Malaysia: Colours of the deep

By Jane Phare

Jane Phare discovers an underwater treasure trove of vividly-coloured coral and reef fish as she snorkels in Malaysia’s clear, warm waters.

Snorkelling in the crystal clear waters allows you to get close to the magnificent colourful creatures of the deep. Photo / Tourism Malaysia
Snorkelling in the crystal clear waters allows you to get close to the magnificent colourful creatures of the deep. Photo / Tourism Malaysia

My young son calls them "bottling moments", those joyous moments I want to preserve forever, a fragment of time when everything is perfect, a moment I suspect won't be repeated.

"I wish I could bottle this moment," I sometimes say to no one in particular.

Louie, my 7-year-old, gets it. In the April school holidays we watched from the deck of a boat as dolphins and seals splashed in the emerald depths of Doubtful Sound. Clumps of wispy, white mist hovered, as if by magic, just above the waterline and against the bush on the cliffs above, lit by that luminous glow that painters struggle to capture.

Cuddling up against the cold, my son asked, "Is this a bottling moment, Mum?"

It was indeed.

April produced a double whammy for me when, 10 days later, I found myself snorkelling in the warm, buoyant water of the South China Sea, at Malaysia's Redang Island, quietly observing sea turtles on a sandy bottom below.

Although deep, the water was so clear I could see the turtles' tiny mouths as they fed off the sea bottom.

It was here, in the space of three days, that I saw reef sharks, turtles, stone fish, a sea snake, giant clams and enormous corals in vibrant colours of bright-green, aqua-blue, purple and orange. The tips of some glowed as though plugged into an electric light. And reef fish, lots and lots of them, in the deep, vivid colours found in bolts of Thai silk: deep purple, shocking pink, lime-green, bright yellow, orange.

I'm a snorkelling fan. Apart from lying reading a good novel, it's my favourite holiday pastime. I've snorkelled in Fiji, Tonga, Bali, the Great Barrier Reef, Maui and various spots in New Zealand, including the Hauraki Gulf, the Poor Knights and the Bay of Islands.

But I'm also fussy. I don't like cold water, dead coral or seeing more snorkellers than fish in the water. And I'm easily disappointed by the all-too-common low-visibility experiences. Bottling moments are hard to come by.

Not so at the Redang and Perhentian Islands off Malaysia's less-populated east coast, about 45km offshore from Terengganu. The water is swimming-pool clear and there's plenty to see.

Many of the islands' snorkelling spots are set in a marine reserve so resort dive boats operate under strict guidelines. Boats must be attached to a line of buoys rather than anchored and we're asked not to wear flippers to protect the coral.

And what a good idea that is. How many times have I cringed as first-time snorkellers thrash and flounder about, their clumsy flippers beating and breaking the fragile coral below as they stand up to adjust their masks?

Instead, we float effortlessly - the South China Sea seems extra buoyant - in lukewarm water. Impossibly bright fish dart in front of my mask, within reaching distance. It's like swimming in Dotcom's private aquarium wearing 3D goggles.

We were lucky enough to stay at the Taaras Beach and Spa Resort at Teluk Dalam Kecil on Redang Island, set at the edge of a white sandy beach, coconut palms, bush and bright, aqua-blue water. Each day the resort boat crew took us to various snorkelling spots around Redang and the Perhentian Islands, passing brightly-painted Malay fishing boats along the way.

The surrounding islands rise straight out of deep, blue-green water so our skipper zooms close enough to get a good view of crevices and caves wedged in among great slabs of red-brown rock piled on top of each other.

These sheer, rocky shores act as buffer against tourist overcrowding on many of the islands. Sandy beaches are scarce; so are the resorts.

But the main islands offer a good range of accommodation - the Taaras is five star but everything from backpackers up is available. And no matter what price you are paying, we all get to snorkel in the same water.

One of my favourite spots was off an offshore lighthouse marking a huge reef, home to a spectacular garden of mushroom-shaped coral the size of carpets and plenty of reef fish.

