Tag Archives: diving

Leisure Diving at Islands off Kota Kinabalu City

scuba diver

I’m certified as a scuba diver since year 2008, but it’s a shame that I don’t dive quite often. I even stopped once for 2 years. When my friend Dodo invited me to join a diving group last month, I agreed without second thought. One of the best things living in Kota Kinabalu City (KK) is – we have dozens of dive sites located in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (I prefer to call it KK Islands Park), which is only 15 minutes away by boat ride from KK.

Scuba divers onboard

Scuba diver friends onboard. At the right is May, my Sifu.

It rained heavily in the morning on our diving day. Luckily it stopped before 7am so we just proceeded with our plan. The diving team gathered at STAR Marina and we departed at 9:30am with Borneo Divers, which has a Dive Centre on Mamutik Island. My Dive Instructor, May, was onboard with us too. I confessed to her that I had given her back everything she taught me (which means I forget everything) LOL.

diver ready

I was a bit nervous but excited

However, there was no time to bother with the butterflies in my stomach, after suited up and got our dive equipment loaded on-board, we headed to the first dive site at 11am. On the way, I was busy to recall all the steps in my mind.

Entering the water by back roll

Me entering the water by back roll

I was the last one entering the water with my compact camera in underwater case (can stay waterproof up to a depth of 40 Meters). Due to the rain earlier, the water was a bit murky but the visibility is quite ok, about 6 Meters in average. Two Divemasters, Christine and Jonathan were covering our front and back during the dive. The following are summaries of my experience in 3 dive sites.

Dive sites of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Dive sites of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. We covered North Sulug Reef, East Sulug Reef and The Rock

1. North Sulug Reef

Depth: 18-22M (Dive Time: 11:14am-12:00pm)
My first dive was quite terrible. It took me 2 minutes to equalize (relieve pressure to eardrums caused by increasing depth). Then sea water leaked into my mask, I couldn’t see things clearly half of time. I also couldn’t control my buoyancy effectively while busy setting my camera. All these are caused by lack of practices.

School of Yellow and Blueback Fusiliers

School of Yellow and Blueback Fusiliers

Anyway, we spotted two green turtles and a school of barracuda! There were school after school of yellowback fusiliers swimming close to reef to catch plankton.

Plate coral of Sulug Island

Plate coral of Sulug Island

Many table corals, sea whips and feather stars (marine animals that look like plants) were present. Though the variety and density of corals wasn’t impressive and I saw 5 to 7 Crown of Thorns (a cunning and thorny marine creature which preys on corals), this dive site has the most reef fishes compared to my next two dives.

Lettuce Corals

Lettuce Corals

scuba diver

Special thanks to Dodo for sharing her photos in this article. She is a hardcore diver who has done over 200 dives.

Slowly I got used to the water and able to navigate freely around the reef. The dive ended after 45 minutes and we went back to Mamutik Island for lunch.

2. East Sulug Reef

Depth: 9-16M (Dive Time: 1:20pm-2:04pm)
After lunch buffet and a short nap on the island, we started our second dive near Sulug Island again. To focus on polishing my rusted diving skill, I left my camera behind. This dive site is far more interesting than the first one.

A pair of mating nudibranch

A pair of mating nudibranch

The corals here is much more denser and it has become a good hiding place for numerous ocean critters. We saw a pair of mating nudibranch (also known as Orchids of the Ocean) on the coral rubble. In fact, you can find more wildlife underwater than on the land, and some of them are very bright in colors.

Hawksbill sea turtle

Hawksbill sea turtle

That day must be our lucky day. We saw a Hawksbill turtle swimming toward us. It seemed so relax and only a few Meters away from us, probably it thought we were just big fishes. The population of Hawksbill turtle is 10 times less than Green Turtle, so this sighting is really a treat.

Giant clam

Giant clam

I spotted at least two very big and old giant clams. If this park is not protected, there wouldn’t be any of them left due to overfishing. However, if a giant clam grows really huge, like over a Meter wide, many local fishermen would not dare to touch it because they believe there is a spirit dwells inside.

