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Kota Kinabalu Report Introduction

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Kota Kinabalu Report: Diving Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

March 2006


Keywords: Scuba Diving, Malaysia, Borneo, Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Labuan Wrecks, Sabah Divers, Borneo Divers




This report covers a week spent diving the islands of the Tunka Abdul Rahman Marine Park off Kota Kinabalu. This trip was exploratory, being my first trip to this area of Sabah. I have dived the other side of Sabah (Sipadan-Mabul-Kapalai) before. This report covers the basics of staying in KK , the diving “sceneâ€, and the conditions and marine life of the dive sites at the Park.


Kota Kinabalu City


Kota Kinabalu is the capitol of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which, together with the state of Sarawak, make-up the Malaysian half of the island of Borneo. The island of Borneo is the world’s 3rd largest, and is primarily known for its wildlife and natural resources. Sabah is sparsely populated, with about 2.5 million people – a mix of indigenous tribes, Malays, and Chinese immigrants. Kota Kinabalu is a small port city facing the South China Sea, with majestic Mt. Kinabalu (at 4000+ meters, the tallest mountain in Asia after Mt. Everest) off in the distance. It is the main gateway and transit hub for the traveler in Sabah.


The KK international airport is 15 minutes from the city center. (However, traffic during the morning/evening rush hours slows to a crawl. Therefore, be sure to allow adequate time…at least 1 hour... when departing for flights. ) Travelers flying Air Asia will arrive and depart from Terminal 2. This terminal is separate from the main terminal and has very limited services. There is a small restaurant outside the terminal and a souvenir/snack shop inside. For arriving passengers, there is a taxi counter but no hotel booking service or ATM. Taxi fares are fixed and the rate to the city center is MR20.


The city of KK is not too interesting in and of itself. For the traveler, it is primarily a service center and jumping-off point for the diving, mountain climbing, trekking, and other outdoor activities Sabah has to offer. The primary tourist attraction in KK is the islands of the nearby Abdul Tunku Rahman Marine Park. Not to put too fine a point on it…KK is a non-descript little coastal town, with a good travel infrastructure for those staying locally or planning to explore the rest of the island.


Lodging options in KK are extensive, ranging from 5-star waterfront resorts to backpacker dormitories. For divers, the best location is the City Centre district, adjacent to the Wisma Sabah and Wisma Medeka buildings. Everything the traveler needs can be found here: hotels, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, internet shops, bookstores, and even the local Sunday market. Mid-market hotels include the Capitol and the Kinabalu Daya. Comfortable and clean air-con rooms run MR 95-150. Going up-market, you have the Jesselton Hotel, with a colonial period décor, and a modern Hyatt Hotel. Rooms at the Jesselton are more luxurious than those at the Capitol/Daya hotels, with rates starting at MR 230. There are a number of other mid-market hotels and backpacker lodges along Gaya, Pantai, and Dewan streets…just have a look around. I stayed at the Kinabalu Daya Hotel and was quite happy. The location is perfect…right across the street from the Merdeka shopping arcade and the Sabah building. It is also convenient to restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores. A small breakfast buffet is provided and made it easy to have a bit of nosh before heading out for the day’s dives.


There are many Malaysian and Chinese storefront restaurants in the City Centre area. Just see where there is a crowd and join-in. The Jesselton Hotel has a couple western food outlets but unfortunately, the food did not match the hotel’s 4-star setting. Probably the best (it’s full everynite) western restaurant is Little Italy, located on the ground floor of the Capitol Hotel (just out the door and down the block from the Kinabalu Daya). The pizzas and pastas are good and the portions are generous. Thien Thien is a good Cantonese style Chinese restaurant, located in the Pantai Inn on Pantai road. Nearby on Gaya road, XO is reputed to be the best place for steaks and seafood and Rasa Nyonya, a few doors away, has authentic Malay cuisine. There is a KFC, Coffee Bean café, and some local bakeries in the Medeka shopping center. A short walk away, near the Hyatt, is a Burger King. Some guides recommend the food court at the Medeka center but I found the food and atmosphere there most foul. Mention is also made of the nearby Beach Street night time restaurant and bar scene but to me it appeared to be stale and lifeless.


