When you think of the idyllic picture of what a tropical island should look like, white beaches, palms and azure sea, that is the Perhentian Islands. Two unspoiled islands, Perhentian Kecil (Small) and Perhentian Besar (Big) lie amidst exquisitely clear waters. The name comes from the Malay word "henti" which means “stop” as fishermen and traders traveling between Malaysia and Thailand have done for centuries for a rest or shelter, and it is still has the magic to transport visitors to that different world to rest and unwind today.
We chose to stay on Perhentian Kecil, the smaller of the two islands, which has the only settlement on the Perhentian Islands on the eastern shore, facing Perhentian Besar and consists of a cluster of wooden houses, a police station, a clinic and a mosque. Besar is in the main uninhabited and undeveloped, apart from a few resorts on its western and south-western beaches. Flora Bay, shaded by Causarina trees strung with hammocks, consists of neat wooden chalets and has a great restaurant boasting the best chocolate milkshake in Malaysia. But we chose to stay here because of it’s very well equipped Padi 5 Star Gold Palm dive centre with highly professional staff, including one of only two Course Directors in Malaysia. The other resorts on this island also occupy their own private beach coves and are priced in the same budget or moderate category, all inhabited by friendly fishermen and villagers, as well as fruit bats and squirrels. There are a few uninhabited, secluded beaches scattered around the island, but most of the beachfront is lined with chalets, restaurants, dive centres and small stores offering services such as internet, batik painting classes, snorkelling and other outings, sea taxi, massages and canoe rental.
Apart from footpaths that cut through the jungle, there are no roads on the islands. The rocky virgin jungle may provide the adventurer an encounter with some other rare creatures that live above the water line, including flying fox, long-tailed macaques and monitor lizards, or even the elusive mouse deer.
Similar to the accommodation offered on the island, dive packages are reasonable and the National Marine Park around the island offers fantastic diving for both novice and expert divers alike. Dive sites are mostly 15 to 20 minutes speed boat ride, and offer plenty of variety from wrecks to reefs to a chance to wander through the massive underwater boulders peeking in the crevices to discover some delightful inhabitants.
We headed straight for one of the favourite dive spots, Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea), also known as the Pinnacle, clearly indicated by a pointed rock protruding from the surface. Drop down into the rocky outcrop and you are enfolded by a host of colourful hard and soft corals and numerous species of reef fish and other marine life that you will find is typical of the sites around the island. Although you can reach around 30 meters, the mild currents that usually sweep the boulders bring nutrients but also tend to make visibility deteriorate below 22m. At around 16 to 18m, take a look under the smaller boulders and you are guaranteed to see nurse sharks and possibly bamboo sharks hiding out. Besides the smaller reef fish, pufferfish and boxfish are common here and the plankton-laden currents also bring large schools of snappers and fusiliers, jacks, barracudas, tuna, black tip sharks, and if you’re lucky, whale shark can be spotted usually at the beginning and towards the end of the dive season.
Sugar Wreck is an 90 meter cargo ship that sank during the monsoon season of 2000 while bearing a load of sugar, is now home to an abundance if marine life which now make their home among the corals and shells growing on the hull. Watch out for the locals who will encourage you to take out your reg and taste the water for traces of sugar... and if you have had an early morning like I did you may just be hoodwinked! Of course all traces of sugar are long gone, the sweet mingle of history and colourful new life remains. The wreck, sitting in only 18 meters, remains perfectly intact, lying on her starboard side. Confident divers can explore the engine room, wheelhouse and cabins, or just weave between the masts and rigging and enjoy the big schools of snappers, jacks and trevally circling overhead.
Another favourite, Terumbu Tiga which means "Three Reefs" in English, is also called Tiger Rock or Small Reef, and it too is also rated as one of the top dive sites. Again it is usually washed by currents and makes an interesting drift dive, visibility can fluctuate from 5 to 15 meters depending on the tide. The stunning massive granite boulders slope down to about 20 meters and support various soft corals, barrel sponges, sea fans and coral whips swaying with the current. Schools of fusiliers, jacks and batfish swirl around dotted with several species of angelfish and butterflyfish. This most picturesque site also offers many exciting swim-throughs and canyons.
Still energized despite the slightly challenging conditions, we headed out to what is almost the house reef, Shark Point, a protected relaxed dive in the bay. Dominated by staghorn coral, this site offers interesting distractions in rich corals, plentiful anemonefish, myriads of damsel fish, the occasional turtle and filefish or razorfish between sightings of black tip reef sharks cruising the shallows, but also a wide variety of fish and other marine critters. All this and the close proximity and calm water makes this site a favorite for night dives, but it can also be dived allowing the drift to pull you around the nose of the bay.
Another easy and shallow dive, D’Lagoon, a small sandy lagoon is a lively bed of colourful hard corals. This chilled out dive will find you face-to-face with a wide variety of reef life, ranging from the magnificent school of giant Bumphead parrotfish to blue spotted rays, giant stingrays and turtles. You can even stop in for a manicure provide by obliging cleaner shrimp.
On the northern tip of Perhentian Besar is a peninsular that is Tanjung Basi, a beautiful sloping reef dropping to around 18 meters featuring what we now see as typical big rock formations scattered with small caves and cool swim-throughs which will delight with its fantastic hard coral beds. As the current is often stronger here there are usually schools of bigger fish such as barracuda, trevally and mullet among the fans and whips, and there is a good chance of spotting turtle and giant moray eel.
Vietnamese Wreck is American landing craft which sank in 1976, this wreck attracts an incredible array of marine life. The sandy bottom is covered with nudibranch and the wreck it self with gorgeous soft corals. Schools of barracuda, huge really schools of snapper feed in the strong current. Those who brave the challenge are rewarded with the sheer variety of marine life such as boxfish, devil scorpionfish, great barracudas, batfish, jacks, wrasses, giant groupers and stone fish. Although penetration is uncomplicated, beware the currents when entering and exiting, and don’t forget to bring your dive light as visibility can deteriorate to below 5 meters.
Although we did not get to explore nearly enough of the dive sites, we are convinced that marine life is in abundance here and apart from the many species of hard and soft coral that form the backbone of these ecosystems you can also expect to encounter turtles, several species of shark, mackerel, jacks, moray eels, nudibranchs and various other reef fish on any of the sites. The healthy coral growth and abundant fish life owe their existence to the enforcement and conservation programs of Department of Fisheries. Mooring buoys mark most popular dive sites around the Marine Parks Island.
Perhaps it is the stretches of white beach or the crystal clear water and the superior scuba diving. Perhaps it is the untouched forests or the relaxed atmosphere and unspoiled charm. We like to think that is a little bit of all of this that makes the Perhentian Islands the perfect place to stop and take some time out.
Around 25km from Kuala Besut on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsular, its an easy 30 to 40 minute boat ride from the Kuala Besut jetty, usually four to five times per day, starting at 07:00 in the morning. Boats will drop you off at the resort or beach of your choice.
The closest airports are in Kota Bharu and in Kuala Terengganu either of which are easy to get to from Kuala Lumpur on a number of local airlines, and there are always eager taxis to take you on the hour of so ride to Kuala Besut, which you could expect to pay 80 to 100 RM
- There is a RM 5 conservation charge per person for going to the island as it is a National Marine Reserve.
- There are no ATMs or banks in Kuala Besut or on the Perhentian Islands. Visa and Mastercard are only accepted at a few resorts, so draw what cash you think you may need before leaving the airport.
- Diving season is March to October and access to the islands is made prohibitively difficult from November to February during the Monsoon Season.