The Most Beautiful Coral Reef Destinations in Asia
Coral Reefs definitely live up to its name as The Rainforest Of The Sea”. They are the stunning living marine life in the world that come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Corals have existed for over 400 millions years, where The Mediterranean Sea used to house the largest number of corals, but none are left today.
There are currently 25 families of corals and over 2500 species of it. Although coral reefs cover 1% of our Earth’s surface, corals have been the most important underwater ecosystem that supports at least 25% of the marine fish species or homes for over 4000 species of fishes which acts as a protection for marine species and act as nurseries for large fish species.
With global climate change and an increase in human activities, their beauty is met with fragility and has been listed as endangered by marine scientists around the world. Coral reefs have been one of the biggest tourist attractions as many travellers from around the world come to visit these stunning dive sites.
Southeast Asian coral reefs have the highest levels of biodiversity for the world’s marine ecosystems where they serve many functions, from sustaining the livelihood of fishermen to medicine and even construction materials.
Here are some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful coral reefs waiting to be discovered and protected by us at the same time.
1. Apo Reef Natural Park
The Apo Reef is situated on the western waters of Occidental Mindoro province and not to be confused with Apo Island just south of Dumaguete. Apo Island is separated from Apo Reef by a narrow, deep channel.
It is also known as the Grand Apo Reef spans over 27,000 hectares of the Sulu Sea and is considered as the second largest coral reef system in the world and largest within the country.
Scuba diving or snorkelling in Apo Reef is exceptional as it is surrounded by crystal clear waters with an abundance of colourful marine life and home to at least 2000 species of reef fishes which can be observed in deep or shallow waters. Larger marine animals such as sharks, giant napoleons, and manta rays can also be seen.
The effects of human activities such as overfishing, chemical pollution, coal mining, along with sedimentation and global climate change has been proven detrimental for the coral reefs which has resulted in coral bleaching and ocean warming over the years.
It was then the local government of Sablayan declared Apo Reef as a Tourism Zone and Marine Reserve. In the late 90s, President Fidel Ramos declared Apo Reef as a protected Natural Park and its listed in a tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are very limited facilities available onshore in order to protect the island’s fragile ecosystem.
2. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is another protected area, a treasure of The Philippines and also an UNESCO World Heritage Site declared in 1993. It comprises two atolls, mainly the North and South Atoll and the adjacent coral cay, Jessie Beazley Reef that makes up the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. This remote and undisturbed site is located in the middle of the Sulu Sea and is one of Philippines’ oldest ecosystems that support over 360 coral species and at least 700 fish species. If you’re a keen bird watcher, this protected site is also home to some of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region.
Not only is this area free of human habitation and activities, its no-take policies which are in place throughout its area and love level of fishing, has preserved the spectacular heritage site known for its very high density of marine species sprawling over 100,000 hectares and pristine coral reef.
Here you will find extensive reef flats and perpendicular walls that reach over 100m depth, 11 top predator species such as tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks, 11 species of cetaceans, turtles, and huge schools of pelagic fishes like the barracuda and trevellies and many more.
Having top predators such as tiger and hammerhead sharks, it is an indicator of an ecologically balanced site.
3. Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park is located in the centre of Indonesian archipelago and between Sumbawa and Flores Island. This UNESCO Heritage site is commonly known for its giant Komodo lizards a.k.a ‘Komodo Dragons”, rugged terrains of dry vegetation and home to a rich diversity of marine life such as the Dolphins, Dugong, Ocean Sunfish, Manta Rays, Eagle Rays, Blue-ringed Octopus, Sponges, Corals and the list goes on…
The coral reefs fringing the coast of Komodo are diverse and luxuriant contributed by its clear water, intense sunlight and rapid exchange of nutrient-rich water from deeper areas of the archipelago.
The stark contrast between the rugged hillsides, the rich blue waters surging over the corals, and the irregular coastline along the white sandy beach just adds to the stunning beauty of the world’s landscape.