A couple special mentions are Borneo Books and the grocery store/café opposite the HSBC bank. Borneo Books has two outlets in the Merdeka shopping center and carries a large selection of books on and about the island of Borneo; its history, ecology, and botany/zoology. Come here to pick-up a useful field-guide if you are going trekking or exploring Borneo’s wild hinterlands. The outlet on the 3rd floor includes a sitting/reading area with free coffee/tea and free internet access (bring your notebook). There is also an assortment of magazines and pamphlets to peruse. For all your fresh food and grocery items, there is a nice supermarket (sorry forgot the name) opposite the HSBC Bank branch on Gaya Street – just up from the Daya Hotel. Here you can stock-up on food and drinks for your hotel fridge or to take on island day-trips. There is also a wine store upstairs and a great bakery/café on the premises. (There is also another supermarket at the intersection of Gaya Street and the Beach Street arcade.)

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Kota Kinabalu Report Part 1


Kota Kinabalu Diving Basics


Right offshore from KK is the 5 islands of the TARMP. These small pretty palm fringed and beach lined islands are a multi-use recreational area; activities include: sunbathing, snorkeling, Scuba diving, parasailing, banana boating, etc. (but no jet skies). The Park is the primary diving attraction in KK. However, KK is also the starting point for trips to Layang-Layang atoll, the wreck dives of Labuan Island, and trips to a few other small islands nearby. The center of the dive industry is the Wisma Sabah building. Many dive shops and eco-tour operators are found here. Sabah Divers, a SSI and PADI dive operator, is the one I chose for my diving. They are a full-service training agency, dive-shop, and eco-tour operator. I found them both friendly and professional. Their tour-office, Sabah Anchor Tours, can book packages to all diving destinations and resorts throughout Sabah, often at special “walk-in†rates.


[The following information relates to Sabah Divers. I assume other operators diving TARMP follow a similar routine.]


Diving in KK with Sabah Divers is a fun and casual (in a good way) affair. The marine park is a group of small islands 15-20 minutes from KK. Divers, snorklers, and assorted day-trippers reach them via covered fiberglass dingys from the ferry terminal. Divers assemble at 8:30 in the morning at the dive shop and then assemble their gear in the equipment locker room in the garage. Then it’s a short walk or ride to the ferry terminal. Everything is loaded onto the boats and then it’s off to the islands. If you have not done so already, water and snacks can be purchased at the ferry terminal. The snorklers and sunbathers are dropped-off at Sapi or another island and the divers continue to their dive site.


There are a dozen or so divesites scattered around the marine park. The islands are very small and close together and it’s only 5-10 minutes between sites and the rest/surface interval area on Sapi Island. The park office, restaurant, mini-mart, and souvenir shop are on Sapi Island. Be sure to bring MR10-20 with you each day for lunch and snacks. Eating lunch and resting on the beach between dives makes for a very relaxing day. There are 2 or 3 dives per day depending on the client’s wishes. At the end of the dive-day, it’s back to the ferry terminal and the garage to clean gear. If you are diving multiple days, you can store your gear in this secure storage area and not have to carry it back and forth from your hotel each day. Back up at the office, you can book your next day’s diving and put in your site preferences if any.


Diving rates are MR 160/2 dives and MR 200/3 dives; there is also a MR 50 park entrance fee (good for multiple diving days). These rates include full gear rental, tank/weights, dive leader, and boat transfers. Camera rentals are available. Sabah Divers does not have nitrox. They do not include lunch/water. Discounts are available if you have your own equipment.


Regarding other dive operators I cannot say. I arrived in KK with only a reference to the Wisma Sabah building as the place to find a local dive-shop. I wandered around and spoke to a couple shops and Sabah seemed well-organized and comfortable with accommodating my wish to dive and photograph local macro life and other unusual critters. I was lucky in that Allen, Peggy, and Neville (owner, eco-tour manager, dive-leader respectively) and all the rest of the staff were friendly and professional. I had no complaints during my week of diving with them. They were very willing (within reason) to accommodate my requests to dive particular sites and Neville was eager to locate special fish and invertebrate life for me to photograph.


As stated previously, many dive operators can be found at the Wisma Sabah Building. The Sabah building is located along the waterfront in the City Centre district. If you stay nearby, it’s possible to walk to the Sabah building in the morning for the day’s diving South of the City Centre district, there are large beach resorts (Sutera and Shangri-La specifically) and other hotels but the and the slow morning/evening rush-hour traffic would make getting to and from the Wisma Sabah/ferry terminal area problematic.


