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Kota Kinabalu: Borneo’s Other Dive Destination

Sipadan and its surrounding islands are by no means the only reason to get wet in Borneo.

Borneo has been a world-renowned dive destination for many years, thanks to the Jacques-Cousteau-endorsed wonders of Sipadan in the Celebes Sea off eastern Sabah. Sipadan and its surrounding islands are by no means the only reason to get wet in Borneo, though, with interesting diving also to be had on Sabah’s lesser-known and under-appreciated west coast. The diving here focuses on the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, a series of jeweled islands that lie just a short distance offshore from the bustling and vibrant city of Kota Kinabalu. Knowing very little about these relatively undocumented sites when I arrived in Kota Kinabalu two months ago, I booked a trip out to the islands with local operator Scuba Junkie to find out what they had to offer.

Scuba Junkie operates from Jesselton Pier, north of the city center, and from there it is a quick 15-minute speedboat ride to the park’s islands. From the boat, they look like perfect, undiscovered tropical paradises, complete with white shores washed by jade seas and thick, impenetrable jungle. Sulug, one of the smallest of the islands, is pretty much exactly that; on closer inspection, the other islands show varying degrees of human habitation. We stopped first at Sapi Island to drop off a group of Open Water students in the tranquil shallows, where shimmering shoals of silvery baitfish drifted serenely beneath the boat. Sapi is the only island where the thriving dive industry of Kota Kinabalu is evident; its shore is a classroom for several groups of first-time divers. For more experienced divers, there’s also an interesting artificial reef where anemones provide a habitat for four different species of clownfish, and schools of juvenile rock cod, striped catfish and tiny transparent shrimp shelter beneath shady overhangs.

With the exception of Sapi’s beach, the dive sites around the park are surprisingly uncrowded. The conditions are also wonderfully easy, with water temperatures hovering around 86 degrees Fahrenheit and a typically glassy, calm surface. Because of these easy conditions, Kota Kinabalu is the perfect place for learning new skills or refreshing old ones for those traveling on to slightly more challenging destinations like Sipadan. The daily downpour during the monsoon reduces visibility dramatically this time of year, but divers can still expect between 26 and 40 feet on the reef. Most dives here are relatively shallow, with each island sporting a ring of healthy coral that slopes gently down to the sandy seafloor at approximately 60 to 82 feet.

Thanks to the poor visibility, I imagine that cloudy conditions topside may negatively impact dives here, but the weather was perfect when I was there. Bright sunlight compensated for the slightly green water and transformed the reef into a kaleidoscope of shifting color. The sloping underwater landscape of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is not particularly impressive topographically, but the sheer density of coral makes up for it, with layered sections of staghorn plateaus, branching plate coral, whip-coral and large, thriving bommies. Unfortunately, the local fishermen here are no strangers to the practice of dynamite fishing and some areas show the scars as a result, but by and large the reefs are both beautiful and productive. Marine life here is definitely on the smaller end of the spectrum — a macro lens is definitely more useful than a wide-angle — although reef sharks and certain species of large game fish, including giant trevallies and Spanish mackerel, are relatively common as well.

Some of the pint-sized beauties that we saw that first day included the frilly-edged white nudibranch chromodoris willani, a pair of slender and inquisitive banded pipefish, and a ridiculously cute juvenile yellow cube boxfish. I was thrilled to spot one of my very favorite fish hiding in a rock hollow, the cryptic and beautiful comet, with its perfectly oval shape and white polka-dot body. We saw several species of moray eel, including a new one for me, the spotted moray, and the anemones were home to an array of tiny crabs and shrimp. My favorites were the delicately beautiful porcelain crab and the frizzy-haired orangutan crab, which somehow manages to live up spectacularly to its name. Best of all, there are a pair of resident frogfish to be found reliably in a set of abandoned tires in the sand off the Coral Garden dive site.

Most of the dive guides here, and a lot of the divers, are great fans of the reef’s smaller dwellers — and I’m definitely warming up to the pleasures of macro diving,  but the highlights of that first day for me were all bigger creatures. The first was the big shoal of swirling chevron barracuda that circled us for several minutes on the appropriately named Barracuda Bonanza dive site, their slender barred bodies glinting like streaks of mercury in the watery sunlight. The second was the smallest juvenile hawksbill turtle I’ve ever seen, seeking protection from the big, bad ocean under a coral overhang. Finally, we spotted a trio of large cuttlefish on our last dive. All three were large, though they were not all the same species; two of them were intricately camouflaged broadclub cuttlefish, one of whom blended in so perfectly with the reef that I didn’t see it at all for the first few minutes we spent watching them. The third, and biggest of them, was a spectacular pharaoh cuttlefish, its tiger-striped body contrasting vividly with the pulsating purple frills at its edges.

Cuttlefish are one of my very favorite things to see underwater, and that final sighting confirmed the opinion that I’d been cultivating all day: if you can look past the poor visibility, the diving off Kota Kinabalu offers exciting support for Borneo’s claim as to be of the world’s top dive destinations.