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Islands of Semporna

Islands of Semporna

Half of the popular attractions of Malaysia are sea and islands. Besides the tropical weather, white sandy beaches and crystal clear seawater, the islands of Sabah are rich in marine biodiversity. The sea of Semporna lies inside the Coral Triangle, “The Amazon of the Seas” that covers six countries, and Malaysia (North and East of Sabah) is one of them.

Map of Semporna islands

With an area equal in size to half of the United States, Coral Triangle is home to 75% of coral species, more than half of the world’s reefs, 3,000 species of reef fish, and seven species of marine turtle. In year 2014 there were about 65,139 tourists came to dive in Sabah. You can bet most of them dive in one of the recommended islands below:

Pom Pom Island

Pom Pom is 45 minutes by boat from Semporna. This island has almost everything what a tourist expects for a dream holiday on island. The chalets are built with traditional local methods which make them blend nicely with the ambiance of the island.

Pom-Pom Island

What I really like about Pom-Pom is its environmental-friendly approaches to operate the resort. For example, they have a turtle hatchery to protect the turtle eggs, a reverse osmosis re-cycling rainwater system to cut down pollution from importing of water, and the waste water and residual waste is re-cycled and used for irrigation and fertilization for their gardens.

Pulau Pom-Pom

As tourists are getting more conservation-conscious, green resort like Pom Pom should Resort should be a role model for other island resorts to follow.


>> Click Here to read more about Pom-Pom

Mataking Island

Mataking is well-known as a romance island, even for newlyweds from Italy. In fact Mataking is a 2-in-1 island, with 20 acres of land divided between two islands, namely Mataking Kecil and Mataking Besar. During low tide, you can walk to other island on long stretch of sandy beach that connects two islands.
Mataking Island

For divers, you can post a letter in “Underwater Post Office”, the first of its kind in Malaysia. The mailbox is on Mataking 1, an old 40-foot wooden cargo ship sank by Mataking in March 2006, to create an artificial reef.

Pulau Mataking

For non-divers, you may laze on the beach or try activities such as Jamu Spa, batik painting and kayaking. You also can join night trekking to see fireflies, turtles and the rare coconut crab.


>> Click Here to read more about Mataking

Kapalai Island

Kapalai is a magic island, as the island will “disappear” during high tide. Kapalai was once a beautiful island 200 years ago, but due to land erosion, now what remains is a narrow sandy bar only visible during low tide. This makes its wooden accommodation looks like a floating resort.

Kapalai Island

The chalets are built on high wooden stilts on the sand and connected by boardwalk. At night you can see marine lives such as lionfish, sting ray and even turtle swim under the walkways. There is an opening on the deck of the restaurant. You can see schools of fish passing under the viewing hole.

Pulau Kapalai

On Kapalai, you feel like you are living in the middle of the ocean, not just an island.


>> Click Here to read more about Kapalai

Mabul Island

Mabul is one of the best muck-diving sites in the world. When I saw Mabul, I was amazed by abundant of corals growing so near to the shore. This is quite impossible when the island has over 2,000 of residents. Thanks to the tour operators who engage the local community on conservation, the marine ecology of this island is recovering from its history of fish bombing.

Mabul Island

Pulau Mabul

Just drop off from the end of the jetty for a dive or snorkeling, you would see variety of macro life such as flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, spike-fin gobies and frogfish. Mabul is near to Sipadan, an ideal stop-over for divers who want to dive in Sipadan. The resorts and dive operators on Mabul have been trying to involve the locals in beach and underwater clean-ups, coral transplanting and environmental education. One of them even pays the villagers to collect the garbage, which otherwise would end up in the sea. For some guest houses, I hope they could be more eco-friendly, for example, I don’t feel comfortable to see my bath water goes directly into the sea.


>> Click Here to read more about Mabul Island

Sipadan Island

As one of the top 10 dive sites in the world, Sipadan doesn’t need more introduction. Sipadan is the only oceanic island of Malaysia. This mushroom-shape island was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, which rises 600 Meters from the ocean floor.

