When I came to Singapore in 2003 I failed to find anywhere to go diving in the couple of weekends that I had spare. Singapore is a tropical island but also has about 5 million people and very busy shipping lanes so it is not surprising that the surrounding seas are pretty murky. You have three options from here - drive to Malaysia, take a liveaboard or fly to one of the many great destinations nearby. My other pages cover places you can fly to so this page focuses on non-flying destinations.
The small port of Mersing is 130km from Singapore on the East coast of the Malay peninsula. There are a number of small islands off the coast which are popular tourist and diving destinations. The largest of these is Pulau (Malay for island) Tioman. Tioman has a number of diving operators and hotels to suit most budgets. We have not yet been there but did visit a smaller island, Batu Batu in April 2013. This was reasonably equipped for diving but also had fantastic villas, a beautiful beach and pool and great food. A lovely place to escape from Singapore for a weekend and correspondingly hard to book.
Tokong Bahara is a rock/islet about half way between Batu Batu and Tioman - a cliff of eroded granite with a light beacon on one end. The dive is a drift across coral gardens at around 17m max. Huge anemones (above) with plentiful anemone fish, other reef fish and the odd stingray. Viz also pretty decent. This was the only dive we did that weekend (we dived it twice) so until I go to Tioman that is my only write up of Mersing diving.
The Riau Islands stretch south of Singapore and are part of Indonesia. Beyond the larger islands of Batam and Bintan are a string of smaller islands, many uninhabitted. This is where I went on a liveaboard one weekend looking for dive sites. Singapore liveaboards are popular but if you go for the weekend you are limited by the range of the boat. Generally you leave on Friday evening, earlier or later depending on the destination and the boat travels overnight to the first dive site. Most popular trips are to the Tioman area (see above) or East towards the Anambas Islands. Our trip on MV Nautica was more speculative looking for new dive sites rather than visiting old favourites. It is harder to get away from the city and large island sediment if you go south. Great views above the water like the sunrise above but a bit murkier below.
Pom Pong Isand is one of our first dives on the Riau trip. Not great viz and to be honest not the greatest dive site. We are not in a nature reserve so the fish and coral are OK but nothing fantastic (see above). Other dives had better viz as we got further south but nothing spectacular. If you are still new to diving it is fun but there is a lot better diving within reach of Singapore. See here for my diary write up of our Riau Trip.
The Anambas Islands are East of Singapore - reachable by a long overnight trip by liveaboard. We are on a brand new diveboat (Diverace C) and they know the dive sites pretty well so you are more likely to find good diving. Our first dive is on Malang Biru, a rock sticking out of the sea in the middle of nowhere. We drop in to about 10m and then follow the slope down to a max of 28m. Lots of pretty hard and soft coral (above), and smaller reef fish. The diving on Repong, another rocky islet to the East, is similar. Few larger fish and signs of dynamite fishing in places but generally good coral and viz, smaller fish, turtles, rays and eels. Our best dive was at sunset back on Malang Biru when a lot more fish appeared.
The Igara Wreck is about 70m east of Singapore and where we (and several other dive boats) stop for our dives on Sunday morning. This Italian cargo ship sank in 1973 and was one of the largest marine insurance claims at the time. The stern section of the wreck has been salvaged but this still leaves a large, impressive main section sitting upright on the seabed in about 40m of water. The deck is at 17m. In two dives we explore both sides of the wreck, swimming through large cracks into the holds and exploring the bow storage cabins. Viz was average and there was also some current. A big and impressive wreck. See a writeup of the trip here.
There are plenty of diveshops in Singapore who can arrange trips for you, or alternatively you can go directly to the liveaboard operators. I booked the Diverace trip via Waikiki Dive Centre and the Riau trip via Ekodivers. The trips are quite expensive as there is a lot of fuel to get to the dive sites. Comfort on board varies - Diverace C was excellent and Nautica pretty good. If diving in a group you can bunk up in cabins of four. More roomy twins are usually available as well. I am told that some of the older dive boats are less luxurious and some are very big. If you have 30 divers on board it can get pretty crowded. In my experience the boats serve decent food and both had good diving facilities. Diverace also had a lot of relaxing space and even showed movies in the evening. The trips usually leave from the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal between about 6.30pm and 10.30 for the Tioman trips. This is a bit of a hike from Central Singapore so make sure you leavetime to get there.
To get to Mersing and the resorts on Tioman and the nearby islands you need to cross into Malaysia and then drive for around 90 minutes. At peak times the border crossing can take quite a while. Mersing harbour is tidal so you need to get the timing right or it can be a long wait to get across. There are ferries to Tioman and you can arrange speed boat crossings too for a price. The Singapore dive shops organise trips, sometimes including an overnight stay in Mersing on Friday night. If you do it yourself you can hire a taxi to take you there and back from Singapore. We stayed at the fine and rather luxurious Batu Batu, which as mentioned above is not primarily a dive resort and you would need to check out if they still offer diving if you go there. Otherwise there is plenty of choice on Tioman itself.
The diving season in this area is from February to the end of November. June and July can have worse viz because of plankton. The water temperature is generally around 29C- comfortable in the thinnest wetsuits. In places like the Anambas I would definately carry a large SMB as you are in the middle of nowhere and don't want the boat to lose you.