Diving in Layang Layang
Hammerhead Sharks at the Coral Atoll
Located in waters 2,000 metres deep, Layang Layang is an atoll of 13 linked coral reefs. The resort island is part of the 600 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea known as The Spratly's. The name means 'Place of Swallows' in Malay and the island is sometimes known as Swallow Reef.
The atoll isn't that large - it only covers an area of 14 square kilometres. Situated about 300 km off the Borneo coast, Layang Layang is surrounded by waters teeming with a rich biodiversity of marine life and some of the most heart-stopping diving opportunities around.
Although concentrating on only one feature does not do justice to Layang Layang's varied reefs, the draw card for scuba divers from all over the world is the chance to see vast schools of hammerheads cruising around. This is one of the very few places in the world where, at the right time of year, you have a good chance to drop down into an enormous school of hundreds of these marvellous creatures.
The extraordinary coral gardens of these virgin atoll reefs surrounding Layang Layang Island, have never been fished or experienced any kind of man-made pollution. They are undoubtedly the healthiest reefs in Malaysia and rank as high as any for fish species and coral diversity too.
The visibility in these waters often exceeds 40 metres. In fact, the extraordinary visibility and exciting variety of marine life can sometimes be misleading and dangerous to scuba divers - watch your depth and no-decompression limit when diving here - you could well be deeper than you think.
Don't just imagine yourself hanging in the crystal waters of Layang-Layang at 25 metres down as hundreds of hammerheads cruise past only metres from you mask - do it!
Dive Site Descriptions
Crack Reef - A dive which can give everyone a buzz, both depth junkies and shallow reefers. This site sees another extraordinary shallow coral garden flourishing under the sun's rays, and a gradual descent which becomes a slide into the void of the South China Sea.
You'll begin with a descent down the wall to either of the 2 ledges at 30 metres. From here you can peer over the lip and down the slope to check for resting leopard sharks. Ascend a few metres to a prominent alcove, and search the gorgonians around for pygmy seahorses. Several of the fans between 21 and 27 metres have resident seahorses.
If there is a mild current running then you can drift along with schools of neon fusiliers racing past. Eventually you'll arrive at some steep sloping buttresses which look like subterranean mountain footpaths. If you ascend up these natural causeways, you'll find yourself back near the top of the atoll, with its busy coral community, which allows for both excellent macro and micro photography opportunities.
The reef top here has mainly hard coral varieties such as porites, elkhorn and warty corals, but there are communities of sinularia and lobophyton soft corals too. Try spotting the foxface rabbitfish, or some of the tang and bristletooth species that reside here.
Dogtooth Lair - This dive site is named after the schools of large dog-tooth tuna frequently found cruising along this stretch of Layang Layang, especially along the drop-off. Watch out for these awesome creatures; you might see juveniles in small groups or the solitary big fellas, over a metre long and with a large set of pointed gnashers to match.
Out in the blue you might also catch sight of small schools of pickhandle barracuda, big-eyed jacks, or more unusually, hammerhead sharks and the elusive sunfish.
The reef itself is a sloping sand bank of predominantly acropora coral fields with sandy channels, just before the site plunges into the 2,000 metre abyss of the South China Sea. As you move round to the north east the slope gets steeper before becoming a wall. There are quite a large number of yellow gorgonians from 20 metres down, and this is where you're likely to spot blue-masked angelfish and schools of round batfish.
In the shallows there are patches of blue and fire coral that attract speckled butterflyfish and clouds of blue anthias. This site, and Layang Layang in general, has some of the most colourful varieties of parrotfish in the ocean, in every conceivable shade of purple, turquoise, yellow and chocolate imaginable. Bluefin trevally roam the area looking of pick off unwary fish. There are lots of lots of pennant butterflyfish, normally found in pairs, but here they're found in droves.
D'Wall - It seems the derivation of the name of this dive has got lost in time. Most likely the written form of a lazy, Asian pronunciation of ‘The Wall’, it is one of the only genuinely vertical walls in Layang-Layang. In fact, the wall is so steep here that it actually overhangs for the majority of the dive, so it's a good idea to bring a torch along.
There is a large shelf in the wall at about 40 metres, which it would be wise to use as the maximum depth marker to your dive. Making your way down to this level, you'll witness the tremendous colours of the wall, peppered with colourful nudibranchs, some enormous barrel sponges, large drooping fans of red, blue and purple, and the radiant violet of large tropical anthias.
