Diving in the South China Sea – a Metal Head’s Dream come true

Diving in the South China Sea – a Metal Head’s Dream come true

Created: 2017-04-25

Created: 25 Apr 2017

Courtesy of Tourism Malaysia I was extremely lucky to be invited on a familiarisation trip to dive from Labuan Island in the South China sea, at the end of my recent course in Malaysia.  I learnt that Malaysia is split in two – the bit we all know on the Kuala Lumpur side, and another blob further East, on the west coast of the Island of Borneo, surround the Kingdom of Brunei.

At 5am, after some pretty hefty celebrations the night before, we dragged ourselves out of bed and boarded the coach to Kota Kinabalu airport. One of our party didn’t make it through security, having smuggled himself into Malaysia for the course, he didn’t get a stamp in his passport, so they wouldn’t let him through the airport!  After that mini-drama, and feeling more awake after a couple of coffees, we boarded the small propeller plane to Labuan, and pretty much as soon as we took off we began our descent!

Labuan Island from the air

Labuan Island itself was bigger than I expected, and we were whisked straight to the jay-tea (turned out Jenny our lovely guide had an issue with the pronounciation of jetty, which was hilaious on day one but rather grating by day four!).  We were loaded onto two small fishing boats for a very bumpy and very wet ride across to the paradise island where the dive shacks of CoCo Dive were located.  They were the only buildings on a totally unspoilt island.

The warmth and welcome we received from the crew of CoCo dive was unequalled.  They were a truly lovely and knowledgeable bunch totally alive with the passion for diving and the incredible wrecks and reefs their waters had to offer – and super keen to share it all with us.

First stop was the Cement wreck.   She sits upright at 30m and is a quite spectacular sight to behold – with her ghostly fishing nets wafting around in the current. The viz wasn’t as spectacular as it would have been in the best season (Apr – Oct) but sadly as PADI had moved the dates of the CDTC to significantly earlier this year, we had to “put up with” the conditions.  Those of us from the UK were in our element, with some areas a good 8m viz, we frankly couldn’t believe our luck.

That afternoon we dived a pretty reef before returning to the hotel for a 20-minute turn around (this was not a relaxing break!) before being picked up and whisked off to a promotional diner hosted by Tourism Malaysia to listen to some presentations on what amazing things they could offer our future customers and students. The food was incredible, again, but the beverages were a challenge.  There was no alcohol other than in our hotel bar, and trying to get a glass of water was a feat of resilience.  The favoured offering was some sickly-sweet syrupy rose water than tasted like perfume, but we put a brave face on and consoled ourselves with thoughts of the amazing dives yet to come!

Next morning, we were picked up bright and breezy by the coach, taken to the jay-tea (see!) and transported across to the island.  The team were embarrassed by the poor viz of yesterday (8m, poor?!), so they decided to take us to a dead cert – the Blue Water wreck, and oh my goodness did it deliver! Sitting in 35m, she is a fishing trawler that caught fire and sank in 1981 and is utterly stunning, with an absolute abundance of tropical fish life and some interesting and challenging swim throughs and penetration options – she was a total delight to dive.  She lies neatly on her side, making navigation fairly straightforward, and the clarity of the water in the channel she rests in is unrivalled.

More treats lay in store in the form of the Australian wreck (actually a Dutch vessel), who hit a mine and sank in 1944.  Some 339 passengers lost their lives, predominantly prisoners of war.  Her exposed metal structure is a massive attraction for marine life, and she sits in 35m.  She was a steam ship and has some easy penetration routes for some cracking exploration.

That evening brought a gala dinner, this time hosted by the President of the Labuan Corporation, and attended by the Labuan paparazzi – we were snapped, interviewed and even filmed for local TV – and the next day facebook was flooded by friends of some of the group from Malaysia, China and Japan, all sharing images of press articles featuring us and our exploits!

The final day of diving brought another trip to the iconic Blue Water wreck before returning to the paradise island for a beach BBQ.  Whilst our hosts prepared it, we decided we would do something in return and a large group of us trekked off along the white sandy beaches collecting some of the plastic bottles and other rubbish that sadly wash up daily from the main island.  It was sobering to see just how much had accumulated since their last beach clean-up three days earlier.

We waved our hosts a fond farewell after yet another stunning local reef dive, and a tremendous beach BBQ complete with karaoke!  The professionalism of the Coco Dive team was exceptional, they were a truly great bunch of people, and the diving in the area utterly blew me away. There are many more great wrecks to explore in the area – and it would be paradise for any wreck diver. Perhaps the most exciting thing is the recent discovery of some world war two plane wrecks in the area – watch out Truk Lagoon -this place takes half the time to reach and costs around half the amount….. serious competition in my opinion.

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Where's your favourite warm water diving destination? Anna's sharing another of hers with us today.


Where is Saparua and what’s so special about it?
Saparua is such a tiny island that a google map search probably won’t leave you much the wiser as to its location. Where many avid divers have heard of Raja Ampat (an area, not a single location), a few of those now consider Raja to be dived out, and favour a longer but ultimately more rewarding trip further south to the Lease Islands. Saparua, a speck off Ambon well known for its incredible muck diving, is home to breathtaking wall diving, superb muck sites and gigantic plate and brain corals. Tourism here is virtually zero, I had a guide, a boat and a resort totally to myself for a week. It’s not for everyone, for sure, but as an experienced diver with all my own equipment, getting off the beaten path and having the option to laze around the top of a wall for an hour and a half following an oblivious ghost pipefish, watching a solar powered Nudibranch meander the reef or have a staring match with a scorpionfish was a real bonus.

