Ocean RoverThe South China Sea is a grey-green color reminiscent of a turtle shell, relatively flat and calm. The sun was strong, but with solid cloud cover, not uncomfortable. My wife and I parked ourselves on the deck of our home for the next 8 days, the Thai vessel Ocean Rover, a beautiful blue and white ship based out of Phuket and operating throughout Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. We had been in Malaysia for a few days, staying at the excellent Kuantan Hyatt resort. With our internal clocks adjusted to local time, we were enthusiastic to leave the main land and dive the reefs and islands of Malaysia. With many itineraries to choose from, we had joined one of the Malaysia Adventure Cruises, a relatively new offering for Ocean Rover that relaxes the diving a bit to accommodate island exploration, hikes and sea kayaking as well as fantastic diving. This is great itinerary, with up to four dives a day and time for other activities for those less inclined to take to the depths that often.

Ocean Rover
ocean-rover-kayak-7.jpgOne of the few live-aboard cruises operating in Malaysia, Ocean Rover has met or exceeded the stringent safety standards of the US Coast Guard and Britain, in contrast to other operators that are, well, not exactly up to code. Malaysia is very strict and protective of its eco-structure, and Ocean Rover has taken big strides in getting access to these areas. The boat is clean, tight and clearly well designed. The vessel was custom built six years ago with input from the crew, many of whom have been serving aboard this and the previous ship for over ten years. Build quality is excellent, and the bridge alone is impressive with multiple redundant systems, GPS and moving-map technology, as well as satellite communications and a full spread of electronic gear.

The Dive Deck and Lower Lounge
On the dive deck, there are personal, individual dive buckets to stow your dive gear as well as hangers for wetsuits and 2-stage dunk tanks for cameras on deck. When you return from a dive, south-china-sea-sky-17.jpgthe superb crew assist you with rinsing, hanging up gear and prep your tank with a fresh fill of air or Nitrox. Ocean Rover uses a membrane system for Nitrox fills. There are hot water sprayers to rinse off with, and a towel and cup of water are awaiting you between dives.

Inside the air-conditioned lounge, you will find a large library of casual & scientific books, DVDs and a huge plasma screen TV. Meals are served here, with two large tables for guests. Specifically for photo buffs, there are five designated areas with bright lighting, 110v and 220v power and storage for your gear. One of the other guests on this cruise mentioned he has been diving on dozens of Adventure Island Spotlive-aboard cruises worldwide, and that no other boat has such a nice area for underwater photographers. This is high praise, and worth mentioning.

The food is fantastic and served buffet style, with a mix of Thai cuisine and Western food, as well as fresh salads and fruit always available. The curries and seafood were excellent, many prepared with fish the crew caught right off the boat! You are welcome to an assortment of beverages from diet coke to pink guava juice, as well as bottled spring water. Beer and wine are available for a cost and they offer both local beer and wonderful Australian and South African vintages.

Upper Deck and Outdoor Lounge
This is a great area to sit and relax, read or have a tea/coffee break after a dive. The view is spectacular from the upper deck, and there is ample, comfortable seating for a full group. Snacks and drinks are always available from coolers, and the chocolate chip cookies were apparently an American request (and much appreciated!).

There are four state rooms on each level, with a queen sized bed below and one upper bunk, possibly for a child or very good friend. One nice touch: each room as its own bathroom with shower, as well as air conditioning. There is ample storage for your bags as well as a large hanging closet and desk area. Each morning after breakfast we returned to a fully clean & fresh room.

Ocean Rover Crew
Total capacity for the Ocean Rover cruises are 16 divers with up to 10 crew, 1-2 divemasters and a cruise directors. Our cruise director/divemaster was Hans, a great guy from Holland married and crew-photo-3.jpgliving in Thailand for many years. He speaks fluent Thai and English, and not only has a great sense of humor but a solid grip on how to wrangle a bunch of divers from the deck into the water and back again, with minimal problems. We had some real characters on our cruise, and even with broken masks, fogging and other little challenges, everything was well managed and taken care of so that everyone was able to get in some fantastic diving. The entire crew was very professional, friendly, smiling and always available to help with anything at any time.

An Adventurous Day
A typical dive day consists of an early morning wake up from Hans, “Guuuuuuud morning it’s wake up time, time to get up please. Guuuuuuuud morning it is 7 o’clock and time to go diving.” Honestly, I don’t know how I will be able to get out of bed anymore without a Hans Alarm® to wake me each morning.

