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Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, from lush tropical rainforests to beautiful sandy beaches. It’s odd then that when it comes to diving, we often think of exotic destinations like Hawaii and Australia – when in fact, we have some of the very best dive spots in our own backyard. Here are five that no diver should ever miss.

Sipadan Island – Sabah

As one of the richest marine habitats in the world, Sipadan frequently makes the list on best places to dive around the globe, alongside destinations such as the Galapagos Islands. Gazetted as a Marine Park in 2004, Sipadan is home to more than 3,000 species of marine creatures, from silver jack fishes and bigeye trevallies to mantas and eagle rays. As a turtle nesting ground, the waters around Sipadan play host to dozens of green and hawksbill turtles, while underneath the island is a natural underwater limestone cave with a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that contain many skeletal remains of turtles that became lost and drowned before finding the surface. The aptly named Barracuda Point is where divers descend deep along a sheer wall, letting the current take them to mingle amongst gigantic schools of barracuda, swirling in tornado-like formations. To keep it in pristine condition, only a limited number of dives are allowed each day, so book ahead to avoid disappointments.

Tioman Island – Pahang

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With its beautiful sandy white beaches and lush rainforest, the largest island on the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia is popular among tourists and divers alike. The areas around Tioman have been gazetted as marine parks in order to protect the coral reefs and aquatic life surrounding the island. Turtles are a common sight, as are vibrant nudibranch in vivid hues, moray eels, mackerel, barracuda, rainbow runner and even lionfish. Huge boulders create natural underwater mazes that are perfect for swim-throughs and photography, while reefs teem with colourful tropical fish. There are dive sites to suit all levels of divers, from the shallow and calm waters off Soyak Island and Pirate Reef for beginners, to the deeper waters and challenging currents at Tiger Reef.

Tenggol Island –  Terengganu

Left untouched for many years, Tenggol Island off the coast of Terengganu in Peninsula Malaysia is a hidden gem known only amongst divers. It forms part of the Terengganu Marine Park and boasts crystal-clear waters, a rich seabed and extraordinary marine biodiversity. There are over 20 different dive sites, each varying in difficulty. As there is minimal human presence, the reefs are in an almost perfect condition. Huge swathes of brain, sponge and leather coral form a dense carpet on the ocean floor, peppered with nudibranch in various shapes and colours. Swim with eagle rays, yellowtail fusiliers, napoleon fish, black-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles, as well as the giant double-headed parrotfish which can grow to an impressive size in the protected waters around Tenggol. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a whale shark between August and October, especially at the Tokong Timur dive site which lies in the middle of their migration path. The island is closed to diving between November and March due to the monsoon season.

Lankayan Island, Sabah

Roughly 80 kilometres by speedboat from Sandakan lies Lankayan, another Sabahan diving gem. Its remote location and exclusivity, with only one resort on the entire island, promises a quiet and relaxing dive away from its high-profile neighbours, Sipadan and Mabul. Just 10 years ago, the area was heavily overfished but a marine conservation project has returned the island to its former glory. Today, glassfish, blue-spotted stingrays, jawfish and lionfish frolic in its waters, while blacktip sharks swim around in the shallows. There are 40 dive sites around Lankayan, including one called Goby Rock, where gobies form a fascinating symbiotic relationship with shrimps, as well as a wreck site that features a sunken ship once maintained by the Japanese during World War II.

Payar Island – Kedah

There are only a handful of diving sites on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia. One of these is Payar Island, located about 30km away from Langkawi in Kedah. Azure waters and diverse marine life make it a top draw, and since the island is protected from monsoon winds, diving can be done all year round. Sea creatures are found in abundance, from giant groupers and puffer fish to snappers, batfish and angelfish. Several boat wrecks and a huge oil capsule make for good swim throughs, and photography enthusiasts will have plenty of pictures to capture, such as clown fish darting cheekily in and out amongst anemones.