On the trip home, gorgeous banks of fluffy, white clouds, like stiffly beaten egg whites, have formed over the horizon. So defined are these cloud formations against a clear, blue sky they look like nuclear bomb explosions.

It is not until the end of our first day out on the boat that we realise the snorkelling is just as good metres off the beach at the resort. We're resting on a diving platform anchored in the bay when a mer-man suddenly emerges from the water, hauling himself up the ladder, flexing a tanned, muscular body and shaking droplets of water from his dark hair.

He peels off his mask, grins and tells us he is from Paris.

"Av you seen zee rif sharks?" he asks.

We shake our heads.

"You want to go and 'ave a look wiz me?"

We nod. And we're off, snorkelling flat out back into the bay on a shark-hunting expedition with a Jacques Cousteau character in flowery board shorts.

"'Eere zay are!"

And so they are. Five grey reef sharks slowing swimming back and forth. Backing up the show are barracuda, reef fish in vibrant colours and beautiful coral. Walls of grey fish suddenly appear then part or swim off in one direction, like a curtain opening on a Finding Nemo movie. I wondered why we had bothered to go island hopping.

On the day off our departure - by boat and mini van to Terengganu Airport, then a flight to Kuala Lumpur Airport - I have yet to see my first sea turtle.

The resort staff point out a bay next door, Teluk Dalam Besar, where staff and villagers go. It's a good place to spot turtles, they tell us.

We make our way along a narrow road fringed with bush to another white sandy beach, pristine, undeveloped and deserted.

But there is little to see on the sea bottom apart from sea slugs and piles of looped sand, left by burrowing crabs.

The resort staff have loaned us flippers, on the condition we stay away from the coral, and I'm enjoying a last leisurely swim to a solitary wooden fishing boat anchored in the bay. It's then I notice a round rock, alone on the sea bed. But it's not a rock. It puts out little flippers and starts swimming.

Just then there's a shout from my snorkelling buddy. She has seen a turtle, too. And suddenly they seem to be everywhere.

What a thrill to lie floating, breathing slowly through my snorkel, and watch a turtle feeding or to keep pace above as one swims lazily below. Companion fish swim alongside the turtle, ready to feed off its shell when it stops.

It's a bottling moment and all the more thrilling to be squeezed in not long before the 10-hour flight home.

My son, who snorkelled with whales in Tonga and in a Poor Knights cave when he was 4, would be equally thrilled. He wasn't there for the turtle bottling moment, but I'll bring him back to Malaysia one day.

Tips for snorkellers

* Rub a bit of shampoo or liquid soap into your mask to stop it steaming. Or spit into it and rub saliva on the inside.

* The water is so warm you will spend much longer snorkelling than you thought and you could get severely burned. Cover the backs of your legs, your buttocks below the bikini line, your back and back of the neck with a waterproof sun block. Even better, wear a long-sleeved rash top.

* You might get bitten by tiny sea lice which leave itchy spots, so take an anti-itch cream. Take antihistamine tablets as well because the bites can drive you mad.

* After a swim or snorkel, wring out your togs and roll them up tightly in a hotel towel before hanging out to dry. It will speed up the drying process.

Jane Phare flew to Malaysia courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

Malaysia's top 5

Flight Centre's Carl Felderhof shares his top tips on things to do:

1. Stay on Redang Island for a few nights. It has beautiful beaches and clear, warm water. I recommend flying there directly rather than taking the ferry.

2. The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort on Redang Island is great for those who want to avoid the crowds. It has its own beach and is in a beautiful, enclosed bay with soft, white sand and aquamarine waters.

3. Do a boat excursion, either to the best parts of the marine park or around Redang Island. We saw turtles and a variety of tropical fish just off the beach. Needless to say, take your snorkelling gear.

4. Research the best time to travel. I recommend avoiding school holidays unless you are travelling with kids and avoid the monsoon season.

5. Spend a night in Kuala Lumpur on the way home and make the most of the shopping. There are lots of clothes and electronics stores and it's a great chance to grab some souvenirs.

For more information on travelling to Malaysia, contact Carl and the team at Mission Bay Flight Centre on 0800 427 555 or visit flightcentre.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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