After a delicious meal (usually consisting of cereal, eggs, fruit, juice, coffee, toast and some variety of Thai noodles) an authentic Swiss cowbell is rung and we are off to the dive deck to gear up. With each dive, I found my wetsuit draped over my BCD, ready to wear. As I pulled and prodded myself into the suit, Hans would usually give a quick brief on what we would see, as well as a reminder of safety issues to be Turtleaware of. Invariably, one of the crew would magically appear just as I needed to zip my suit or pull something on. Once you are geared up a crew member will assist you a few steps down to the whale deck where we would all climb aboard a skiff to head out to the dive site (the Ocean Rover does not anchor on the reef. Very cool!). Hans would ask us: “Do you have your mask? your fins? your computer? is your air turned on? and do you have your cam-a-rahh?” This mantra was both very helpful and pretty darn amusing, and one we will not forget on any future dives.

palau-lima-false-clownfish.jpgThe dive sites we went to were spectacular, with huge reef structures, tons of hard and soft corals, large schools of fish of all types and occasionally larger animals such as Hawksbill turtles, eels, blue-spotted fantail rays and a variety of sharks. We did not see any manta rays or whale sharks, but they are out there and have been spotted many times on other trips. If you saw “Finding Nemo”, this is the place to see all the characters"”for real"”on the reef. Anemones and various anemone fish were common, including the False Clownfish (Nemo). They are tough little buggers, and will actually nip at a finger if you get too close to THEIR anemone. By the way, they are about 3 inches long, and adorable.

palau-chebeh-hypselodoris-bullocki.jpgWe discovered a new type of critter as well: the nudibranch, or sea slug. Sounds pretty exciting, right? Actually, these little invertebrates are amazing, many with external gills, bright, colorful markings and of seemingly endless variety. One of the guests and Hans were really “into” Nudis as they called them, and after looking at some of their pictures, it is clear why these little slugs are so captivating.

palau-labas-white-eye-moray.jpgWith two dives accomplished in the morning, you then take a break for a tasty lunch served in the main lounge. There is usually time for a quick nap, or a camera adjustment. Later that afternoon, there are two more dives scheduled, but you can, at any time, ask one of the crew to pull a kayak down for you or to get whisked away to an island or beach, if there is a suitable place nearby (some sites were in open water or off of very small islands). We took one activity time to kayak to a nearby beach, and were lucky to see a giant bait ball with small bamboo sharks darting in and out to feed. This was in about 4 feet of water, so it was like watching through glass. We parked the kayak on the beach and donned our snorkel gear, swimming right through a second bait ball near the shore.

Huge BanyansOn another adventure activity, we decided to take a hike over Pulau Tioman. The hike was fairly strenuous, totaling about 4 miles, mostly in the bush and a good half up steep jungle trails. I loved it. There were monkeys about, occasionally grunting or screeching, as well as colorful birds, insects and even a few giant millipedes. There were few mosquitoes or biting insects, so anyone who is worried about malaria, don’t be: it is not common there. Parts of the descent were very steep and slippery, but the trail is well maintained and has a number of ropes slung about to assist you. Also, the crew was there to help us over, under and around obstacles, as well as to point out interesting animals and critters we might have otherwise missed.

batsOnce we were back in town, crewman Chai pointed out a tree overhead. It was filled with giant fruit bats, all just hanging around chirping and wiggling for space. I have never seen so many, or so LARGE a group of bats, each one with a wingspan of about 2 feet, their brown furry bodies easy to see even from the ground. As we walked through town we noticed there were at least 5 trees filled with bats, all apparently fine with being out in the daytime, hanging upside-down and chattering away the day like a bunch of school girls.

tioman-38.jpgFollowing a days’ activities, a wonderful meal is served, with the usual personal attention and sharp spices of Thai tradition. We would often hang out in the lounge, and sometimes hook up a laptop to the plasma screen to look at pictures, or watch a movie; other nights, we just sat around and talked, filled in our log books and read about Southeast-Asian marine life. If you are so inclined, there is also a computer available for editing and retouching, as well as a card reader to transfer pics to the PC. Others read books out of the extensive library on board, or talked on the outside deck. Just staring at the azure sea in the moonlight was a popular pastime. With so much to see, do and talk about there is no shortage of activities to fill your day and evening.

tokong-kamudi-2xtallfin-batfish.jpgAfter 8 glorious days at sea, we returned to Kuantan, sailing up the muddy river. The barrage of color from the many fishing boats was reminiscent of the colors of the reef, and a clear reminder that our time on the Ocean Rover was at an end. With a looming flight back to Los Angeles, we dragged our feet hoping to lengthen our stay just a few moments longer. We would greatly miss the magnificent undersea world and sea creatures of Malaysia, as well as our new found friends aboard the Ocean Rover. We will certainly return for another adventure and a shot at seeing a whale shark or manta ray.

Underwater photos courtesy of Jeff Davies, UK.

Related links:
Ocean Rover
Malaysia Tourism
Hyatt Regency Kuantan

Written by Jesse Siglow and Jen Cook.

For more on Malaysia at ITKT