For those who are staying at the Sutera or Shangri-La, each has a dive-operator onsite…Borneo Divers at Sutera and Absolute Scuba at Shangri-La. I went to Sutera to obtain information on Borneo’s operation. Instead of using the ferry terminal, they run boats directly from the hotel to their dive operation on Mamutik Island (one of the islands in the marine park). There divers gear-up and head on out to the dive sites. I don’t know if they do their surface intervals at Mamutik or Sapi. Prices at Borneo are RM 265/2 dives and MR 315/3 dives. These prices are higher than other’s but include hotel pick-up/return, light lunch, and the park entrance fees. If one were staying at Sutera resort, Borneo would be a good option. I don’t know anything about Absolute’s operation at the Shangri-La. I assume they also go directly from the hotel to the marine park and bypass the ferry terminal. As with Sutera/Borneo, unless one was staying there, or another nearby hotel, I would opt for an operator at the Sabah building. These resorts and some other hotels south of the city centre area are quite plus and offer tennis, golf, and other amenities. If one is with a family or non-divers they may be a good choice because there are activities for everyone. However, they are isolated from the city center area, with it’s mix of shops and restaurants. If nitrox is important to you, Absolute advertises having it as well as another operator in the downtown area, O2 Divers.

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Kota Kinabalu Report Part 2


Kota Kinabalu Dive Sites


In General:


I don’t think anyone would call the dive sites at the TARMP world class. I certainly wouldn’t. However, that does not mean that they are not worth diving…not by any stretch. People dive for many reasons and if every dive site looked like, or had similar marine life, as Sipadan Island, it would all get pretty boring very quickly. One reason I dive is to see “just what’s out there.†I don’t need to dive “world class†sites all the time…often an ordinary “local†site is just fine, with many interesting things to see and photograph. That being said, I have the luxury of diving often around SE Asia so a mix of ordinary and world class sites suits me fine. If I only only had a short vacation and wanted to dive the best the area had to offer I would bypass KK and head out to Sipadan, Manado, the Similans, or a dozen other sites in this part of the world. However, for residents of Asia, KK is a close and easily assessable dive location. There are direct flights from many cities and once in KK, the sites are right offshore…no further flights, sleep-overs, or ground transfers are necessary. Prices for flights, diving, dive certifications, food, and lodging are all very reasonable. For these reasons, I would rate KK as a good place to dive for Asian based divers.


It is also a good place for groups with mixed interests. There is a wealth of topside activities from golf to hiking to visiting tea plantations and more so there is something for everyone (while the divers go diving). The generally calm and shallow water also make it a good place to learn to dive or pick-up an additional certification. The cost for an open-water certification runs from MR 500 (SSI) to MR 900 (PADI). My main purpose in coming to KK to dive was to see and photograph a certain species of scorpion fish I read could be found here. In diving many sites in SE Asia this specimen eluded me. I told the dive leaders at Sabah Divers about it and they confirmed its presence at the park and found it for me. For me, that is a definition of a good dive site…seeing something rare and unusual for the first time!


There are a variety of dive sites at the marine park…hard coral reefs and gardens, sandy bottoms, and classic muck dives. I believe there is a small wreck dive but I didn’t dive it. I don’t believe there are any true sheer wall dives and the sites are shallow. Due to the generally limited visibility, shallow depths, and relative lack of colourful soft corals, the sites are not that “pretty.†However, there is a lot to see for the patient and trained eye. The jetty at Sapi Island is a great muck dive. The sites are generally between 15-20 meters deep and I didn’t record anything past 22 meters during the week. Many sites have a large variety of hard coral; unfortunately, there has been extensive fishing and dynamite damage in some areas, particularly around Gaya Island. Soft coral is less prolific but adds colour to a few of the sites. Hard coral and rock outcroppings with sandy bottoms predominate. As depths are shallow, open-water pelagic fish are rare…smaller reef fish and invertebrates predominate. There is good macro life, and if you like nudibranchs, you will enjoy the variety and numbers in which they are found. Many species from the scorpionfish family can be observed. Many anemones hide tiny commensal shrimps and crabs and moray and snake eels are also present.


