Better late than never

Huge schools of jacks are an expectation while diving Sipadan.

Upon meeting people who learn I've been a dive journalist for four decades, the most common question asked is, "Where is your favorite place to dive?" The second most frequent inquiry is, "Where have you not gone but would most like to dive?"

The first question is tough because there are so many qualifiers. Do you mean for a species such as humpback whales or great white sharks? Are you asking about general coral reef beauty and biodiversity? Caribbean or Pacific? Tropical or temperate? I have so many favorites for many different reasons depending upon the criteria.

Several resorts on Mabul cater primarily to diving, and two main villages have
fishing as their primary industry.
The second question used to be easier because I could simply say, "Malaysia." For whatever reason, I had never dived in Malaysia, but last March I finally checked that box with a trip to Mabul, Sipadan and Tioman islands. With a destination as vast and diverse as Malaysia, the trip wasn't a comprehensive overview but rather a sampler revealing what I had been missing all these years.

While simple inertia likely explains the not going, I finally decided to plan the trip while at the trade show for the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) last year. After walking among the travel pavilions of Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Fiji and other exotic dive destinations, I had a conversation with the folks at the Malaysia booth. Over a cup of Malaysian white coffee, they answered some of the more obvious deficits in my destination awareness. I asked two very basic questions.
Where Exactly Is Malaysia?
I knew of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, because I'd flown through the popular hub for Asian air travel several times. The airport, however, is an admittedly superficial awareness of one of the world's great dive destinations.

The map revealed that Malaysia is contiguous to the southern tip of Thailand and consists of two large regions separated by the vast expanse of the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia (also called West Malaysia) is bordered on the west and southeast by Indonesia, and East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo) is bordered to the northeast by the Philippines. Lapped by the Straits of Melaka, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea, Malaysia should not have surprised me with its potential for good diving, but I was fairly astonished to learn how many distinct and unique dive regions there are. I obviously would not be diving the whole country, but rather I'd be visiting only a small subset of all the dive options the nation presents.

Where Should I Go While There?
Knowing that I had limited time but wanted to see some good diving and a bit of the jungle as well, Tourism Malaysia graciously suggested a fascinating yet manageable

A whitetip reef shark rests on a shallow sand flat in Sipadan.
itinerary. I would travel from Miami, Florida, to Qatar for the first leg (13.5 hours) and then connect to Kuala Lumpur (another 7.5 hours). Kuala Lumpur (popularly known as KL) is easily accessible by carriers from several North American airports and is a convenient Asian gateway, regardless of your frequent-flier preference.

The names on the itinerary sounded exotic, and I wasn't familiar with all of them, so when they gave me the bullet points all I could say was, "Sure, let's go for it." The following was our plan:
  • Arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL), and stay overnight in an airport hotel.
  • Fly from KUL to Tawau airport (three hours).
  • Transfer to Semporna Jetty (90 minutes) for a 45-minute boat ride to Mabul Island.
  • Dive two days at Mabul and Kapalai (three dives
  • per day).
  • Go by boat from Mabul to Sipadan Island (20-minute boat ride to Sipadan, three dives).
  • Transfer by boat from Mabul to Semporna and then to Bilit on the Kinabatangan River. Take a river cruise in the late afternoon to photograph monkeys.
  • Visit Sepilok for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
  • Fly from Sandakan to KUL (2.5 hours).
  • Fly from KUL to Johor Bahru (one hour).
  • Transfer to Mersing to board a ferry for Tioman Island (2.5 hours).
  • Dive for two days at Tioman Island.
  • Take a ferry from Tioman back to Mersing Jetty, travel overland to Johor Bahru (two hours) for a flight back to KUL and then an international return flight.
A Malaysia Dive Diary
My dive story began when I arrived at Semporna Jetty on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia; until then I had been on airplanes and in airports and hotels. The travel was not much different from going to the Philippines, Indonesia or any other distant and exotic dive destination, but the experiential divergence would soon begin.

Many of the dive operators on Mabul have small offices at Semporna for gathering their guests and provisions for the 45-minute speedboat ride to Mabul. Analogous to a bus station, Semporna is the terminal, and outboard-powered boats are the mini-Greyhound buses that take guests to Mabul and nearby Kapalai. On Mabul there are a couple of small villages and several resorts — some with over-water bungalows and some that are built back from the beach. There is even a dive resort built on a converted oil rig located just a short distance off the beach at Mabul.

