on 19 May 2021
It may surprise Hong Kong yacht owners to know just how much there is to explore under the surface of the SAR's waters
A river jellyfish provides homes and shelter for crabs and starfish | Photos: Simon Lorenz
It may surprise Hong Kong yacht owners to learn that their local waters, in addition to having great places to go boating, also have some great places to explore beneath the surface.
When it comes to diving in Hong Kong, the SAR’s underwater world is surprisingly diverse. This is partly due to its location at the outer fringe of the coral triangle, the world epicentre of marine biodiversity. An estimated 26% of all marine species recorded in China – over 6,500 different species – are present in Hong Kong. There are seven marine parks in Hong Kong and several coral-protected areas.
Hong Kong’s underwater world boasts almost 100 species of coral and over 500 species of fish – a diversity comparable to a top-notch Caribbean reef dive site. Divers can find clownfish, lionfish, angelfish, barracudas, moray eels and even frogfish. In short, Hong Kong’s underwater realm is very much alive.
Tubastraea (sun corals) can be found at dive sites with strong currents, such as the Nine Pin Islands
Over 200 species of nudibranchs – brilliantly colourful, snail-like molluscs without shells – have been recorded in Hong Kong waters. Harmless stingrays can be found with wingspans of up to two metres. Despite public fear, there are no sharks endemic to Hong Kong.
Scuba diving around Hong Kong’s 260 islands is relatively simple and can be done with some basic training. None of the dives are deep or dangerous. It is some of the world’s best “city diving” and most of the sites are easily accessible by yacht.
In general, the diving in Hong Kong gets better the further east you go, due to the effect of the Pearl River estuary in the west, where sediment and pollution are more common.
Hong Kong’s underwater world boasts almost 100 species of coral and over 500 species of fish – a diversity comparable to a top-notch Caribbean reef dive site
A large butterfly ray resting on the rocks in Port Shelter
Underwater visibility in Hong Kong can vary from 15 metres on a good day to as little as one metre. Winter and spring have the clearest diving when the cooler and clearer water comes from the Taiwan Strait.
Changing seasons and water temperatures bring different sea animals. In the cool winter months, nudibranchs can be found everywhere and seasonal sargassum forests spring to life.
The absolute sweet spot for diving is from April to June, when temperatures are around 21-22C and the winds are lowest. The summer monsoon brings pleasant warm water, but lower visibility. Even with lower visibility, visitors can enjoy diving in Hong Kong waters by learning to use a compass underwater (it’s not hard). The normal dive depths of 10 to 15 metres mean divers can easily surface to reorientate.
A clear bay at Bluff Island offers excellent snorkelling
In many locations, large yachts can anchor close enough to a site to begin the dive right off the aft deck. If not, tender boats can be used to get closer. Divers using their own yachts should of course take care not to damage their yachts with Scuba gear by laying down tarpaulins, or by getting back on board with gear on, rather than dragging it aboard.
Make sure you own a Surface Marker Buoy, know how to use it and make sure your captain knows to look out for them. It is possible to rent tanks and dive gear from shops such as Mermaid Diving in Hebe Haven.
The absolute sweet spot for diving is from April to June, when temperatures are around 21-22C and the winds are lowest
A diver at the Tai Chau sea cave
Even if you are a very experienced diver, it is a good idea to dive with a local divemaster first to learn about diving in Hong Kong. Some dive shops like Sai Kung Scuba offer dive services specifically for boat owners, bringing equipment and divemasters to your yacht.
Just to get started exploring Hong Kong underwater, some boaters may even consider a snorkelling excursion to such spots as the northern tip of the bay created by the Sharp Island Sand Levee, where there are some marvellous hard coral fields. Bluff Island has some of the largest hard coral blocks near the beach at Ung Kong. Double Haven and Hoi Ha Wan are further afield options with great reefs.
A colourful nudibranch (sea slug), commonly found at Hoi Ha Wan
HONG KONG’S TOP 5 DIVE SITES
The Nine Pins
The Nine Pins
The two groups of Nine Pin Islands reach out of the ocean like the finger claws of giants. According to WWF, this site is the epicentre of Hong Kong’s biodiversity, with the highest biomass in the territory. In the coral protected area on the inside of the bay, the floor is covered with clownfish- inhabited anemones, lionfish and pufferfish, and schools of damselfish dart around the divers.
