When we departed for our 15-month trip around the world, we didn’t even pack swimsuits. But a few months in, after our first look at the coral reefs of Indonesia, we were enchanted by the underwater world. Soon, we were seeking out unique underwater adventures and planning our itinerary around them. By the end of our trip, we had chalked up over 50 dives between us, countless hours of snorkeling, and some truly weird and wonderful fish encounters. Everyone who plans a trip to Southeast Asia should have a sea life encounter, but it takes some planning and know-how to pick the best spots. Here is a list of our favorite places to see marine life in Southeast Asia.
Manta Rays: Nusa Penida, Indonesia
What: Manta rays swoop in circles around a cleaning station in a rocky bay, lining up to get nibbled by small fish. It’s a hypnotic spectacle. After a few seconds with the mantas, they became our favorite marine animal.
Where: Nusa Penida, an island off the southeast coast of Bali, Indonesia.
When: Any time of the year.
What are the chances? Excellent but not guaranteed. We were lucky and saw over 10 mantas. Our guide … Read more
A contrarian’s guide to snorkeling and diving when you are scared of the deep
Just over a year ago, I refused to jump into the deep end of my local swimming pool despite the presence of three lifeguards. Just six months ago, I was deeply apprehensive about swimming over a coral drop off despite wearing a life vest. So, how did I fall in love with the ocean and end up scuba diving in the notorious currents of Komodo?
I am here to tell you that if I can learn to swim, snorkel and dive, then anyone can. Like many things in life, motivation and persistence are required. Oh, and it helps to be on a tropical beach with crystal-clear water and a fabulous coral reef.
Read on to find out how I went from being scared of deep water to plunging into the depths, and why you can and should too.
Why didn’t I learn to swim?
I have plenty of reasons (read: excuses) why I steadfastly avoided learning to swim. My school didn’t have a swimming pool or dedicated swimming program. When my dad took my brother and sister swimming on Saturdays, I played soccer. At college, swimming … Read more
How do you wrap up an amazing 14-month tour across Asia? Visit a new country? Stay at a plush resort? Do a thirty day monastic retreat? Climb Everest? Or, revisit one of your favorite spots? We opted for the latter and headed off to the gorgeous Togean Islands in east Indonesia for a couple of weeks of snorkeling, diving, chilling, and wildlife watching. We fondly recalled our first trip to the Togean Islands in September 2015 as the moment when we really found our travel groove. Even better, there is so much to do there we didn’t have to repeat anything from the first trip.
Our return to the Togean Islands confirmed our new-found love of the ocean. And it reminded of us of the stark choices humanity has to make if we wish to protect the oceans for the enjoyment of future generations.
The jetty at Sanctum Una Una.
As ever in Indonesia, there were some transportation issues prior to arriving at these remote islands. We had booked flights from Bali to the port town of Gorontalo in North Sulawesi. Alas, we found out the day before the flight that the Tuna Tomini ferry was in dry … Read more
I was aware of Sipadan, the famous dive site off northeast Malaysian Borneo, even before I started my Open Water course. Diving Sipadan is on the bucket list of just about every diver coming to Southeast Asia. A tiny volcanic pinnacle rising 600m from the seafloor, it is home to huge amounts of marine life.
Diving Sipadan wasn’t in my plans. It’s a lot more expensive than diving almost anywhere else in Southeast Asia. A complicated permit system helps keep the sites pristine, but it makes advance bookings a must. I was prepared to skip Sipadan in order to save time and money. At the time we were planning our trip to Borneo, Paul wasn’t yet a diver, and I was hesitant to spend a lot of money on an amazing experience that he couldn’t share. But a well-traveled American diver we met in the Banda Islands emphatically told me that Sipadan was not to be missed. Paul also encouraged me to go for it. And I’m glad I did!… Read more
There is more to Komodo National Park than dragons, coral, currents, and big fish. There are beautiful hikes, Bajo villages, flying foxes, and gorgeous beaches. It seems odd to me that many backpackers come to one of the world’s most beautiful places then opt for a cheap-ass tour, on a crappy boat, with no safety equipment or English-speaking guide. Yeah, they see the dragons, snorkel at Pink Beach, and have a craic with like-minded cheapskates. But that seemed a bit lame to us.
We had already spent 3 days on the Wicked Diving liveaboard in Komodo, but we wanted to take another trip to see the dragons on Komodo and Rinca, snorkel, and hike. We wanted a good boat and an excellent guide with great language skills and knowledge of the park. Safety was paramount too. We want life vests, radios on board, and a speedboat for evacuation and/or transfers to beaches and snorkel spots.
