THE SPRATLEYS ARE A LOOSE GROUP OF CORAL ATOLLS, sandbanks and cays, sprinkled across the centre of the South China Sea. For centuries no-one wanted them, or even knew of them. Then, with the Vietnam War and advances in sub-sea oil-drilling, they took on a new significance.
     China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia all claimed ownership. Malaysia, however, staked its claim by building a military air-strip and small naval supply base on an artificial island that was supported by an atoll, a single submerged ring of coral. Its called Layang Layang.
     I first went there three ago in a little Twin Otter aircraft from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah (North Borneo). You can now get there using an equally sturdy but more recently built and quicker little Antonov 14-seater, crewed by Russians. The 190-mile journey takes about an hour.
     The runway is big enough to accommodate massive military supply aircraft, but thats it - thats all there is of the island. Its no more than a strip of tarmac and a cluster of buildings which is the Layang Layang resort.

Viewed from the air, Layang Layang looks like an aircraft-carrier, and there are similarities between staying here and staying on a liveaboard dive-boat. The differences include a much larger room than a cabin, a freshwater swimming pool, and nobody suffering from seasickness. Layang Layang is an aircraft-carrier that doesnt pitch or roll, and goes nowhere.
     Apart from the daily arrival of the Antonov with fresh supplies and new guests, there are few flights to and from Layang Layang, except for the arrivals and departures of the colonies of sooty terns and brown noddys that inhabit the far end of the runway and the rocks around it.
     When I last visited, I upset the owners and management by mentioning in Diver that Layang Layang stank. Well, it did. That was because the bird colony was so enormous that it encroached on the living space of those who flew in with the aid of small aircraft. The smell of guano was appalling.
     The bird colony has since been contained and reduced by a population of feral cats that have been imported to the island. This has had the effect of making breathing around the swimming pool and restaurant area as pleasant as one would normally expect.

The new accent on security of personal valuables is another palpable effect of that hard-hitting article in Diver. When I last stayed, two of us had our watches stolen, presumably by another guest or guests.
     Why go to Layang Layang Its a massive area of flawless coral resplendent in all its glory. Last time I came I even criticised this. It made the diving almost monotonous in its featureless perfection, which I described as wallpaper, albeit the sort Lord Irvine would have chosen.
     Times have changed, and I hereby take that comment back too. Since the global-warming catastrophe of 1998, there has been a world shortage of perfect wallpaper, and there are fewer places where you can now appreciate a coral reef in such pristine condition.
     Armed with foreknowledge of what Layang Layang has to offer, I arrived with the right mindset to enjoy it. I was bemused to see, however, that hammerhead madness still prevails.

Hammerhead sharks can be found anywhere in the tropics where the conditions are right. This usually means deep, cold water abutting the warm waters of a coral reef, the sort of places in which we divers like to dive.
     It is undeniable that hammerhead sharks swim in the deep, cool waters off Layang Layang, just as they do off the deepwater islands of the Red Sea and outside the atolls of the Maldives.
     But might I suggest that you do not go to Layang Layang specifically to see these creatures If you do, you will usually be disappointed.
     This hammerhead madness prevails mainly among resident dive-guides, and results in visiting groups of divers wasting their precious in-water time swimming off the reef and led out into the blue, in the hope of some close encounter. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!
     Whooping and screaming can be heard from those who get a distant, fleeting glimpse of a shark as it beats a retreat away from the noisy air-bubbling divers, and yet again I met disconsolate visiting photographers who had failed to get off a single shot of these elusive creatures.
     Layang Layang, it seems, is still being sold with the wrong proposition in mind.
     I refused to be drawn into this silliness and spent my dives photographing what I knew to be there. Let me describe such a dive. If I had a buddy, that is how I dived. If there was no-one who wanted to stay with me (incredible as that might seem!), I planned to dive alone with my camera.
     I dropped in and, as all the other divers headed off into the blue, resolutely concentrated on the schooling slimline barracuda. A turtle lazily munched on the coral, oblivious and uncaring of my presence, or the flashes emanating from my camera. A close-packed school of jacks glittered in the light. Batfish clustered and went about their business.
     Small grouper had their teeth cleaned - this is one of the last locations in Malaysia where there are viable breeding colonies of grouper and bumphead (Napoleon) wrasse. A super-male humphead loitered. A great school of humphead parrotfish, imitating a herd of bison, hung on the current in the shallows. Whitetip reef sharks and the odd marble ray lay on sandy ledges. Big pufferfish posed. Does that sound good enough to you

