Friday, 28 March 2014

Hong Kong Scuba Diving - a quick guide

As an avid scuba diver, and one who has done a fair amount of dives in local (HK) waters, I figured that a post on such a topic might actually be quite useful to non-locals/tourists who fancy taking the plunge when over here but had no idea it was possible (in HK). Or perhaps even a local resident who wants to learn, but feels that HK doesn’t provide a decent enough environment? Yeah, I know, a post on my blog that might actually be useful to someone!
I’ll be honest, despite having visited HK on many occasions prior to finally living here (maybe 5 or 6 trips), I never even really considered it to be somewhere I could dive as well and it wasn't until a pre-migration flat hunting trip in 2005 that I decided to...test the water.

A quick internet search brought me attention to a company called Splash Hong Kong – at the time owned and run by a nice chappy called Damon Rose – and I was taken for a shore dive at Lobster Bay (Lung Ha Wan). Damon was operating the business out of the back of his van at the time and so was limited to various shore sites accessible by car. I'll be honest, having been spoilt with dive trips all over the world, I wasn’t overly impressed with the experience but there was enough there to make me want to explore some of the more remote sites on offer.

Incidentally, Damon sold up and moved back to the UK but Splash HK lives on under the expert guidance of Darren Gilkison. I haven’t dived with them since Damon left, but I have friends who do and he comes in as a top recommendation. More of that later though.

Plate coral at East Dam, Sai Kung

Okay, so after that rather long-winded build up, here is some information that you should know if you want to dive in HK.

First off a disclaimer: if you prefer warm water tropical diving then you may as well stop reading right now because you won’t find it in HK. Yes, the water gets to a nice tropical warm 30° in the summer but the lack of visibility means that HK will never be able to compete with top international destinations around the area (e.g Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia etc). However, if you like getting wet, exploring nooks and crannies and seeing some interesting if not abundant marine life, then HK could be just for you. So here we go…

Pearl Spots at Tsim Jau

Some basics…

Scuba diving in HK has a long tradition mainly thanks to the large presence of the British military over the years and their preferred choice of training system courtesy of B.S.A.C (British Sub Aqua Club).

Since its prohibitively expensive infancy (another reason why it was mainly the British military who took part – good old M.O.D funding), scuba has grown immensely popular in HK as it has done around the world and many shops and diving operations have sprung up as a result. There are currently around 30+ diving operations based in HK now, ranging from small training clubs that provide personal training and perhaps guided overseas trips to the big ones that run the whole shebang; local diving, equipment, training, holidays, overseas dive trips etc. All the main diving organisations are well represented here: PADI, BSAC, NAUI, SSI, CMAS as well as various technical training association as well.

Where can you dive?

Strictly speaking (and this has been confirmed in writing by the Marine Dept) there is almost NO LIMIT to where you can dive in Hong Kong. The only restrictions apply to inland reservoirs run by the W.S.D, the Cape D’Aguilar Marine Reserve run by the A.F.C.D (but used for research by the H.K.U.S.T) and private marinas. There is also the channel between Beaufort and Po Toi Islands which is the deepest part of the sea around HK (it drops down to between 50-70m) and as such is used for dumping explosive ordnance, and there are various sites, such as Waglan Island, which  are off limits to boats (but not divers it seems). On top of that, common sense should be applied to areas around the shipping lanes - you don't want to pop your head up from a dive and find a 20,000 tonne container ship bearing down on you! But hey, that still leaves about 99% of HK’s 800+ km of coastline where you can heave-to over the side and go for a dive. Hooray!

Some of the larger operations that run day boats have a prearranged trip schedule for the whole season. It can give the local diver an idea of what sort of sites are available and popular but more often than not inclement weather determines on whether or not a site is reachable, let alone diveable.

When can you dive?

