Asia's underwater wonders

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am

Few parts of the world are as conducive to learning scuba diving as Asia, with warm, translucent waters and incredible marine life off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and the Maldives to name but a few inviting locations.

From its infancy in the 1940s, when the aqualung was invented, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds, and it got an extra boost with the development of the wetsuit in the 1950s.

The initial steps from dry land to the wonders of the undersea world are relatively easy and can be accomplished with a short course - with strict emphasis on safety and related issues - overseen by a qualified member of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the world's largest diving organisation. Online courses are also available for the theory portion of the basic Open Water Diver course. Once qualified, the phrase 'the world is your oyster' really comes into its own.

Prime locations in Asia include the Similan Islands off Phuket, Raja Ampat in Indonesia, Layang-Layang in Malaysia, and Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While casual divers may prefer to journey out to a dive site for a couple of hours each day, more dedicated aficionados have taken to dive cruises, which sail around a variety of locations while providing on-board accommodation.

One of the popular areas for live-aboard cruising is the Mergui Archipelago, which comprises about 800 islands in the Andaman Sea. Some islands have huge boulders, soft corals and sea fans, while others offer wall diving, caverns, tunnels and drop-offs, and all have remained relatively untouched by the passage of time for the past 50 years. At dive sites, such as Shark Cave, the waters swarm with grey reef, bull, nurse and whale sharks, while Black Rock hosts schools of mobula rays and manta rays, and throughout the archipelago there are plentiful frogfish, ghost pipefish, ribbon eels, in addition to masses of crustaceans such as lobsters, crabs, cowries and shrimps.

For divers looking for more excitement, there's the thrill of caves, wrecks or diving by night. All require more care than normal.

However, swimming over wrecks is the easiest option; one of the world's most spectacular wreck dives is found at Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, where the remains of more than 70 Japanese ships and aircraft dating from the second world war are encrusted with coral on the seabed.