Cuttlefish camouflaged as a coral

Cuttlefish camouflaged as coral

We dived along a long stretch of underwater coral garden. I noticed a coral was “flashing”. A closer look showed that it’s a big cuttlefish camouflaged as a coral. We would have missed it if it didn’t change colors. Divers have to be very observant or they would miss many cool stuffs. I believe we only spotted a few percent of the wildlife lurking in this reef.

Puffer fish in a barrel sponge

Puffer fish in a barrel sponge

East Sulug Reef has a lot of lettuce corals, mushroom corals and barrel sponges. Among them, I saw two Christmas tree worms retreated into their burrows, and orange-spotted grouper, angelfish, etc. Without a camera, I could dive more freely. Most of the time, I hovered between between a depth of 10 to 14 Meters, where visibility is better and beautiful corals concentrated.

3. The Rock

Depth: 12-13M (Dive Time: 3:25pm-4pm)
For the last dive, we explored The Rock just behind Mamutik Island. The corals at The Rock is as fabulous as East Sulug Reef but with more variety of soft corals. Too bad I don’t know most of their names. I will buy a guide book and learn to identify the marine lives so I will enjoy diving more.

Coral Razorfish

Coral Razorfish

The seascape here is a gradual sloping ridge. Ten of us dived gently along its side full with fringing reef.

Dense coral in Sulug Reef

Dense coral in The Rock

Hard corals grow an average of 1 to 2 cm per year. Many corals in the marine parks of Sabah are estimated 3,000 to 6,000 years old. But they can be totally destroyed in a matter of minutes by destructive fishing method such as blast fishing (or fish bombing).

False Clown Anemone fish in Ritteri anemone

False Clown Anemone fish in Ritteri anemone

We saw two Magnificent Anemones with Anemonefishes (Nemo) living in them. Magnificent Anemone is very hard to survive in aquarium, so you have to see them in the wild.

Pink Anemonefish in purple Magnificent Anemone (Heteractis magnifica)

Pink Anemonefish in purple Magnificent Anemone (Heteractis magnifica)

Even though KK Islands Park isn’t a world-class diving spot, it’s still a great playground, even experienced divers find pleasant surprises in every dive.

sea fern

Shrub-like sea fern

Everyone was really happy. The sighting of sea turtles and barracuda is already worth the trip. My interest on diving is reignited. I’ll do more dives regularly to perfect my skill and take more underwater photos in future.

Recommended Dive Operators

Sabah has so many high-quality diving spots all over the state. The nearest dive site could be less than 20 KM away from our home. If you don’t know how to dive, it’s like living next to a snowy mountain but don’t know how to ski.

Gear up for the dive

Gear up for the dive

You can find more about how to get certified as a scuba diver in my blog. To get certified or arrange a diving trip, I highly recommend the dive operators below:

1. Borneo Divers

Borneo Divers is the most established PADI 5-star dive operator in Sabah and has dive centres on Mamutik and Mabul Islands.
Tel: +60 88-222226, +60 88-221340
E-mail: information@borneodivers.info
Website: www.borneodivers.net
Facebook: BorneoDiversMabulResort
Office Address: 9th Floor, Menara Jubili, 53, Jalan Gaya, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

scuba diver showing OK sign

Ok Bah! Everyone can dive

2. Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures

Downbelow is run by a nice couple, Richard and Joanne from UK. They are very passionate about the nature of Sabah, and their service is highly rated in TripAdvisor. Downbelow has a PADI 5-star dive centre on Gaya Island Base Camp and a Dive Shop in KK Times Square.

E-mail: info@divedownbelow.com
Website: www.divedownbelow.com
Tel: +60 88-488997, +60 12-8661935
Office Address: KK Times Square, Lot 33-G, Block F, Kota Kinabalu, 88100 Sabah, Malaysia
Facebook: DiveDownBelow
Google+: +Divedownbelow
Twitter: @divedownbelow
Youtube: divedownbelow
Instagram: divedownbelow

Divers descending to the bottom

Scuba Diving is fun

3. Asia Diving Vacation

Asia Diving Vacation was started by my old buddy, Jacob, who is an avid diver who loves to introduce divers to the best dive sites in Asia, for example, Layang Layang, Lankayan, Sipadan and even Maratua (Indonesia). You can join him stalking whale shark around the islands of KK.

