While it may rank second behind Latin America in terms of being home to the most overall biodiversity, Asia does hold the ace in the hole when it comes to being the king of marine biodiversity. With the Coral Triangle taking centre stage and covering the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, it's no surprise that Asian destinations feature so highly on divers' bucket lists. But where can you find the best diving in Asia? With so many superlative dive destinations on one continent, it can be tricky to narrow your choices down. Read on for our round-up of some of the best diving in Asia...
It's impossible to talk about the best diving in Asia without mentioning Indonesia. The first thing to appreciate about Indonesia is its size. Geographically speaking, it spans two continents, with the eastern province of Papua being part of Oceania and the rest marking the southern border of Asia. Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia and the largest archipelagic state in the world by area and population, being comprised of over 17,000 islands. And many of these islands regularly appear on lists of the world's best diving destinations.
The names Bali, Komodo, Raja Ampat and Lembeh should be familiar to most divers, and with good reason. Bali, known as the 'Island of the Gods', is the gateway to Indonesia for many. It's home to the nation's second-busiest airport and a slew of impressive and diverse dive sites. Its north and east coasts are bathed in warm tropical water, while the southern dive sites see that warm water meet colder southern currents coming up from the Southern Ocean to create unique and interesting diving conditions.
Bali's most famous dive site is the wreck of the USAT Liberty, which rests just yards from the beach in Tulamben. The wreck has been evolving into a thriving marine ecosystem since 1963 and provides shelter to an impressive menagerie of marine creatures. Surrounded by black, volcanic sand, the soft corals and colourful marine life on the wreck make it a must-do dive when in Bali.
The twin islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida in the south should also not be missed. The cooler, nutrient-rich currents ensure there is a stunning array of marine life on display, including some of the ocean's bigger residents. Manta rays are all but guaranteed at sites such as Manta Point and Manta Bay, but even the mantas have to play second fiddle in Bali - it's the mola mola that get the lion's share of the divers' attention. Crystal Bay is the best dive site in the world for mola mola sightings, and the chance to dive alongside the world's largest bony fish ensures Bali gets a mention in the debate to find the best diving in Asia.
Raja Ampat, Bahasa Indonesia for 'the Four Kings', is an archipelago located off the northwest tip of the island of New Guinea, in Indonesia's Southwest Papua province. While technically you could argue that it's geographically a part of Oceania, it is Asian from a political standpoint. And from a marine biodiversity standpoint, Raja Ampat is simply outstanding, and without a doubt among the best diving in Asia.
Whether you want to spend your time watching whale sharks or prefer diving nose-to-the-reef in search of macro critters, Raja has it all. Whale sharks and manta rays are regular visitors, and there are plenty of other shark species to keep an eye out for. The usual suspects - white-tipped reef sharks, black-tipped reef sharks and grey reef sharks - all patrol the reefs in search of a fishy snack, while more 'exotic' shark species, such as the tassled wobbegong and the walking epaulette shark, can be found resting on the seabed.
Macro photographers and muck diving enthusiasts need not fret either. Raja Ampat's immense biodiversity is due in part to its location at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Currents bring coral and fish larvae from both oceans to Raja's reefs, and there are plenty of juveniles and cryptic critters to spot on the reefs and in the sand. There are rhinopias, frogfish, ghostpipefish, blue-ringed octopus, pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs to track down, with the Batanta Island sites and the southern part of Misool being the best macro sites.
While Raja Ampat's unbelievable biodiversity appeals to everybody, Lembeh's biodiversity and its appeal are both a little more niche. But within that niche, Lembeh's diversity of marine life is unparalleled; simply put, Lembeh is the muck diving capital of the world. It's the sheer abundance and diversity of the weird and the wonderful inhabiting the black sand of the Lembeh Strait that ensures it's up there with the best diving in Asia.
