7 Best Underwater Photography Locations in Southeast Asia
How do you choose just seven great underwater photography destinations in Southeast Asia? The region is a cauldron of biodiversity, thanks to three of the countries being within the coral triangle.
This is the epicentre of marine life, where you can find over 600 different species of coral alone. Well, everyone has their favourites and, for a variety of reasons, including fighter jets, these are mine!
1. Sipadan, Malaysia
This legendary island was created by reef-building corals atop an extinct volcano. It’s located in the Celebes Sea, on the east coast of Sabah in Borneo, the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin. Some of the walls around the island plummet down to the seabed at an incredible 600m.
I’ve been lucky enough to both stay on the island and visit by liveaboard. Nowadays the island is closed to tourists, but you can still visit by liveaboard, or stay on one of the neighbouring islands of Mabul or Kapalai.
Permits are issued for visiting Sipadan so, if you plan to go, ensure this is organised in advance to avoid disappointment.
If you enjoy adrenalin fuelled-dives, you’ll enjoy both South Point and Barracuda Point, at opposite ends of the island. Both are swept by strong, nutrient-rich currents. Unsurprisingly, you can often encounter a large school of barracuda at the latter, although they are often in deep water.
Sharks and rays are also seen often, and there are often whitetips resting on the sand in shallower water. At South Point you can enjoy being surrounded by the large resident school of jacks, or watch the antics of the local green and hawksbill turtles.
Early mornings at North Point can reward you with a sighting of a large school of bumphead parrotfish setting off for a day’s hunting. If you are brave enough, and have the required permits, you may be able to dive Turtle Tomb. This is a limestone cave made famous by Jacques Cousteau, and is the final resting place of many turtles that became lost in the underwater labyrinth.
The best time to visit is April until December. Getting there from the UK: Malaysia Airlines (usually via Kuala Lumpur) to Kota Kinabalu, then an internal flight to Tawau.
This is followed by a 2-hour road transfer to Semporna. From here, you may board your liveaboard or speedboat for a transfer to your chosen island.
2. Layand Layang, Malaysia
Staying in Malaysia for the next destination, Pulau Layang-Layang is a tiny atoll in the South China Sea, situated 190 miles northwest of Kota Kinabalu. The dive resort shares this mile-long Island with the Royal Malaysian Navy.
The crystal blue waters around the coral atoll plummet vertically down to 2000m, so you never know which pelagic visitors could turn up at any time: manta rays, thresher sharks, and even melon-headed whales have been seen in these waters.
The most famous, of course, are the schooling hammerheads that aggregate around the island during their mating season, in the months of April and May.
Read more: Top ten places for underwater photography in the world
My favourite day of diving was at the Valley and Shark Cave 2. We dropped in at the western tip and swam out into the blue at about 30-40m for the first ten minutes, hoping for a sight of the now out of season hammerheads. Alas, no luck.
As we headed back into the reef, I could clearly see the impressive wall that plummets dramatically into the depths. The high energy of the site was palpable as tuna, barracudas, and a white-tip reef shark patrolled the area.
Schools of butterfly fish stayed close to the reef, while turtles and eagle rays cruised by in the shallower water. Due to some previous rough weather, there was a lot of swell from around 16m to the surface. Medium currents funnelled in both directions, with a mild current pushing us gently away from the reef.
Just around the corner from the Valley is Shark Cave 2, which you can visit on the same dive if the currents are favourable. The titular cave often has white-tip sharks resting inside.
Sadly, there were no sharks on this occasion, but we did see schools of yellow lined goatfish, plus lots of anemones and cleaning stations.
If you love diving and fighter jets, this is your ideal destination as, if you’re lucky, you may get some ‘Top Gun’ action over your accommodation. But, be warned that it is very loud!
The best time to visit is April and May for sharks, but the resort is open until the end of August.
Getting there from the UK: Malaysia Airlines (usually via Kuala Lumpur) to Kota Kinabalu, then a flight to the island.
3. Komodo, Indonesia
I have very fond memories of swinging in a hammock on a traditional wooden Phinisi liveaboard, moored just off the shores of Komodo Island.
The wood was gently creaking as I swung backwards and forwards, watching sea eagles fly overhead and Komodo dragons and monkeys wandering around on a beach in the distance. I had a feeling that this must be something like heaven.
I’ve enjoyed two Komodo liveaboards, one that departed and sailed from Bali, and a second that entailed a flight from Bali to Bima (in Sumbawa), picking up the boat there.
Personally, I think the legendary national park of Komodo should be on every diver’s bucket list. There are dive sites where you can see manta rays, high energy sites with raging currents, pristine coral reefs, volcanic landscapes, and incredible macro. There’s definitely something for everyone.
I can hardly manage to narrow down a couple of favourite sites, but Manta Alley for the mantas, Torpedo Alley for the fire urchins and zebra crabs, Shotgun for the stunning corals, Yellow Wall of Texas for the nudibranches, and Cannibal Rock for the plethora of weird and wonderful macro critters, are some of my top picks.
The best time to visit is May to September for the dry season and clear waters, although you can dive year-round.
Getting there from the UK: Many airlines service Denpasar in Bali, but nothing direct from the UK. Some liveaboards may require a connecting flight to Bima or Lombok.
Read more: Underwater photography tutorials, essential techniques
4. Lembeh Strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia
This is the muck diving capital of the world and, as a macro lover, I couldn’t possibly leave it out.
