Before my dive trip to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo most of my underwater experience had been around Australia. I’d dived the Great Barrier Reef twice and I imagined the Coral Triangle would be somewhat similar. But nothing could have prepared me for the unique beauty of Borneo and the diversity of aquatic life there.
The initial reason I went there was to write about orangutan conservation but I ended up being introduced to Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski, the presenter of Borneo From Below which showcases the underwater world of Sabah. Once I’d watched a few episodes and acquainted myself with pygmy seahorses and two-headed nudibranchs I knew I couldn’t leave Sabah without diving.
Ric Owen, one of the owners of dive operator Suba Junkie, suggested the following itinerary: spend a day diving Sibuan, transfer to Mabul Beach Resort and dive the next two days around Mabul and Kapalai, then finish the trip with a showstopper: the world famous Sipidan.
At a dive site called Froggy’s I saw my first nudibranch – that impossibly small, impossibly colorful mollusk that could easily be mistaken for a bright piece of coral. Once I’d spotted one nudibranch they quickly became an obsession. I spent every subsequent dive searching for these mysterious creatures. But nudibranchs were just the start of it. Over the course of three dives at Sibuan, I saw just about every fish and coral species illustrated in my guidebook. At least it felt like that. A few favorites included bicolor parrotfish, remora, and orange-lined triggerfish.
Mabul and Kapalai
While diving at Eel Garden off the coast of Mabul Island I got to see some seriously cool, and seriously tiny animals, like the Anker’s whip coral shrimp, the Bargibanti pygmy seahorse, and yes, more nudibranchs. I also got to see lots of big stuff too, like hawksbill and green turtles, blue-spotted ribbon tail rays and moray eels.
Then there was Kapalai, which isn’t actually an island, but a large sandbar. At the island’s House Reef you get to swim alongside wooden chalets, boxes and towers deliberately sunk to form artificial reefs. A host of wildlife lives on and around the structures, including orange-spotted grouper, flasher scorpion fish and long-jawed mackerel.
Everyone raved about Sipidan, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t live up to its reputation. It did, and then some. Thousands of years ago, corals formed this island by growing on top of an extinct volcano. Now it’s one of the richest marine habitats in the world, with hundreds of coral species and over 3,000 kinds of fish taking advantage of the nutrient-rich waters that sweep past the island. Barracuda Point, as its name suggests, is the place to see awe-inspiring schools of barracuda. Unfortunately, we didn’t find them. But we did descend into a tornado of jack fish, which in my opinion, was just as satisfying. Other favorites included Napoleon wrasse, barramundi, puffer fish, and snapper.
At one unforgettable moment, I found myself swimming with a school of 15 white-tipped reef sharks, and even became an unwitting observer to green turtles having sex just a few metres away.
While you can certainly go deep at Sipidan most of the interesting things to see are in the top 15 metres, and I ended up averaging only about 5 metres over the four dives I did that day.
The uniqueness of Sipidan makes it one of the most popular sites, and to dive here you need a permit which has to be organized through your dive operator. The permits get booked up days, if not weeks in advance so book early. But if you happen to miss Sipidan, don’t sweat it since there’s so much to see around the other islands.
Story and images by Elizabeth Alberts
Getting to Sabah: To dive the Semporna archipelago in Sabah you need to catch a flight to the tiny town of Tawau, Malyasia. Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore all have daily flights there. Once you land in Tawau, get a shuttle to Semporna which can be organised through your dive operator.
Getting to Sibuan Island: To dive at Sibuan Island, you’ll need to stay in Semporna at least one night. If you’re diving with Scuba Junkie you’ll probably want to stay at their accommodation, Semporna Dive Lodge. Or you can hop straight on a boat to get to Mabul Beach Resort which offers more luxurious accommodation.
When to go: Diving is great at any time of the year at the Semporna archipelago but the high season is usually between March and December, with visibility at its best in July and August. In January or February, you may get some rain, and the air and water temperature are slightly cooler, but the diving is still great.
Elizabeth Alberts is a freelance writer who splits her time between Australia and the United States. She’s dived in many places around the world, including Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Hawaii and Italy.