Ironically, the icing on this very rich cake was the occasional scalloped hammerhead shark which, channelled between two different groups of divers out in the blue, would find itself confronted by the reef wall and make its way up through the thermocline past me before beating a hasty retreat back whence it came.
     All this action went on with a backdrop of the most spectacular array of coral, and yet I climbed back aboard the dive boat to hear continuing disappointment from the shark-spotters. I avoided telling them about the hammerheads I saw, but my advice is that if you want to see skittish wild animals, hide by the reef rather than reveal your presence against a background of blue.
     The atoll of Layang Layang covers about 15 square kilometres and the map of the atoll is completely surrounded by named dive sites. However, there are two channels out of the vast lagoon and, in the interest of short boat rides, the divemasters tend to choose those sites closest to them.
     These are at either end of the atoll, and it is at a dive-site characteristically called the Point that the current strikes. Marine life likes a current because of the oxygenated water and nutrients that come with it, and the Point is undoubtedly the place to be. I did nine dives during my short, four-day stay, and would cheerfully have opted to do them all there.
     In fact to miss the Point is to miss the point of diving in Layang Layang. It is undoubtedly a world-class dive site.

Facilities for those staying on the island are adequate rather than luxurious. The rooms are air-conditioned but, for example, you can take a hot shower only between 5pm and 8pm each evening.
     This proved OK for me because after diving I could wash away the salt using the coldwater showers beside the swimming pool before taking a chlorinated dip.
     Thanks to rainfall of tropical proportions, there is always plenty of fresh water for rinsing camera equipment. Because of the high humidity, I found it best to open submarine housings and reload cameras in my air-conditioned room.
     However, you would not describe this as a tropical island paradise unless you have a serious predilection for hot tarmac! The 24 hours between your last dive and the plane gives you time to reflect on this - and to appreciate the TV in your room.

All meals are buffet-style, and a good array of Malaysian-style food accommodates all tastes. The comfortable bar can make that last interval before flying pass pleasantly enough, provided you are in good company.
     As I said after my last visit, take a non-diving spouse and the holiday will surely end in divorce. I stand by that!
     I recorded the sea temperature in May 1998 as being 29C, and this year in May noted that it was 30C. The coral and the symbiotic algae that sustains it seems to have adapted to this heat. I am hopeful that the reef at Layang Layang will survive.
     It has become a natural treasure and it should be appreciated for that as other coral reefs around the world die back. If you want to see a gloriously healthy coral reef in all its spectacular variety (but not necessarily hammerhead sharks) go to Layang Layang. Its guaranteed.

Large pufferfish with knotted-fan coral
hawksbill turtle feeding
massive sponges adorn the walls
slimline barracuda school at the Point
schooling bannerfish with a solitary bigeye
the Antonov can land on the huge runway despite tropical rain
Damselfish hide among the massed fan corals on the walls of the atoll
an elusive scalloped hammerhead


GETTING THERE John Bantin flew with Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu

DIVING & ACCOMODATION:A one-week all-inclusive trip to Layang Layang with tour operator Pearls of the Ocean costs from£1653-1853, depending on time of year. You spend six nights in Layang Layang (full board and three dives a day) and one nights B&B at the Pacific Sutera Harbour Hotel in Kota Kinabalu. Such a trip can also be combined with visits to other destinations in Malaysia or the Philippines.

WHEN TO GO:March to October

FURTHER INFORMATION: Pearls of the Ocean, 020 7932 0108, www.jebsens.co.uk.