I was in search of blue. But not just any blue; the kind of shape-shifting blue that reinvents itself with any deviation in depth or light. Aquamarine in direct sunlight, cerulean in the shade, transparent seafoam green in the shallows. While white-knuckling the edges of my bench on a boat crammed with approximately seven too many people, I could see it — that elusive, ever-changing deep blue sea.
We were just off the northeast coast of Malaysia, heading towards Perhentian Kecil. From Kuala Lumpur it takes an hour flight, a 40-minute taxi ride, and a 40-minute speedboat ride to get here, so it's just exotic enough to draw everyone from backpackers to families to honeymooners.
After washing up on touristy Long Beach (literally, you disembark in the water, so opt for a backpack), we almost immediately hopped back on a water taxi in search of sparser pastures. We didn't have to go far. Coral Bay, Long Beach's sleepier sister beach, lies almost directly on the opposite side of the island. The beach forms an arc that hugs the South China Sea, and from your seat in the sand the only irregularities interrupting your view of the horizon are a duo of verdant dome-shaped islands in the distance. On the north end is a proper dock for disembarking, on the south, a smattering of wooden chalets built into the rocky coastline. It was here we found Senja Bay Resort; really less of a resort and more just rustic cabins equipped with the basics (including air conditioning). But when this is outside your door, what else do you need?
Your day on Perhentian Kecil will go something like this: wake up, walk about 10 feet, plop down onto sand, read, nap, swim, rinse, repeat.
On our third day we took a break from this demanding schedule for a snorkeling trip around the island (booked directly through Senja Bay, although you can find a dozen or so other outfitters on Coral Bay alone). This trip was hugely disappointing. All six snorkeling sites we visited (coral point, turtle point, shark point, the lighthouse, and Romantic Beach) were packed with more than two dozen boats overloaded with passengers, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the coral reefs there were ravaged and bleached. Even more infuriating, I saw many snorkelers deliberately walking on and touching the coral.
Recent studies are calling for more regulation and limits to diving and other tourism activities around the Perhentians. It's particularly sad when you consider that Malaysia is part of the Coral Triangle, home to 76 percent of the world's coral species. Its important to note here that tourism is integral to the local economy, but at what cost? Pretty soon, there will be nothing left to see. From what I saw, the marine life was already almost nonexistent. Why hasn't the government enacted regulation to limit boat traffic and the number of divers/snorkelers visiting these sites? The Perhentians might seem like paradise at first glance, but if this continues, it won't be for long.