During the months of December thru April, the water temperature drops and there is a plankton and krill bloom. The water below 1-2 meters is 24°-26° Celsius. During my dives, it was mostly 25°-26°…that to me is cold. When packing, I decided to save a few ounces of weight and threw in my 3mm instead of my 5mm full-suit. I wish I hadn’t. Luckily, I also always dive with full booties and gloves and bring along a hood too. I was glad I had all three! These blooms cause some of the low visibility at many sites. It was 5-10 meters at most sites, but would sometimes drop to nil. The upside to the cold water and plankton bloom is they attract hungry whale sharks. Yes, that is right…from January to April, whale sharks can often be seen on dives in the marine park. Seeing these gentle giants up close and personal could certainly qualify KK as a great place to dive. During the week, other divers (not dive shop staff) confirmed seeing up to 5-6 whale sharks during a dive.


In Specifics:


Gaya Island/Hanging Gardens


The water here was a chilly 25°. Coral reef and rubble bottom, with minimal current and visibility at 4-8 meters. Most of the larger reef fish are absent (i.e., angelfish and butterfly fish). Some banner fish and lots of nudibranchs and wart slugs. Shrimp/razor fish. Also some interesting commensal crabs and shrimps among the anemones, including porcelain crabs and Periclemenes magnificus shrimps. Several large spiny lobsters and crabs. Unfortunately, there are large areas of “bombed-out†hard coral.


Gaya Island – Pedang Point


This site is further along the coastline of Gaya Island around the corner from Hanging Gardens. Marine life is similar but not in much numbers. I would not recommend this dive site.


Sapi Island Jetty


This dive is under and around the main boat jetty at Sapi Island and along the outer-edge of the beach swimming zone. Minimal currents; visibility is low from nil to 4-5 meters. The bottom is sandy, with some rubble and rock outcrops. Reef-balls and tires have been placed about to create some artificial reefs. This is a great dive with many interesting specimens, but not if you like “pretty†sites – sandy rubble bottom with 2 meter vis is not every divers idea of heaven. Several lionfish were about the reef-balls and artificial tire reefs. A large honeycomb moray eel was hiding in the center of a rocky patch. Several large nudibranchs and flatworms were slithering along the sand. Several varieties of puffer fish were about. The tires also hide several banded pipefish and many Banded-Boxer cleaner shrimp. Spotted stingrays, a Leopard flounder, and a very friendly (likes a chin rub) Black-Pitted snake eel were seen on the sandy bottom. In addition, this dive has several true stonefish {Synanceia verrucosa} buried about. They can be found (eyes and frown only) in the sand near rocky patches and amongst the tire “reefs.†A small school of curious batfish joined our group for most of the dive…no doubt to ensure we didn’t miss any of the highlights this site has to offer.


Finally, it is at the Sapi jetty that I saw what I came to KK to find. Descending down to around 10 meters, lying half buried in the sand, our dive leader pointed out an ugly little cretin even its mother probably couldn’t love, a Devil scorpionfish {Inimicus didactylus}. This is one of the most venomous and dangerous marine specimens...right up there with the stonefish. This is both because of the potency of its venom and its habit of burying itself into sand/rubble with often only the venous spines (resembling small twigs or other rubble detritus) protruding above the sand. Apparently, these fish are not that rare in SE Asian waters but due to their cryptic camouflage are rarely recognized. They are generally non-descript in colour, usually matching their general background environment. However, if induced to display (i.e., disturbed) they will flare-out their pectoral fins, the back-sides of which contain very colourful abstract and spotted designs. Another unusual feature of this species is the first 2 rays of the pectoral fins have separated from the fin and evolved into claws or “toes.†Again, if disturbed, the devilfish will use these claws to crawl or “walk†away...it seems of a mind to exert a minimum of physical exertion and wouldn’t ever think of actually swimming.


Sapi Island – Agrill’s Reef (Sapi Island South Side)


Nice dive in minimal current with good vis at 12-15 meters. Varied bottom of sandy patches and large coral bommies, some covered in soft corals. Prolific hard corals and sponges. Banded pipefish, 6-Banded and Emperor Angelfish, batfish, shrimp/razor fish. Spiny lobsters, Banded-Boxer and hinged-beak shrimps.


