Monday, June 25, 2007

Tangoing Underwater

Pulau Tenggol 18-20th May 2007

Which island did you say you were going? Pulau Tango? That is the gist of the reaction I get when I told my family and friends that I was making a trip to Pulau Tenggol. It’s been nine months since I earned my PADI Open Water license and I was itching to put it into use. So when my diving enthusiast friend Nigel invited me to join his buddies for a diving trip at Pulau Tenggol, I went along.

Largely undiscovered by mainstream tourists, Pulau Tenggol remains a well kept secret amongst the diving community. The island is fringed with a stretch of white sandy beach on the western coast and thickly forested rocky terrain further inland. Uninhabited, save for three modest resorts fronting the beach at Teluk Air Tawar, the island has managed to keep its pristine condition thus far, unsullied by commercial tourism.

Pulau Tenggol apparently got its name from the Malay word ‘tenggek’ which means to squat or crouch. The local dialect pronounce it as ‘tenggol’. From afar it is said that the island looks like someone crouching, although for the life of me I can’t see the resemblance.

The moment we stepped off the boat, our feet sank into the soft fine sand. Giant umbrella trees that line the front of resort provide respite from the searing heat of the sun. We stayed at the Pulau Tenggol Island Resort, operated by the affable Paul Wong. Accommodations, simple at best if not spartan, consist of wooden chalets and dormitory. Hot water and air-conditioning is available, but don’t come here if you are looking to spend your vacation cosseted in creature comforts. The sundeck where we take our meals makes up for the lack in sleeping quarters. The view from the deck is spectacular. Enjoy the view of silver shimmers of sunlight relected on the clear azure sea, feel the gentle sea breeze on your face and let the sound of the waves crashing to shore lull you into a lethargic nap. Surely we have experienced here a piece of paradise.

As above waters, Tenggol is a paradise beneath the waters too. Cited as the ‘Best Diving in Peninsular Malaysia’ by Asian Diver Magazine, it was easy to see how Pulau Tenggol earned its accolade. The rocky terrain of the islands extends into the sea; this forms an underwater topography that ranges from shallow reefs to large rocky outcrop, boulders and narrow passage ways that sustains rich coral life. Diving in the waters of Tenggol is like stepping off into another world. God surely must have had fun creating this undersea treasure trove. The stroke of the Master's brush is seen in the amazing kaleidoscope of colourful corals and marine life that made its home amongst the boulders, rocks, caves and sea bottom.

My first dive at Turtle Point was a checkout dive, necessary for newbies like me to reacquaint myself to the equipment set up and the rules of diving. I was all thumbs and fingers when it came to setting up my dive equipment and suiting up. This was after all my first post certification dive. I am sure my fellow divers gave me a wide berth as I struggled and made a most ungraceful descent underwater. Perhaps they should consider tagging air tanks with a ‘P’ for newly qualified divers.

Turtle Point is located at the sheltered Air Tawar Bay. The site gently slopes down to a depth of 20 meters at the maximum and is ideal for beginners. I was too busy getting my buoyancy control right and getting used to the BCD to notice much of the under sea creatures on this dive. The ill fitting wet suit I wore was a nuisance. I ditched it and just wore the long sleeved rash guard and shorts for my remaining dives.

On the first day, we covered 2 dives, in addition to the check out dive at Turtle Point, we dived at Teluk Rajawali. This dive site is termed as an ‘easy Sunday afternoon dive’. Being a novice, it was not exactly a walk in the park or a swim in the pool for me but its ok, I could handle it.

Early the next day, after breakfast, we headed for Tokong Talang about 30 minutes away by boat. Tokong Talang is a stack of granite boulders with the top few metres peeking out of the water surface. Drifts and currents are expected at this site. “Keep close to the wall on your left everyone. Nigel, deploy your sausage when I give you the signal” instructs Pam our dive master. “I wish you won’t keep saying that Pam” sighs Nigel. Lest it be interpreted out of context, a sausage is a bright orange bouy that extends 2 metres tall when inflated. Divers use it to mark the spot where they are expected to surface. What did you think it was ? Tsk!

