Malaysia: Diving in the Perhentian Islands

Eight metres underwater I turned and drifted slowly into the midst of a glittering school of Yellow-Spotted Trevally. I controlled my movement with the barest of body actions and, like a shimmering golden mist, the fish turned side-on to look unconcernedly at me. It was in the night markets of Kota Bharu that diving on the Perhentian Islands was first recommended to me. While I slurped spicy noodles that warm evening I heard the Perhentians offered some of the best value diving in Southeast Asia. Until then my plan had been to simply enjoy some beach time on these tiny tropical island paradises but then carry on north into Thailand to learn to dive. Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil (or the Big and Small Perhentian) are in the South China Sea, less than 20 kilometres off the coast of Malaysia and part of the Pulau Redang National Marine Park. The bigger island is home to more upmarket resorts, the smaller is beloved of backpackers.

The beautiful white arc of sand that makes up Perhentian Kecil’s Long Beach. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

A short boat ride from Kuala Besut, a fishing village near Kota Bharu, landed me on Perhentian Kecil’s Long Beach, a long arc of white sand fringed by jungle and coconut palms. The local boys were playing visitors at beach volleyball and a small fleet of colourfully painted fishing boats rode quietly at anchor. There were guesthouses and cafes under thatched roofs, as well as the dive schools. And it was then and there I changed my plans and signed up for a PADI open water course. The first day involved the essential book work and safety instruction and it was afternoon before I walked down the beach to the sea with my instructor and fellow trainee. I’ll be honest with you, at the end of that first day I thought I might quit. I’d managed the mask and regulator removal drills successfully. The problem was that even in only a few metres of sea, I just couldn’t get the hang of buoyancy control – the breathing technique that allows you to control your level in the water. My legs and then the rest of me kept floating upwards and I was having panicked thoughts about decompression sickness. How could I drop into the sea from a boat on a proper dive? I persevered with the course and by the end of the fourth day it was a very different story. Patient tutelage by my diving instructor and a slow build up of experience had me feeling confident. Swirling anemones rippled around and up, revealing incandescent blue undersides and as I moved onwards a giant moray eel bared his teeth from inside a rocky cave. A little black and white fellow passed in front of my mask – I wasn’t sure if he’d arrived accidentally but he kept up his courage to look me in the eye before turning tail to flee. I swam in awe alongside walls of amethyst-coloured coral and then my instructor made the signal to beware of an unpredictable Trigger fish approaching. The big Trigger was balanced on his nose and feeding on the coral with his jaws masticating, but surrounded by so much beauty nothing could concern me. The water is warm, with the water temperature near the shoreline more like a tepid bath. It’s like swimming in pale green, old-fashioned glass.

Fishing boats are a common sight on the beaches and waters of the Perhentians. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Dives at popular sites such as the Temple of the Sea and the Sugar Wreck are all available, as are trips to islands slightly further out such as Redang and Lang Tengah. There are also snorkelling trips. Back on shore a fisherman sat repairing his nets on the sand, his straw-hatted head bent to the task. A rainbow-sailed Hobie Cat skidded along on half a hull in the afternoon breeze that caressed my bare skin. It was time for a delicious meal and a freshly prepared smoothie. In the evenings on Perhentian Kecil, after the quick twilight, backpackers gather on Long Beach to watch a fire show: juggling glowing balls and sticks, twirling fire pois and fire breathing. There was plenty of laughter and a relaxed, happy atmosphere.

Glorious colours at evening time on Perhentian Kecil. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

On my last day in the Perhentians I walked up a jungle path from Long Beach that passes through a bright green banana plantation to Coral Bay on the other coast of the island. There are just a couple of beach hut restaurants and I watched an apricot-coloured tropical sunset. I did my PADI open water course with Turtle Bay Divers but there are a handful of dive companies all in a row along the beach so talk to a few and find the instructors and price that suit you. The diving season runs from the middle of March through until the end of October.

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