Pulau Perhentian, or the Perhentian Islands, are situated on the east coast of mainland Malaysia and have in recent years become a standard stopover on the divepacking trail, for good reason!
Despite the slowly increasing number of visitors the two islands still offer plenty of hidden spots where you can pretend you’ve been left behind on an uninhabited island.
The Perhentians consist of two small islands, seperated by a narrow channel. Perhentian Besar, or ‘the big island’ offers more family-style resort accommodation, whereas on Perhentian Kecil (you guessed it, the ‘small island’) a younger crowd of mainly backpackers gathers at one of the beach shacks for a party, including shishas, fire spinners and blasting music. Besides the typical white sand beaches and palmtrees you’ll also find that the interior of the islands (which starts directly behind the chalets lined up on the beach) is still covered in dense jungle where you can find monkeys, gigantic monitor lizards and tropical birds.
Diving the Perhentian Islands
Both islands have plenty of divecenters that organize single-dive trips to one of the many divesites around. Most sites are very close to the islands and – depending from which beach you start – only five to ten minutes away in one of the little speedboats used by the operators. Two of the most popular sites are located a little bit further (a whopping 20 minutes!). Because the sites are so close it is common to run single-dive trips: you assemble your gear in the divecenter, load it onto a boat and before you know it you backroll into the water. After the dive you’ll head straight back to the divecenter where you take care of your gear and sit down with your guide/divemaster/instructor to log the dive. Most diveshops run three dives a day this way. Maximum dive time is usually 50-60 minutes (of course depending on the depth!), this is worth checking with the operator beforehand if you want to maximize your time underwater.
There are only a few operators that offer dives with nitrox (enriched air) so if you insist on diving with it – make sure you check first!
Water temperature is between 28°C and 30°C so the standard rental outfit is a 3mm shortie wetsuit or shorts and a rashguard if you bring your own. Visibility is usually around 10-15m but reaches over 20+m on good days.
Dives are guided by a divemaster, usually in small groups of 4-5 divers. Again, this is something worth checking beforehand. If you don’t have your own divebuddy, you’ll be buddied up with another diver. Have a chat with each other before you start your dive!
Dive Sites & Marine Life
There are many sites to choose from and more sites are being discovered each year (including a few ‘secret’ spots that only certain centers go to!).
Reefs, Wrecks and Sandy Bottoms.
Most sites are coral reefs: some fringing reefs following the contour of the island and some are located a little off shore on pinnacles and deeper rock formations.
One of the most popular reefs is Temple of the Sea, also known as Tokong Laut. It is a pinnacle of which the top sticks out a one or two meters above the water. It doesn’t look very impressive from the surface, but once you descend down the line or slope you’ll be greeted by a school of snappers, an abundance of hard corals and hundreds of anemones. Unfortunately, because this is the most popular site, you’ll see quite a few other divers too. Virtually guaranteed sightings on this site are bluespotted ribbontail rays, bamboo sharks (usually hanging out below the 18m mark), porcupine and pufferfish. If you’re lucky you also get the change to see a giant moray eel, blacktip reefshark or turtle cruising by. If whalesharks are spotted near the Perhentian Islands, it’s usually here. Don’t be disappointed though if you don’t see one, they show up only a few times a year and sometimes not at all.
Terumbu Tiga, or simply ‘T3′ is another popular site, located on the eastern side of Perhentian Besar. It is best described as an underwater maze and looks like a giant threw fistfuls of boulders into the sea to create this beautiful seascape. The boulders are covered in softcorals, the cracks between the rocks are full of small critters like boxer shrimps and pipefish and in the sand surrounding the reef you can spot rays, flounders and more. It is also one of the best sites to look for nudibranch on the rocks. Closer to the surface you’ll usually find schools of needlefish and the reef is often visited by a school of chevron barracuda. Green or Hawksbill Turtles also like to rest on the reef. The main reason why this site is so popular with divers is not the marine life but the countless swimthroughs you can do! Swim under, over and between the boulders, through tunnels and hidden caverns. If you’re not comfortable with swimming in sometimes pretty narrow spaces make sure to let your guide know beforehand. Don’t let FOMO get the better of you, this site is amazing enough if you skip the swimthroughs.
There are some excellent wreck dives too, the most spectacular is perhaps the Sugar Wreck that sank at the beginning of this century in only 18m of water. It is a 94m long cargo ship that was loaded with sugar (hence the name) and it sits on its starboard side. Because it is such a young wreck it is in very good condition and daring divers can swim through the big open cargo holds, sharing the space with a few resident barracuda. Lionfish like to hang out close to the structure and it is also a good place to watch giant pufferfish up close. Hang upside down and peer underneath the wreck to look for bamboo sharks and stingrays.
The other famous wreck is the Vietnamese Wreck. It’s an upside-down turned barge resting in 24m of water. It is relatively small but because of its depth the divetime is shorter anyway. The wreck is covered in soft corals and around it you can find barracuda and stingrays. Look on the wreck for hidden scorpionfish as well as various nudibranch. The wreck is also home to a huge titan triggerfish that is not always happy to see divers. If your divemaster suddenly tells you to swim off like your life depends on it, this might be the reason.
Even if you’re visiting the Perhentian Islands for only a few days, make sure to log these dives. If you stay longer there are plenty of other worthwile sites. Other popular reefs include Seabell Rock, Batu Layar (or Sail Rock), Tanjung Basi, Shark Point and D’Lagoon. There are also a few smaller sunken police boats (Police Wreck) and for those that like muck dives you can ask for a driftdive to look for seahorses on the sandy area north of Vietnamese Wreck.