Sipadan Island

There a total of 12 dive sites in Sipadan, and the most recommended dive sites are the Barracuda Point, South Point, Hanging Garden and Turtle Cavern. Most divers can spot many green and hawksbill turtles, sharks and school of large fishes in a single dive.

Pulau Sipadan

However, please save Sipadan (best) for the last. I feel uneasy when divers, who just earn their cert, say, “Now I want to go to Sipadan!” The water current in Sipadan is a bit strong. We don’t want those clumsy new divers, who cannot control their buoyancy totally, kick and crush the fragile corals by accident. And please stop chasing and touching the sea turtles!

turtle of Sipadan

That’s a right decision that the government asked all the dive resorts moved out of Sipadan in year 2004, to preserve the island’s pristine state. The number of divers allowed to dive in Sipadan is also limited to 120 persons a day. Although the tourism ministry is constantly pressured by the tour operators to increase the daily quota, I am glad that government’s determination to protect the marine ecosystem doesn’t change.

>> Click Here to read more about Sipadan Island

Tun Sakaran Marine Park

In photo exhibition of Sabah, if you see those beautiful photos of primitive stilt houses over turquoise sea water, usually with a kid paddling a boat in foreground, very likely they are taken in the islands of Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP).

Tun Sakaran Marine Park
Above: viewing from Semporna town, Tun Sakaran Marine Park looks like a “Sleeping Old Man”.

Also known as the Semporna Islands Park, TSMP consists of eight islands (i.e. Bohey Dulang, Bodgaya, Sebangkat, Selakan, Mantabuan, Sibuan, Maiga, Church Reef and Kapikan Reef) and is the largest marine park of Sabah. With a size of 350 sq KM, it also has the largest concentration of coral reefs in Malaysia.

Semporna Islands Park

Even though this park is not as popular as Sipadan, TSMP has more biodiversity in terms of species and habitats. Total species recorded in TSMP includes 544 species of coral reef fish, 255 species of hard coral, 70 species soft coral, 140 species sponge, 265 species mollusc and 109 species echinoderms. I think it is better to keep the Park as pristine as it is, rather than promoting it as a dive paradise.

Bohey Dulang

>> Click Here to read more about Semporna Islands Park

How to get there?

Semporna is a small town and doesn’t have any airport. To go there, you need to take a flight (by Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia) from Kota Kinabalu City, capital of Sabah, (or from Kuala Lumpur of Peninsular Malaysia) to fly to Tawau airport. You can hire a taxi from Tawau Airport to go to Semporna, which takes about an hour. It costs about RM200-RM250 (≈US$50-US$62) per taxi, which is a standard sedan that can take 4 passengers (but may end up only can take 1 or 2 people, if you have diving equipment and lot of big luggages). Taxi is always available in Tawau Airport, because the taxi drivers keep track of the arrival of flights.

Taxi counter in Tawau Airport

The best arrangement is to book the accommodation or tour in advance, and request the resort / dive operator to fetch you at Tawau Airport. They would charge a fee of RM50-RM60 per head (≈US$12.50-US$15) and normally pick you up by van (more space).

Do not go to Tawau city and take a taxi to Semporna from there, it’s a waste of traveling time (take nearly 2 hours).

Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Pom-Pom Island – looking for bom-bom girls

Pom-Pom Island

Pom-Pom Island is a relatively new destination compared to other islands such as Sipadan and Mabul in Semporna, Sabah. Few people know that Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP), also known as Semporna Islands Park, is the most reachable from Pom-Pom. In fact, TSMP is currently the biggest marine park of Malaysia and has richer marine ecology and biodiversity than Sipadan in terms of macro lives, many new species wait to be named and discovered.

location map of Pom-Pom Island
Pom-Pom Island is 45-minute by boat from jetty of Semporna town. There are two accommodations on Pom-Pom. I was going to Pom-Pom Island Resort, the one which operates in environment-friendly manner. Without any fishing village and island residents, tourists enjoy more privacy on Pom-Pom. Don’t confuse Pom-Pom with another island named Bum-Bum.

crystal clear sea of Pom-Pom Island
Beach side of Pom Pom Island
The white sandy beach and crystal clear sea are as spectacular as other islands in Celebes Sea. Under the hot tropical sun, everyone just can’t wait to jump into sea. We even saw lion fishes and many other fishes under the jetty. To say it in a tacky way, Pom-Pom looks like the picture in dream holiday ad. Visitors can swim, dive, snorkel and kayak around the island.

