New Depths: Taking the Plunge in Asia
Illustration for TIME by Wilson Tsang; animation by Dennis Wong
By GEOFF BURPEE
Shark hunters caught a 1.6-m, 29-kg coelacanth last July in the waters off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The news electrified marine biologists--it was thought that only 500 members of the prehistoric species still existed, mainly around the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean--and it thrilled dive operators in Asia. New marine life is just the sort of bait that might draw more divers here.
Not that Asia is lacking in lures. The region boasts some of the most species-rich waters on earth, as well as uniform, 25-degree marine temperatures. But there's also trouble offshore: the combination of pollution, overdevelopment and an insatiable appetite for large and exotic reef fish in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and China have pushed many species of fish and coral to the brink of extinction.
The growing (and lucrative) popularity of recreational diving has helped stem the damage. Many Asian countries have coastlines that are perfectly suited to gentle, entry-level diving. And there is no shortage of sites to challenge advanced divers. Sipadan, the marine park off Malaysian Borneo's east coast, attracts seasoned divers from all over the world--as do deep, clear, well-stocked seas in Indonesia, Micronesia and Thailand. Thanks to these marine riches, the past decade has seen a tidal wave of interest in diving, allowing well-traveled destinations like Thailand and the Philippines to parlay their coastal waters into an eco-tourism draw.
If you haven't dived before, now is a great time to start. Dive shops, often stocked with the latest, high-tech gear, are popping up everywhere. With holiday divers budgeting more tightly these days, there are bargains aplenty. Still, seasoned divers (and common sense) suggest that cost shouldn't be your only factor in choosing a dive shop. Market-leader PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) currently has about 6,000 affiliated dive centers, resorts and individual instructors in the Asia-Pacific region--combined, they trained 45,000 divers last year. Others, such as NAUI, BSAC, CMAS (or country-specific chapters, such as Indonesia's POSSI) also compete for diver dollars.
PADI's first tier of accomplishment, "open-water status", qualifies a diver to a maximum depth of 18 m in open water (that is, no caves, wrecks or overhead obstructions). An Open Water course can run as low as $120 and as high as $500, depending on the location of the dive center and the duration of the course. Divers may seek higher levels of expertise through specialty study in such areas as underwater navigation or photography. In addition to its standard certification, PADI bestows a five-star designation on dive operators that consistently "exceed industry standards." For more information, phone PADI's Asian headquarters in Singapore at 65-785-9896. The latest sweetener? Until April 19, enter PADI's "Dive-o-rama" contest to win a guest spot on Baywatch.
February 22, 1999
Off The Shelf
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A tidal wave of interest in diving has been a boon for destinations like Thailand and the Philippines