Diving with sea turtles is on every diver's wish list. These charismatic animals can be found throughout the world’s temperate and tropical oceans, but several destinations in Southeast Asia and the Maldives are particularly special for encountering marine turtles.
We've carefully selected the best destinations, not only for scuba diving with turtles, but for getting a glimpse into their daily lives - be it feeding, mating, nesting or hatching. Here are the top five...
1. Sipadan - Sabah, Malaysia
The world famous island of Sipadan remains the best place in Southeast Asia, if not the world, to dive and snorkel with green and hawksbill turtles. Visitors to this tiny island in the Celebes Sea, off Sabah’s southeast coast, can dive with turtles every day, and seeing 20 or 30 on a single dive is not unusual, particularly at low tide when the green turtles that feed on the seagrass beds move back out to the reef, for a rest or to visit a cleaning station.
Lucky scuba divers can witness mating battles, as groups of male turtles chase receptive females and attempt to grapple onto their backs, with the other males struggling to do exactly the same. The resulting biting, fin flapping and general turtle mayhem is extraordinary to watch - and Sipadan is one of the best places to dive with turtles and witness this amazing behaviour.
Sipadan is also home to the infamous Turtle Tomb, a cave system beneath the island littered with the bones of dead turtles. The caves were first discovered by Jacques Cousteau, and made famous by his 1989 film about Sipadan - ‘Borneo: the Ghost of the Sea Turtle’. It is thought that turtles enter the tomb to rest and become disorientated or lost, particular if they enter at dusk. The unfortunate animals then rise to breathe, only to be become trapped in the ceiling and drown. The result is a spectacularly eerie dive exploring this unique animal graveyard.
Best time to visit: Year round, with turtle mating season in July and August.
Best place to stay: Scuba Junkie Sipadan.
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2. Sangalaki and Derawan - Indonesia
The islands of the Derawan Archipelago are thought to be Indonesia’s largest rookery for green turtles and are also home to large numbers of hawksbill turtles. In fact, it is difficult to NOT to scuba dive with turtles here, especially around Derawan, Sangalaki and Maratua, where turtles are seen all around the reefs. Visitors to these islands even have a great chance of witnessing nesting on some of the more isolated beaches - and turtles still even come up into the villages as well!
Turtle conservation in this part of Indonesia has had a somewhat chequered history. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, many turtle eggs were collected, and hawksbill turtles were targeted by poachers for their shells. In 1993, a resort bought the egg collection rights in an attempt to stop the trade, but the license was then awarded to a commercial collector several years later. In 2000 an NGO started working in the area, campaigning to stop eggs being collected, helping to protect nesting beaches and raising awareness amongst the villages, but after a decade of work, the NGO had its permits cancelled.
Today there are other NGOs and resorts working to protect the turtles of the Derawan Archipelago and the islands are still an incredible place to scuba dive and snorkel with turtles, as well as witness nesting behaviour. The future of the turtles of Sangalaki and Derawan currently lies in the balance, however with more and more tourists coming to the islands, and the work being done to protect the turtles, the future is looking brighter.
Best time to visit: Year round, but time your trip for the full and new moons for the best chance to see turtles nesting.
Best place to stay: Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
3. Bunaken Marine Park - Sulawesi, Indonesia
There are a number of well-known areas to dive with turtles throughout Sulawesi, but the Bunaken National Park in the north where turtle encounters are most likely. The national park has been protected for many years, so the reefs and incredible marine life have flourished. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles can be seen throughout the park, with dive sites such as Lekuan, Muka Kampung and Fukui probably the best known.
Visitors can dive with several turtles on every dive at these sites, where turtles can be seen resting on the ledges, feeding on soft corals and sponges on the walls, or simply cruising by, happily ignoring the divers! The turtles have become very used to scuba divers however, and will often approach closely as they make their way along the wall.
The mix of different habitats, including large sea grass beds and healthy reefs, is thought to be one of the main reasons so many turtles make their home in Bunaken National Park. They are also known to nest on Siladen, Bunaken and Manado Tua, and the resorts are careful to minimise any disturbance to nesting turtles should they be found.
Best time to visit: Year round, but March to October has the best weather.
Best place to stay: Anywhere on Siladen, Bunaken or the mainland itself.