But don't keep your head wedged in D'wall at all times. There may be sharks here too. Grey reef sharks and, at the right time of year, schools of hammerhead sharks will be cruising past the atoll.
Back at 25 metres you'll first come across a small triangular cove, which a dozen or so giant trevally use as their lair. A little further on is another larger shelf, adorned by black coral bushes, and also inhabited by trevallies, groupers and emporer angelfish. Examine the orange gorgonians to the left of the entrance as here you will find pygmy seahorses, and sometimes giant frogfish nearby.
Shortly after the ledges, the wall will change abruptly into a slope, signalling the start of your ascent. Spotted sweetlips watch you suspiciously as you swim up to the coral gardens at your safety stop level. Once there you can check out the orange-spined unicornfish, yellow breasted wrasse and skunk anemonefish. This is such a large and amazing dive site, it needs several visits to feel you've seen it all. D'End.
Gorgonian Forest - Many people consider this to be Layang Layang's signature dive site, and is one of the main areas for hammerhead sharks. Currents can be strong here and this draws in the bigger fish. It also creates fabulous horizontal visibility, commonly in excess of 50 metres.
Drop in here onto a gentle slope packed with marine life. Move down over the stands of bottlebrush corals and warty corals, take a look at the large giant clams, and watch out for hawksbill turtles resting out from the current.
At 12 metres, you'll join the main wall proper and descend into an amazing array of large barrel sponges and the colourful fans which give this site its name. The fans of yellow and orange sway gently in the current, from where they begin at 22 metres or so right down to over 40.
When the current is running, vast quantities of fish pull in here, and this is really what makes this dive site so special. Lunar fusiliers and giant fusiliers will race past along the reef slope. Small packs of giant trevally hunt over the reef surface, and large dogtooth tuna swim past, sometimes stopping to check you out when their curiosity gets the better of their quest for food.
As you drift along, countless reef fishes, such as redtooth triggerfish and pyramid butterflyfish, dart about on the slope. Large species of grouper are common here, as well as large congregations of midnight snapper, and smaller groups of harlequin sweetlips and round batfish. Unicornfish frequent this portion of Layang Layang Island, either feeding in the nutrient-enriched blue or stopping on the reef slope's cleaning stations.
However, to focus solely on the seascape would be to miss the likely presence of scalloped hammerhead sharks, especially around April and May. Sometimes these bizarre looking sharks appear alone, and other times in great schools with a mix of the young and mature. As you gaze admiringly at them, they may venture in towards the reef or slowly slink off into the blue.
Navigator's Lane - This site lies on the northern side of Layang Layang atoll, just to the east of Crack Reef. It boasts of a huge variety of corals - both hard and soft - sea fans and whips.
As a result of its rich coral gardens in depths of 5 to 15 metres, the reef life here is abundant, and it's possible to make either a classic multilevel dive, or just a tranquil exploration of the shallows, depending on your mood.
Hammerhead sharks in particular are regular visitors to this site, so you can look forward to some big fish action with these apex predators of the sea.
Besides additional encounters with grey reef sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, barracudas and the like, this dive has enough marine life for macrolife enthusiasts as well, with brightly coloured nudibranchs, and commensal and anemone shrimps in abundance.
Shark's Cave - This is one of Layang Layang's most famous dives and it has an abundance of sharks of various varieties. Scuba diving in Layang Layang is mostly about big fish action and this site is a good bet for plenty of large pelagic fish.
The first and deepest of 2 large sandy ledges is an overhang, running in depth from 30 to 40 metres, down an incredible sheer wall. Schooling jacks often congregate here, forming loose balls of shimmering silver.
Moving on westerly with the wall on your right, you'll move past purple fans and some giant barrel sponges. Take a close look on the walls as giant frogfish and green painted frogfish can be found hanging in the black coral bushes, and painted lobsters stare out from the cracks in the wall.
After about 5 more minutes you'll come to second ledge at 25 to 30 metres deep. Giant trevally and dogtooth tuna patrol the entrance way. This ledge is much larger and can be penetrated for about 5 or 6 metres. Within the cave, you'll find whitetip reef sharks asleep on the floor. Make sure that you don't block their exit out of the cave though, as you don't want to become the object of an attack from these otherwise docile creatures.