Theoretically, HK’s sub-tropical climate allows for year-round diving, water temp dipping to about 15-17°C in the winter (Jan/Feb) and gradually increasing in warmth, a few degrees a month, until it peaks in the summer (Jul/Aug) at 30°C. In practice local divers are a bit wimpy (me included) and as soon as the water temp starts to drop, their interest wanes and the c-c-c-c-cold low season starts. So the season effectively runs from March/April through to Oct/Nov. Many of the larger clubs cease running their boats in the ‘off season’ - for maintenance purposes - and therefore it can be difficult to get to the more remote (and therefore) better sites.

However, a few operations may keep a boat available for private parties to charter (usually requiring a minimum number of divers: 8-10) and it is still possible to go for a dive with some of the smaller clubs that go shore diving or perhaps run their own smaller speedboats. Some clubs have enough members to make it worthwhile with a private charter and it is always possible to get on board these trips if you know someone or can be put in touch with someone who can help.

What to wear?

When the winter temperature drops then a semi-dry, 5mm suit and a hood is normally enough to keep away the cold. Drysuits could be worn if you wanted but actually even at its coldest HK never really gets cold enough to warrant a drysuit, at least for the majority of dives.

During the summer and 3mm suit or even a skin is suitable attire and there is no need for hoods. Surface temps may even be suitable for skin diving but for longer deeper dives I am pretty sure that you would start to feel the cold.

What is there to see?

Believe it or not, HK has a wide variety of marine and fish life. In fact recent surveys have shown that there are more than 400 reported varieties of fish in HK waters – a figure that is even higher than the Caribbean. A recent fish ID book published by the Eco-education & Resources Centre (E.R.C) lists and describes most of the known species in HK. It's quite an eye opener (details on where/how to buy are below). It’s hard to believe that a place that sees such huge pressure on its marine environment could be home to so many different types of fish, but there you go. HK has some nice surprises.

Cup coral at Basalt Island (Fo Sek Jau)

There are also a fair number of coral communities here in HK. The territory is positioned at the northern limits of hard coral growth, and the natural turbidity of the water (as well as human-made pollution) mean that hard corals can grow but are limited to the shallows (depth less than 3m). The corals that do grow here can be quite large but they don’t form the massive reef structures you see in other locales – hence the term 'coral community’ rather than ‘reef’ is used. There are about 80 hard coral types found in HK, some more abundant than others. Of course, there are also types of corals that are less reliant on sunlight for survival and heading into deeper water it is common to find cup corals, whip corals and often large coverings of soft coral. One of the best sites for soft coral is actually located in about 15 metres depth in a channel between north and south Ninepin islands.

What is the diving like?

I’ll be honest, Hong Kong has a long way to go before it can place itself as an international diving destination. For multiple reasons: pollution, over-fishing, apathetic government and general all-round abuse/neglect means that the marine environment struggles. The fact that the local marine ecology hasn't completely collapsed is astonishing. However, it is possible to have some great dives here thanks to the extent of the area we can dive, and the volcanic nature of the seabed which affords plenty of opportunity for exploring rocky channels, nooks and crannies.

On a positive note, a trawler ban that was implemented in January 2013 seems to be showing some immediate positive effects - fish life seems to be picking up and the water visibility improving now that the silt and mud isn't being stirred up with quite the same intensity as before. Of course, there is still a lot of illegal fishing and there is only so much the Marine Police can and will do to enforce the law (notice how the Marine Police are great at catching hauls of illegal goods but are really crap at catching the culprits? Hmm, why is that?)

Angular volcanic substrate at Basalt Island

The depth of most dives is limited, averaging out at about 10 metres. Given the way the mountains seem to soar from the sea, you half expect the underwater environment to plunge to great depths like the great volcanic pinnacles in the ocean, but it isn't like that. The coastline is basically rocky and as you head away the depth change is gradual. Rock give way to sand and sand gives way to silt and mud. It has it's advantages because it means that HK diving rarely gives you the need to worry about decompression sickness and safety stops are often, if not always, completely unnecessary. And even if you dive deep enough the standard 5 metre 3 minute safety stop is easily completed during the course of the dive.

