When the 16th-century Portuguese sailors sailed past Taiwan, they exclaimed, “Ilha Formosa!” or, “Beautiful island!” Little did they know that the most alluring part of Taiwan actually lay underwater, right beneath their ships.
In the summer of 2014, Ben Sarinda and I were invited to Taiwan by Fun-in Underwater Photographic Equipment Co. Ltd. on a recce trip for a possible future return with Ned and Anna DeLoach. We were fortunate to be able to dive the northeast coast, Green Island and Kenting.
The local Taiwanese divers are a tough lot. Diving here is an intrepid activity, and normally involves staying at a local home-stay, driving your own gear and rented tanks to your site of choice, climbing down a small cliff, and walking through tricky rocks or dead corals into the water. Nevertheless, boat dives and other added services are indeed available in Taiwan too – they just come with hefty additional charges.
At dive site 82.5, we followed our Taiwanese friends down a simple stainless steel ladder and walked through big boulders before we reached a seaweed-covered bay. But, just a short swim out and we were in nudibranch paradise! Searching the muck revealed nudibranchs of many different genera, including Ceratosoma, Cuthona, Dermatobranchus, Gymnodoris, and Trapania. I was also shown a Doto species that is common here, but still undescribed by science.
Just as intriguing were commensal crabs that played hide-and-seek in their large jellyfish host that drifted by, and a resident blenny that gave a super star-quality jack-in-the-box performance in front of my camera.
Our good friend Perry Guo offered us his boat to dive Secret Garden, a site that is challenging and potentially dangerous to access from the shore. Although the water can reach a comfortable 26 degrees Celsius on the northeast coast in the summer, we were shocked to see our computers reading only 19 during this dive!
But we were off to Green Island and Kenting, which, lying in the path of the warmer “Black Tide”, offer quite different diving experiences.
Green Island’s most famous dive site, The Big Mushroom, is marked by an immense Porites bommie of more than 1,000 years old. Even though it was an overcast day and the seas were choppy, we still enjoyed an incredible 50 metres of visibility underwater!
Our dive operator Vincent Yu of Airfish Diving Center not only knew all the critters by their Latin names, but had also undertaken many exploratory dives on the island. Ask him about anything on your wish list, and he will know where on the island it can be found. Coral spawning? No problem: Vincent has the spawning dates of each coral species at his fingertips too!
For more nudibranchs, Vincent took us to Blue Hole, followed by a night dive at Hot Spring Harbour. It was nudibranch galore at both places! Of the many beautiful nudibranchs we saw, quite a number were still undescribed.
Most of the dive sites on Green Island are accessible from the shore, and most are home to three species of pygmy seahorses: Hippocampus pontohi, H. severnsi, and H. colemani. H. colemani was first spotted in the summer of 2007, and by the famous actress Qian-Lian Wu. A recent study by experts at Kenting’s National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium also revealed that this might well be a totally different species from the Australian variety that we are familiar with.
Getting there: Many airlines have regular international flights into Taiwan with airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Jetstar, Garuda, United, and Singapore Airlines.
Once in Taipei: Northeast Coast: Best to drive. You will need the car to transport your rented tanks and gear to the dive sites.
Green Island: Take a train from Taipei to TaiDong. Taxis from train station will bring you to TaiDong’s FuGang harbor, where you can catch an one-hour ferry to Green Island. There are also three 20-minute flights a day from TaiDong Airport to Green Island’s small airport.
Kenting: From Kaohsiung, there are buses to Kenting from Zuoying High Speed Rail Station, Kaohsiung airport, and the train station. At the train station, there are also shared taxis and minivans bound
Best time to dive: Year round in Green Island and Kenting, but summer is the best time to dive the northeast coast.
Essential training: Open water and up.
For more information: Note that on Green Island only the larger hotels on the island accept credit cards. A single ATM machine at the Post Office across the street from 7-Eleven, doesn’t take foreign bank cards, so be sure to bring plenty of cash. Visit www.immigration.gov.tw.