What you need to know
Taiwan may not be renowned for its scuba diving, but the island is hiding some beautiful sites for divers of all levels. That is, if citizens and officials do their part to protect them.
By Jules Quartly
An island nation surrounded by the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan doesn’t merit a mention in the world’s top 100 diving lists. This omission comes despite Taiwan’s considerable natural advantages, diverse array of fish species and corals, plus the establishment of three marine parks. The island tends to be viewed from afar merely as a stopover point to more glamorous diving sites in Asia.
It’s easy to understand why. First, Taiwan is known for industry, not nature. Second, the country’s coastal areas have been overfished since the 1950s, while the rapid development of tourism, plus divers collecting specimens for aquariums and damaging coral, have had a detrimental impact on the environment.
Even so, locals and those in the know believe Taiwan deserves greater recognition for the diving opportunities it offers. They are also quick to point out that its relatively low profile means the best diving sites are uncrowded most times of the year.
The reward is a marine environment that is ranked among the world’s top 10% for endemic species, according to the Taiwan Environmental Information Association (TEIA). Taiwan’s waters are home to about 1,100 kinds of coral fish, offering the opportunity to scope out 60% of the world’s hard and soft coral species. In addition, water visibility can be fantastic, getting to sites is quick and convenient, and temperatures range from a relatively bracing 76˚F to a warmish 85˚ (24˚ to 29˚C), making it possible to dive all year round.
“All-in-all, the beauty of Taiwan’s dive sites have yet to be discovered. Once word gets out, this is sure to change quickly,” summarizes the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), which is headquartered in California and has trained more than 25 million divers since it was founded over five decades ago.
PADI divides Taiwan into five regions for the purpose of diving: Kenting (sometimes spelled Kending), Orchid Island, Green Island, Xiaoliuqiu, and Dongji Island (an islet on the Penghu archipelago). Each site has its own unique ocean environment, but all are in the south of Taiwan.
The reason for this “southern bias” is partly due to the weather, as big waves are common in the winter up north, while the water can still be relatively chilly in spring. Though there aren’t as many reefs in the north, many local diving enthusiasts are fans of the Northeast Coast and sites such as Longdong Bay. Wreck diving, meanwhile, is an exciting option for more advanced divers.
For Simon Millward, program coordinator for the International Trade Institute under TAITRA (Taiwan External Trade Development Council), diving provides much needed respite from the grind of Taipei city life – complete immersion in a different world.
“Diving is the only time I can fully relax,” Millward says. “The moment I release the air from my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and descend under the water, I leave the world behind. Under the water all I think about is my dive computer, how much air I have, my buoyancy, my trim, and the beautiful ocean environment around me. It’s the only time I’m ever completely in the moment, unbridled by thoughts of the past or future, just totally enveloped in the now.”
“I think most divers would agree that Taiwan is not in the same class for diving as the Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines,” Millward continues. “However, it does have some very nice diving spots. The one big selling point about diving in Taiwan is the accessibility. No matter where you live, you’re never far from a dive site. For example, in the summer, after just an hour’s drive from Taipei you can be diving on the Northeast Coast.”
Typically, Millward gets up early on Saturdays and rides the High Speed Rail to Kaohsiung. He hails a shared taxi to Kenting and can be in the water by lunchtime, getting in three or so dives before finishing up for the day. If he fancies Xiaoliuqiu instead, it’s a 30-minute ferry ride to the island. “Just jump on a scooter, head to your favorite dive shop, gear up, and say ‘hello’ to the sea,” he says.
Millward recommends getting together a group of three or four friends and sharing the cost of hiring a dive master. He calculates that a Northeast Coast trip costs about NT$1,000 for transportation, two air-filled cylinders, and a dive guide, while a weekend of diving down south comes to just over NT$5,000, including travel, meals, air tanks, and basic accommodations.
“I doubt you would find many places in the world cheaper than that,” he notes. “Taiwan doesn’t have the most outstanding diving compared to other countries, but in terms of convenience, accessibility, and value for money, it’s hard to beat.”
“The moment I release the air from my BCD and descend under the water, I leave the world behind... It’s the only time I’m ever completely in the moment, unbridled by thoughts of the past or future, just totally enveloped in the now.”
Whether you’re a beginner or want to become an expert, Kenting in Pingtung County is Taiwan’s “diving capital,” says PADI divemaster Andy Gray, who runs Kaohsiung-based Taiwan Dive, an organizer of diving courses and diving trips all over Taiwan. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, he used to teach deep diving in the 1980s to marines at the Tsoying Naval Base. As a reward for his sterling service, he was accorded the honorary rank of major.
At Kenting you can see giant schools of barracuda, rays, parrot fish, turtles, swordfish, and even the occasional humpback whale. There are plenty of dive shops and both shore and boat diving. The water is warm most of the year because of the “Black Tide,” or sweeping Kuroshio current, which flows eastward up to Orchid and Green Islands or north up to Nanwan. It is this nutrient rich tide that is responsible for attracting so many fish to these shores.
Asked about other diving spots, Gray responds at length about the merits of Keelung and Fulong on the Northeast Coast. He thinks Green Island and Xiaoliuqiu are “probably best overall.” Penghu’s Dongji Island is clean, and has great reefs and plenty of fish, but is difficult to access, while strong tides and winds may make it a hit-or-miss trip. Orchid Island has some of the best underwater visibility in the world at about 50 meters because there is no water flow from rivers.