Heading back out again into the open sea, you may encounter sightings of hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, manta rays and eagle rays, all gliding past you in the open waters.
This is one site where you're sure to be pushing your "No Deco" limit, so pretty soon you'll need to work your way back up the wall and onto the reef flat at the top of the atoll. Hundreds of pyramid butterflyfish swarm off the wall as if in greeting, and some big schools of whitemargin unicornfish circle the reef edge.
Into the shallows for your deco stop, you find lots of triggerfish - clown, pinktail, and redtooth - squirrelfish, Japanese surgeonfish, and various types of brightly coloured parrotfish, amongst the brown soft corals. Orange-fringed arc eye hawkfish make good subjects to study, as they perch proudly on the fingers of the finger or table corals.
Snapper's Ledge - This is a very easy site, and a particularly good spot for drift diving.
Drifting along with the current, you'll find yourself face to face with some excellent coral such as gorgonians and black corals. Look out for some colourful nudibranchs within them.
On the fish life front, you'll come across multitudes of reef fish especially colourful parrotfish, fusiliers and pufferfish.
The Runway - If you're the type of diver who loves underwater explorations, especially of the poking your nose (or camera) into crevices, fissures and gullies variety, then the Runway is a "must do" for you.
Here, you'll find fish swimming vertically along the vertical walls. It's quite an experience watching jacks, surgeonfish and fusiliers cascade down these walls, definitely something not to be missed.
Out in the blue, swirling schools of shad create glittering balls of silver, attracting hungry tuna and grey reef sharks on the look out for a free meal. Sometimes you can sense the panic of the fish, as they scatter at lightening speed, in anticipation of a pelagic strike.
Occasional sightings of hammerhead sharks and manta rays cruising the waters around this site have also been reported, so keep a sharp eye out for them.
The Tunnel - The site is located just to the south of Layang Layang Island Resort. It is rather sheltered and as a consequence offers few of the opportunities for diving with the pelagics that other sites of Layang Layang can boast.
Instead, it posesses a tableau of hard coral formations of staghorn corals, plate corals, table corals, mushroom corals and brain corals. The site gets its name from the vertical fissures that the coral colonies make, forming 'chimneys' which scuba divers can examine close up for moray eels and macro marine life in the form of molluscs, squat lobsters and small crustaceans.
This is a great site for a night dive, watching the nocturnal antics of mantis shrimp, crayfish, crinoids, starfish, hermit crabs and sea urchins. Additionally, there are the usual reef fish like the pufferfish, parrotfish, boxfish, scorpionfish and turkeyfish.
The Valley - Some divers have pointed out that when initially entering the water at this part of Layang-Layang, their expectations plummet when greeted with the sight of this flat area with a gentle slope.
However, the area is blessed with formations of large hard corals, and is a haven for turtles and fish like groupers, sweetlips, snappers and squirrelfish. Within the dozens of overhangs and crevices, a sharp pair of eyes will find you nudibranchs, flatworms and a variety of crustaceans. Even on the sandy patches, life abounds. Here, you'll find garden eels and ribbon eels.
Watch out for the nests of triggerfish here, lest you get bitten for wandering into the path of these territorial creatures. Closer to the edge of the reef, you'll have encounters with schools of amber jacks, reef sharks and hammerhead sharks. There are a variety of anemones as well, in particular, try to spot the golden anemone, a rare variety few divers have spotted before. An excellent diving site in hindsight.
Wrasse Strip - This is where the tropical sun shines down through shallow transparent waters, creating a colourful reef garden most divers only dream of. How this site became to be named Wrasse Strip is unknown but it certainly doesn't have more wrasse species than any other site around Layang Layang Island.
However, it does have redcheek wrasse and slingjaw wrasse. The slingjaw wrasse is easily identifiable by its long trailing anal fin and red, yellow, black and white body markings. It can extend its upper and lower jaw to more than half of its own overall length, in order to create a tube that's perfect for feeding on crustaceans and small fishes amongst the reef. Take a moment to watch it go about its work as it is quite a sight to behold.
The whole of Wrasse Strip seems to be just a big cleaning station. Everywhere you look you'll find sleek and bignose unicornfish patiently hovering just above the corals stands, allowing the cleaner fish to do their work. The shallows are also a popular spot for juvenile manta rays and eagle rays to pull in for a hygiene appointment too.