Blue-ring angelfish at Salang Jetty

The best time of the year to visit Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan is during the dry season from March through October. Even under optimal weather conditions the water clarity on Mabul and Kapalai will be worse than Sipadan, which makes sense when you realize Mabul is all about the muck-and-macro experience, but Sipadan is world-renowned for wide-angle seascapes and large schools of resident fish. Average visibility on Mabul is 20 to 30 feet; at Sipadan it is more than 100 feet on most days. It is remarkable how different the dive experiences are on these islands yet how well they complement each other.
My first dive off Mabul was to the House Reef directly in front of the resort. The reef slopes gradually from 15 to 80 feet. While the visibility that afternoon was only about 20

A green sea turtle at House Reef
feet, the sheer abundance of small marine life was astonishing. Some weren't all that small, such as the green sea turtle resting on a shipwreck that had been intentionally sunk as a dive attraction. Given the water clarity and the limitations of my 100mm macro lens, I focused on small creatures and vignettes of anything larger. Some of my more memorable photos from that first dive include a large moray with its mouth agape while being cleaned by a goby, spawning starfish, sharpnose pufferfish and several species of frogfish. For one setup I was excited to see my dive guide point out a pair of frogfish side by side on the seafloor. I obediently shot several frames, but it wasn't until I reviewed my photos that night that I discovered there were actually three frogfish side by side.

A pair of frogfish at House Reef
In just about any direction I pointed my lens there was something of interest to shoot. I was grateful to have an excellent guide pointing out things to me, but I think that's standard for Mabul. A few years diving the same reefs day after day is invaluable when it comes to finding the bizarre and cryptic creatures of the muck. Many of the creatures are sedentary, and the guides know where to expect to find them. What they don't know from observation the day before they can deduce by knowing what creatures abide in each habitat.

Kapalai, which is close to Mabul, is little more than a spit of sand distinguished by a single resort built over the water. The resort has been creatively proactive with submerging structures around the island. Boats and purpose-built metal frames placed along the sandy plateau provide a habitat for marine life. Tiny frogfish, pipefish, leaf fish and harlequin ghost pipefish are among the usual suspects at the extraordinarily productive Mandarin City dive site.

A giant moray eel at Seaventures Rig
Dozens of dive sites are along the sandy slope in front of the resorts on Mabul and Kapalai, but the one beneath the Seaventures Rig is noteworthy. Its large footprint casts considerable shade, so the local environment is different from the surrounding seafloor, and multiple other structures are scattered about. With rig pilings, shipwrecks and swim-through cages dotting the seafloor, the array of structures is like one giant fish-attracting device. I'm sure when they get good water clarity the wide-angle potential is awesome, but with visibility less than 30 feet, I was happy to plink around with my macro lens for batfish, flamboyant cuttlefish and coral grouper.

While the north side of the islands are mostly sandy, with artificial structures punctuating the seafloor to provide relief and habitat, along the south side there is more coral development and the creatures are more reef dwellers than muck dwellers. At sites such as Stingray City (named for blue-spotted stingray), turtles are quite common as well as crocodilefish, cuttlefish, lionfish and mantis shrimp. At Eel Garden on the far eastern edge of the reef line, you won't be at all surprised to find moray eels. Looking beyond the obvious will reveal a variety of nudibranchs and orangutan shrimp in bubble coral.

A pair of crocodilefish at Stingray City

Sipadan has a fascinating history from its development as a dive destination, complete with resorts and dive centers, to its status today as a marine protected area. The small

Sipadan has an abundance of green turtles.
island rises from 2,000 feet of water, rimmed by powdery sand and cloaked with coral reefs in the shallows. Borneo Divers began taking divers to Sipadan in 1983, but it was the Jacques Cousteau movie Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle that touched off the wave of interest in diving. By 1990 there were five resorts on an island three-tenths of a mile long and a little over one-tenth of a mile wide. When visiting the island today it is obvious the development was unsustainable. Between diver pressure and outflow from septic tanks, the corals could not possibly survive in the long term. In 1992 the British Marine Conservation Society sounded an alarm over possible exploitation of the reef, and in 1997 the Malaysian government announced plans to restrict tourism.

The watershed moment for Sipadan development occurred on April 23, 2000, when pirates associated with Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 people (10 tourists and 11 resort workers) at gunpoint. Most were held for a year, with all being gradually ransomed off during that time. Malaysian armed forces begin patrolling the island in the aftermath, and by 2004 the government ordered all resort operations to remove their structures from the island. To enhance protection, the Malaysian government created the Sipadan Island Marine Park in 2005 and began requiring an entry permit to dive there. Only 120 visitors per day are allowed, and each of the dive resorts in Mabul and Kapalai have an allotment of permits they can use for their guests. Our resort had permits for only 14 divers per day to dive Sipadan; out of my three days there, I had only one opportunity to dive.

