The South China Sea is home to more than 250 islands, sholas, and atolls grouped together in three archipelagos, namely the Paracel Islands or Xisha; the highly disputed Spratly Islands; and Pratas (or Dungsha as they are recognized by China).
These islands are spread across a vast area of ocean, although the actual land mass above sea level is minuscule, with the majority of important biodiversity hidden beneath the waves in the region’s coral reefs. The Spratly Islands alone are surrounded by more than 600 coral reefs, and are renowned for their highly diverse marine life.
Countries have wrangled over territory in this part of the world for centuries, although tensions have escalated in recent years, with China’s sweeping sovereignty claims over land parcels across the South China Sea angering competing claimants like Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
Other countries have also laid claims on various islands in the sea, particularly the Spratlys and the Paracels. However, in recent years, China has backed its expansive claims with naval patrols, as well as undertaking extensive construction and development projects on claimed territories.
Although the US government does not take sides in territorial disputes, it has nonetheless sent military planes and ships near disputed islands in what it describes as “freedom of navigation” operations. Japan, meanwhile, has staked no claim to the South China Sea, although the Japanese do provide military equipment and ships to other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
There are fears that the region is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious consequences for the global community. Nevertheless, the South China Sea is home to some stunning resorts, boasting picture-perfect beaches, stunning backdrops, and crystal-clear turquoise waters. In this article, we explore three pearls of the South China Sea, providing an overview of some of their best-loved attractions.
1. Con Dao — Vietnam
Situated off the southern coast of Vietnam, precious few travelers find themselves in Con Dao. Formerly a prison island, although Con Dao requires some effort to reach, visitors are rewarded with some of the most idyllic beaches and best snorkeling in Vietnam.
In terms of unspoiled beaches, vacationers are spoiled for choice, from the stony Bai Ong Bay, where they can snorkel close to shore, to Dat Doc Beach and Dam Trau Beach, both a sunbather’s paradise. Popular with snorkelers and scuba divers alike, with regular excursions to nearby dive sites, Con Dao offers some of the best underwater sightseeing in the region.
Con Dao Dive Center caters to recreational divers and snorkelers, including beginners. Reached via a 10 to 15-minute speed boat ride, Hon Bay Canh is a favorite nesting site for turtles, which come to lay their eggs here year-round.
Most diving takes place at a site called the Horseshoe, located to the north of Bay Canh Island. With a shallow area for snorkelers and reaching depths of up to 18 meters for divers, the Horseshoe incorporates two main reefs, one consisting mainly of table coral and the other branching coral. Here, divers can encounter a wide range of rare and interesting marine species, including angelfish, clownfish, pufferfish, snappers, scorpionfish, and colorful nudibranch.
2. Tengah Island — Malaysia
Located within Johor Marine Park, Tengah Island is an idyllic retreat, its resorts operating with a strong focus on the preservation of its fragile biodiversity. Boasting acres of coconut groves, fine sandy beaches, and rocky outcrops, Tengah Island lies off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.
Tengah Island Conservation is a biodiversity management organization based on Long Beach. The nonprofit is dedicated to research, regeneration, and rehabilitation of the Tengah Island’s natural environment. Partnering with the Department of Fisheries, Tengah Island Conservation opened Turtle Watch Camp in 2014. Over the years, with more scientists joining the team, Tengah Island Conservation has expanded its operational scope beyond turtles, implementing wider marine and terrestrial projects.
In addition to diving and snorkeling, popular local activities include boat trips, paddleboarding, and kayaking. Meanwhile on dry land, Tengah Island boasts several hiking trails, catering to visitors of all fitness levels and abilities, and presenting the opportunity to explore the jungle and spectacular rock formations, enjoy stunning views across the ocean and surrounding islands, and observe the island’s wild fauna and flora, including 200 native plant species.
3. Hainan Island — China
Having garnered an international reputation as “China’s Hawaii,” in addition to serving as a popular vacation destination, Hainan Island is an important strategic military base.
This tropical island attracts the Chinese middle class with its five-star resorts, duty free shopping, and sandy beaches, and like Hawaii, Hainan Island is home to several key military bases.
China’s most southerly province, Hainan’s capital is Sanya, a city known for its world class beaches, bays, and stunning ocean views. With lush jungles spread across the island, Hainan is a lush, emerald world of tropical trees, tranquil rivers, and low-key trails, making it an ideal destination for hikers, while for beach lovers, Haitang Bay enjoys a secluded location, with nearby Wuzhizhou Island boasting some of the best diving that China has to offer.