We descended and circled the rock. There was strong undersea current that day and I had to fight to swim close to the wall and keep up with my buddies. The current could easily sweep a diver out to the open sea if caught in its eddy. We hit a thermocline near the bottom and I shivered in my long sleeved rash guard and shorts. Although the many narrow passage ways, caves and rock crevices is host to teeming marine life, visibility was too poor for me to take particular note of its inhabitants. I was more anxious about not falling back and losing the group. So intent I was on swimming close to the heels of the diver ahead of me, I didn’t notice Pam’s warning on the trigger fish. Fortunately, it wasn’t aggressive. Nesting trigger fish has been known to attack divers who swim too close.

In the afternoon, we attempted to dive at Clerks Pinnacle but had to abort when choppy waters separated the group. It is also there that I first experienced being left behind in the open sea. Strong surface current forced my diving buddies to descend before I could stride into the water, but I had trouble descending again and could not follow them underwater. For a while I swam keeping pace, but soon they descended beyond my line of vision. Left with no other choice but to surface, I bobbed around for a few minutes but could not see the boat, only the wide expanse of the deep blue. Quelling the rising panic, I forced myself to remain calm. Phew! Fortunately, the boat man sighted my distress signal and putted over to fish me out. Ten minutes later, the rest of the group surfaced. Initially I felt guilty at causing the aborted dive but apparently the group separated underwater and could not locate the dive site due to the strong currents and poor visibility. We then decided to move on to another site, Tokong Timur. All’s well that ends well, but it is not an experience I’d like to repeat any time soon... correction, at all.

Tokong Timur lies further south east of the pinnacle. We made our descent between the two exposed boulders, where current is weakest. As with the earlier dive, this is also a drift dive. We slowly circled the rock and were treated to a tour of the beautiful underwater landscape. This site is abundant in fishes, I encountered schools of fusiliers swimming by in a silver and yellow mass, crimson soldier fishes with their blood shot eyes looking as though they are perpetually missing a good night’s sleep, small damsel fishes darting amongst the corals, colourful parrot fishes busy crunching and spitting out corals after they’ve eaten the goodies (the algae in the corals).

After lunch and a short rest, we headed out to the Coral Garden. With a maximum depth of only 18 metres and little or no current, the Coral Garden was a relatively easy dive. Just as well. After our little morning adventure, I wasn’t seeking excitement. The Coral Garden lives up to its moniker. An undersea garden of eden, it is filled with colourful soft corals, Christmas tree worms, sponges, sea anemones and a variety of nudibranches. I was busy rooting amongst the rock surface looking for nudibranches when a warning tap on my tank caused me to turn around. And what a sight to behold! A shoal of yellow tailed barracudas passed right in front of me. I remained transfixed at the sight, hardly daring to breathe. They were so close, if I had reached out, I could have touched them, but I value my hand attached to my wrist and refrained. Other notable sightings on the site, bright blue starfishes draped over the corals and littered the sandy bottom, giant 2 foot clams wedged steadfastly between rocks, Teira batfishes with their huge fins swimming by.

Later in the day, at the Gua Rajawali site, we spotted a pair of green sea turtles mating, or attempting to mate, because the oogling divers and flash of the cameras caused the shyer of the pair to swim away. I could have sworn the remaining partner gave us a baleful glare - ‘Geez, couldn’t you guys give us some privacy here?’

There are in total more than 20 dive sites in the waters around Pulau Tenggol. We managed to dive at six different spots, Turtle Point, Teluk Rajawali, Tokong Talang, Tokong Timur, Coral Garden, Gua Rajawali. Those with advance certification crammed in a night dive as well.

Pulau Tenggol remains for now, an idyllic getaway for those seeking the simple island life. You don’t even have to be a diver to enjoy Pulau Tenggol’s underwater treasures. Just merely snorkeling around the bay yields great finds in corals, fishes and turtles. You may even be lucky enough to spot a black tip reef shark or two. The quiet sojourn to the island is a panacea for the stress filled soul. Selfishly I want the island to remain ‘undiscovered’.

Photos courtesy of Nigel Wong

To view the underwater wonders, check out the photo gallery at