Where Some of Nature’s Most Beautiful Tropical Art Awaits Below the Waves
Text: Rick Charette; Photos: Ray Chang, Taiwan Dive Center
Sun-drenched Kenting National Park is a veritable giant nature-built health and fitness center, serving up swimming and surfing and biking and much beyond … and perhaps most precious in terms of rare-catch memories, easy access to scuba-diving experiences. Regionally, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia are perhaps better known for diving/snorkeling tourism, but a quick online search clearly shows that Taiwan competes toe-to-toe in all ways, not least in terms of holidaying peace of mind. Let’s go Kenting diving!
Taiwan – What’s So Special?
Taiwan’s first and foremost advantage for the diving tourist has nothing to do with its waters. It’s the Taiwan economy, a First World economy with quality guaranteed every step of the way, from your journey here to your journey home, and every swim stroke and fin kick while here.
World-class airline and airport facilities bring you to and from the country, and the world-class public-transportation network, with interlinked domestic air, High Speed Rail, regular rail, metro, public bus, inter-city coach, and Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus services, get you quickly, comfortably, and inexpensively to your chosen destinations, on Taiwan proper and on its offshore islands.
Accommodations are also first-rate; visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website (www.taiwan.net.tw) for information on everything from 5-star international tourist hotels to cozy B&Bs/homestays and hostels. Finally, Taiwan’s culinary world also has a well-deserved international reputation for being among the most varied and interesting in the world, whatever your price range.
Note: Key to being able to make this claim to a global-caliber tourist-friendly environment is the solid foundation of English-language service you’ll find, from your first moments of Tourism Bureau website research to the various sectors delineated above to the local tour agencies and dive outfits you may choose to use. You’ll be given one of Taiwan’s premier examples of the last of these in just a moment.
The Lay of the Land – and Sea Surrounding It
Taiwan’s saltwater realm is a grand underwater pleasure garden for divers and snorkelers. With over 1,500 kilometers of coastline, its shores range from sandy beaches to coral reefs to rugged cliffs that drop straight into the sea to hulking green mountains that roll into it.
Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, the island is primarily subtropical with a tropical region in the far south; summertime is prime time for underwater excursions on both the main and offshore islands. The waters are clear and comparatively warm, even in winter, and sites are pristine. Dive-site choices are nigh limitless, though of course it’s always best to ask those with authoritative knowledge of each locale’s conditions. Visibility is generally about 20 meters, sometimes double this in Kenting, where there is year-round diving/snorkeling. Visibility best in winter.
A Kenting Coral-Kingdom Adventure
One fine recent day – rare indeed is the Kenting day that is not fine – we slipped under Taiwan’s south-tip waves on your behalf. The adventure started inland, at the Taiwan Dive Center facility located on the plateau above Kenting’s Houbihu Fishing Harbor. The center has one of the strongest brands in the country, and is without a doubt the benchmark choice for Kenting dive outings. It has provided PADI-certification instruction for 4,500 students since 2000, and has deep experience handling international visitors with English and Japanese service. On this day the bright and friendly Calvin was our designated English speaker.
The outfit offers many different types of experiences, from Fun Dive outings for everyone from beginners to experienced, certified divers to formal certification programs for divers and instructors. Among the Fun Dive options are shore dives, boat dives, and night dives. The price for a dive includes full scuba-equipment rental plus insurance. Note that the Taiwan Dive Center also handles dives at other Taiwan locations, not just Kenting.
With two of four team members having snorkeled but never having scuba’d before, we went for the Discovery Scuba Diving experience. This is a specially designed single-day outing with instructors for tourists without dive certification, taking you offshore to visit coral reefs 6~8 meters down. Sessions last about 3 hours and include verbal training at the dive center, a drive to (and back from) the dive site, final instructions/practice with full equipment on in waist-deep water, and the dive, which lasts about 30 minutes.
Ours was the first session of the day, starting at 8am (register on the official website or call). Calvin sat our quartet down for the dive-center training component, while another instructor, Alan, handled another quartet. There is a minimum of 1 instructor per 4 people, and as it happened on this day the ratio was 3/8.
