Malaysia beach resorts may not be as famous as their Southeast Asian neighbours, but this means that the marine life can often be more pristine. If you’re keen on snorkeling in Malaysia or SCUBA diving somewhere that’s an easy commute from Singapore, you should certainly be look at Rawa Island Resort says Adam Cheang. The Resident Divemaster says the reef there is some of the most beautiful and diverse he has ever seen – and many of the fish can be spotted just walking in offshore. He takes suitcases&strollers on a virtual tour of what it feels like to snorkel and dive at Rawa Island Resort with kids – get your goggles and swimsuit ready as you’ll definitely be inspired.  

The Sultan Iskandar Marine Park is special because Rawa Island lies in its zone. I have never seen a coral reef, so close to a beach, with such a high volume of tourism, in such a healthy state. The staff of the sea sports centre on Rawa Island Resort all love the ocean and intend to keep it that way. We inform all our guests coming through not to step on the corals and discourage them from kayaking or swimming and snorkeling at low tide when they have the highest chance of “resting” on corals or breaking them with the kayak paddles.

Sea Sports Activities at Rawa Island Resort For Kids

Rawa is also unique because it offers a chance to enjoy shallow dives (6 to 7 metres) just off the beach which are more interesting and beautiful than some boat dives that I have done.

Comparing it to other marine park, guests have mentioned that they have had a better experience snorkeling and diving here than places like The Maldives, both in terms of the quality of the diving and the quality of the safety standards.

For instance, our staghorn table coral 10 metres off the beach has also grown to humongous proportions and the range of fish – from babies to midsize to adults – and feeding styles – grazers (parrot fish, rabbitfish, butterflyfish) to top predators (sharks, eels, trevally, barracuda, Spanish mackerel) – indicate the health of our reefs. 

Typical Marine Life On A Guided Snorkeling Tour With Kids At Rawa Island Resort

The first thing is a demonstration of how corals protect themselves when attacked. Zoanthus coral (a hermatypic coral with extended polyps which looks like algae until closer inspection) is prominent on our house reef. To catch their eye, I will dive and swish water on to the coral causing them to retract into their skeleton of calcium carbonate and a very clear colour change is seen. If I free dive and swish water, a trail of where I have passed can clearly be seen from the surface.

Porites star coral boulders feature on our reef as well. Big bommies (coral boulders) are found all along the reef edge and on the inside as well. They support large communities of damselfish, angelfish, spotted groupers, coral trout, morays, sweetlips and snappers that take refuge from predators in the nooks and crannies available to it. Although some of the star coral bommies have been grazed on by sea urchins, other corals, more resistant to urchin grazing, have recolonised it. This is the cycle of predator and prey, birth and death.

Some of the bommies also house pufferfish, porcupinefish and the commonly seen blue-spotted stingray. 

Snorkeling With Kids

Right on the Rawa reef edge, at a depth of 7 metres depending on the tide, are a couple of giant clams whose shells are about half a metre long. If the visibility is good, lucky snorkelers will be able to see them from the surface. If it is not so good, a dive to a couple of metres down and snorkelers can normally see them, especially if I'm on the bottom, right next to them, pointing them out.

I will also take snorkellers to view some of my favourite species of anemone with a resident clownfish. Most people are familiar the common magnificent sea anemone with its Nemo fish (these are common on our Rawa house reef), but have you seen a bubble-tip anemone (bulb-tentacle anemone)? Ours comes with one juvenile tomato clownfish, so-named because of their deep red colour. It is really cute and comes out to you when you get close as if to say hello. But do not be fooled! The clownfish is the fiercest bodyguard of the anemone (also an animal) protecting its home from the slightest provocation no matter how big or small. This is truly my favourite thing on the reef. Accessible on a snorkel or a SCUBA dive, I never fail to visit it every time I go out.

Following this and a short swim (or tow, depending on how tired you are and your swimming ability) we come up to a field of magnificent sea anemone. Nestled in the staghorns are a large number of 60 to 70 sea anemones with different species of clownfish inhabiting them.

Along the way, I will freedive and attempt to spot other cool colourful stuff like crabs and shrimps and point them out to the snorkelers. 