4. Apo Island - Negros, Philippines
Dauin in Negros Oriental has become well-known as a muck diving destination, but for many years, divers traveled to the area to explore nearby Apo Island - to dive with turtles. The island is famous for its reefs, fish life, green turtles and hawksbill turtles - that can be seen on every dive! Apo Island is also highly regarded as a successful community-led conservation project.
Apo was first protected in 1985, and then declared a protected seascape in 1994. Since then, the marine life has flourished - including the turtles. There are thought to be so many turtles around Apo because of the abundance of food on its healthy reefs - in fact, the majority of turtles seen are feeding females.
Scuba divers and snorkelers can encounter schools of fish and friendly turtles all around the island, and the turtles have become so used to humans they can be approached with ease - but not too close, of course. There have unfortunately been reports in the past of guides allowing guests to disturb and abuse turtles, and conservation groups are now doing what they can to prevent such incidents in the future. Have a look at this fantastic video produced by LAMAVE, featuring the snorkelling guides of Apo Island.
Best time to visit: October to June
Best place to stay: Liquid Dive Resort
5. North Male Atoll - Maldives
When considering the Maldives as a dive destination, most divers think of manta rays, sharks and reefs, but the Maldives is also a fantastic destination to dive with turtles. Like the other destinations in this list, visitors to the Maldives are most likely to be able to dive with green and hawksbill turtles, even though the country is also home to olive ridley, loggerhead and leatherback turtles - the latter now unfortunately being vanishingly rare. Hawksbill turtles are seen most often, simply because they spend a lot more time on the reefs visited by divers, as opposed to the seagrass beds where green turtles prefer to spend their time.
The Maldivian government has protected turtles and banned any trade in turtle products since 1995, reviewing its policies every 10 years since then. However, in 2016, the government made the decision to protect turtles indefinitely and extend the ban on trade in turtle products without any future review, protecting the nation’s turtles into the future - and removing the threat of repeal of the turtle conservation laws.
Scientists and conservation organisations have been working for many years to protect turtles throughout the atolls and one recent project aims to build up a photo ‘catalogue’ of all turtles found in the country. The Maldives National Sea Turtle Identification Programme identifies individual turtles from photographs submitted by divers, using the unique pattern of scutes on the turtle's head as the equivalent of a fingerprint. So far the programme has identified over 1,000 individual turtles, mostly hawksbill turtles. And the top atolls for diving with turtles in the Maldives? Ari, North Malé, Baa and Lhaviyani.
Best time to visit: November to April
Best place to stay: Cinnamon Dhonveli
A few other options
Turtle Islands National Park
The aptly named Turtle Islands National Park lies in the Sulu Sea, off Sabah’s east coast. The park was created in the 1980’s to protect turtles that use the islands as nesting grounds, and covers a group of islands on both sides of the sea borer between Malaysia and Philippines.
Visitors can stay overnight on Selingkan on the Malaysian side and watch female green turtles as they lay their eggs. The experience is carefully regulated: guests are not allowed to use torches or camera flashes on the beach at night, and must wait for a ranger to decide when it is safe to visit a turtle to minimise any disturbance. A trip to the Turtle Islands National Park can be combined with a dive holiday on Mabul or Kapalai, as well as visits to Sepilok and other jungle areas.
Mabul and Kapalai
Turtle Bay - Palawan, Philippines
In Palawan, Philippines, a small bay has become well-known for its turtles, and a conservation project has been set up to protect these animals. At Turtle Bay near Port Barton, the Secret Paradise Resort has spent the last decade protecting a small bay and several nesting beaches from poachers and illegal fishermen, creating a thriving marine sanctuary that is home to plenty of turtles.
From October to March, green turtles and hawksbill turtles arrive to nest on four beaches within the bay, and adults are seen in the area all year around. Secret Paradise Resort is closed until 2021 for renovations but will be taking bookings once again at the end of 2020 - so stay tuned for news in the future when this wonderful resort re-opens.
Kei Islands - Banda Sea, Indonesia
The Kei (or Kai) Islands are part of the so-called ‘Forgotten Islands’ in the far southeast of the Banda Sea. The islands are little known in the wider world, apart from being one of the only places places where visitors have a reasonable chance to encounter the highly endangered leatherback turtle.
These turtles congregate around the islands every year to feed on seasonal blooms of jellyfish, and the Kei islanders have learnt to take advantage of this, hunting the leatherbacks for food using canoes and spears - a traditional hunting practice that is sadly allowed to continue to this day.