The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all too perfect.
The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.
The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.
As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.
On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”
“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.
I said, of course, that I did.
“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.
I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.
Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.
As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…
On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.
I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.
I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.
On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.