On the return to the beach, snorkellers will be taken over the most beautiful coral beds on the Rawa house reef. Just before they hit the beach, they will be shown the colourful babies of the giant clams which have taken root in the boulders and corals that litter the reef edge close to the Rawa beach.

The Rawa reef is a dynamic organism and things move all the time. What I have written is general and involves mostly sessile organisms. No two snorkel tours are exactly the same. Depending on the time of day, the tides, the time of year, every snorkeler is guaranteed an absolutely unique experience in terms of what they may see.

Profile: World's Youngest Master Junior SCUBA Diver Charlotte Burns 

SCUBA Diving Around Rawa Island Resort With Kids

Diving at Rawa with kids is a great opportunity to watch a PADI Divemaster with 8 years of guiding under his belt in action. I’m focused on ensuring their safety, the integrity of their gear, conducting briefings, defogging their mask (the most important step) and leading a dive with confidence and an eagle eye for spotting critters. 

SCUBA Diving With Kids

We have two rather spectacular shore dives off the beach on Rawa Island. Again, no two dives are the same but being at depth with compressed air gives us a chance to spend more time under the water and observe the different facets of the coral reef behaving in their natural environment. 

Our first dive on the Rawa house reef starts out on the bommie with the giant clams. Schools of fusilier fish can be observed traversing the length of the reef edge searching and feeding on nutritious microscopic zooplankton and phytoplankton. The dive continues with the search for interesting critters that dot the reef. Polyclad flatworms, phyllidia (sea slugs) and chromodoris nudibranches are some of the macro life that we can find on our Rawa house reef.

There are many anemones that lay along our Rawa house reef but only two of them contain communities of tiny anemone shrimp. I will lead the dive towards the anemone shrimp and point these out. It is always fulfilling to watch the divers' eyes light up when they finally spot these minuscule critters up close and personal. 

Because of the shallow depth of the Rawa house reef, it is possible to spend more than an hour underwater if divers are conservative on air. This gives us a chance to marvel at the beautiful underwater structural coral which have taken several decades to form. Schools of striped snapper, long toms, zebrafish, rabbitfish, wrasses and clownfish are permanent residents of the Rawa reef. 

If you are lucky, we may spot a shark but be quick. A flick of the tail and they're gone! Schooling squids also do make an occasional appearance. Stingrays are a more common occurence on the reef as are groupers and sweetlips. Stingrays gliding out into the blue is a breathtaking sight! Cuttlefish are also some of the coolest things to spot underwater. Their ability to change their colour and blend into their surroundings never ceases to amaze me.

We do have a resident giant moray and some baby white-eyed morays living on our Rawa reef. Again, depending on our luck and other variables such as time of day and tides, they may or may not be seen. 

The second beach dive from Rawa Island on Dragon Rock (depth of 12 to 14 metres), offers a chance for divers to spot the pteraeolidia ianthina nudibranch commonly known as the blue dragon or aeolids. At a length of 2 to 7 centimetres, these feather-like creatures crawl along rock faces in search of their favourite coral dish in the same manner we humans scan a buffet line for your favourite item. Again, watching divers finally realising what they are looking at is remarkably fulfilling.

Dragon Rock is also home to Rawa's own spotted moray eel. This rather docile yet intimidating looking creature is a marvel to look at. Picture a snow leopard coat on an eel. That's exactly what it looks like. It takes a little searching before finding him but, luckily, I know the general area in which to begin looking.

Dragon Rock is a great dive site with isolated coral boulders spread out on the sea floor. Due to its depth, Dragon Rock is also home to some of the bigger predators such as barracuda, queenfish, trevally and the occasional eagle ray. 

Night dives are another story.

One of my best experiences on a dive on the Rawa house reef was watching a banded sea snake, one of the most venomous snakes in the world, swim around hunting for food in between the corals. It was absolutely breathtaking observing this graceful creature (at a safe distance of a bout 2 to 3 metres away, of course) gliding through the water effortlessly searching for its next meal. Knowing that a single venomous bite can kill added to the adventure and adrenalin factor.

