Some of the world’s finest scuba-diving attractions can be found in Malaysian Borneo, just off the Sabah coast. Mabul, Sipadan, Layang-Layang … the region is spoiled for dive sites of global renown. Sabah offers adventurous dives of every sort, from muck diving to macro life. The five spots listed here are by no means the only diving options in Sabah, the Borneo Dream, but they’re some of the most memorable.
1) Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
This marine park is made up of a cluster of islands that lie close to Kota Kinabalu. They can be reached via an easy 20-minute board ride. The water is shallow and the currents are gentle; coral reefs surround the five small islands. This is a perfect introductory Sabah dive. Novice divers can encounter a huge range of undersea life in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Some of the rarer sights to look out for are mandarin fish and harlequin ghost pipefish. Hawksbill turtles are common, and lucky divers visiting in the colder months (November to February) may even encounter whale sharks feeding on the park’s plankton.
2) Layang-Layang Island Resort
The Layang-Layang atoll lies 186 miles west of Sabah, and it offers intrepid divers one of the world’s most thrilling and carefully-preserved dive sites. Layang-Layang is a pelagic palace with walls dropping more than 2,000 meters. This is also a shark haven; divers can see greys, leopards, silvertip, hammerheads and even thresher sharks here.
Politically speaking, Layang-Layang is a disputed territory. This is a good thing for the diving prospects; the waters are kept safe and unpolluted by a small Malaysian naval base. (The base is off-limits to tourists.)
The only way to reach Layang-Layang is to take a flight from Kota Kinabalu. Diving arrangements and accommodations have to be made with the Layang-Layang Island Resort, the atoll’s sole tourist facility. The diving season is from March to October.
3) Sipadan Island
Centrally located in the Indo-Pacific basin, Sipadan has a well-deserved reputation all around the globe for having a remarkable underwater ecosystem. The reefs around the island are home to more than 3,000 species of coral and fish. Sipadan Island is widely acclaimed as the best diving destination in Sabah – if not the whole hemisphere. Sipidan has non-living dive attractions as well; its famous “turtle tomb” is an eerie cave system that’s home to countless sea turtle skeletons.
There are no longer any accommodations offered to divers on Sipadan itself. You’ll find the nearest accommodations on Mabul Island or in Semporna. To protect the coral in the area, dive permits are strictly limited. Only 120 are issued for each day. If you want to dive around Sipadan, make your arrangements well in advance!
4) Mabul Island
Mabul Island is growing rapidly in popularity. It’s not just its proximity to Sipadan; Mabul itself offers some superb muck diving. The island offers a range of accommodation options and you can dive without a permit. The waters around the island are rich, with a global reputation for exceptional underwater macro photography opportunities. Fascinating creatures seen on almost every dive include octopi, squids and cuttlefish. Mabul’s main reef perches at the edge of the continental shelf at 25 to 30 meters depth.
The jump-off point for a trip to Mabul Island is Semporna, which lies at the southeastern tip of Sabah.
5) Labuan Island
71 miles off Kota Kinabalu and easily accessible from Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei; Labuan is a duty-free island. For divers, its chief attraction is the healthy crop of nearby shipwrecks.
There are four wrecks well worth seeing, all of them no more than 35 meters deep. The wrecks are suitable for both veteran wreck divers and less-experienced novices. The wrecks are half civilian and half military; two of the ships (USS Salute and the Dutch SS De Klerk) were sunk in World War II.
You can reach Labuan via ferry from Kota Kinabalu or Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan. Plan an extended stay; the island has a lot of above-water attractions in addition to its wrecks!