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Perhentian Islands

I wanted an island - peaceful, attractive, and with good snorkeling as I still don't dive, though the day may soon come when I do. We decided on the Perhentians, particularly Perhentian Kecil as it's cheaper and there was supposedly good snorkeling on the north end of the island.

Two bus rides got us from Kuala Lumpur to Jerteh and a short taxi ride to the boat jetty. Two boat options - slow boat (an hour, not counting time spent picking up passengers on the return trip) or fast boat (thirty minutes not counting the same dilly dallying). 20 ringgit each way for the slow boat, 30 ringgit each way for the fast boat. Not a cheap ride either way you go.

We settled into the D'Lagoon, located on the north of Perhentian Kecil. I wanted quiet and I wanted snorkeling at my doorstep. The guesthouse provided both as well as friendly staff. On the other hand, the bungalows were a bit over-priced and the food was no great shakes, either. Still, to be fair you always give up a little on a small island as everything has to be brought out by boat and the refuse hauled back to the mainland. The place is also home to a number of metre-long lizards that run around behind the place but they're harmless and seem quite used to people.

There's a large reef in the lagoon in front of the bungalows that was supposed to offer some fantastic snorkeling - or so I had read. There was a time I'm sure that it did. Now, regrettably 90% of the reef is dead. Still, while the coral is brown and broken the marine life is plentiful. Lots of colorful fish, mostly small, a few large groupers, many barracuda, and sharks. Supposedly turtles are frequently seen but I saw none.

This was also my first shark encounter. Prior to this day the most seemingly menacing things I had ever seen were, in the Florida Keys - stingrays, a lion fish (or one of those prickly colorful poisonous things), and barracuda and more recently I met a moray eel off Koh Lanta in Thailand that had, like all the aforementioned critters, no interest in me at all. For as with most marine life, none of these animals are the least bit dangerous if you leave them alone.

I was on the opposite side of the island, a ten-minute walk through the jungle on a cleared path to a nice secluded beach. It's quite rocky offshore and just beyond the rocks is another dying reef but it's abundant in marine life. Floating through it all in water streaked with sunlight I caught a glimpse of something flashing about five or six meters away. Looking closer I saw it was a blacktip shark about six-feet long. First thing I thought, "Blacktips! They eat people!" And like the silly underwater novice I am, I got the hell out of there pausing one time to consider the irony that if this shark really was interested in me, my hasty exit and the vibrations I would have made in the water in this retreat would surely have attracted the fish.

I returned to D'Lagoon and asked if they heard of many shark sightings. I expected one of three responses:
1.) Oh my God! You saw a shark!
2.) Don't lie, there aren't any sharks.
3.) Yeah, so? People see them every day.

Did you guess number three? They did, however, comment that most of the sharks were out near some rocks but a couple of hundred meters from where we were standing and they hadn't heard of shark sightings on the other side of the island. I then took a look at the resident generic guide to the fishes of the wherever we were waters and found what I saw. Ohh... it's a blacktip *reef* shark which is half the size of a blacktip and according to the book, only aggressive if cornered whereas the big blacktips have been known to chomp on humans. Two other tourists overhearing this commented that they had seen the sharks everytime they went out into the lagoon.

Hmm. Maybe I should stop being silly and go see the sharks. So I did. Following the advice of the two tourists I headed to the area where they said I'd be most likely to see one, near the rocks a few hundred meters from the lagoon. On the way I encountered a school of barracudas and would see numerous more individuals.

Before long, one shark swam by a few meters below me completely ignoring my presence. A few hours later, on my next swim, I had my closest contact of the day. While I was gently treading water, trying to be as motionless as possible, it took all of about five minutes for a shark to turn up. This time it was swimming straight at me, however it showed no signs of aggression whatsoever. It came within about two meters of me then satisfied with whatever it needed to know, it turned to the right and disappeared. We had bonded. A special moment between man and beast. We were one. Our respective slots in the food chain, on the ladder of evolution, we knew where we stood (or swam as the case may be).

Before long, the shark returned, swimming in a wide circle around me. More bonding. We were a team. Secure, confident, I watched my soul mate disappear in the murky, sunlight streaked depths in front of me. Then I turned to look behind me. Another shark. Wait. I had bonded with... which one? Oh, never mind.

Sure enough a shark or two would be my companion the rest of the afternoon as well as all the other colorful fish that inhabited these waters. Still, I couldn't get over the fact that 90% of the coral below me was dead.

The following day I found myself with a horrible sunburn. Sure, I used sunblock, but had neglected to reapply the stuff each time I went for a swim. So we decided to head back to the mainland. We took the lunchtime boat and as we were the first stop we spent another hour picking people up before making the thirty-minute dash for shore. We got a quick look at Perhentian Besar Island and at one resort, Perhentian Island Resort, an expensive looking one, the water was spectacularly clear and inviting. How the snorkeling and marine life would be, I don't know.

My quick impression of the Perhentians are of attractive and peaceful islands. However, if you're not much for snorkeling or diving you may find yourself quickly bored as there is little else to do. Speaking of diving, I don't know what the options are in the area at this time. Obviously a dive would involve a boat trip to somewhere, one can hope anyway, where the coral is still mostly alive.

Kuala Lumpur

Perhentian Islands







All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.