Much of the best scuba diving in Borneo can be found around the Malaysian state of Sabah. But Asia’s largest island is home to many more exciting places to explore underwater. From scores of WWII wrecks to massive walls and thriving atoll reefs, Borneo definitely offers some of the best scuba diving in the world.
Sipadan is perhaps the most famous place to dive in Borneo. Other destinations in Sabah, ranging from the easily accessible Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park to remote places such as Layang-Layang, offer various underwater adventures. East Kalimantan on the Indonesian side is home to many lesser-visited island options such as Maratua and Kakaban. At least 872 species of fish and 507 types of coral can be found in the region!
The Federal Territory of Labuan is nothing short of a playground for wreck enthusiasts, while Sarawak and Brunei are just now becoming better appreciated for their healthy dive sites. No matter which part of Borneo you’re visiting, good diving probably isn’t too far away.
Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, makes up 73 percent of the island. Kalimantan's tourism infrastructure is less developed than in Malaysian Borneo, meaning serious divers still have plenty of uncrowded sites and lightly touched islands to enjoy.
The Derawan Islands in the Sulawesi Sea off the coast of East Kalimantan are full of world-class diving opportunities. Derawan is ideal for muck and macro lovers; nesting turtles also make frequent appearances. With bigger walls and stronger currents, Kakaban attracts whale sharks, mantas, eagle rays, and other pelagics. U-shaped Maratau is famous for its plunging drop-offs. Maratau also hosts an extensive cave network, many of which are still yet to be explored.
Although you can’t dive there, snorkeling through the clouds of harmless jellyfish in Kakaban’s brackish lake is an unforgettable experience. The cleaning station at Sangalaki Island stays busy with sizable mantas between November and May.
With a vertical wall dropping more than 600 meters just offshore, Sipadan is home to some of the best scuba diving in Borneo—and the world! Unfortunately, the tiny island’s reputation became too widespread, and the ecosystem suffered. Now, only a limited number of diving permits are issued per day, and visitors have to stay on one of the nearby islands rather than Sipadan itself.
Green and hawksbill turtles nest on Sipadan between April and September; divers can see dozens on a single dive! Massive schools of barracuda are common, as are reef sharks and plenty of other exciting pelagics. You’re pretty well guaranteed to be caught in a vortex of shimmering life at Barracuda Point, Sipadan’s most famous site. Plunging walls and drifts with serious currents are the norm at Sipadan—only advanced divers welcome.
Mabul and Kapali
Because of restrictions to ease Sipadan's environmental impact, many divers end up staying on Mabul or Kapali, two islands a short distance to the north. This isn’t such a bad prospect—the diving on both islands is excellent, and they’re within striking distance of Sipadan for when you’re able to score one of the coveted permits.
Mabul can't claim walls as big as Sipadan's, but it’s still a wonderland of life blessed with good visibility. Eel Garden and other sites are home to abundant macro life, and divers get to enjoy rare treats such as Mandarin fish performing their mating dance at sunset, harlequin shrimp, pygmy seahorses, and the aptly named flamboyant cuttlefish.
Although it’s small, difficult to reach, and has limited connectivity, Layang-Layang in Sabah is one of the best places to dive in Borneo for chance encounters with hammerhead sharks. The small atoll is home to a Malaysian military base, possibly discouraging pirates operating in the area. The daily, one-hour flight to Layang-Layang is pricey, and once there, you have only one choice for eating, sleeping, and diving. But … did we mention there are hammerheads?
China and Vietnam contest Malaysia’s claim of Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef). For now, the only way to reach the atoll is via resupply plane from Kota Kinabalu. May is one of the best months for seeing hammerheads. Visibility is frequently upwards of 100 feet!
Tiny Lankayan Island, north of Sandakan in Sabah, is part of a conservation sanctuary for turtles, birds, and marine life. Like Layang-Layang, you’ve only got one choice for a resort on the island, but going from Sandakan by speedboat only takes around two hours. The clear water and exciting diving are worth the effort! Whale sharks are common between March and May. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to see green and hawksbill turtles.