I guess a silty bottom with a fair amount of rubbish around wouldn’t be every diver’s cup of tea but, if you love the weird and the wonderful of the critter world, it’s extraordinary. On the dark volcanic sand and amongst the litter there is a myriad of crazy critters waiting to be found.
It is a unique eco-system, and you could while away many hours just watching the antics of the coconut and mimic octopus, bumblebee shrimp, hairy frogfish, elaborate nudibranchs, stunningly detailed ghost pipefish, and pygmy seahorses, to name only a few.
You can probably imagine that the night dives are something to write home about, but just watch out for the infamous bobbit worms and stargazers!
The best time to visit is during the dry season from March to October, but Lembeh can be dived all year around. It has been said that the worst visibility in August can produce the most critters.
Getting there from the UK: fly to Singapore, then fly with Silk Air from Singapore to Manado. Lembeh is a 1.5 hour drive from the airport.
5. Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
There are many fantastic resorts around Bali, but my favourite is Seraya Resort, lying just south of Tulamben on the east coast. The main reason for this is the housereef, Seraya Secrets, which is a haven for macro photography.
Although this site is not so secret anymore, if you want macro marvels, this is the place to visit on the east coast. Whatever you do, make sure you have a well–charged camera battery and plenty of room on your memory card.
Read more: 10 important things to keep in your camera bag
The dive takes place on a dark, volcanic, sandy slope that gradually drops down from 3m to 25m. We saw several types of ornate ghost pipefish, a pair of harlequin shrimp, and two juvenile ribbon eels.
We also saw a wonderful cleaning station, with morays and coral groupers laying out in the open, enjoying the attention of the hundreds of cleaner shrimp.
In fact, there were more species of prawn than I’ve seen anywhere, including the elusive bumblebee shrimp. Along with clown frogfish, mantis shrimp, and an abundance of nudibranchs, I think there is enough to keep even the most discerning critter addict happy.
The USS Liberty, Bali’s most famous wreck dive, is just a thirty-minute boat transfer from the resort, so ensure you also pack a wide-angle lens.
If you dive there early in the morning you are likely to bump into some rather larger fish, as a large school of bumphead parrotfish spend the night sleeping in the holds, and head off for breakfast at first light.
There is usually a large barracuda hanging out on the stern and, of course, the well-photographed school of resident jacks.
The best time to visit is from May to November.
Getting there from the UK: many carriers service Bali, although there are no direct flights. You will need to travel via one of the hubs, such as Singapore or Dubai.
6. Dumaguete, Negros, Philippines
Dumaguete is on the island of Negros, which is located directly to the west of Cebu. I stayed at Atlantis Dive Resort, which is situated on a long sandy beach. From here, you can access the famed sites of Apo Island and the Dauin Marine Sanctuaries.
Apo Island is a marine sanctuary and is approximately 45 minutes away on the dive boat. There are several sites around the island offering everything from shallow reefs covered with incredible macro subjects, to exhilarating drifts through schools of jacks.
Dumaguete is also world famous for the local muck diving in the Dauin Marine Sanctuaries. There are sites where you can see a thorny seahorse every couple of meters, along with flamboyant cuttlefish, coconut octopus, snake eels, and frogfish. Basically, everything you would expect from a good muck dive.
The Atlantis resort is also home of the Atlantis Azores liveaboard, which is well worth boarding if you want to get a little more up close and personal with this area of the Philippines. There are some stunning itineraries to choose from.
Dumaguete has a wet season from June until November and a dry season from December until May. The Atlantis Azores liveaboard operates all year round, offering a variety of itineraries including Visayas, Tubbataha, Anilao, and Coron.
Getting there from the UK: you can fly directly to Manila from London. The flight takes around 15 hours. You can then opt to stay overnight in Manila before taking a domestic from Manila to Dumaguete the next day.
The domestic flight is just over an hour, followed by a 30–minute road transfer to the resort.
7. Malapascua Island, Philippines
Be prepared to get out of bed at 4.30am! Yes, it’s early, but well worth the effort if there is a chance of meeting the elusive thresher shark. At dawn, they rise up from the depths to take advantage of the cleaning stations at Monad Shoal, which is a nearby underwater island. Alopias pelagicus can grow up to 6m long, including its long, whip-like tail. They are an awesome sight, rising up through the dawn’s early light.
Being home territory to thresher sharks is very cool for such a tiny island of just one and a half miles long, and half a mile wide. But that’s not all Malapascua has to offer. Night dives on the local reef are amazing, with mating mandarin fish and an assortment of different coloured seahorses.
Sleeping white–tips, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, and Spanish dancers can all be seen at nearby Gato Island. Then there are harlequin shrimp, pygmy seahorses, hammerheads, mantas, wrecks, and technical diving. A diving buffet to whet all appetites!
Read more: How to choose a strobe for underwater photography
When I arrived at Thresher Shark Divers I actually presented them with a wish list of everything I wanted to see and, incredibly, I ticked them all off after only a couple of days.
The best time to visit is December through till April. However, the Philippines are a year-round diving destination, although the monsoon season is July to September. Thresher sharks can be seen all year round, but the consensus is that the best time for sightings is July to October.
Getting there from the UK: fly to Cebu, either through Manilla or another regional hub. Thresher Shark Divers will arrange a taxi from your hotel in Cebu City for the 2.5 hour trip to the north tip, where you will board a boat for a 30 minute trip to the island.
These locations are just a small selection of the incredible opportunities for underwater photography in Southeast Asia. Visit any of these locations and you will be sure to have an amazing experience. Good luck!