Macro photographers have happily dragged their heavy equipment across the continents to enjoy Lembeh's critters. Hairy frogfish, mimic octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, stargazers, starry night octopus and the Lembeh pipedragon, which was discovered in 2007 in Lembeh, are all waiting to strike a pose for your camera.
If you don't find the Lebeh pipedragon too impressive, you can always try Komodo to see (almost) real dragons alongside some of the best diving in Asia. Komodo National Park is renowned for its swirling currents and diverse marine life. Huge mantas are commonplace, and there are always a few reef sharks patrolling the sites too.
Komodo also boasts impressive macro life, with the southern sites in particular harbouring a diverse collection of cryptic critters. Rhinopias, Halimeda ghostpipefish, stargazers and a plethora of colourful nudibranchs enjoy the nutrient-rich waters around Komodo, and with a good mix of megfauna to boot, there's never a dull dive here.
The western edge of Asia is a little closer for Europeans, but the diving is equally as impressive. The Maldivian archipelago sits in the northern Indian Ocean and offers some of the best diving in Asia in a luxurious desert-island setting. Over-the-water bungalows allow you to sleep directly above the exquisite marine life, and the array of opulent resorts ensures your time on land will be as magical as the diving on the reefs.
The Maldives are famed for their big-fish action, with whale sharks and manta rays being habitual visitors to the cleaning stations dotted along the reefs. For mantas, head to the northern atolls of Baa, Raa, Lhaviyani and Noonu. Baa Atoll is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and the home of Hanifaru Bay. The funnel-shaped bay concentrates the plankton into a small area, which attracts whale sharks and large schools of manta rays.
If you prefer hammerheads and tigers to whale sharks and mantas, head to the southern atolls. Fuvahmulah Atoll boasts stunning shark dives, with tigers all but guaranteed. The tigers are attracted to the harbour by the scraps jettisoned into the water from the local fish market, and you can rest on the bottom as these top predators feast nearby. Hammerheads and whale sharks are also frequent visitors to the southern atolls, and with house reefs providing the chance for shallow, relaxing dives after the hardcore shark action, there's something for everyone in the Maldivian south.
A look at the best diving in Asia is not complete without a mention of the Philippines. The country's more than 7,000 islands sit at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, and its welcoming people and tropical climate make it a fantastic place to explore. The diving is diverse, with plenty of pelagic action, strong currents, wrecks and macro critters to enjoy.
Puerto Galera is located on the northern side of Mindoro Island, just a few hours south of Manila by road and a short bangka (small bamboo boat) ride across the Verde Island Passage (VIP). The VIP is regarded by marine biologists as being the most diverse stretch of water on the planet and is referred to as the 'centre of the centre of marine shorefish biodiversity'.
Verde Island sits in the middle of the channel and is a great place for some wild dives. If the currents are running, they can be quite strong, with a few washing-machine moments to enjoy as you savour the super-healthy reef. For more gentle dives, the local dive sites are more protected and are home to a slew of macro critters and common reef fish. Frogfish and seahorses can be spotted, and there's always a good chance of a turtle or two cruising by.
At the heart of the Visayas is the island of Cebu, and to its north lies the small tropical paradise of Malapascua. The main reason Malapascua gets a mention as being up there with the best diving in Asia is the daily appearance of thresher sharks. Thresher sharks show up all over the world, but there's only one place where you can pretty much guarantee a sighting while diving - Monad Shaol. The shoal is a sunken island, and the threshers turn up early - like, really early - in the mornings to go about their morning ablutions at the cleaning stations. It's a truly magical dive, despite the pre-dawn departure.
The local dive sites around Malapascua are festooned with colourful soft corals, and there is a healthy variety of macro life too. Frogfish, stargazers, flamboyant cuttlefish, mandarinfish and seahorses are all plentiful, and nudi lovers will be pleased to hear there are plenty of colourful specimens to seek out, including Spanish dancers. Throw in a wreck or two and some stunning day trips to islands like Calanggaman and Gato to see the white-tipped reef sharks, and Malapascua becomes a special dive destination.