Sulig Island – East Reef


This site drops onto a sandy bottom, which leads off to a sloping wall of lettuce hard coral, with a reef-garden at the top. There was no current and the vis was good at 8-10 meters. In the sand, several spotted sting-rays were seen. There were also lots of nudibranchs, including the pretty black/blue Chelidonura varians (also seen at Sapi Jetty) and several from the Phidiana families. [Nudibranchs from the Phidiana, Riticulidia, Phyllidia, Hypselodoris, and Chromodoris families are prevalent at most of the sites within the park.] A banded sea-snake was also observed.


Sulig Island – West Reef


Similar conditions as found a East Reef. Many nudibranchs. Long-fin comet, lionfish, moray eel, some butterfly and angelfish. Of particular note were several juvenile black and orange-ringed Shaded batfish {Platax pinnatus} and a blue-grey Giant frogfish hanging from a large sponge.



Manukan Island – West Reef


This site has an varied bottom composition. Starting off as a coral bottom, then later a sandy slope with rocky outcroppings, and ending in a pretty coral reef garden. Minimal current and good vis at 5-12 meters. Highlights included another pair of stonefish, Yellow-spot stingrays, many nudibranchs, and several large free-swimming remoras. (Where was their whale-shark(?) host!)


Manukan Island – Clement’s Reef


Hard corals down to 22 meters. Nudibranchs, lionfish, butterfly fish, banded pipefish, and another stonefish.

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Kota Kinabalu Report Part 3 and Conclusion


Mantanani Island and the Labuan Wrecks:


The following information about diving at Mantanani Island and the Labuan Wrecks comes from diving field guides, brochures, and talking to dive operators in KK. I did not dive these locations personally. Mantanani Island is about 2 hours by combined land/boat transport from KK. It is reputed to be a pretty little island with nice beaches and palm trees and some dive sites nearby. Scuba Paradise runs a day-trip from KK, leaving early morning and returning evening and includes all transfers, food, dive equipment, and 2 dives for MR 560. The primary draw of the island is the chance to see dugongs (sea cows/manatees). There are sometimes 2-3 of them at the island, and one in particular is very inquisitive and friendly with divers. (In fact, this one individual was featured in an Asian Diver magazine story several months ago.) This could make for an interesting day-trip away from the marine park.


The Labuan Wrecks are a group of 4 shipwrecks located near Labuan Island. Labuan Island is close to Brunei and a 3 hour ferry or 20 minute flight from KK. It is part of Malaysia but is a special free-trade zone and offshore financial center. The 4 wrecks are: Blue Water Wreck, Australian Wreck, Cement Wreck, and the American Wreck. All were transport/cargo vessels, except the American, which was a WWII vintage Admiral Class minesweeper. The wrecks lie in 30-35 meters of water and currents can be strong. The wrecks are reported to be quite heavily encrusted with marine life and hard/soft corals, with the Cement and American wrecks in particular being really good dives. Sabah Divers is currently the only KK based operator diving these wrecks. Trips are usually organized over several days with multiple dives on the wrecks and a stay of 1 or 2 nites in Labuan. Basically, it is a separate little dive-trip from KK. Prices run around MR 200 per tank/dive, not including return transit to Labuan.




So the question again arises…is Kota Kinabalu a great place to dive? While it is certainly not comparable to sites in eastern Sabah, it certainly has its own charms. Interesting macro-life, good dive operators, easy access, reasonable costs, and whale sharks in season all combine to make it a good diving destination. It is also a worthwhile stop for those who want to mix-in some diving with the rest of their holiday activities in Sabah. For these reasons, I will certainly return to dive these islands again.






Borneo Anchor Tours – www.borneoanchortours.com

Borneo Books – www.borneobooks.com

Borneo Divers – www.borneodivers.info

Kinabalu Daya Hotel – www.kkdayahotel.com

Sabah Divers – www.sabahdivers.com

Scuba Paradise – www.scubaparadiseborneo.com.my

O2 Divers – www.o2diver.com

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First off - Holy cow, that is a heck of a post! :lol:


Second, thanks so much for taking the time to put down all of this. I was just considering heading out to KK in a couple weeks and I had never really heard anything about local diving. Rest assured I will pour over what you have here and it will really help me on my way :) If I have any questions, I know where to go now...



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