Calvin showed us all equipment to be used, explained how the air tanks and weights work underwater, gave us the chance to test the breathing apparatus and putting on masks, taught us safety rules, hand signals for directions, stop-start, equipment indications, etc., and finished with a description of the environment we would be immersing ourselves in and eco-protection instructions to ensure no damage to the reefs. We finished with each person reading a form asking about health conditions and containing a short test to demonstrate understanding of the session’s concepts/instructions. On passing, we could sign and Taiwan Dive Center would accept taking us out.
After the short drive to the dive site in the center’s trucks, just south of Houbihu Fishing Harbor, we donned all gear with the help of our instructors and entered waist-deep water between upraised reef-coral. A 10-minute session followed; each person was asked to go down on his/her knees individually and test their equipment and technique in shallow water, instructors checking closely.
Then – launch! We headed out to a spot about 30 meters offshore. Weaker swimmers who find the surface waves strong can ask the instructors to help, using a rope tow. The full group then descended in unison, one meter at a time, stopping each meter to pinch noses as pressure increased, allowing bodies to adjust. As we did so, our world changed, with a never-ending panoply of marine-stage actors sallying forth to entertain us from stage-left and stage-right, as well as stage-below, -above, and deep beyond. I felt like I was inside a kaleidoscope. Our 30 minutes underwater felt time-disconnected, yet at the same time flashed by in the blink of – dare I say, oh yes I do – a fish-eye.
Kenting is home to over 40 species of stony (reef-building) coral, over 40 of soft coral, and over 1,100 types of reef fish. On this day we saw clown fish, angel fish, parrot fish, surgeon fish, knife fish, hiding eels (no threat), urchins – and best of all for me, seahorses. And much, much more that landlubber I am still checking out in my reference books.
A great day.
Want to add some color to your life? A Kenting dive is just the canvas, in the most literal and figurative sense. See you under the Taiwan waves.
A Final Note: Taiwan is among the most inexpensive places in Asia to obtain PADI certification, which involves a multi-day program. Taiwan Dive Center’s Discovery Scuba Diving session costs NT$2,500 per person (private and group rates available); if afterwards you’d like to take the PADI Open Water Class, it offers an NT$1,000 discount.
Here are two other premier Taiwan dive outfits also experienced with handling international visitors, from beginners up: Green Island Adventures (www.greenislandadventures.com) and Liquid Sports (www.liquidsportpenghu.com).
Beyond Kenting Diving – Taiwan’s Other Premier Diving Destinations
On the northeast coast, Longdong (Dragon Hole) Bay is one of northern Taiwan’s most popular swimming spots and its best diving location, with a stirring array of marine life in its clear, deep-blue subtropical waters. The powerful Kuroshio Current courses close to shore here, bringing in a magical-circus natural aquarium of pretty-painted and wondrously shaped saltwater denizens. The northeast is rich in soft-coral patches along coastal underwater walls, as well as colonies of resplendent sea fans, especially in strong-current locations.
Green Island rides the waves 33 kilometers off the main island’s southeast coast. There is year-round diving/snorkeling here, with visibility clearest in winter. Nutrients from the renowned saltwater hot spring on the south tip, developed as a tourist draw, nourish stunning coral and over 600 types of fish. A special attraction for divers is the wintertime schools of visiting hammerhead sharks.
Lanyu (Orchid Island), not far south of Green Island, has good dive sites off its east, where both shallow- and deep-water coral reefs are found.
In the 1500s Portuguese mariners christened the Penghu Islands archipelago the Pescadores, inspired by the tremendous abundance of fish found there. The islands are located between Taiwan and mainland China in the Taiwan Strait, through which a branch of the fecund and forceful Kuroshio Current flows. Scuba outings here are more suited to experienced divers and divers in groups led by experienced guides. The benefit of the stronger Penghu Island currents is the bigger “catch” of far-traveling marine creatures.