4. Wakatobi Islands
Wakatobi National Park is located south-east of Sulawesi, between Banda Sea and Flores Sea. It is known to be the ‘Underwater Nirwana” and the third largest marine park that hosts 900,000 hectares of tropical coral reefs. Wakatobi Island has the largest barrier reef in Indonesia, and ranks second to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The island offers crystal clear waters and a rich bio-diverse underwater life which hosts over 900 fish species and 750 coral reef species (or 25 groups of coral reefs) which makes up for over 80% of the global’s coral reef species. Some of the coral you should expect to find are Acropora formosa, the brightly coloured Fungia, the cactus coral Pavona Cactus (some called it the potato chip coral), the sun coral Tubastraea and the native hood coral or smooth cauliflower coral Stylophora Pistillata which is commonly used in scientific investigation.
The Bajau people who are the main settlement and coastal fishers in the area, rely heavily on marine resources within the park for survival and use techniques that are likely detrimental to the reef such as fishing bombing and coral mining to make a living. While some areas reported an abundance of fishes and achieved some success in protecting coral reefs, there is still a lot to be done such as increasing the areas of no-take zones within the park, and striking a balance between economic stability for local communities and tourism.
5. Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat is located in West Papua province, off the northwest tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea and part of the The Coral Triangle, the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity. Marine survey conducted by Conservation International suggests that Raja Ampat has one of the highest marine life diversity recorded. This likely contributed from its strong position between Indian and Pacific Oceans where coral and fish larvae can be easily shared.
Raja Ampat is also known as The Crown Jewel of the Bird’s Head Seascape. The islands boast its pristine waters and home to over 75% of our globally known species which equate to over 600 species of scleractinia or hard corals, more than 1,700 species of reef fish, and a variety of marine life including endangered marine mammals such as Dugongs, Whales and Dolphins can be sighted here.
However, a large part of the pristine coral reef was damaged during a British cruise-ship incident in 2017 when it got caught in a low tide and ran aground the reef. An estimated 1,600 square meters of coral reefs were damaged and it will take decades for the coral reef to recover.
6. Maratua Island
Maratua Island is located in the province of East Kalimantan. It is part of the coral triangle and one of the 31 islands that formed the Derawan archipelago. Diving in Maratua island has been a hot spot for many divers and marine biologists as the dive sites around the island are filled with a rich biodiversity of marine life and an incredible variety of soft and hard corals (and some are very rare!).
Inside the pristine water, you will find pelagic and reef fish such as manta rays, eagle rays, snapper, jacks, white tip reef sharks and crustaceans of different sizes including giant clams. Maratua island is also home to stingless jellyfish colonies namely the moon jellyfish, spotted jellyfish and box jellyfish.
The island is now a protected area under the Marine Park, promoting Maratua as a heritage tourist area and educating local communities on the importance of conservation and fishing responsibly. The goal is to move towards an eco-tourism industry which will help local business be more sustainable and also lucrative.
7. Sipadan Island
Sipadan Island is located on the east coast of Sabah and the only oceanic island in Malaysia. The island is formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone (rising 600 meters from the seabed) which took thousands of years to develop.
Being located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, you will find yourself in the centre of the one of the richest marine habitats in the world. It also tops the charts of the world’s best diving destination.
There aren’t many diving spots in Asia where you get to see most of the marine animals at once. But Sipadan is a marine paradise home to over thousands species of coral and fish. Here you will spot the resident green and hawksbill turtle, the epic sight of an enormous school of barracuda circling, pelagic species such as the manta ray, whale sharks, scalloped hammerhead shards and eagle rays.
8. Pom Pom Island (Malaysia)
A small coral reef island on the Celebes Sea, north east of Semporna. The island is relatively undeveloped with few inhabitants and two operational dive resorts, Pom Pom Resort and Celebes Beach Resort.
Not only is Pom Pom Island one of the most popular dive destinations for its good visibility, marco and drift dive, it is also a significant nesting location for green and hawksbill turtles.
As the area is within the coral triangle, you can look forward to a destination rich in biodiversity with some of the exotic small marine life. On Pom Pom Island, you will find the various types of goby, flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, wonderpus, a family of different scorpion fish, and more.
