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Undersea Adventures in Malaysia

Singapore may be known for its manmade shopping malls and hygienic hawker centers, but it’s also within a day’s trip of some of the world’s most spectacular dive sites, in particular Tioman, Malaysia, where I had my first dive.

Choking and spluttering from a gulp of briny seawater with burning eyes was not how I envisioned ticking this item off my bucket list. I had pictured this as more of a calm, graceful descent into Tioman’s waters, gliding through the sapphire seascape, not crashing face-first into the sea in front of a bobbing crowd of students and my bemused divemaster, Irvin.  

Embarrassing entrance aside, getting dive-certified had always been a life goal of mine, and now that I had my first paycheck, I could begin ticking this off my wishlist with a PADI Open Water Diver Course. At the dive centre before heading off to Tioman, I waved goodbye to some of the first dollars I had dutifully saved. Irvin winked.

“It’ll be worth it,” he said.

I am an unabashed iPhone-wielding, subway train-nudging, Starbucks-guzzling city girl. I love Singapore, my pint-sized metropolis is celebrated for its efficiency, its spread of shopping centers, soaring skyscrapers and sumptuous hawker food. But beyond Singapore’s shores lie a generous scattering of islands that have all been deservedly crowned the honour of being “tropical paradises” for one reason or another.

Nearest to Singapore, located in the Coral Triangle, are the Malaysian islands of Perhentian, Redang and Sipadan, nicknamed the ‘Amazon of the Seas’ after its smorgasboard of marine life. Sipadan is world-renowned for its undulating grey hurricane of schooling barracudas – a sight so unbelievable it feels like an illusion.

A little further away in Indonesia are the islands of Bali and Raja Ampat. Also known as Island of the Gods and The Four Kings respectively, their coral-encrusted seaslopes and majestic overhangs create cathedral-like dive sites, with dreamy rays of light illuminating the seabed like sunlight peering through stained glass.

I can easily name so many spectacular underwater destinations that are surprisingly accessible from Singapore: Surin and Similan, Phi Phi Islands, Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, the Andaman Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives to name a few.

With plenty of top-rated dive companies offering competitive rates to world class dive sites, I cannot resist the lure of the open seas just a mere three-hour bus ride or a short-haul flight away.

S$560 gave me five hours of theory lessons complete with cringe-inducing jokes from a 1990s-filmed PADI instructional video, two pool practice sessions in the chilly evening rain, five actual dives, equipment rental, certification, and best of all, a laughter-filled weekend getaway to the unsullied Tioman. It was a package that fulfilled the best of my escapist fantasies. 

The world beneath our man-made islands beholds an almost sacrosanct reverence for its ancient beauty. After all, these oceanic gardens took about 240 million years to bloom.

Underwater, everything is magnified. My clumsy breathing resonated as an airy gurgle accompanied by bursts of bubbles from my regulator and the ominous black sea urchins appeared closer and more menacing than they ought to be. All of us were unaccustomed to sudden weightlessness of our bodies (ha, if only that were true on land!) -- we were snorkeling one minute, and crash landing into the seafloor the next. With an odd twist of irony, we were fish out of our element in the water.

And time. Time was much, much shorter underwater.

10 metres down into dolphin-blue seas, sunlight takes on an ethereal, muted quality; melting into the crevices of the cobwebbed corals sprawled magnificently and tirelessly over the ocean floor.

The underwater world is a haughty kaleidoscope of sights and colors, with neon-scaled fish darting with surprising agility in between the coral’s fragile filaments and meter-long sea turtles silently gliding through with an aged majesty. Diving is a descent into another world, with only the glimmer of the choppy surface above as a reminder of our own.

Travelers who profess to a hunger for exotic locations, rare sights and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are missing out on 70% of what the world can offer when they stay on land with their feet firmly planted to the ground. It’s time to take the plunge and let the waters carry you into a whole new world.

Check out Tioman and other closer-than-you-think dive sites with Travelzoo Asian Edition’s round-up of the best dive sites across Southeast Asia.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Singapore
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
See more Tips from
Li Ying Lee