Humphead wrasses can be found at Sipadan.
One day was better than none, and it was a great day of diving. We left quite early in the dark so we could be in the water when the large schools of humphead wrasse made their daily sojourn. Our first dive was at Barracuda Point, famous for a large congregation of chevron barracuda, but I got engaged with the humpheads from the moment I dropped in the water through the end of the dive and forgot to look seaward for the barracuda. This site was also good for seeing whitetip reef sharks resting in the sand and schools of anthias in pristine staghorn corals.

Our second dive was at Turtle Patch, and true to billing we encountered at least eight different green sea turtles. Staghorn Crest features not only immense fields of perfectly intact staghorn coral as the name suggests but also massive schools of bigeye trevally in congregations from the top of the reef to the surface, perhaps 25 feet high and as wide as the eye could see in 120-foot visibility. Sipadan has 12 distinct dive sites; having visited only three of them, I'm not an expert on what Sipadan has to offer, but this was the most productive single day of diving I had in Malaysia, especially as a wide-angle enthusiast. A muck aficionado could have said the same about many of the dives in Mabul.
Sandakan and Sepilok, Borneo
While not every dive traveler to Malaysia will take time away from their underwater passions to explore the Borneo jungle, I found it worthwhile for getting a flavor of the destination. I managed to be immersed in an authentic wildlife encounter while seeing their conservation efforts at work.

I left Mabul in the morning for the 45-minute ride back to Semporna and then met my driver for our three-hour overland transfer to the Bilit Adventure Lodge on the Kinabatangan River. There are similar lodges along Sabah's longest river (348 miles) where ecotourists can stay. Each evening the various lodges send their longboats to areas along the river where monkeys are known to congregate. After a brief lunch waiting for the light to warm into an afternoon glow, I was at the bow of a longboat with my 100-400mm zoom telephoto lens.

An orangutan at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
We soon nosed the boat into the riverbank to see a large crocodile and take some photos of a rhinoceros hornbill, which is a quite substantial bird. Monkeys are the main attraction, and we set out in pursuit of encounters. Before long I had a proboscis monkey framed in nearby trees and then was treated to a particularly close encounter with Borneo long-tailed macaques. They like to sleep in the trees along the river where carnivorous predators can't reach them, but fortunately my long lens could.

Following the river cruise, we drove 1.5 hours to the Sepilok Jungle Resort in Sandakan, which is Sabah's hub for wildlife and nature tourism. Spending the night there left us in proximity for a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Orangutans that have been captured as pets but have outgrown their human hosts as well as those displaced by deforestation are rehabilitated for eventual reintroduction into the wild. There are wildlife viewing stations and opportunities to watch when the orangutans and monkeys are being fed, but it does not feel excessively touristy. On the contrary, it felt like our visitation and entrance fees helped support the good work being done while providing good photo opportunities for primates I wouldn't see otherwise.
Tioman Island
While all the dives so far had been in Malaysian Borneo, to get to Tioman I had to fly back to Johor Bahru on Peninsular Malaysia. There I met my driver for the two-hour trip

Soft corals cloak the submerged rock substrate at Labas Island, one of the
many offshore islands that Tioman dive operators visit.
and an overnight stay in Mersing, the main ferryboat departure hub for Tioman Island. The ferryboat transports scores of passengers and their freight for the ride to Tioman. I was a little rusty on ferryboat travel, and not everyone I asked spoke English, so I was initially confused about which ferryboat stop I was supposed to exit. I figured it out in time to step off and walk the few hundred yards to the dive resort complex that was to be my home for the next few days.

While my first afternoon consisted of an unremarkable orientation dive on the beach just offshore, the boat dives beginning the next day revealed some excellent coral and marine life. Visibility was not stellar but certainly manageable given the quality of the reef. The dive operation was very transparent in stating that underwater photographers would have better luck diving Tioman in the dry season; the rainy season brings sediment washing off the island and flowing from the rivers. Average visibility was 40 to 60 feet for my dives on Tioman. The water is clearest in March through May and late September through the end of November.

