It might be a cliche, but it's easy to see why Malaysian Borneo is described as an underwater paradise. Its deep, clear waters boast kaleidescopic corals and schools of rainbow-coloured fish, as well as marine big-hitters including sea turtles, marbled stingrway and even whale sharks.
Here, Borneo expert Tamara Thiessen gives her top tips for making the most of a diving trip to this magical island.
When is the best time to go?
Diving can be enjoyed all year round, though some inhabitants may be seasonal visitors, such as Layang Layang’s hammerheads. Some say that April to July is the best time to dive, as tough weather during the northeast monsoon season can affect diving conditions and ease of travel by boat.
© Sabah Tourism
Surface water temperatures range from 24° to 31°C. A 3mm suit is sufficient for most diving conditions, though many people dive in skin-suits. Visibility averages around 20m but varies considerably, from 6–10m inshore to 15–30m-plus at offshore locations.
Where are the best places to go?
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Overseen by Sabah Parks, this marine reserve takes in about 50km² of islands, coral reefs and ocean. Fish in the marine park are as numerous and even more colourful than the corals: spotted, striped and patterned in a variety of rainbow colours. Pink-and-green parrot fish, the turquoise moon wrasse, clown fish, sea cucumbers and starfish are all common. If you are lucky, you might spot a friendly whale shark.
© CHEN_FANGXIANG, Shutterstock
The smallest island (Pulau Mamutik, just 6ha across) has the best reefs and coral, with clear, deep waters. It is Borneo Divers’ dive station and frequently used for both novice and advanced PADI courses. It is also an access point to the more vibrant corals of the TAR marine park. For a more remote experience, head to coral-fringed Pulau Sulug – the rocky northwestern side provides interesting diving opportunities with many sightings of sea turtles and rays.
© timsimagesuk, Shutterstock
The 80-minute speedboat trip from Sandakan out to the teardrop-shaped isle of Lankayan, across Sandakan Bay and into the Sulu Sea, is thrilling. The 14 dive sites in this Marine Protected Area offer an ocean cocktail of reef, wreck and macropelagic diving. With increased protection (relying on observation by Malaysian and Filipino fishing vessels), large marine life, including leopard sharks, marbled stingray, mimic octopus and giant grouper, is said to be making a comeback to the surrounding reefs. ‘Jawfish Lair’ is also home to yellow camouflaged jawfish. Lankayan Wreck – a couple of former fish-poaching vessels long put out of business – lies very close to shore. Though visibility was poor here when I dived, I still got to see stingrays, painted frogfish, harlequin ghost pipefish and schools of parrotfish.
© Simon Shin kwangsig, Shutterstock
Situated 1 hour by speedboat from the seaside town of Semporna, this island looks like little more than a cluster of trees above the water’s surface. Formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone, it took thousands of years to develop and drops off 600m to the ocean floor. ‘Barracuda Point’ is so-called due to the incredible vortices of thousands of chevron barracuda that swirl through it. Close encounters with turtles and sharks (grey reef sharks, leopard sharks, scalloped hammerheads) are common here and at the ‘Pinnacle’. The drop-off is popular for shore and night diving.
Mabul and Kapalai
Sitting on the edge of the continental shelf, 45 minutes from Semporna, these islands have very different ecosystems, and visibility can be low – as little as 10m – because of the sandy sea floor, especially at Kapalai. Nevertheless, their reefs host a dazzling array of odd and photogenic creatures, including frogfish and leaf fish, ghost pipefish, lionfish, octopuses, venomous catfish, elusive mandarin fish and a rainbow of nudi-branches.
© think4photop, Shutterstock
Mabul is a beach-fringed atoll, part of a 200ha reef, and is popular for muck-diving. Kapalai sits further out to sea on the same reef, separated by a sandbar. The resort’s house reef, known as The Jetty, takes in five wrecks and creatures large and small; it has in the past been named among the five best dive sites in the world.
© Sarawak Tourism
From soft corals and elephant’s ear sponges to massive sea fans, the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park is making big ripples among scuba-diving fans.There is good beginner and advanced diving available in the patch reefs, which are generally 7–22m in depth, and have few currents and visibility of 10–30m. The further out you go, the better the experience gets.
© Khoroshunova Olga, Shutterstock
Situated 10km off the coast of Sabah at the entrance to Brunei Bay, Labuan is a Federal Territory of Malaysia, a duty-free island and Brunei’s main import–export hub. With all those flunked ocean passages beneath it, Labuan has become one of Malaysia’s wreck-diving hubs, and Borneo Divers have a PADI dive centre here.