Image by Sammi Lim.

Snorkel-heads can easily tell you that Malaysia boasts some of the best snorkeling and diving spots in Southeast Asia.

A favorite destination for water activities is Pulau Perhentian (Pulau means “island,” and perhentian means “rest stop.”) off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Warm waters offer crystal-clear visibility into another world that most of us forget exists.

Not really one island, but an archipelago of islands, Pulau Perhentian’s most hospitable islands are Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). The former is considerably upscale, catering to a “clean crowd” and families. Inversely, the latter gives you bang for your buck and is frequented by backpackers. At the end of the day, the waters surrounding both islands teem with the same kind of marine life.

Sunny days abound from June through October, whereas monsoon winds stir up storms from November through March.

Kuala Besut, a quaint fishing village on the coast of Terengganu, is your departure point from mainland Malaysia. A roundtrip to and from the islands by speedboat costs RM70 (approximately $22) – not a bad price to paradise.

Know Your Friendly Fish

Use the illustrated guide below to help you identify common marine life in the waters of Pulau Perhentian. Sea creatures have been labeled and categorized as “friendly” and “unfriendly.”


Image by Sammi Lim.

Friendly/Harmless Sea Creatures

1. Clownfish

Clownfish have a pretty sweet deal going for them. While other fish avoid anemone for fear of being stung, clownfish make harmonious homes out of anemone. Clownfish “pay rent” by helping to clean house (feeding on the sea anemone’s leftovers) and playing security guard by keeping predatory fish at bay.

2. Blue Ring Angelfish

All blue ring angelfish spend the first part of their lives as girls! This harmless tropical fish can be distinguished by the electric blue stripes on its body, the small blue ring above its gills, and the two blue stripes masking its eyes.

3. Humphead Parrotfish

What first struck me about these guys was their Jim Carrey-like buckteeth. Unlike their humpless relatives, humphead parrotfish are less colorful but larger, spanning up to 4 feet long and weighing up to 150 pounds. Males use the bony protrusions on their foreheads much like deer use their antlers, to settle territorial disputes by ramming their opponents.

4. Parrotfish

You hear them before you see them, chomping on algae with their beak-like teeth. Like the birds after which they are named, parrotfish are a riot of colors. They are also crucial to the underwater ecosystem. By constantly grazing on algae, they help weed out coral reefs, keeping them strong and spruce.

5. Sergeant Major

This little fish received its important name because of the bold stripes upon its body, which resemble the military insignia. Typically white and yellow, male sergeant majors turn blue during fatherhood, and can literally get in your face if they feel threatened!

6. Sea Cucumber

This awkward, floppy echinoderm — a family member of starfish and sea urchins — favors flat reefs. Contrary to their hapless appearance, sea cucumbers are not stationary, but excruciatingly slow movers. Although there are dangerous varieties, the sea cucumbers around the Perhentian Islands are okay to touch or pick up. I expected them to feel slimy, but they felt more like scabby pickles!

7. Giant Clam

Though intimidating in size, this “blue-lipsticked” behemoth is harmless. The giant clam is the largest mollusk on Earth, capable of growing up to 4 feet long and weighing more than 500 pounds. Its girth can be credited to its “sweet tooth.“ Giant clams devour sugars and proteins produced by algae.

Dangerous/Do Not Attempt to Befriend!

8. Blacktip Reef Shark

In all honesty, if you had to adopt a shark, the blacktip reef shark would be your best bet. The most timid of shark breeds, the blacktip reef shark shies away from snorkelers. Low on the food chain, blacktips are hunted by other kinds of sharks and large fish, such as groupers. Still, a shark is a shark. Avoid provoking them lest they be spurred into a feeding frenzy. Females give birth to litters of 4 to 10 pups at a time.

9. Jellyfish

Size matters, at least when it comes to jellyfish. Small varieties are mere annoyances, whereas large ones such as the box jellyfish come armed. Jellyfish tentacles can deliver electric shocks ranging from small to severe. Like the “queen bee” of high school, big jellyfish are often shadowed by a posse of docile fish that scavenge their leftovers.

10. Anemone and Coral

Although sea anemones resemble beautiful flowerbeds, don’t even think about touching or plucking them! These relatives of jellyfish come equipped with venomous tentacles. Fun fact: Tribal hunters from Hawaii apply anemone poison to the tips of their spears to inflict fatal wounds.

Coral, while beautiful, can literally leave you scarred. Scrapes or cuts from hard coral easily erupt into infections because bacteria in warm, salty, tropical waters seamlessly sift into the bloodstream.

11. Leopard Moray Eel

This nocturnal creature is elusive. Your best bet of sighting one is to spy the opening of an underwater cave. Its menacing habit of gnashing its teeth is really a respiration reflex to make up for its small gills.

12. Sea Urchin

Like prickly landmines, sea urchins can be fatal if stepped upon, so scan the seabed before setting your foot down. If pierced by a sea urchin, promptly remove the spines with pincers. A warm footbath aids in their removal as well.

13. Bluespotted Stingray

The bluespotted stingray’s flat, round body resembles a flying disc or a UFO. The electric blue spots on its body are not cosmetic but cautionary. They signal the “DANGER!” of its long tail’s venomous spines.

Snorkeling is a relatively new passion that I wish I had discovered years ago. Sunbathing and swimming are super, but more delicious secrets lie beneath the surface.

Remember your first trip to the zoo as a kid? Something about seeing wild animals up close sparks a love of creatures in most children. Similarly, my first experience in the watery wilderness instilled a tremendous sense of wonder.

When you care about something, its future becomes your concern, and, truth be told, the fate of marine life is floundering. Pollution, oil spills, and overfishing can only be combated by marine conservation.

Love your oceans!

Have you ever been snorkeling? What creatures were your favorites? Tell us in the comments!