Why should I dive there?
You’ll be diving where very few people have been, getting into local culture and enjoying the sunsets. As I mentioned above, the dive sites around the island are superb, from an underwater arch entered at 5meters and spews you out at the top of a 100m wall, to huge table corals as far as the eye can see, to fabulously coloured coral covered walls and white sandy valleys for superbly long dives. You can motor down to the uninhabited island of Molana where there are several dive sites.

When to go?
February – April & September - November is good. Ambon, which is the muck diving heaven to the west, can be dived year-round as it’s sheltered, but Saparua lies to the eastern edge of the island cluster. The liveaboards that cruise the Banda sea avoid the in-between months due to those wet and windy seasons. Water temp is around the 28C, air temp up to 30C.

What to take?
Take your own gear – have it serviced beforehand. Take spares / redundancy if you can. Definitely take your own entertainment! And your camera.

Preparation, preparation, preparation !

Consider the PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy for holding your position whilst photographing. Definitely look at investing in a good underwater camera with housing and light for both night and wall dives and get to know your way around your rig with the PADI Underwater Digital Photography specialty. I’ve mentioned before… my favourite mid range rig is the Olympus TG6, though I’m itching to get out with one of the new Sealife iPhone housings for (much) lighter travel. (Disclaimer, sadly none of the photos below were taken with either of the above, so don’t judge the quality of the cameras on my photos!). Do consider the PADI Equipment Specialist to get to know your way round your equipment and how to fix any niggly problems that may arise.

Where to stay
I stayed at the most amazing Mahu Lodge. Built and owned by local Paul, it’s now managed by his wonderful son Johann – both of whom speak great English. Mahu lodge is no-frills simple, and the grounds are stunning: huge mature trees including Clove, Nutmeg and giant palm; hibiscus, fruit trees and expansive green lawns give you ample space to relax after diving. The rooms are basic, clean and some have a/c (which, due to the number of trees around, isn’t strictly necessary to be honest). Meals are included and you can ask cook to prepare the local “Papeda” – a seafood stew made from the local sago palm. (Be warned. It’s a texture thing, but it’s cooked right in front of you and it’s an … interesting process).

Splurge. There is no splurge accommodation on Saparua. There are no restaurants in Spararua to spurge on either. And you don’t have to splurge to get pretty much a private dive experience here, that’s just par for the course! You can rent a scooter to see the sights, though you can also hire a driver to do just that. I did splurge (£15) on getting back to Ambon for my flight, as it was Sunday and I’d forgotten the ferry (£7) doesn’t run. See the photo of my private speedboat below! Of course, you could do a liveaboard in the Banda sea which is most definitely a splurge!

Do visit the old Dutch fort Benteng Duurstede in the town, and do not miss the detailed, superb but slightly dusty dioramas at the museum next door. You’ll have to hunt around for the keyholder but definitely worth it to learn about how these islands were once the very centre of the nutmeg trade and fiercely fought over. A few metres away is the market – see the sago I mentioned earlier, and a plethora of different fruits and vegetables. It’s incredible to read the history of these once fiercely fought over islands at the centre of the spice trade and realise that they have reclaimed their culture and way of life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banda_Islands

How to get there?
Fly to Ambon via Doha/Singapore and Jakarta, then take a ferry.
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Please join me in congratulating Ocean Turtle Instructor @alunsalt on the amazing achievement of #masterscubadivertrainer

To earn this accolade he has studied to become an instructor in five PADI Specialties and certified 25 divers in various courses. No mean feat!

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One of our Ocean Turtle Diving Hatchlings, Maisie, has written this great blog that we wanted to share.

My name is Maisie, I am now eleven years old and earlier in the year I passed my Junior PADI open water and dry suit diver qualification in February 2020 when I was ten years old. I saved all my money I got from my family for Christmas to be able to pay for the course. The course was tough and being in February very cold; but the Ocean Turtle Team were incredibly supportive.

I got inspiration for diving when I went to Greece in 2019. I did a pool dive followed by scuba diving in the sea. I started then to realise I loved scuba diving.

I love going scuba diving to see all the sea creatures and I would like to start helping the underwater environment. I am planning to go diving in the Red Sea next year (2021) and to hopefully get my photographer diver course, to examine the different types of sea creatures from Egypt (Marsa Alam) and the UK (Cornwall or Porthkerris). I have done multiple dives in different places, for example: Porthkerris, Vobster, Wraysbury and Greece. I also practice and keep up to date with my diving by practising my skills in the swimming pool.

In the future I hope to become more skilled and one day get my Master Qualification and learn more about the underwater world.


To book your Hatchling onto a PADI Junior Open Water Course click the link below. They can begin their self-study over lockdown. https://shop.oceanturtlediving.com/shop/diving/en/view-course/padi-courses/begin-your-learning-journey/padi/open-water-diver-winter-12701
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