. Alternatively, take a direct flight to Kaohsiung and charter a car to Kenting.
Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao is a world-famous diving site with abundant marine life and coral reefs on an island in Thailand. It forms part of the Chumphon Archipelago on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. A dive site called Chumpon Pinnacle to the west of the island is known as a site divers may see whale sharks and bull sharks. It is also a less common diving destination where you can enjoy tranquil and peaceful scenery away from the crowds who swarm to Phuket or Phi Phi Island.
How to get there:
Koh Tao has no airport, but connections via high-speed catamarans and ferries are available. Train services are available from Bangkok to Chumphon, where travelers can then catch a ferry.
Boracay, the Philippines
Boracay is a small island in the Philippines located approximately 315 kilometers south of Manila. The seas around Boracay boast more than 30 diving spots with loads of reefs, wrecks, and rare tropical fish. The island is famed for scuba diving and cliff diving. Beginners can try discovery dives that require no PADI certification. Experienced divers can go night diving and wreck diving. Advanced open water dives around Boracay and its neighboring islands are also available.
How to get there:
Shanghai offers direct flights to Panay island. Boracay is separated from Panay by a narrow strait. Transportation across the strait is provided by boats operating from the Caticlan jetty port.
What dive beginners can expect to see:
At the various dive sites around Semporna, divers will see tropical reef fish including clown fish, sea hares, sea snakes, barracuda, groupers, cuttlefish, turtles, giant morays, ribbon eels, frog fish, scorpion fish, crocodile flatheads, lion fish, and ghost pipe fish. A variety of hard and soft corals in various shapes are also common.
Lucky divers may even see a whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean. They frequent shallow waters to feed and the best season to see whale sharks differs depending on the specific dive site. March, April and May are generally considered the best months to spot a whale shark.
A beginner’s course (open water) in Semporna will cost around 1,500 Malaysian ringgit (US$484). Rates vary slightly among different operators. Advanced qualification courses may cost up to 2,500 Malaysian ringgit. Diving schools offer three or four days of open water courses based on the needs of each student. Scuba equipment rental, port departure tax, boat transfers and packed lunch are included in the fee. If you are already certified, renting a set of diving gear will cost about 60 Malaysian ringgit per day. You can also sign up for fun dives organized by diving schools with diving equipment included. These cost about 300 Malaysian ringgit per day. Diving schools in Semporna provide a variety of PADI courses ranging from try dives and beginner courses to professional certifications and specialties.
• Never drink and dive
• Never dive alone. Also tell someone on land what you are doing and when you expect to be back.
• Never eat a big meal before diving and wait at least two hours after eating before starting a dive.
• Never dive outside your comfort level.
• Never dive with broken equipment.
• Never hold your breath while diving.
• Wait 24 hours after your last dive before taking an airplane.
Q1: When did you first dive?
Q2: Why do you go diving? What attracts you most?
Q3: Apart from diving, what other sports are you keen on?
Q4: What is the next destination on your current diving wish list?
Lu Jiadan, 34, open water scuba instructor
Q1: July, 2012
Q2: I was attracted to the ocean after watching a documentary about Sipadan in Malaysia on CCTV. I decided to learn diving. I like learning how to face and deal with difficulties and fear while diving.
Q3: All kinds of exciting, extreme sports
Q4: Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Du Wei, 31, open water scuba instructor
Q1: Sanya, Hainan Province, 2008
Q2: I treat diving as a way of entertainment and I enjoy the sense of exploration as each new diving spot will bring a brand new experience. I still remember the moment when six 18-meter-long sharks swam around me when I dived in South Africa last year.
Q3: Paragliding, hunting, shooting and horse riding
Q4: Great Barrier Reef, Australia, and the Red Sea, Egypt
Shi Xin, 32, open water scuba instructor
Q1: Sibuan Island, Malaysia’s Semporna, September 7, 2012
Q2: I was fascinated by photos taken underwater in Malaysia’s Sipadan at a gathering with some friends at the beginning of 2012. Then I traveled to the place where these photos were taken and that trip just changed my life. Each time I dive into the sea, it feels like entering another world. The deeper I dive, the closer I can reach out to my soul. I witnessed the first jackfish storm in my life in Sipadan in 2012. The scene was much like a tornado when you saw from under the sea and the light from the surface was all covered. It’s really marvelous and beyond words.
Q1: Wuzhizhou Islands in Sanya, Hainan Province, 2008.
Q2: I have always liked to try new things and have new experiences. I feel like flying as I’m weightless in the sea when diving. I’m addicted to the experience of hearing my breathing, watching various marine life and being embraced in a tranquil blue world. I feel at home each time I dive into the sea.