E-mail: customercare@asiadivingvacation.com
Website: www.asiadivingvacation.com
Office Address: Duis Dive, 23, 3rd Floor, Block C, Damai Plaza IV, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Facebook: AsiaDivingVacation
Twitter: @advonline

The fee of leisure diving (fun diving) day trip ranges from RM320 to RM360 (≈US$90-103), which normally includes boat transfer, 3 guided boat dives, rental of scuba equipment, diving permit and lunch. Please visit their websites for detail on dive packages.

Cheering for the exciting dive

Cheering for the exciting dive

Photos taken in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Bohey Dulang of Semporna Islands Park

Bohey Dulang

My urge to visit Bohey Dulang Island started with a photo seven years ago. “Nice painting!” I praised a big drawing of islands hanging in the office of my friend. “Actually it’s a PHOTO taken in Sabah,” he replied. I was stunned. The islands look so surreal, such place doesn’t even seem exist. After some lookup in local bookstore, I found that it is the photo of Tun Sakaran Marine Park (or Semporna Islands Park) taken by Michael Patrick Wong.

photo of Tun Sakaran Park by Michael Patrick Wong
Pic: aerial photo of Tun Sakaran Park by Michael Patrick Wong

Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP) is located off Semporna at east coast of Sabah and comprises of eight islands – Bohey Dulang, Bodgaya, Tetagan, Sebangkat, Selakan, Maiga, Sibuan and Mantabuan, covering a total land and sea areas of 350 km².

Sleeping Old Man islands
Pic: view of Tun Sakaran Marine Park from Semporna town. Locals call it Sleeping Old Man and I guess you can see why.

TSMP is the largest marine park in Sabah (but will be superseded by 1-million-hectare Tun Mustapha Marine Park soon). I was also told that you can get a fascinating view of TSMP (they call it one of the most beautiful views of Sabah) from the peak of Bohey Dulang Island.

Below is the location map of TSMP. You also can see it in Google Map:
location of Bohey Dulang

Every now and then I contacted some travel agents for a trip to this park, but they all wanted me to charter the whole boat (for nearly a thousand bucks) if I traveled solo, so the plan was held indefinitely until last month Edward from Borneo Star Cruise texted me, “bro, I’ll visit Bohey Dulang tomorrow. You want to join?” Of course I was more than happy to tag along!

About Bohey Dulang Island

Bohey Dulang (or Boheydulong, Bohaydulong) is the second largest island (size: 313 hectares) of TSMP and about 23 Km away from Semporna. Legend says there lives a beautiful princess named Salamia from Bum-Bum Island. Her family hid her on Bohey Dulang, to avoid a forced marriage by a notorious Sultan from the southern Philippines.

legend of Princess Salamia
Pic: drama about Princess Salamia in Sabah Fest 2010.

However, she vanished a few days later and believed to be hidden by the spirits of this island and turned into a fairy. Even nowadays, local people say they can hear Princess Salamia singing and her dog barking during the night of full moon. Occasionally, she is seen walking around the island.

Tun Sakaran Marine Park of Semporna
Pic: Bohey Dulang Island

The name Bohey Dulang is derived from bohi (bohey) meaning water and dulang meaning pools or depressions in Bajau language. This may refer to series of oval rock pools, roughly 2-3 m across, along the small waterfalls and main freshwater stream on the eastern side of the island.

east side of Bohey Dulang
Pic: East side of Bohey Dulang Island

People say these pools are a source of drinking water for Princess Salamia. A document reports a large cave (40 M high and over 20 M long) is situated on the east side of this island too. Could it be the home of Princess Salamia? I wonder.