A research conducted by Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) has reported the island is home to over 220 fish species and 250 coral species.
TRACC which operates on Pom Pom Island has an on-going marine conservation project in coral planting has helped increase the number and diversity of fish species. The replanting of reefs are done by marine conservation volunteers and marine science students.
9. Layang Layang
Layang Layang is located on the north of the coast of Sabah and also known as Swallow Reef.
It is situated in very deep waters located in the middle of nowhere, where the ocean water clear and unpolluted. The corals are in pristine condition and filled with an abundance of deep water marine species. Hammerhead sharks, snappers, large schools of surgeonfish, jacks and a wide variety of reef fish swimming vertically could be an usual sight for some.
Whichever dive site you choose to explore, you will be in awe. Take for example, the Gorgonian Forest features one of the most beautiful forest-like formations of gorgonian sea fans lining the drop off wall, filled with an abundance of hard corals, sponges and sea whips against the blue water.
As you move forward to the next dive site, Navigator lane, you will be greeted with a magnificent and breathtaking view of the abundance of healthy corals, sea fans and whips. The colours are a spectacular sight not to be missed and the formation is so dense, you probably have nowhere to lay your hands without damaging the corals!
10. Similan Islands
Similan Islands is an archipelago that consists of 11 islands and it’s located in the Andaman Sea, and off the coast of Phang Nga Province in southern Thailand. The Thai government declared it as a national park in 1982 to preserve its stunning ecosystems.
To protect and prevent rapid environmental destruction, there are restrictions on the number of visitors allowed on the islands. While fishing is banned in Similan national park, illegal fishing nets can often be found stuck to reefs on some of the islands.
Amongst the islands, Ko Similan is one of the largest islands with its underwater average depth of 60ft and filled with rock formations and a diversity coral reefs in all shapes and sizes. Similan islands are best discovered by liveaboard dives where you get to see trevallies, batfish, barracuda, reef sharks, golden pilot jacks, along with gorgonian sea fans.
11. Phi Phi Islands
Ko Phi Phi is one of the largest islands in the archipelago and also the most populated one. The island features beautiful clear waters and beaches, surrounded by a natural environment.
It is also one of the popular dive spots for great wall diving and discovering a variety of soft corals, sponges in different shapes and sizes. While you’re moving around underwater, spot the moray eels, wrasse, scorpionfish, leopard sharks, and more.
The Maya beach has been a popular choice for many tourists and the release of a famous film called The Beach, has brought the islands popularity up a few notches. Since then, the island has been exploding with at least 6000 of daily visitors.
The mass impact of tourism boosted the economy for the local communities and businesses operating on the island, it has also brought the island under great threats of its natural beauty being completely destroyed. With hundreds of chartered speedboats and visitors coming in and out Maya beach, the coral reefs are degenerating rapidly, waste management also becomes a huge problem with untreated wastewater being released from Phi Phi and trash left behind by tourists gets into the waters.
In 2018, the Maya Bay closed its doors to the public to allow the ecosystem to recover to its original condition. The reopening of the island is still unknown but there are speculations that it may welcome back tourists in 2021.
11. Kerama Islands
The Kerama Islands are a small archipelago made up of a group of islands located southwest of Okinawa. With 50 dive spots around Kerama Islands, you will be charmed by what each island has to offer – a rich biodiversity of coral reefs, abundance of migrating manta rays and whale sharks. It is also the perfect place to visit for a magnificent sight of humpback whale watching.
Kerama Islands are surrounded by clear blue waters and stunning coral reefs. Out of 800 species identified in the world, more than 200 species are found in the waters of Kerama islands and they all play an important role in the ocean’s ecosystem providing shelter and food.
However, the rapid and continuous outbreak of crown-of-thorn starfish, coral bleaching and other human influences have caused damage to the coral’s ecosystem and show a major decline in its quantity. To research, monitor and raise awareness concerning coral reef conservation, various actions are being taken by national and local governments, NGOs, marine institutes, volunteer reef check divers, and ocean lovers.