The reef around Lankayan stays busy with plenty of other life, too. Ghost pipefish, nudibranchs, jacks, groupers, and reef sharks hang around.
Although visibility may not be as good as the small, difficult-to-reach islands in Sabah, the diving just outside of Miri in Sarawak can hold its own. Plus, Miri is easily accessible and a good base for exploring Sarawak's northern parts, including the famous Mulu National Park.
Scuba diving in Miri is just beginning to gain attention, but a handful of diving operations can take you to Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park, only around 20 minutes offshore. The reef is healthy and teeming with life. You’ll get to see many of the usual reef suspects, but occasionally something bigger swims out of the deep blue. A 30-meter-long cargo wreck is one of the busiest sites and home to lots of marine life.
The short boat trips, inexpensive diving, and uncrowded sites (beginner to advanced) make Miri one of the best places for scuba diving in Borneo.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
One easily accessible place for diving deserves another! Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, only 20 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu, gets crowded with day-trippers who splash around on the surface, but divers can escape below. Plastic rubbish can also be a problem on some of the five islands. Still, an abundance of turtles, good visibility, and calm conditions provide some of Borneo's best scuba diving for beginners. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a popular place to get PADI certified and explore the recovering reefs.
Divers of all levels will be excited about seeing the many whale sharks that migrate through the marine park every spring! Be warned: If you dive between January and March, you’ll have to deal with jellyfish season.
Many Western travelers aren’t familiar with the Federal Territory of Labuan (Malaysia), a duty-free financial center between Sabah and Brunei that became a primary objective for Australian forces during WWII. The main island of Labuan and six smaller islands attract some domestic tourism but not much from the international diving community—that means you won’t need to compete for space when penetrating the four world-class wreck dives there!
The Cement Wreck (a freighter loaded with cement bound for the Sultan of Brunei’s new palace) resting at 15 meters is suitable for beginners. The Blue Water Wreck begins at 24 meters and boasts the best visibility. The American Wreck begins at 30 meters; divers can see blast damage from the mine that sank the warship in 1945. Interestingly, the Australian Wreck sank twice. It was a warship scuttled deliberately by the Dutch but later salvaged by the Japanese. The ship sank a second time after colliding with a mine and is rapidly deteriorating between 25-35 meters deep.
Although most of Borneo is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, the independent nation of Brunei sits quietly between the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Tourism in the highly developed sultanate hasn’t yet blossomed, meaning you can still enjoy plenty of room at spectacular dive sites. Even better, getting to the bay where all the action is takes around 30 minutes after flying into the capital, Bandar Seri Bagawan.
At least 30 wrecks litter the bay; some of them begin at only 14 meters—uncommonly shallow for fun wreck diving. Along with historic wrecks, diving in Brunei offers good variety: healthy reefs (hard and soft), muck diving around mangroves, and excellent macro sites for the serious “bug hunters.” Even some decommissioned oil rigs were deliberately converted into thriving artificial reefs.
Sabah gets most of the attention for diving in Borneo, but like Labuan, Kuching is rich with opportunities for wreck enthusiasts. If your trip to Borneo only includes Malaysia’s southern state of Sarawak, you’ll still get to enjoy plenty of good diving. Visibility isn’t spectacular around these wrecks, but World War II history is! Plus, the food in Kuching will keep you happy while on the surface.
A Dutch submarine torpedoed the IJN Sagiri, a Japanese destroyer, on Christmas Eve shortly after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. The wreck is still mostly intact, allowing divers to check out the impressive guns and some ammunition strewn about. Not far away, remnants of the same Dutch submarine can be seen on the bottom—it was destroyed by a Japanese submarine on Christmas Day, one day after sinking the IJN Sagiri! A handful of other wrecks, World War II and commercial, can be explored in the area.