The deeper water in the channel between North and South Island feature some of the best soft coral gardens in Hong Kong. Nine Pins is also known for special sightings like velvet fish, pegasus fish and even the colourful, predatory Rhinopias scorpionfish. The best place to anchor is in the protected bay of South Nine Pin Island at around eight to 10 metres depth.
This site is best dived on slack water days, when there is minimal tidal current, at the half-moon and with low winds.
Tsim Chau / Tai Long Wan
Clownfish are a popular sight in Hong Kong
At the “Mother of all Hong Kong Beaches” – Tai Long Wan – there are some great dive sites right in the middle of the bay. Tsim Chau and Tai Chau Islands, the rocky islets just off the beach, have clownfish, moray eels, scorpionfish and cuttlefish. In spring, there are even sightings of the rare green turtle.
Tai Chau is known for its diveable sea cave, one of the very few “caves” in Hong Kong. It is possible to enter the vertical cave, which reaches 20 metres into the rock. There is no danger as divers can surface anywhere during the dive, though it is best to dive the site when the sea is calm. There are more underwater caves and canyons around these islands, making it a scenic dive.
On calm days, it is possible to anchor south of the islands facing the cave, where the better diving is. Normally, it is safer to anchor on the north side. The best time to dive here is from April to July.
Basalt Island is one of the best dive sites in Port Shelter, offering both shallow and deeper areas to explore. The most popular area is the sheltered bay on the west side of the southern tip, which can be dived almost all year round. Sheer cliff walls drop into the ocean with several giant “teeth-like” canyons cut into them.
Diving starts where these walls meet the sand at around five metres. Huge boulders that have fallen into the water provide launching pads for lionfish and scorpionfish hunting damselfish. The rocks also provide habitat for boxing shrimp and on some occasions blue-ringed octopus and frogfish.
The sea floor is covered in anemones and their clownfish inhabitants. Large cuttlefish can be seen here quite often as well as angelfish, butterflyfish and occasionally cowfish. Venturing to the deeper plateau at around 15 metres is well worth it for the huge black coral bushes that provide a home to many fish, cowrie slugs and occasionally xeno crabs. Many whip corals and red goby fish can also be found.
It is very easy to anchor in the southwest bay, which is sheltered even on rough days. On calm days there is also good diving in the northeast and southeast areas of the island.
Snorkelling in Hong Kong is an easy way to start exploring
The Eastern Dam of High Island Reservoir in Sai Kung Country Park is one of the most unusual sites for diving in Hong Kong. Nestled between cliff walls of the hexagonal rock formations of the Sai Kung Geopark lies this massive, man-made wave barrier offering an unusual topography for divers and snorkellers with its rich marine life. It is a magical impression of a sunken underwater city that is often frequented by huge schools of damselfish and wispy sawtooth barracudas.
The cement dolosses create a maze of caves, caverns and bridges that provide habitat for shadow-loving fish such as squirrelfish, bigeyes and sweepers. Yellow-footed rock carbs are easy to observe here as well as hermit crabs. Stingrays have been seen hiding in the shadows and some very large octopuses use the area for hunting. The best time of the year to dive here is spring and summer, but the site can be dived year-round on calm days.
Hoi Ha Wan
A wreck at Hoi Ha Wan, purposely sunk to create a habitat for fish and sea creatures
Hoi Ha Wan, one of Hong Kong’s first marine parks, offers varied dive opportunities, including some of the best hard coral gardens in Hong Kong. Old fishing vessels were sunk here to create obstructions that would stop other fishing vessels from bottom trawling, and to create a habitat for corals and water-cleaning shellfish like oysters and clams.
Some of these wrecks are about 15 metres below the surface and can be dived easily. They boast the densest fish swarms anywhere in Hong Kong and in winter are preferred egg-laying ground for nudibranchs.
For the experienced diver, it is possible to enter some of the structures that are still intact. The wrecks are best dived via speed boat from a larger vessel anchored just outside the park. The government has specified anchoring spots near Hoi Ha Wan for boaters.