The shallow nature of the diving means that most operators provide smaller 9 litre air bottles. These things are tiny, very easy to carry and still provide enough air for a good hours worth of diving. If you have good air consumption you could easily stretch to a 90 minute dive and longer. That's certainly around the longest dive I have done here in HK. The lack of depth makes it great for beginners, but means that techie divers will find it very hard to get any decent depth. Even when there is a site that extends beyond the 10/15 metre range, the visibility at that depth preempts any meaningful dive (unless it involves training). As mentioned earlier, the deepest point in HK waters is in the channel between Beaufort and Po Toi Islands, but it is an ammunition dumping ground and no one can legally dive there without authorisation.


What’s the cost?

The cost of diving depends on who you dive with. Most operations run a full or half day trip at weekends and the cost can be anything from HK$400 upwards for the day depending on how many dives you do, the equipment you need and how long you stay, but most will also include lunch in the price although refreshments such as drinks are usually provided as extra. Some operations provide discounted vouchers for those who do a lot of diving. You can often buy trip vouchers which give you a discount on the individual dive trips i.e. a single dive costs HK$400, but if you buy multiple trip vouchers the cost will come down for each trip.

Good dive sites

I have my favourites including Tsim Jau (in Tai Long Wan), East Dam, Ninepin Islands, Trio Rock, Port Island. They all have something to offer, I feel. For example, Tsim Jau has a huge bed of sea anemones that covers a huge par of the seafloor, East Dam has the complex underwater environment provided by the dam wall dolos, Ninepins has a significant coverage of soft corals etc. Places I have yet to visit but have good reports from include Tung Ping Chau and Breaker Reef (a submerged rock near to Port Island) and HK’s vast coastline and many bays provide an abundance of choice. It's just a matter of getting out there and exploring.

Shipwrecks?

Although HK waters are littered with wrecks most of them aren't diveable due to their precarious locations (too near shipping, too exposed etc). One of the more popular and reachable sites is the cement wreck at Yin Tze Ngam near Tai Long Wan. It's the wreck of a boat that was carrying sacks of cement powder that hit the rocks in a storm. The vessel sank and the cement set in the bags leaving them stacked up under water. You can see some nice pictures of it here, courtesy of Ocean Sky Divers.

There are some vessels that have been deliberately sunk as part of the AFCD's artificial reef program, but finding someone who knows where the good ones are can be a challenge. Also, there are plenty of historical wrecks in the waters but these tend to be off limits unless you are part of the local underwater archaelogical club.

Strangely though, HK seems to have an abundance of car wrecks in its waters. I suspects it's a side effect of the large car smuggling industry that was prevalent in the pre-handover days. Luxury cars would be stolen and driven to remote areas in the NT (including the aforementioned Lobster Bay) where they would be loaded into specially adapted speedboats and then smuggled into China. Not all smuggling runs were successful and often the cars would be dumped in the water to aid escape. As a result every so often you will come across the gradually eroding wreck of a car. There used to be one in Lobster Bay (is it still there?), there is one over at Bluff Island in Ung Kong Bay and there is an impressive hulk sitting in the bay at the Ninepin Islands complete with steering column, gear stick, radiator and four sagging wheels! Unfortunately I have no idea of the make, it's too corroded to make out.

Any dangers?

The main danger when diving in HK is submerged netting. There is tonnes of discarded nets down there from trawling nets that have got snagged to gill nets that have just been left in-situ. It is highly recommended to have a knife with you in HK when you dive because you just never know when you may run into one because even if you don’t get snagged you can do your bit for the environment by snipping up any nets you come across. If you don't they will just continue to snare unsuspecting marine life.


Scorpionfish

Lots of stonefish/scorpionfish in HK, some of them well camouflaged, so be careful where you stick your hands – also some pretty big urchins that can leave their spines in your elbows and knees.

The often low visibility can be useful for training purposes but means buddy separation is common. Agree on some lost-diver protocol before the dive.