Day Trip to Bohey Dulang

Ok, back to my tour. Edward and I were taking a boat from Semporna town around 11am. The weather was good and we approached TSMP in 15 minutes. The Best Time to visit Bohey Dulang are from February to April (the dry months). If you visit during wetter months like July, August, December and January, your trip would have higher chance of being spoiled by heavy rainstorm of monsoon seasons, or not, depending on your luck.

boat ride to Bohey Dulang
Our boatman showed us a “secret passage” where we could see dozen of sea turtles. We cruised slowly on the sea near TSMP. It was low tide and the water was crystal clear. We could see large area of corals and white sand under the ocean.

swimming turtle
Then we did see over 10 sea turtles passed by our catamaran one by one. Gee… though turtles look heavy and clumsy, they swim as fast as a torpedo in the water. I totally fall in love with the beautiful nature and romantic legend of this island.

Semporna Islands Park
You may ask, “this magical destination should have become very famous for a long time. Why it only rises as a new attraction in recent years?” Good question. In 1963, Bohey Dulang was leased to Kaya Pearl Company to establish the first pearl cultivation center in Malaysia. The island was heavily guarded by armed personnel and stranger was strictly forbidden to enter the island. That’s why Bohey Dulang is nicknamed as the Pearl Island or Treasure Island.

Sabah Parks center on Bohey Dulang
Then the pearl farm was closed in 1993. In 2004, Bohey Dulang, with seven other islands, is gazetted as ‘Tun Sakaran Marine Park’ (TSMP) by the Sabah Government. As a national park and by word of mouth, it gains more exposure and now it receives hundred of tourists every day.

jetty of Bohey Dulang Island
TSMP is managed by Sabah Parks and they have an office and giant clam nursery on Bohey Dulang. Visitors are required to get a permit from them before entering the island. I hope they will make it a public park soon, so tourists only require to buy ticket to enter. Furthermore, Bohey Dulang needs more tourism amenities such as restaurant, watersport center and resort.

taking photo at the jetty
From the jetty, you can see the peak (at left in photo above) that is used as the view point for scenery of TSMP.

For a fast overview of Bohey Dulang, you may watch the short video below:

Hiking to the peak

You need to ascend a 600-Meter nature trail to reach the peak with a height of 265 Meters, which normally takes 40 minutes. The climb can be a bit challenging after rain, because some steep areas will become slippery and muddy. Do wear proper walking shoe, I strongly advise against flip-flop. It’s warm and humid in the forest and hot on the peak, so please bring some drinking water.

peaks of Bohey Dulang
Pic: the view points on the peak. The trail will lead you to the one at right, you can walk 20 Meters to the view point at the left for better sight. The dark grey rocks that form the high cliffs and large shore outcrops are mainly volcanic rocks of late Tertiary (Pliocene) and Quaternary periods. It’s unique because Semporna peninsula is the only place in Sabah where you can see these rocks.

toilet
There is a small toilet at the beginning of the trail. It is not so clean and well-maintained, but usable.

start of hiking
Limited supports such as boardwalk, handrails, ropes, stairway and plank path are available to make your climb easier, but you will walk on soil and rocky path most of the time and busy grabbing the small trees along the trail for support. For safety, a Sabah Parks guide will escort you on the way. Just go slow and everyone can make it quite easily.

jungle trekking to the peak of Bohey Dulang
Like other islands in TSMP, Bohey Dulang has one of the most unique and unusual plant communities in Borneo, especially coastal forest and scrub vegetation. Some plant species here are regional endemic to Semporna islands and Philippines, and not found in other locations of Borneo, for example, rare Paraboea leopoldii on cliff faces, Dracaena multiflora monocot, palm-like Cycas rumphii, cactus-like succulent Euphorbia lacei and trichoglottis geminata, a rare epiphytic orchid grows on volcanic rock.

forest in Bohey Dulang
I was looking for Selaginella tamariscina, a small plant of 4-5 cm high like a miniature tree fern. Its leafy distal branches curls inwards under hot sunlight but flattened during rain. This cute plant is a new record to Borneo, and it grows on exposed to partially shaded, gently sloping rockfaces of this island.

distance marker to the peak
We saw probably nearly a hundred tourists on the way down. They looked tired but really happy. Some even encouraged us, “move on, you are close!”, “it’s awesome up there!”, “it is worth the effort.” A rain earlier turned part of the trail into creeks. Many tourists took off their flip-flop and descended barefooted, when their shoes were too slippery to hold their feet. I sweated a lot but the soothing sea breeze prevented me from overheat.

volcanic rock of Bohey Dulang
Wildlife such as long-tailed macaque and otter also live on this island but not in great number. A total of 48 bird species comprising mainly resident birds have been recorded around Bohey Dulang. The notable bird species are Metallic Pigeon (Columba vitiensis), Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), Tabon Scrubfowl and Pied Hornbill. I saw more mosquitoes than other animals though. The good news is – there is no leech.

