Just a short, 20-minute speedboat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park are an excellent place to start diving in Sabah. Five small islands are encompassed by coral reefs situated in shallow water. Gentle currents make the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park a great place for novice divers to see a wide variety of life.
Rare finds in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park include harlequin ghost pipefish and mandarin fish. Hawksbill turtles regularly make appearances and even whale sharks come to feed on the plankton during the cool months between November and February.
Sipadan Island, in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, is undeniably world-famous for its underwater ecosystem. Over 3,000 species of fish and coral are found around Sipadan earning it the reputation as having the best diving in Sabah -- if not the world! Aside from the stunning variety of marine life, Sipidan is also host to the “turtle tomb” - an underwater cave system filled with the skeletons of sea turtles.
Divers are no longer allowed to stay on Sipadan, you must stay in nearby Semporna or on Mabul Island. In an effort to conserve the coral, only 120 dive permits are issued per day. Make arrangements for your diving around Sipadan well in advance!
At 186 miles off the west coast of Sabah, the tiny atoll of Layang-Layang is one of the best-preserved dive sites in the world. Walls that drop to over 2,000 meters deep make Layang-Layang a pelagic paradise! Hammerheads, gray sharks, leopard sharks, silvertip, and even threshers can be frequently spotted.
Layang-Layang is actually a disputed territory; a small Malaysian naval base -- off-limits to tourists -- ensures that the waters remain safe and unpolluted.
Layang-Layang is only accessible via a flight from Kota Kinabalu; diving must be arranged through the Layang-Layang Island Resort - the only accommodation on the island - between the months of March and October.
World-class muck diving and close proximity to Sipadan have made Mabul one of the most popular dive destinations in Asia. Unlike Sipadan, permits are not required and there are several accommodation options on the island.
Mabul is arguably one of the richest dive sites in the world and is considered the best place for underwater macro photography. The reef is perched on the edge of a continental shelf and averages between 25 to 30 meters deep. Along with abundant macro life, cephalopods such as cuttlefish, octopi, and squids are seen on almost every dive.
Mabul Island is reached via the gateway of Semporna on the southeastern tip of Sabah.
The duty-free island of Labuan is located just 71 miles from Kota Kinabalu and is a popular stopover for travelers crossing between Sarawak, Brunei, and Sabah. The primary underwater draw of Labuan Island is the many shipwrecks in close proximity.
Both novices and experienced wreck divers can penetrate the four major wrecks found at depths between 30 and 35 meters. The USS Salute and the Dutch SS De Klerk were sunk during World War II. Two other civilian wrecks make Labuan the wreck diving center of Malaysia.
Labuan island is easily accessible by ferry from Kota Kinabalu or Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. There are many interesting things to do on Labuan above water as well!
Tiny Lankayan Island with its white sandy beaches is located 90 minutes by boat northwest of Sandakan in East Sabah. Lankayan is unpopulated; only one dive resort -- Lankayan Island Dive Resort -- offers a chance to explore this protected marine park.
One wreck, excellent macro life claimed to be better than that found in Mabul, and larger marine life such as humphead parrotfish and leopard sharks make Lankayan Island a worthy diversion. The chance to see jawfish, dragonets and flying gurnards are appealing to divers that have nearly everything else already in their logbooks!
Three islands make up Pulau Tiga just southwest of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. The islands were formed by the eruption of volcanoes which pushed muddy sediment above sea level. Pulau Tiga is relatively untouched by tourism; only one resort -- Pulau Tiga Resort -- is in operation on the paradise island.
Reefs around Pulau Tiga are shallow, allowing for long dives with an average of 20 meters visibility. Nudibranches, bamboo sharks, and banded sea snakes are common in the turquoise water.
Pulau Tiga's claim to fame was as the set of the first Survivor reality show; however, the island remains completely undeveloped.
Mataking Island is reached by a 40-minute boat ride from Semporna on the southeastern tip of Sabah. Advanced divers and underwater photographers will find Mataking an excellent alternative to Sipadan. Macro life is abundant and walls dropping to over 100 meters draw plenty of sharks and interesting marine life.
Lobsters, giant clams, rays, and batfish are commonly spotted in the shallow water around Mataking Island. The spas, resort, and powdery sand provide relaxation above the water between dives.