“You went diving in Brunei?” was the most common reaction people gifted me after finding out what I did over the long weekend.
Brunei seemed like a weird dive destination to most but it totally made sense to me – I wanted somewhere nearby, I was bored of the islands in Peninsular Malaysia, and I couldn’t afford the money nor time for the Maldives and Indonesias of the world. I considered Sabah and Sarawak, but gosh were flights expensive!
Brunei, our little wallflower in the Coral Triangle, stood out. Flights were cheap (I flew Airasia from Kuala Lumpur to Bandar Seri Begawan for RM375 return) and it was close enough for a fuss-free dive trip. I didn’t know much about the Brunei dive scene but it didn’t take too long for me to find out how underrated the diving in Brunei is.
Can I dive in Brunei?
Diving is a very new sport in Brunei. Sure they’ve always had commercial divers working on the oil rigs, but the leisure diving industry didn’t exist here until 2009. It all started with Malaysian diver Steven Ng who visited Brunei and saw the potential for a thriving dive scene. Steven was surprised that there were no dive centers in the country, so he did what every entrepreneurial diver would do – he started Brunei’s very first dive company, Oceanic Quest.
To the rest of the dive world, Brunei was still an unknown. So Steven invited underwater photographers over, beautiful photos of Brunei’s dive sites got published in magazines, one thing led to another and the Brunei dive scene grew by word of mouth. Since then, the country has seen a yearly increase in both local and international divers. Yet, Brunei as a dive destination is still niche, attracting mostly underwater photographers and serious divers.
How are the diving conditions in Brunei?
The fact that Brunei’s diving and tourism are still largely unexplored is what makes it so special. Located in the South China Sea, Brunei’s dive sites never get too crowded due to the low diver population. A nationwide cigarette ban and small tourist traffic have also kept pollution levels low. Relatively untouched by overfishing, over tourism, and heavy industrial pollution, Brunei still has virgin jungles and sea every nature lover dreams of.
Steven describes the diving here as “an Underwater Tibet.” He likens the conditions of the diving in Brunei – from fish population to coral reef health – to Tioman or Redang 30 years ago.
This, however, might change if an overwhelming tourist boom happens in the future, which is exactly why Steven and his peers are happy with their slow and steady growth. So far, they have mostly been marketing themselves to serious divers and is not ready to host big markets like China. They want to welcome responsible divers who appreciate nature and will take care of the dive sites they visit. Some tourists may have big spending power, but end up vandalising everything that comes past their way. Needless to say, the dive industry wants to reduce the number of destructive divers if they can help it.
Fair enough, as the dive conditions in Brunei is not for the pampered diver expecting nothing but clear skies, flat seas and 20m visibility on every dive. The conditions here are as unpredictable as nature intended it to be, there is no guarantee you’ll get the perfect Disney diving conditions each and every time. On good days you may get 20m to 30m visibility; on bad days you may only get 5 to 7 meters visibility. On one of my 3-dive days, the first dive had strong surface current, the second dive was great, and the third dive had to be aborted due to an incoming storm. Brunei’s diving is not for the untrained diver afraid of waves and current as there will be elements of nature to handle.
However, no matter what the conditions of the day are, Brunei’s promise to divers is that there will be amazing coral reefs and super structures awaiting you down there.
What kind of diving is there in Brunei?
Brunei is famed for some of the best wreck diving and macro diving. There are several World War II wrecks, each which has its own eerie history to tell. For example, Aussie Wreck is said to still contain the wandering souls of the 339 people who drowned along with the ship. At the US Wreck, a minesweeper that was sunken by a mine, you can still see bones and bullets scattered around the once glorious ship.
Wreck diving aside, there are also sunken oil rigs and beautiful reef sites. The oil rigs were sunk with permission of the government to convert it into artificial reefs. Steven tells me these sunken oil rigs has helped to protect the fishes against trawling.
What can I see?
As for fishes, expect to see new species of nudibranchs and cowries. Brunei has one of the most concentrated cowrie population in the world; just ask expert Brian Mayes who has counted 25 species so far. On my last dive, after watching a pair of nudis make babies, I saw for the first time the largest nudibranch species in the world. It was so huge I thought it was a sea star! I also saw leopard shrimps, barracudas, lionfish, octopus, flatfish, boxfish, scorpionfish, moray eel, seahorse…
The fishes here are friendly and you can get quite close to them. Once in a while, whale sharks, mantas and dolphin pass by though you gotta be super frickin lucky for that to happen. There are also turtles laying eggs on the shores of Brunei but they are not well protected.
When is the best time to dive in Brunei?
Brunei has year long diving, even during the monsoon season as Pulau Labuan protects the sea from massive waves. The monsoon season is during September to February where the sea gets a bit choppy. Hence, the best time to go diving in Brunei is from April to August where the water conditions are at its calmest.
Brunei dive centers
There are only two dive centers in Brunei. Both conduct day-trip boat dives where you get on the boat at about 8.30am, drive out to the open sea, and return in the late afternoons.
Established by Steven Ng, Oceanic Quest is the pioneering dive center in Brunei. They have been around since 2009 and is the top choice for professional divers. Oceanic Quest caters to underwater photographers and they do a very good job at that. The hardcore photographers I dived with told me that Oceanic Quest has some of the world’s best spotters, so much so that some come to Brunei just to dive with the spotters. These expert spotters are so familiar with the different habitats that a 50-minute dive is just filled with them finding new and curious animals for you to photograph.
They are located in Muara and provide reasonable food and lodging dive packages. This is the dive center I dove with and I highly recommend them. Website: http://www.oceanicquest.com/
Poni Divers attract more hobbyist divers looking to do a few dives while they are on holiday. Most of their clientele are Western travellers drawn to the dive center’s hip and young vibe. They are located on Serasa beach, which gives you convenient access to a post-diving afternoon on the beach. I’m not sure if they do packages as when I enquired the rate for 6-dives they only quoted me the price per dive. Website: http://www.ponidivers.com/
How much to dive in Brunei?
Both dive centers are priced slightly differently but not too far off. Fun dives start at about $B50 (RM151) per dive, excluding rental. Equipment rental is about B$30 (RM91) a day. Locals with yellow, red or green Brunei ID cards get a special local discount. Oceanic Quest has pretty good all-inclusive 4D3N, 6 dive packages at about B$500 (RM1,513).
The prices above are an average estimate, please contact the respective dive centers for their exact prices.
What qualifications do I need to dive in Brunei?
As most of the better dive sites go down to 20+meters, it’s best if you are a certified Advanced Diver at the very least. However, Open Water Divers can request the dive center to conduct a deep adventure skill to certify you for dives deeper than 18meters. Once you have this skill certified on your Open Water license, you don’t have to do your Deep Adventure skill again when you take your Advance license.
You could also do Padi courses, from Open Water to Divemaster here.
As the dive community grows, there are plans to work with the government to regulate the number of divers. More importantly, there are plans in the pipeline for conservation efforts such as a Reef Check Brunei and NGOs to protect the turtle eggs. It is definitely exciting times ahead for the divers in Brunei, and it’s a shame so many of us give this little treasure in our backyard a miss. The dive scene in Brunei is an unpolished gem that is slowly getting its shine. I say go, before heartbreaking photos of grafitti-ed corals make you regret not going sooner.
Read about my weekend exploring ‘boring’ Brunei:
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