Stairway to Heaven
Pic: They call this ladder between boulders “Stairway to Heaven.” You should feel joyful when you reach here. Not because you will go to heaven, the peak is only a very short walk away now.

reaching the end of trail
Finally I came to a flat ground and saw the light in front. I could tell the amazing scenery was waiting for me outside the dense bushes.

top of Bohey Dulang
Hooray…!!! After a taxing climb, it’s time to enjoy the wonderful view and stay as long as you want.

The Most Beautiful Seaview of Sabah

On top of Bohey Dulang, you can have a bird-eye view of the sapphire-colored Bodgaya Lagoon embraced by emerald forest of three central islands (Bodgaya, Bohey Dulang and Tetagan), the only islands in Sabah made of volcanic rock and part of the Sulu volcanic chain. In fact, the lagoon, which is about 6.5 Km across, is a crater of an ancient volcano erupted 2.5 million years ago.

panoramic view of Bohey Dulang
The central islands are the remnants of a Quaternary volcanic crater rim. Part of the “rim” is dissected and inundated by the sea but you can see it from its curved reef formation. I was standing on top of an extinct volcano. You may look at the satellite photo below for a clearer view of the rim.

aerial photo of Tun Sakaran Marine Park

view of jetty from the top
Pic: I could see our boat at the jetty. All boats look like tiny toy from a height of over 260 Meters. The highest point of Bohey Dulang is 353 Meters and situated further south. They might open a new trail to there in future.

pearl farm of Bohey Dulang
Pic: abandoned pearl farm

taking photo on peak of Bohey Dulang
It’s noon time and most tourists have descended. The rest of us were happy to take hundred of photos. They didn’t build any fence, so be careful when you stand on the uneven surface of the cliffs.

channel between Bodgaya and Bohey Dulang
Pic: To your right you can see the 120-Meter long channel between Bodgaya Island and Bohey Dulang. Bodgaya means “impressive mountain” in Bajau language, and it’s the largest island (795 ha) in TSMP and about 8 Km long. You also can see its highest peak, Mt Bodgaya, which is 455 Meters high.

photo of two men on the peak
If you say Bohey Dulang has the most beautiful seaview in Sabah, those who had been there won’t argue with you. You may forget many things in life over time, but you will always remember the breathtaking seascape of Bohey Dulang.

panoramic view of Bodgaya Lagoon
For the best view, you need to walk another 20 Meters to your right for second view point, which offers a truly panoramic view (like photo above). You would miss this spot if nobody tells you. This is the favorite spot of landscape photographers to capture the circular shape of the lagoon and “50 shades of blue” colors.

Dracaena multiflora of Bohey Dulang
The volcanic rocks and mixture of Bornean and Philippines flora make this park looks a bit “exotic” even to Malaysians. Like the yacca-like Dracaena multiflora in photo above. It is common in summit scrub here but do you know that it’s only found in Philippines and Semporna Islands Park?

group photo on top of Bohey Dulang
It’s hard to say goodbye to Princess Salamia and her lovely islands in Celebes Sea, which can match the beauty of Caribbean Sea.

