Johor Marine Park
The cluster of islands located off the coast of Mersing, Johor is one of the best places to go for those seeking some quiet time away from the city.
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The Johor Marine Park was founded in 1994 has 13 gazetted islands scattered along its coastline. The marine park is also known as both Mersing Marine Park and Pulau Tinggi Marine Park, as the state's administrative centre is located at Mersing whereas the subdivision is located at Pulau Tinggi. Both of these locations have an information centre for tourists to visit for more information. The centre at Pulau Tinggi manages the 13 islands as well as the smaller clusters of islands located close to the islands. The 13 main islands within the Johor Marine Park are Rawa Island, Harimau Island, Mensirip Island, Gaul Island, Besar Island, Hujong Island, Tengah Island, Tinggi Island, Sibu Besar Island, Sibu Tengah Island, Sibu Hujong Island, Pemanggil Island and Aur Island. The islands form two distinct groups; the inner islands and the outer islands. The inner islands like Rawa, Hujong, Tengah and Besar are all excellent spots to head to for snorkeling and diving.
It is said that a long time ago, a boat carrying an Indonesian family was passing by this island when the father heard a voice calling to him, beckoning to him to settle down on the island. Believing that the voice belonged to the guardian of the island who was extending an invitation to him, the father accepted and the family became the first settlers on the island. They built their village at the foot of the rock and named the island Pemanggil, a local word meaning 'the caller'.
Located approximately 45 kilometres east of Mersing, the journey to this island takes roughly 4 ½ hours by boat. Many will agree that it is a fisherman's best kept secret, an island well known for deep sea fishing and a good hunting ground for marlins and mackerels. Pemanggil also has a few spots to appease a diver's interests. Boulder corals located at Kampung Buau act as stations for cleaner wrasses to operate their 'business' of nibbling dead skin and parasites off other fishes, swimming out from underneath these rocks when they see a customer approaching. Breathtaking sea gardens, with an array of soft and hard corals can be found at Kampung Pak Kaleh. These corals are home to a variety of reef fish like bumphead parrotfish. Just 20 minutes away is Teluk Kador, a secluded bay where a cargo wreck lies at the bottom of the sea. Now home to reef fish, humphead wrasses and rock cods are commonly sighted around the area.
Just south of Tioman Island lies a beautiful island known as Aur Island. Though the island's fame grew after an unfortunate Royal Australian Air Force F-111 bomber air plane crash in April 1999, Chinese sailors centuries ago have long known about this island. According to a map printed in the 17th century, this island was identified as two distinct islands, which was how the island looked from afar, with its two peaks. In the 19th century Aur Island was home to a booming population consisting of fishermen, traders and slaves.
These days, Aur Island is home to a tightly woven community with small villages scattered all over the coastline. Visitors who come to this quiet island are divers and foreign tourists, as access to this island is not easy. Not many boats come to the island from the mainland and vice versa. The journey takes 4 and ½ hours from Mersing just to reach the islands. There are a few other small islands located nearby, which is Pinang Island, Dayang and Lang Island.
There are some really beautiful diving spots here on Aur Island, the more famous one being Rayner's Rock. This group of submerged rocks, located at Dayang Island, is home to some impressive boulder corals where whale sharks, seastars, dacyllus, damselfish and giant clams have been spotted occasionally. The Pinnacles, situated at the east side of Aur Island is an amazing sight to behold. These underwater pinnacles rise 30 metres from the sea floor to within 10 metres of the surface. This diving site is roughly a half hour's ride by boat from the main village and is a good spot to see extraordinarily big shoals of juvenile fish like barracudas, fusiliers and groupers.
Some say that it is not possible to find a piece of heaven on earth. While this may be true, it is hard to deny the beauty and tranquility that is found on Rawa Island. This private island is surrounded by crystal clear water abundant with corals. With white sandy beaches and pockets of secluded beaches scattered all over the island, it is truly the place for city folks to unwind and calm those exhausted nerves.
There are two smaller islands located near Rawa Island which are also designated as marine parks; Harimau and Mensirip Island. Just a short swim from the drop-off point at the beach towards Harimau Island lies a secluded cavern. Rays of sunlight peek through a hole in the ceiling of the cave, warming the pool within the cavern. Mensirip Island is located not far from Harimau Island. As it belongs to the family of the Sultanate of Johor, it is deserted and no outsiders are allowed. Snorkeling off the beach, however, is allowed and it is one of the nice spots to snorkel around this area.
Forming part of the Seribuat Archipelago, Sibu Island lies 12 kilometres off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It is actually made up of four smaller islands: Sibu Besar, Sibu Tengah, Sibu Hujong and Kukus Island. Modern development has passed this place over as the island still manages to retain much of its tranquility. Though some of the younger generation may opt to work at the resorts on the island, fishing is still a major occupation for most of the villagers.
One of the water activities available here is scuba diving. At the north east corner of Sibu Island is Tanjung Semanggar, a diving site where waters are crystal clear and an abundance of coral and reef life can be found. Many creatures like the batfish, the blue spotted stingrays, nurse sharks and nudibranches have been spotted around this area. There are 30 dive sites scattered between Sibu Besar and Sibu Tengah Island. The general depth for these dive sites ranges from 15 to 18 metres. One of the more interesting sites to dive is known as Dolly Parton. A mix of hard and soft corals like table coral, sea pen, knobby cora and red sea whip can be found here along with different types of marine life like moray eel, jackfish, lionfish, boxer shrimp, cray fish, coral sea snakes as well as three to four different species of puffer fish.
Besar Island is made up of a cluster of three islands, namely Besar, Tengah and Hujong Island. In the earlier days, the islands were known as Babi Besar, Babi Tengah and Babi Hujong. It was said that a long time ago, the islands used to be overrun with wild boars. No one had any idea how the wild boars found its way to these islands. After some time, the word 'babi', which means wild boar, was dropped from the names of the island out of respect to the local villagers as no more wild boars were sighted on the island.
The biggest of the islands, as the name suggests, is Besar Island. Most of the resorts are located on this island. Though most of the fishing villages have given way to the modernization of the island, it is still an ideal location to go for a relaxing holiday. Besar and Tengah Island were the islands chosen to host a popular TV show in Europe known as 'Expedition Robinson'. The show ran for nine seasons until it ended in 2005. Tengah Island was previously a Vietnamese refugee camp in the mid 1970s until it closed down in the early 1980s. Today, it is a quiet island visited mostly by leatherback turtles who comes ashore to lay their precious eggs. Hujong Island is the smallest of the cluster of three islands which forms Besar Island. To the north of this island is another small island named Gaul Island, surrounded by crystal clear waters of the South China Sea.
As Tinggi Island slowly comes into view, one of the first thing that its visitors will notice is the cone shaped mountain towering at 2000 feet above sea level. This mountain, named Mount Semundu, is the reason the Chinese seamen nicknamed it 'General's Hat Island' hundreds of years ago. This same mountain is also where the island gets its name, as the Malay word 'tinggi' means high. Located about 37 kilometres southeast of Mersing, this island was once an important stop for spice traders thanks to its sheltered harbour. Now the island is home to an abundance of corals and diverse marine life as well as some beautiful underwater flora fringing the coral reefs. There is also a turtle hatchery and a giant clam breeding facilities on this island. A few smaller islands located at the southern coast of Tinggi Island is slowly gaining a reputation as a good place for angling, snorkeling and scuba-diving.
All the islands are accessible by boat from the town of Mersing. The journey's duration to each individual island depends on the distance from Mersing, ranging between 30 minutes to Tinggi Island and 4 and ½ hours to Pemanggil Island.