Boat traffic. Despite all the various laws and regulations governing use of the water, you still get idiots on jet-skis and in speedboats that pay no attention to the environment around them. Just because you have a dive buoy floating above your head doesn't mean anyone is going to know what it is or pay attention to it. This is common when party boats are nearby and people in high spirits (and high with spirits) do dumb stuff. To be on the safe side ALWAYS carry an SMB and deploy it before you stick your head out of the water. And always assume a boat might be bearing down on you at any moment. Luckily most decent diving spots are away from the usual dangers from boats but it is better to err on the side of caution.

Lion's Mane Jellyfish - common in HK waters
Jellyfish: There are some big ones around (like the one above), so be careful when jumping into the water. I'm not sure how venomous they are but it's best to avoid getting blasted by their nematocysts.

Cone shells: common in HK - be careful and keep your hands off. Potentially fatal!

Bristle Worms: also very common. The bristles covering their body are known to irritate the skin if touched.

Blue Ringed Octopus: not native to HK but found here anyway. They're believed to have been introduced into local waters courtesy of somebody getting rid of a pet one. Interesting to see and fairly docile except when provoked. They're pretty small (the size of your fist) but if they flash their blue rings give them some space because they will kill you with their venomous bites.

So what about sharks?

In the early 90′s there were six fatal shark attacks in HK waters. There haven't been any attacks since 1995 but as a result the Govt are still very cautious, perhaps overly so, when it comes to potential shark sightings. For example, when a whaleshark turned up by Lamma Island a couple of years ago (2012?) the Govt closed all beaches within a 10 mile radius of the sighting! A sighting that everywhere else in the world would have divers climbing over each other to jump in the water, in HK it leads to beach closures.

Sadly, the chances of you seeing such a beast on your diving is virtually zero. In fact seeing any shark here these days is rare. The authors of the previously mentioned E.R.C HK Reef fish photo guide noted the presence of harmless bamboo sharks in our waters but other than no one has seen much. No one who dives in HK ever expects to see any type of shark, harmless or otherwise.

Who to dive with?

Well, you have a wide range to choose from. The bigger ops have large shops and large boats, smaller ops may just provide training and trips on other boats (they will block book spaces on one of their competitors boats). This list is not a reflection of my personal choice, just a list of as many as I can think of so you can do your own research and make your own choices. I’ve used several HK operators and found the experience to be fairly similar across the board.

Diving Express

Diving Adventure

Splash Hong Kong

Bunns Divers

LS-Pro Ivy Scuba

Ocean Sky Divers (big on spearfishing, which lowers their cred in my eyes)

Mandarin Divers (one of the few techie ops in HK run by some expat Aussies)

French Divers

International Elite Divers (website is Chinese but the guys do speak English)

Froggy Divers

South China Diving Club

Marine Divers

Hong Kong Underwater Club

For Macau you can try (though I've never dived there):

Cochrane Anthony Soleyn (CMAS *** Instructor)
Macau International Dive Centre
Centro Mergulho De Internacional De Macau
Rua De S. Lourenco, No. 18D, R/C, Macau
Tel: 853-28972929, 0086-13672733677,
Fax: 00853-28973158
Email: midc@macau.ctm.net
honourwaterrescue@yahoo.cn

Other information:

There are two great reef fish books available here. The first one is by Sadovy and Cornish and sprang from a PhD thesis I believe. It's a big book though and sadly uses dead specimens for many of its illustrations.

Reef Fishes of Hong Kong - HKUPress

The second book I recommend is the previously mentioned (and only just published) book by Ken Ching, Alan To and Stan Shea. They've spent the last 5 or 6 years building up a database of local fish using the Sadovy/Cornish book as a baseline. I'm happy to say that this new book uses live fish as illustrations and more importantly, they all seem to have been photographed right here in HK.


In case you can't read the information on there, you can contact E.R.C directly to order (via Facebook) or email them: erc.org.hk@gmail.com

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