Generally speaking, the dives on the Perhentian Islands are pretty straightforward and suitable for beginners. The seas are usually calm and most sites have a mooring line that is used for descents. Ascents might be ‘in the blue’ as it is not always practical to go back to your starting point. In that case the boat will do a live pickup. Most sites are shallow and on most reefs you don’t miss out on much by staying above 18m. There are, of course, a few exceptions: the top of Vietnamese Wreck is only at 17m, so this dive is for those with deep diving experience only. As a general rule: talk to your divecenter or guide to see if a certain site suits your experience level.
All divecenters offer certification courses, with PADI being the most popular training agency. Prices differ little between shops, but it is one of the cheapest places in the region to get certified. This, and the fact that diving is relatively easy, in clear warm waters with plenty of marine life, is why it is such a popular destination for new divers.
With little difference between diveshops it is best to choose one while you are there. Just walk along the beach and have a chat with different centers to see which one ‘clicks’ best. If possible, try to find out who your instructor will be and have a chat with him/her too. Considering the popularity of the islands, it might be possible to find an instructor that teaches you in your native language: a good option for those who are not entirely comfortable with English.
When To Go
IMPORTANT! Due to its location, the Perhentian Islands get hit by a monsoon season from October to February which means that the island (or at least the divecenters and guest houses) are closed. So, make sure you book your trip somewhere between March and September. At the beginning and end of the season the seas can still be a little rough with limited visibility, but it will be much more quiet. High season is in July and August, when it can be difficult to find accommodation.
How To Get There & Away
Speedboats to the island leave from the jetty in Kuala Besut, a small village that is not very interesting in itself. The last boats usually leave in the afternoon so make sure you get there before 3pm. It occasionally happens that ferries are cancelled due to weather or holidays. Prepare for a very bumpy ride if the seas are rough and pack any electronics carefully in a waterproof bag or deep in your backpack. Depending on the beach that you’ll go to, prepare for wet feet too because not all beaches have a usable jetty!
Because the beaches are so close to each other, the speedboats usually take people to all destinations. The captain will ask you where you want to go, so make sure you know the name of the beach or resort you want to go to. Longbeach and Coral Bay are the most popular ones on the small island.
What To Bring
Amenities on the islands are pretty basic, so if you really depend on something (medication, food) bring it yourself. The same goes for sun protection and mosquito repellant: lotion is expensive on the island! There are a few small shops where you can find the basics (a toothbrush, soap) but for anything else you’d have to get back to the mainland.
Most shops rent divegear for a small price, usually included in the price of a dive. Because the dives are so cheap already, it is not always guaranteed that you’ll get a discount if you bring your own gear: negotiate with the operator. The rental gear is usually pretty basic, and normally in better shape at the beginning of the season. It might be a good idea to ask if you can have a look at the equipment before booking your dives. Even if you don’t bring your own gear, it might be useful to bring a few little pieces such as a reel/SMB and clips and straps for your camera.
Water & Electricity
When I said before that amenities are basic, that specifically includes water and electricity. Hot water and 24hour electricity are NOT a given, since most places run exclusively on (noisy) generators. Most rooms come with a fan only, for air-con you’ll pay significantly more.
This Sounds Awesome….Any Downsides?
If everything above sounds pretty good (good diving, cheap prices, hidden beaches…what’s not to like?) that is because it is! However, of course there’s always trouble in paradise.
The Perhentian Islands have become hugely popular over the last few years, which means that developments haven’t always caught up with the increase in visitors. For example, the waste disposal system of the islands is very basic, with a lot of garbage being burned or stored at sea on floating platforms, which means that a lot of garbage ends up in the sea. Try to minimize this by creating as little garbage as possible while you’re there, and try to take as much back to the mainland as you can.
In high season (July/August) the islands are also super busy and accommodation is scarce. This, combined with the fact that a lot of guesthouses don’t take bookings in advance (this is slowly improving) sometimes forces people to sleep a night on the beach and continue their search for a room the next morning. If you didn’t book in advance, be prepared for a trek around the island to find a place to stay. Protip: Diveshops are usually happy to keep an eye on your backpack so you don’t have to drag the damn thing around in 30°C heat.
Because accommodation is going to fill up anyway, most accommodation is very basic (especially on the small island). Think beach hut, or bungalow, with shared bathrooms with squat toilets and cold showers and no a/c. Don’t be surprised if a gecko or cockroach keeps you company at night.
The growing number of relatively inexperienced divers is also putting more pressure on the coral reefs. It is sadly not uncommon to see divers holding on to or accidentally kicking the reef. Make sure to dive with an operator that cares. If the divemaster or instructor is letting their divers damage coral without addressing the issue, change to another guide/divecenter and make sure you let them know why. Same goes for guides that touch or harass marine life so their customer can have a better look or take a better photo.
For very experienced divers, especially those who have a lot of experience diving in the region, the Perhentian Islands might not pose much of a challenge. While still very good, the diving is not as spectacular as in other places. But if you’re passing through for a few days, or you’re travelling with a less experienced divebuddy, it is a great place to kick back and relax for a few days.
About the author.
Rosien has been working as a PADI instructor since 2012 in Malaysia and Indonesia, among other places. She started diving on the Perhentian Islands and they will hold a special place in her heart forever. If she’s not diving, she’s writing and editing the articles for this website or possibly wasting time on twitter.