A night dive off the beach on Tioman Island
That first night in Tioman I walked around a bit and was truly amazed at how extraordinarily inexpensive things were. Five dollars went a long way for a good meal, and the dive and lodging package was a remarkable bargain for the quality of the accommodation, the infrastructure and the professionalism. I saw an active and engaged younger dive-travel crowd that had discovered this destination, and they were having fun with the live music and ample partying. If I were a 20-something diver seeking an endless summer of dive adventure, Tioman would be on my list — and not just for a week, but for a month of having fun, kicking back and letting a limited dive budget go a long way. In terms of dive value per dollar, Tioman is amazing.

The atmosphere wouldn't mean much if the diving wasn't good, but it is. On the first dive at Tiger Reef I photographed my first-ever guitar shark. At Labas Island I discovered a boulder-strewn bottom decorated with soft corals in some areas, a lot of clownfish and anemones, and very good staghorn coral patches. There were many swim-through caves here as well, and in general the topography was quite impressive. The highlight of this dive day was a coral reef just offshore of the main island where the staghorn coral formations were spectacular.

Cuttlefish place eggs in hard corals at Renggis Island.
Renggis Island is small and very near shore, but unlike on my initial shore dive, the coral cover of staghorn and intact lettuce coral is remarkable. Checking back on my metadata from that dive I see that I was lucky enough to encounter two hawksbill turtles, five blacktip reef sharks, several cuttlefish (one of which was laying eggs in the coral crevices) and lots of clownfish in anemones, which were particularly special because they were surrounded by healthy hard corals. If you go to Tioman, Renggis Island is a site you should not miss.

My last dive on this trip was at Salang Jetty. Bonaire's Town Pier came to mind when I saw the long pier jutting out from the shore of Salang Village, and I had to give it a try. While not as lavishly decorated as Town Pier, it held a fair bit of marine life, particularly a huge school of resident scad.

Clownfish and anemone amid staghorn coral at Renggis

I saw a lot in this Malaysia sampler, which revealed enough potential to make me want to return. A week or 10 days would be productive on Mabul and Sipadan for both the muck and wide-angle potential. Tioman was uniquely interesting and reminded me of what Bonaire must have been like when Peter Hughes and Don Stewart were young men, just carving out their dive businesses there. It is a real dive community and not at all pretentious. My days of being a 20-something dive bum are done, otherwise I'd have Tioman on my radar for sure. Knowing that I missed sites such as the highly recommended Layang Layang reminds me that my trip was not a comprehensive immersion into Malaysia dive travel and beckons a return visit.

To paraphrase Jackson Browne in his lyrics to My Opening Farewell: "There's a plane every day leaving either way. There's a world, you know, there's a way to go. And yo'll soon be gone; that's just as well. This is my opening farewell." Except perhaps for Malaysia it is likely my opening hello.
How to Dive It
Getting There: A huge variety of diving is available throughout Malaysia, both on Penisular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. Wherever you choose to dive, the first stop for international travelers will be the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL), which is a significant Asian hub with access from many North American international air carriers. From KUL it is possible to travel overland for some diving, but domestic air is the more likely option.


Regal angelfish at Eel Garden
The water is tropical throughout Malaysia, with temperatures ranging from 80°F to 86°F. Water clarity is widely variable depending on proximity to rivers and freshwater runoff. The water near offshore islands such as Sipadan and Layang Layang is typically very clear with visibility of more than 100 feet. Areas such as Mabul that are well-known for excellent macro and muck subjects have water visibility in the 20- to 30-foot range. Other places such as Tioman are seasonally variable, with the best water clarity occurring during the dry season, which is March through May and then again late September through the end of November.

Dive Restrictions: To enhance the protection of Sipadan Island, the Malaysian government created the Sipadan Island Marine Park in 2005, and now a paid entry permit is required to dive there. Only 120 visitors per day are allowed, and each dive resort in Mabul, Kapalai and even day-trippers from Semporna will be a part of that daily allotment. Our resort had permits for only 14 divers per day at Sipadan. Most guests on a one-week dive package generally will get two opportunities to visit Sipadan.

Topside: Ecotourism in Borneo attracts thousands of nature lovers each year in hopes of seeing exotic birds and monkeys along the Kinabatangan River or orangutans in Sandakan, Sabah.

Recompression chambers are located in Kuala Lumpur, Kajang, Penang and Perak. In any dive emergency, however, call local emergency medical services first, and then call the DAN hotline at +1-919-684-9111 to coordinate care.
Explore More
See more of Stephen Frink's Malaysia sampler in an online photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2019