Not too much to ask. But, unbelievably, there is only one operator in town that offers such a service. That company is Flores XP Adventures. And, thankfully, they had a trip that fitted into our schedule. We joined their 3 day Liveaboard Adventure and it … Read more
“I’m glad we’re not scuba divers,” I mused to Paul, flicking through the Lonely Planet Indonesia while lounging on the couch in our Seattle apartment one Sunday afternoon. “It’s so expensive, and if we were divers we would have to add so many places to our itinerary. We don’t have time for that!”
How things change! When we left home, we thought that our trip was going to be focused on mountains, jungles, and culture. Beaches were places where gap year backpackers got drunk, and there was nothing that interesting to see underwater anyway. We never would have guessed that by the time we arrived Labuanbajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park in Indonesia, we would be more excited about the diving than the dragons, I would have Advanced Open Water certification with 28 logged dives, and Paul would be ready to overcome his fear of water and do a dive course.… Read more
Why go to Komodo National Park?
If you want to see the most magnificent underwater world on Earth, you come to Komodo. The park should be on every diver’s bucket list. This is the place to see Manta Rays, Sharks, Turtles, Bumpheads, Octopus, and every imaginable fish big and small. The coral reefs are pristine and, for me, it is hands down the most beautiful place I have ever seen
But is this a good spot for a novice diver?
The park is also (in)famous for its very strong currents. Side currents, down currents, up currents, and whirlpools, Komodo has them all. Worse, the currents are extremely changeable. A placid dive can turn into an air-burning swim against a down current in seconds.
Komodo can be challenging even for experienced divers. Of course, the first thing you learn in your Open Water training is that diving always carries an element of risk. As if I needed reminding further, a Singaporean diver lost her life a few days before we arrived in Komodo.
For sure, this is no place to book your dives and/or dive courses based solely on budget. Choose a dive shop based on reputation. And dig deep into … Read more
“Now! Jump! Swim, swim! Look down!” OMG! I am swimming six feet above a 20’ long whale shark. Welcome to Donsol in the Philippines, where finding whale sharks is a gazillion times easier than finding an ATM!
Why were we there?
It may take two and half days to get to Donsol from Moalboal, but only two and half minutes to find the world’s biggest fish. Guaranteed! Almost…
Paul’s Swimming Challenge #3
I passed challenges #1 and #2 like a f#@kig champ. I swam with turtles in Apo Island. And, in Moalboal I swam over a deep dropoff (accompanied by millions of schooling sardines). If I pass challenge #3, Laura will open our splurge fund and let me do an Open Water PADI course. If I don’t, I will continue to suffer the lonely life of a dive widow.
This time, I have to drop off a boat into the deep blue sea. The supporting cast will include the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, and numerous non-swimming and raucous tourists.… Read more
Who wants to swim with a shimmering swirling cyclone of silvery sardines? You do! Awesome. Pack your bag and head for Moalboal on Cebu Island, Philippines. This is one wildlife encounter that is straight out of Discovery Channel’s Blue Planet. It is exhilarating and frankly unmissable if you are in the area.
Why were we there?
Laura had set me a few swimming challenges in preparation for doing a PADI Open Water course. I needed a big distraction to take my mind off challenge number two. And, a million metallic minnows seemed to fit the bill.
Paul’s Swimming Challenge #2
I sailed through part one with ease. I swam with turtles on Apo Island. We snorkeled with several of these gorgeous beasties for hours but they were easily within my shallow water swimming comfort zone. Part two would be psychologically more challenging. I had to swim over a deep dropoff. I would be staring down into the terrifying deep blue Abyss, which I had singularly refused to do on my last opportunity on Pulau Hatta in the Banda Islands. There was a dark blue line drawn in the sand (well, ocean) and I could not cross it!
Why the … Read more
If you have never seen a huge sea turtle, you should head to Apo Island in Southern Philippines. Unlike monuments or mountains, wildlife encounters do not come with guarantees. Weirdly, the Philippines turns this notion on its head. Apo Island, a speck in the Visayas just south of Dumaguete, was the first of several marine life areas in the Philippines that came up with the goods!
Laura throws down a challenge: see a turtle
Laura challenged me to push on with my swimming and snorkeling skills. I had to see turtles, swim over a drop-off, and see some big pelagic fish. We had a bet and this was one I really wanted to win.
The Philippines is a huge country of 7000 islands, but we only had three weeks to travel there. It took us ages to sort out an itinerary and we wanted it to be all killer and no filler. We knew that the Ifugao Rice Terraces would be a guaranteed hit, but where should we go for the best underwater action? It would be a bummer to travel for a couple of days and find out that the resident Horny Spotted Dork Rays had moved on for … Read more