That said, Gray launches into a passionate speech about the need to protect the marine environment before it’s too late. “The problem with Orchid Island is, it’s fished out. All the tourists eat seafood dinners and the locals eat the flying fish. There are goats, but they hardly ever eat them unless it’s a special occasion. Islanders blame fishing boats, but they don’t help by spearfishing.”
"This is the bad thing about diving in Taiwan. The authorities don’t have the will to enforce marine laws.”
Gray says spearfishers generally target the largest of the species, but this causes great harm because they are the healthiest and most productive fish, responsible for fertilizing the gene pool. He mentions the case last year of a friendly, 53-kilogram Napoleon fish that was famous among divers in Xiaoliuqiu…until someone speared it for sport.
“There used to be jewfish (now known as goliath groupers) on Green Island,” he recounts. “They were massive, two meters long and 1.5 meters around, but they’re all fished out now. This is the bad thing about diving in Taiwan. The authorities don’t have the will to enforce marine laws.”
While Taiwan can boast three marine parks – Kenting National Park, Dongsha Atoll National Park, and South Penghu Marine National Park – Gray considers this situation to be less positive than it sounds. Dongsha, for instance, located in the Pratas Islands in the South China Sea, is not open to public tourism, and some commentators believe its national park status is just a convenient way of buttressing territorial claims.
As for Kenting, Gray says the authorities pay lip service to conservation efforts, yet divers and tourists are able to tramp all over the coral at Houbihu, a prime dive site. “What they need to do is build ramps, like they do on Green Island, so people can walk out into the sea without destroying the coral,” he suggests. “They say this would be too expensive, but that is short-term thinking.”
He also mentions the jet skiers, who tear around the Kenting coastline without any concern for the environment, or indeed the safety of swimmers and divers. By law, the jet skiers are supposed to stay 15 meters away from the flotation devices that mark where divers are submerged, but that stipulation is frequently ignored, Gray says.
Protect the environment
Another gripe is tourists who eat lunch on the polystyrene rafts that are towed out for snorkelers or banana boats. The garbage is tossed into the sea, and this over-abundance of food matter causes algae to form on the reef, while coral and sponges get clogged up and die. Most dive shops provide bread for divers to attract fish, but that affects the natural feeding habits of the fish, which no longer forage for food and instead eat the algae and clean the reef.
“This fish feeding is really bad,” Gray says. “I know every shop in Kenting and I tell them they shouldn’t do this but all they say is ‘If we don’t do it, someone else will.’”
Another huge issue is the dumping of sewage into the ocean, something that is obviously not supposed to happen in a protected area. Gray says sewage is collected from hotels and instead of being put in tankers for disposal, it is sometimes secretly pumped into the sea.
His view is corroborated by a number of news stories over the years and by academic monitoring of the coral reef ecosystem, which shows ongoing and serious eutrophication, or nutrient pollution. Most recently, on May 1, swimmers at Nanwan Beach in Kenting were suddenly immersed in a “black slime” that was caused by discharge from a sewage treatment plant, according to the Liberty Times.
Gray emphasizes that these problems are not limited to Taiwan, but rather “something that’s happening all over the world.”
The good news is, it’s not too late. If overfishing were stopped and the reefs protected, “fish would come back, breed in those areas, and then expand to neighboring areas,” Gray says. “Damage to the reefs is not irreversible. We just need the political will to do this.”
Eddie Viljoen is another long-term Taiwan resident with a passion for diving, whose Green Island Adventures company provides cars for hire and full-service tours for visitors. “I came here from Cape Town about 17 years ago and stumbled on Green Island,” he relates. “I thought this is some of the best diving I’ve ever seen. It’s compact, with a diverse ecosystem of more than 200 coral and 200 reef fish species, so you can see more in one dive than you can on (Australia’s) Barrier Reef.
“It’s got warm water in the summer and winter. It’s all about visibility in diving, and here it’s up to 20 meters and sometimes more. I realized foreigners would love to come, so I started a small web page because there wasn’t much information in English and not many people knew about it.”
Fast forward to today and Green Island is a hot diving destination, especially during the summer vacation months of July, August, and September. In Viljoen’s opinion, however, the best time to visit is after typhoon season (June to October), as strong winds churn the sea and affect visibility for a week. “October to May is the best time to come, even Chinese New Year, though it can get a bit cold. That’s my advice. It’s not so hot or humid and there are fewer people.”
Like Gray, Viljoen is concerned about overdevelopment, pollution, and overfishing. “I said 13 or 14 years ago that a reef fish is worth more underwater than on a dinner plate, because it draws tourism and divers, which bring in more money,” he notes. He credits the local authorities on Green Island as having done a good job of preserving the environment and organizing underwater cleanups, encouraging electric scooter use, and providing clean energy.
For Erin Wang, a travel executive for American Express, diving and conservation go together. She says diving was her dream at university, and after getting her open-water diving license she recently went to the Philippines to dive with whale sharks. But her favorite diving experience was on Green Island, where an artificial steel reef constructed in 2010 is now covered with soft corals and populated by increasing numbers of reef fish, some of them endangered species. “That is really meaningful,” she says.
The attraction of putting on a pair of flippers and exploring the mysteries of the reef is easy to understand, which is why increasing numbers of Taiwanese make the most of their leisure time and head under the waves. There are more diving shops, better equipment, and a strong, active community of divers has arisen.
“I love living here,” says Andy Gray. “I’ve been here 30 years and want to preserve what we have for future generations.”
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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS. (Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)
Editor: Nick Aspinwall