Sabah has an astounding array of beautiful islands off its eastern and western coastlines. This is why Sabah is regularly sought after by divers, as the seas are abundant in coral reefs and marine life. The islands also make a fantastic gateway for those who want an exciting vacation on the beach.
Located a mere 6 km away from Kota Kinabalu, the Tanjung Aru beach is a tranquil stretch of sand that is littered with casuarina trees; hence, its name (Aru is the Malay name for Casuarinas). In the evening, the beach affords a spectacular view of the sun burning into the background, painting the sky in red. Food stalls are aplenty along with a variety of seafood restaurants.
Pulau Kapalai is a hidden island between Sipadan and Mabul. It is actually a sand bar that sits upon a stretch of reefs, called the ‘Ligitan Reefs’. There is a water village cum resort built on stilts here, where you can observe the marine life that swims in the reef below.
Lankayan Island, located in the Sulu Sea North West of Sandakan is a small piece of paradise, complete with white sandy beaches, casuarina trees and beautiful sunsets. The surrounding reefs attract a variety of fish such as leopard sharks, marbled stingrays and giant groupers. This makes the island a fantastic place for diving with a shipwreck to explore in the vicinity.
The Layang-Layang Islands are named after swallows and actually man-made. It is an atoll located 300 km North West of Kota Kinabalu. Those craving absolute isolation will adore this place, as it is located faraway from civilization with beautiful views of the surrounding sea. The pristine reefs in the area are home to schools of sharks, rays and coral fish. Sometimes, you even get to see dolphins and whales in the area!
The Mabul Island used to leech of the popularity of its sister island Sipadan, but has earned its own recognition over the years as a prime diving and snorkelling destination. A small island, the 200-hectare reef in the north western part of the island is home to a rich variety of marine life, from cuttlefish to octopus and squids to crabs. The water isn’t very deep at 25-30 meters, making it suitable for beginner divers.
Mantanani is an archipelago of three quiet islands North West of Kota Belud, a mere one-hour’s drive away from Kota Kinabalu. While its beaches are beautiful, what attract people to the island are the diving opportunities. Indeed, there are at least three ship wrecks to explore around the island which a large array of sea creatures call home, such as seahorses, shrimps, gobies, octopuses, eels and lion fish. At present, there are about 16 dive sites identified around the island.
Pulau Mataking is located 40 minutes away from Semporna and 45 minutes from Sipadan. There are around 30 dive sites, the most famous being Magic Rick, Mantis Reef and the Alice Wall. Encounters with large fish such as barracuda, stingrays, tuna and even whale sharks regularly take place along with sightings of turtles, coral fish and giant clams. Meanwhile, the beautiful beaches of the island will appeal to sun-seekers and families.
Winner of many tourism and diving awards, the seas of Sipadan Island are renowned for having more than 3000 species of fish and corals that live in its ecosystem. Divers can even explore an underwater limestone cavern here which is called the turtle tomb; full of chambers that contain the skeletal remains of turtles. Despite once being catapulted to world news for terrorist kidnappings, Sipadan is now very safe and closely guarded by the marines.
Pulau Tiga’s shot to the forefront of the global tourist market when the first season of ‘Survivor’ the TV series was shot on this little island. Still, the island is a bountiful reserve for natural wildlife, including numerous birds, reptiles and insects. Besides exploring the flora and fauna, you can also dive around the waters to watch bamboo sharks, marbled stingrays and even banded sea snakes!
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a cluster of small islands that lie within 10 minutes by boat of each other. The waters around the islands are known for being shallow, yet hold a rich variety of coral gardens. The beaches are also beautifully white and tranquil. Because of the relatively shallow depth of the waters, novice and beginner divers will find this place a good starting point. Also, during certain times of the year, the waters become rich with plankton, attracting the colossal whale shark!
As its name suggests, the island is a nesting ground for Green and Hawksbill Turtles, and is recognised world-wide as a successful sea turtle conservation park. Located in the Sulu Seas off the East Coast of Sabah, access is by speedboat which takes about an hour. A visit here will provide a fascinating insight into the methods of turtle conservation, from the collection of eggs to incubation and raising to final release into the sea.