Face-to-face with life in Malaysian waters

Diving at Tenggol island.
Diving at Tenggol island.

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The minute I topple over the side of the boat in East Malaysia, I know everything has changed forever.

Below me glimmers a shoal of white and turquoise fish feeding on shallow coral. To my left, an angelfish flits around my fins, its electric blue, yellow, purple and orange markings glowing in the early morning light.

While I have good reason to be splashing about in these warm turquoise waters, a hotspot for marine biodiversity, nothing prepares me for what I see next.

Pressing my mask down into the waves, a bustling aquatic city comes into view. Schools of blue groupers zoom past as leopard-print Andaman sweetlips munch on floating plankton, like a large family sitting down to a communal meal.

A group of Moorish idols – the punk rockers of the fish world with their yellow-black mohicans – window-shop in pairs, gazing at the corals branching out like long fingers.

There are fish courting, eels gliding, reef sharks darting, turtles drifting, and then there’s us: a small group of divers from around the world, floating amid this scene of staggering beauty.

Still a novice at this whole scuba-diving business, I have only recently earned my PADI Open Water certificate and have logged just a handful of dives to date, most of them in Mexico.

But because half the world’s species live in our oceans, and I’m forever curious to see how other halves live, I’ve swapped the grey skies of London for a four-day underwater tour of eastern peninsular Malaysia. All I can say is, if it weren’t for my oxygenated mouthpiece, I’d be breathless.

There are more than 20 dive sites around Tenggol, an island roughly 50-hectares in size just off the coast of eastern Malaysia, dotted with thick jungle jutting out into the bright blue sea.

Said to be one of the last unspoilt islands in the region, Tenggol was voted Best Diving in Peninsular Malaysia by Asian Diver Magazine in 2002.

Most enthusiasts head to Malaysian dive sites such as Sipadan or Langkawi, or even to Thailand, but I can’t believe there aren’t more people here.

Having flown from London to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, then taken a one-hour flight east to Terengganu, our schedule for our four-day getaway is two dives per day, with a break for a barbecue of locally-caught grilled fish and squid and fried rice with veggies.

As we’re a motley six-man bunch of novices and pros, we avoid the wrecks and head instead for coral balconies and popular aquamarine hang-outs.

Each dive is more stunning than the last. At Tokong Timur, a 22 metre descent along a boulder outcrop, I decide I want to be a mermaid and start doing somersaults.

While it is possible to stay on Tenggol – there are three very basic campsites – I’ve opted instead for a luxurious cabana at the Tanjong Jara Resort on the mainland.

The gorgeous compound is designed like a 17th-century Malay palace and set right on a powdery white beach lapped by turquoise waters.

During a stroll down the moonlit beach a shooting star glides overhead and I make a wish.

I may have to wait some time before I turn into a mermaid and am sent back to sea, but it’s always good to dream.


Kate Hodal was a guest of Tanjong Jara Beach Resort, which offers a Diver’s Escape package including three nights’ accommodation, breakfast, two days of diving, and barbecued lunch for each day, starting at MYR 980 (£197) per room per night.

Flights to Kuala Lumpur from London are around £790 on Malaysia Airlines. The dive starts again on March 1.

For more information, visit tanjongjararesort.com.