Snorkelers and divers needn't fear however. Its head is barely the size of an adult's index finger and its mouth, tinier; its teeth, minuscule and it is never aggressive unless provoked.

To give some perspective, I've seen a clownfish win a fight with a banded sea krait. So you'd better be more afraid of a clownfish! Treat a sea snake with respect and you will soon learn that they are more afraid of you than you are of it. 

Beach Safety at Rawa With Kids

Snorkelling and swimming kind of go together but for less advanced swimmers, we have life jackets available for rent which will keep your head above water even in the most rough conditions.

I always keep my eye on the beach to make sure everyone is playing safely on the slide, jetty and in the water. Some horsing around is tolerated and even expected, but making sure no one gets hurt or is put at risk by the behaviour of others is a priority. Scream and I will come get you, Baywatch style!

Family Beach Safety Tips From Bondi Rescue

The reef edge is a short swim, less than 20 metres out from the beach. Strong swimmers normally make it on their own. Less strong swimmers and even non-swimmers are towed by yours truly on a round life buoy which is a permanent feature of the snorkel tour. Even strong swimmers hang on to it while I have a chat about what we are looking at or when they have questions. It acts as an emergency lifeline (the buoy is attached to me at all times during the tour). I've towed a family of four non swimmers (the maximum number of people I take out on these excursions) without problems until the currents decided to change. In that case I bring them out of the water and drop in ahead of the current and let the current drive us along the tour in reverse.

It is no more dangerous swimming around Rawa then it is swimming around any island in the open sea. Be prudent. Know yourself and your limitations. Know the tides and respect the tidal movement of the water. Lots of water movement means that the currents around the island will be strong. Lots of wind means it will be choppy. Don't be a hero. Wear a life jacket and a pair of fins. Although I know some strong swimmers who have gone around the 3.2 kilometres of the island without a life jacket or fins in less than an hour, not everyone is a triathlete. 

Sharks and Jellyfish at Rawa

The last confirmed unprovoked shark attack in Malaysia is so long ago, no one can even remember what year it was and there has only been one. The standing joke in the dive centre is that all the sharks are vegetarian so they only eat Buddhists! Basically, agressive sharks are bigger sharks which require bigger prey such as seals and penguins. These kinds of prey are only present in colder climes. Luckily, tropical Asia is not a hunting ground.

Jellyfish are almost planktonic in nature (unable to control their own movement) and are subject to the winds and prevailing currents in the region. We had an appearance of the blue-button jellyfish from Australia during the transition period between the two monsoons this year. They can result in mild, almost benign stings for humans. For microzooplankton though, its a different story. Other jellyfish stings are rarely that serious (in Asia anyway). Some discomfort will be experienced but this is generally quickly remedied by a vinegar rub. Again, be prudent. Refrain from entering the water if a jellyfish invasion is occuring.

At the least, wear a rashguard to protect from exposure to stinging cells expelled from corals. (Yes, corals sting too.)

What to Wear When Swimming at Rawa With Kids

Other than the regular snorkeling (mask, snorkel, fins, life jacket) and SCUBA gear (mask, snorkel, fins, boyency control device, tank, weight belt and regulator) which are all available for rent in the dive shop, I wouldn't really recommend a full wetsuit. In waters this warm, its a good way to get heat exhaustion unless you're doing three or four dives a day. However everyone's physiology is a little different. Some people get colder than others. We do not stock wetsuits for rent but we have a complement of rashguards which are more than enough to keep one warm in balmy 30 degree water. I generally dive in a rashie and board shorts. Unless I'm on 3 to 4 dives a day and a night dive. In which case, I'll bust out the suit.

We do stock kids sizes of fins and mask/snorkels both for rent and sale and there is not really a need for guests to purchase from the mainland and bring their own. (Although, having your own gear does make you more confident.) Of course, should you have eyesight issues (such as astigmastism or shortsightedness) you will have much more fun if you have powered lenses in your mask. You will need to bring those with you.

Sounds exciting? Want to know more? Come visit me on the island.

By Adam Cheang of Rawa Island Resort;  Images: Nick Shallcross 

This story was sponsored by Rawa Island Resort