How to get there

A day trip to Bohey Dulang is possible even if you stay in Kota Kinabalu City (KK). Just take a 50-min morning flight from KK to Tawau City, upon arrival get a 1-hour land transport to Semporna town, then the park is only 20 minutes away by boat. The earliest flight to Tawau departs at 7:25am, and last flight back to KK is at 7:45pm. Both direct routes are served by Malaysia Airlines and available every day. You may use Google Flight to check out the latest prices and other flight alternatives. Please note you need a permit from Sabah Parks prior to visit the island.

scenery of Bohey Dulang
Starting on 1 Feb 2016, visitor will need to pay for entrance ticket to this island (which they call Conservation Fee):

Ticket Rates:

Malaysian: (Adult: RM3; Below 18: RM1)
Non-Malaysian: (Adult: RM10; Below 18: RM6)

You may book a tour to Bohey Dulang with Borneo Star Cruise. They will arrange the land / boat transfer, permit, lunch, island tour and snorkelling gears for you. The following are the detail of their tour packages (departs from KK):

1) Day Trip

Price: RM399 (≈US$105) per person (Min. 6 people), 6% GST Tax included
Inclusive of: Hotel ↔ KK Airport Transfer, Tawau Airport ↔ Semporna Transfer, Tour to Bohey Dulang, Packed Lunch, Hiking (with mountain guide), Snorkeling Set
Excluded: KK ↔ Tawau Return Air Ticket, Dinner at Semporna

2) 2-Day-1-Night

Price: RM499 (≈US$130) per person (Min. 6 people), 6% GST Tax included
Inclusive of: Hotel ↔ KK Airport Transfer, Tawau Airport ↔ Semporna Transfer, Bohey Dulang & Kapalai Island Tours, Packed Lunch, Hiking (with mountain guide), Snorkeling Set, One Night Hotel stay in Semporna
Excluded: KK ↔ Tawau Return Air Ticket, Dinner at Semporna

photo of a girl on the peak
Please feel free to contact Borneo Star Cruise for more info:
E-mail: info@borneostarcruise.com
Phone (24×7): +60 17-820 7911 (also reachable by Text, WhatsApp, Viber, LINE)
Website: www.borneostarcruise.com
Facebook: Borneo-Starcruise-Sdn-Bhd

Other Activities

Besides sightseeing at Bohey Dulang, there are a few other activities you can do around Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP).

1. Visit Giant Clam Nursery

Due to overfishing, giant clams are highly endangered. TSMP is a refuge for seven species of giant clams (Tridacnidae and Hippopusporcellanus species).

giant clam nursery
Sabah Parks has a giant clam nursery and hatchery center on Bohey Dulang, where they breed and propagate giant clams inside and outside the Park. The display and settlement tank area, which houses a few species of giant clam, are open to public. It’s possible to arrange an educational tour to visit their lab and research center.

2. Snorkeling & Diving

TSMP is located in Coral Triangle (a.k.a. Amazon of the Sea), which supports one of the richest marine ecological zones in Malaysia. 528 species of coral reef fish are found in the park, much more than Sipadan Island (409), Redang (209) and Tioman (233). Teeming with over 320 species of hard and soft corals, and variety of sea creatures such as eagle rays, barracuda, turtles and nudibranchs, this park is getting well-known as a scuba diving and snorkeling site.

beach of Bohey Dulang
Mantabuan Island has the best concentration of corals and marine lives. Sibuan Island is featured as one of the 101 Best Beaches of Malaysia. Therefore, both islands are the favorite picks of travel agents to impress their guests.

3. Photography

You are wrong if you think that TSMP is only about nature. Many world-renowned photographers have visited this park for human interest shots here and won some international awards. Around the islands, there are about 10 villages of Bajau Laut (a.k.a. Sea Gypsies) people living either in temporary shacks or in their boats. They maintain very traditional lifestyles and possibly the only nomadic seafarers left in the world.

village of Bohey Dulang
Most of them are fishermen in hardcore poverty. However, when their primitive houses, nude children and pristine sea are being framed into a photo, its visual impact is so overwhelming and so out of this world (though it’s a sad reality). Whenever I drop by Semporna, I never fail to see a few boatloads of photographers heading to TSMP.

More Photos

For more photos, you may check out my photo album.

photo album of Bohey Dulang.

References

  • New records of Bornean plants from the Semporna Islands off Sabah’s east coast, KM. Wong et al., Sandakania 13 (1999): page 31-40
  • The landscape, vegetation and botany of the Semporna Islands off Sabah, Borneo, KM. Wong et al., Sandakania 13 (1999): page 41-65
  • Semporna Islands Darwin Project (2001 Jan). Management Plan for the Semporna Islands Park

Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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