The reef is an idyllic sloping bank of predominantly brown, sarcophyton and flowery soft corals with the occasional dense stand of elkhorn corals. There are many rubble patches that host red fire gobies. Presumably these patches of rubble are the left-overs from a turtle or titan triggerfish snack. These triggerfish are fairly common throughout Layang-Layang.
Many of the sites at Layang Layang allow for deep diving and will satisfy even the most zealous shark chaser, but there is something for everyone here on the breathtaking coral slopes to which no written description can do justice. Another unforgettable dive at one of the world's great destinations.
Wreck Point - Contrary to expectations and despite its name, this is not a wreck dive, but is instead a very pleasant coral garden and wall dive. There used to be an old freighter wreck here, but all that remains of it today is a few pieces of scrap iron on the seabed. The site lies to the south west of Dog Tooth Lair.
What makes this site unique is the entry point. You'll descend on to a 7 metre deep sandy shelf with some small and rather picturesque coves and inlets, appealing to explore. These rock formations are covered in soft brown corals and table corals. Take your time over the sandy patches as, with a bit of patience, you can spot razor fish (sand divers) hovering above the sand.
Follow the lip of the shelf out and down onto the main wall, a steep slope running down into the Layang-Layang abyss. If conditions allow, turn left and swim with the wall on your left side. Clouds of indigo anthias hover over the barrel sponges and small violet sea fans that adorn the slope. In the crags you'll find lots of soldierfish and squirrelfish, such as the sabre squirrelfish - a species identifiable by its yellowish fins, large size and prominent cheek spine.
Open water fish that you might find here include rainbow runners, bigeye trevallies, barracudas and white tip reef sharks.
As you make your way slowly shallower, the wall ends abruptly at about 8 metres deep with a colourful hard coral garden. Light flickers through the water, brightening up this sparkling scene. Bronze big eye bream and double bar goatfish form small schools. Bird wrasse move amongst the scleratinia, and the beautiful lyretail hogfish (tangerine head, and white rear with a few small dark speckles) hide out in the shallows. This is the spot where you'll make your safety spot before surfacing right next to the Layang Layang aircraft landing strip.
How to Dive Layang Layang Island
Layang Layang is a small island in the South China Sea, not far from the shores of the Malaysian state of Sabah. It is part of an atoll with a calm shallow lagoon on one side and a deep drop-off into the open ocean on the other. The tiny island consists of little more than a landing strip, a navy base and a dive resort. Special local rates apply at the resort for Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates living in those countries with work permits.
No liveaboards regularly make it this way out into the South China Sea so there is only "one show in town" for diving Layang Layang.
Located within the equatorial belt, Layang Layang has an equatorial climate. Temperatures range from 28°C to 32°C. Although an equatorial climate comes with fairly high humidity, the cool sea breezes make staying on the island very comfortable.
The dive resort opens only from March to October, ensuring diving only in the best weather, and the hammerheads and other big pelagics are present at Layang Layang more or less throughout this time, with a greater frequency of sightings around the March - May period. The resort closes between September and February because of the heavy monsoon rains that fall here, and you cannot dive here at that time.
In the absence of the marquee creature, the scalloped hammerhead, there is still a lot of good scuba diving to be enjoyed here with healthy walls covered in hard and soft corals and boasting an impressive array of reef fish. Being a tiny speck in the South China Sea, nutrient-rich currents continually wash over the reefs here bringing in the marine life. Other residents during the season include barracudas and big-eye trevally. Occasional visitors to the island that require more luck than exact timing can include manta rays, thresher sharks, whale sharks, melon-headed whales and even orcas.
Normally the visibility is very good, exceeding 30 metres although it can drop. Water temperatures remain quite constant during the short season here, usually hovering around the higher end of the 25 to 30°C range. You should expect visibility in the range of 10 to 40m. The seas can pick up at any time in the waters around Layang Layang outside of the calm lagoon where the resort sits. It is not unusual to surface from a dive in bigger waves than were present upon entry.
Good for: Large animals, wall diving, reef life and health and visibility
Not so good for: Beginner divers, snorkelling and non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 20 - 40m
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 25 - 30°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~20
Access: Layang Layang Island Resort
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 8 days