The best places for scuba diving in Borneo and Malaysia
Experienced divers have been in the know for a long time: Malaysia is a prime destination if you’re looking for awe-inspiring diving experiences. Around the Malaysian part of Borneo, you will find some of the best diving areas in the world. The waters off the northeastern state of Sabah in particular are blessed with incredible underwater flora and fauna. You can spot hammerhead sharks, manta rays, barracudas, turtles and many more species, as well as an abundance of intact and colourful coral.
Many of the areas around the diving spots also lend themselves to various other activities in addition to diving. Borneo is surrounded by several picturesque little islands, where palm trees line white sandy beaches. Therefore, staying at the diving resorts on these islands will also give you the chance to relax and unwind. As you can see, Borneo has everything you’ll need for an incredible diving vacation.
The question remains: where in Borneo is diving most spectacular? Read on to discover Borneo’s – and indeed Malaysia’s – best diving areas.
Sipadan: world-famous among divers
Every diver knows it. Every diver wants to go. But only a few have made it there: Sipadan. Again and again, the area is brought up when the question as to the world’s most beautiful diving spots is raised. Sipadan is a true paradise for divers and is world-famous for its underwater ecosystem. Deep currents carry nutrients that rise up the steep walls of the island, providing the perfect habitat for the over 3,000 species of fish and corals you can discover in the waters around Sipadan.
Whoever comes here will usually have only one thing on their mind: diving. However, Borneo does not owe its reputation as a first-class diving destination exclusively to Sipadan – which is a good thing. The number of divers in Sipadan is heavily regulated to protect the underwater world. No more than 120 are allowed per day. Fortunately, there are many other great diving sites in Borneo.
Layang Layang: northern Borneo’s underwater paradise
About 190 miles (300 kilometres) off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, in 2,000-metres-deep waters, lies the tiny atoll Layang Layang. There is nothing on the island except a resort, an airstrip, and a Navy base.
Nowhere else will you have better chances of seeing hammerhead sharks during your Borneo diving vacation than here – and that’s what the island is famous for. The best time for sightings is in April, when huge schools of 100 or more hammerhead sharks regularly pass by the island. However, there is much more marine life to discover, and the steep walls and excellent visibility guarantee a unique adventure.
Mabul Island: a highlight for muck divers
Mabul Island is only a stone’s throw from Sipadan, and diving excursions to Sipadan regularly depart from Mabul Island. The island itself, though, also has a lot to offer. There are about 15 diving spots in the relatively shallow surrounding waters, hardly any of which are deeper than 15 or 20 metres.
Muck divers in particular will get their money’s worth here; Mabul Island is considered one of Southeast Asia’s best muck diving sites. Among the highlights are the highly poisonous blue-ringed octopus and the pygmy lionfish. Turtles are also found here in great numbers and can be seen on almost every dive. Sometimes you can see sharks, manta rays and, with a lot of luck, even hammerhead sharks.
Lankayan Island: not only a jewel for divers
Pulau Lankayan is considered perhaps the most beautiful island in Malaysia. It is located about 50 miles (80 kilometres) north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea. Lankayan Island is an uninhabited island. It is completely covered in forest and surrounded by white, fine sandy beaches. Aside from the Lankayan Island Dive Resort, the only one on the island, the only other construction is a military station.
Since 2001, Lankayan has been part of a marine protected area. The underwater world is accordingly intact and boasts some unique features. There are exciting spots around Lankayan for macro divers, as well as wrecks and colourful coral reefs. This variety, in combination with the intact underwater world and rich biodiversity, is something that only a few diving areas worldwide can offer. Highlights include leopard sharks, whale sharks, whitetip reef sharks and many turtles. Snorkelling is also a must here; the shallow water off Lankayan beach is an ideal location.
Variety in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is close to the coast of Kota Kinabalu. The park is about 19 sq. mi. (49 km²) and was declared a national park in 1974. The area includes five islands, some of which have been developed for tourism. There are several hotels on the largest island, where you can also go on a small jungle hike – so there is much more to discover than „only“ the underwater world.
In TARP, about 25 diving spots await you. The marine flora of the region is fortunately largely intact, with lots of corals. The different diving sites offer enormous variety. Highlights include whale sharks, which can be sighted regularly from December to March, black-tip reef sharks and blue-ringed octopuses.
Snorkelers can also enjoy the shallow waters; some operators offer special snorkelling tours here. In addition, some of the islands have lovely beaches where you can relax in between dives or on non-diving days.
Diving season in Borneo
The Malaysian part of Borneo is a great year-round destination for diving trips. The best times for each island vary; sometimes the resorts might even be closed in the off-season. Please consult the individual pages for each of the five featured areas for more information on the best time to go diving there. In our article Best time to visit Borneo – When to go?, you will find more information on when best to visit the island.
In the past as well as recently, there have been kidnappings and attempted kidnappings in the marine area between the Southern Philippines and Sabah. Therefore, a security zone has been established covering the entire maritime area in eastern Sabah. Many countries have been advising their citizens against travelling there for many years. Please consult the travel and security advice of the relevant ministry in your home country.
Malaysia is without a doubt a destination that should be on everyone’s itinerary. The waters off Sabah in Borneo’s northeast offer something for everyone, whether beginner or pro, wreck lover or macro fan. Different destinations offer accommodation in various price ranges. Borneo is therefore an optimal destination for any diving trip, regardless of your budget. But it is not only divers who can experience this unique underwater diversity – there are also excellent spots for snorkelling. For anyone coming to Borneo for its rainforests and wildlife, we recommend making a detour to the sea to be inspired by the magnificent marine flora and fauna.