South-East Asia is famed for its diving. From the whale sharks of Oslob in the Phillipines to the mantas and manatees of the Lembeh Straits in Indonesia, the discerning diver doesn’t have to look very far to find an embarrassment of underwater riches in this diverse and exotic continent. Not to be outdone by its notorious neighbours, Malaysia has long been recognised as a hotspot for exceptional diving; the jewel in its scuba crown – Sipadan in Malaysian Borneo – has been voted time and time again as the best diving location on the planet. But in all the hype that Borneo receives, it can be easy to overlook the small but perfectly formed island that you’ll have to fly over to reach the fecund waters of Sipadan, an island that holds an underwater secret all of its own – Pulau Tioman.
After a month of bad weather and even worse visibility, my shutter-finger was itching to get out and start capturing Tioman at its best. As the waters began to calm and the tropical sun burned through the clouds, the sites that I’d been diving on a daily basis started to transform before my eyes.
Gone were the the soup-like conditions and eerie murk that lingered just out of reach; in its place were crystal clear havens, underwater oases nestled just under the wave. Suddenly, life was everywhere. Thousands upon thousands of fish teemed before my eyes, jostling for position in front of the camera lens. Curious wrasse pecked at my mask, while spectral looking giant puffers floated alongside my peripheral vision; regal angel fish and fluorescent rays swam sedately in and out of the colourful corals, competing with the flamboyant parrot fish for my immediate attention. Never mind the sharks, the turtles, the ‘big stuff’, there’s more beauty in one square-metre of this water than I’ve ever experienced before.
I can’t keep this to myself, I thought; this is too good not to share.
Minuscule critters smaller than the whites of my finger nails lurk in the nooks and crannies of the seabed, their tiny bodies easily evading the macro capabilities of my underwater point and shoot camera. Instead, their spindly forms tucked under ledges or camouflaged against busy backdrops, have delighted my ever-searching eyes as I scour the corals and sand-patches that are so often overlooked by the hasty unseeing glances of fair-weather divers. For those with a keener eye and the patience to search, minute porcelain crabs, owlish-looking squat lobsters and virtually indistinguishable whip coral shrimp are tucked away from plain sight waiting to be discovered.
Once you’ve got your eye tuned into the tiny treats that the reef has hidden away, you’ll discover that Tioman is literally crawling with technicolour nudibranch. These firm favourites of the underwater macro world nestle merrily among the rocks and corals of the island reefs. Diverse, vibrant and utterly bizarre, there are over 3000 species of this strange solar-powered hermaphrodite sea slug. Entire books have been dedicated to documenting their countless plethora of shapes, patterns and colours; their variety is almost infinite and their appeal all the greater for it.
If you can peel your eyes away from the tiny cracks and crevices that make up Tioman’s sprawling coral reefs, you’ll be able to cast your gaze more widely and take in some of the larger creatures that call this patch of the ocean home. The cuttlefish for example: one of the world’s most ridiculous creatures, this hilariously proportioned cephalopod can be seen sculling around Tioman’s reefs throughout the year. Their enchanting skin ripples with colourful emotion, the changeable pigments oscillating between fierce reds, diminutive greys and proud dappled bronzes.
At the start of each year, a captivating season begins as the cuttlefish begin to mate. Huge males can be spotted in testosterone-fuelled groups, flashing vivid displays at passing females (and divers – it can be confusing being a young, hormone-fuelled cuttlefish.) Watching these bizarre underwater macho men morph from meekly camouflaged into their brazen patterned courtship costumes is a sight for both diver and camera to behold.
Whilst cuttlefish remain one of my absolute favourite creatures to find under the waves, since Pixar launched them into stratospheric levels of global popularity, clown fish have become a firm favourite for many divers. But it can be surprisingly hard to find Nemo in some pockets of South-East Asia. Rumour has it that there is a single anemone in Thailand’s scuba hotspot, Ko Tao, which can boast a family of the gregarious fish; so precious are its inhabitants, that the anemone is cordoned off with rope, ensuring that over-zealous fingers don’t evict the clown fish for good.
Perhaps Thailand’s lack of clown fish is simply because they’ve all moved to the neighbourhood along and taken up permanent residence in Tioman’s waters; there’s no such such scarcity here. Peering into every other anemone, you’ll find a stern pair of eyes glaring back at you.
(10 points if you can spot the anemone fish…)
Although the garish tiger-like markings of the clown fish make it instantly recognisable, its lesser known cousin – the striped anemone fish – is often overlooked. In my mind, the graceful markings of these dusky coloured beauties are even more beautiful than the vibrant stripes of the clown fish, and I always make it my mission to dedicate the majority of my camera reel to these often under-appreciated specimens.
All anemone fish make for a fun subject to observe. Unlike the meek and socially awkward father, or the sparky, rebellious kid that Disney portray, clown fish are actually fiercely territorial and impressively aggressive. I say impressively as you have to hand it to a fish the size of a human thumb that will still square up to a diver and charge him down if he gets too close. In fact, clown fish are something of the female boss; within each anemone homestead there is one fish that is significantly larger than all the others. This fish is the female, the fish that rules the roost while all the smaller males are subservient to her. However, when she dies or flees the nest, the largest male will transform into a female to fill her place. That’s right – nature is mind blowing.
The only downside to bottom time in Tioman which I’ve discovered so far is the absence of trunkfish. These epic fish, so common in the Caribbean, have long since been a firm favourite of mine. Did you know that a baby trunkfish is so perfectly spherical that it is called a pea?! How can that not be the most adorable thing you’ve ever heard?!
It’s fair to say I have a bit of an obsession. So I was disappointed to learn that they don’t call these Asian waters home. However, I’ve found a close substitute in the trunky’s cousin species – the box fish. These close replicas of the trunkfish have become my new favourite discovery in Tioman’s ocean and are guaranteed to warrant an “eeeee!” of excited bubbles streaming out of my regulator each time I spot one.
“But where are the sharks,” I hear you cry, “the turtles, the log-book worthy big-boys of the deep?” They’re there I promise you. In abundance. Only yesterday I did a 50 minute dive that saw me surface close to tears after seeing three stately hawksbills, a giant green moray, previously undiscovered flatworms and nudibranch and a huge school of barracuda. Oh, and a casual SEVEN blacktip reef sharks. Further up the beach, just metres from our doorstep, our house reef teems with life – turtles cruise past in water as clear as glass and eagle rays soar along the gentle currents; a deadly venomous but utterly bewitching sea snake can regularly be spotted coiling and undulating through the corals; there are even rare but ecstatic sightings of whale sharks, leopard sharks and giant rays in these warm and tranquil waters.
But whether it’s the little or the large, the rare or the regular, the thriving reefs and impressive biodiversity of Tioman’s waters mean that there’s never a dull moment during a dive. Tear your eyes away from the flamboyant markings of a minuscule sea slug, and marvel at the shoals of fish flooding your vision; focus hard on a seemingly innocuous bommy of coral and watch as camouflaged marine life hone into view like the hidden image in a 3D hologram; take a moment to sit, watch, breathe and simply enjoy the surreal sensation of having a front-row seat to one of the most stunning exhibits the universe has to offer.
If you like reading about my underwater adventures, you can catch up on all my diving blog posts here.