Pom-Pom girl dancers
In case you wonder if Pom-Pom Island has many hot pom-pom girls…

Pom-Pom tree
Actually Pom-Pom gets its name from the “Pom-Pom” tree (photo above), which is abundant on the island.

>> Click Here to see more photos of Pom-Pom Island

Restaurant of Pom-Pom Island Resort
We checked in at their activity hall and restaurant (photo above). Welcoming drink was served (but no dancing Pom-Pom girls). It’s very nice that they sent our heavy luggage to our chalet with mini-tractor. I’ve been hearing positive feedback about the excellent service of Pom-Pom. Basically they take care of everything, so you are worry-free. They can even pick you up at Tawau Airport.

Island Chalets

Water Villa of Pom-Pom Island
Water Villa of Pulau Pom-Pom

Room of Water Villa
Balcony of Water Villa
>> Click Here to see more photos of Pom-Pom Island

Of course the most luxurious chalet is the Water Villa built on the sea, and of course I can’t afford it. Anyway, I was busybody a bit and took a few photos of Water Villa (see 4 photos above).

I remember an incident that a hotel put me and my male colleague in a room with honeymoon setting. There is only a transparent glass between the room and bathroom, so I can see what my roommate doing in toilet. I am not that “open-minded”, so I requested the hotel to give us a “normal” room. Well, even if sharing room with wife, I don’t think it’s romantic to see her wiping her butt after doing number 1?

Beach Villa of Pom-Pom Island Resort
Though I stayed in Beach Villa (photo above), it’s already a 5-star lodging to me. Yes, the chalet has electricity, hot shower, light, fans and air-conditioning, and the room is spacious.

Fruit trees
Pom-Pom is a small island that needs only 40 minutes to walk one round, but it’s big enough to have the soil to plant fruits such as Papaya and Dragon Fruit. After sunset, a large number of fruit bats (flying fox) will fly to this island to enjoy the fruits. The big bats are just everywhere after dusk. By the way, they have jogging and cycling tracks on the island.

I went for a bird-watching hunt around the island. The sighting of Barred Rail is reported on this island. This bird species is common in Philippines but it is only recently spotted and added to the list of birds found in Sabah. I was told that it likes to wander in the grass near the fruit garden, but too bad I didn’t see it. I saw other birds such as sunbirds and kingfisher.

You can find a sense of humor in many little things on the island..

Funny dustbin
Mr. Bean dustbin?

Kampung House
Kampung House? (Village House)

>> Click Here to see more photos of Pom-Pom Island

Plate warmer
OMG, a Plate Warmer? This is the first plate warmer I see in Sabah. I love food to be served on warm plate. One thing that Sabah “kopitiam” (Malaysian coffee shop) always make me mildly pissed off is when they give me the plate and spoon that are still wet. I think it is kind of disgusting.

Water tanks for reverse osmosis
Pom-Pom Island Resort also invests on reverse osmosis (R.O.) plant to use rainwater. It is the only island in Sabah employs such green technology. They also plan to use wind energy in future.

Below is a 2.5-min video about Pom-Pom:

Click Here to watch bigger video.

Bohey Dulang
From Pom-Pom, you can clearly see Bohey Dulang, one of the islands of Semporna Islands Park.

sunset of Semporna Islands Park
According to the legend, a notorious Sultan of South Philippines eyed on Arung Salamiah, a beautiful princess lived on Bum-Bum Island, so her parents hid her on Bohey Dulang island. She vanished few days later and people believe that she was hidden by the spirits on the island and turned into fairy. Locals say they could hear her singing and her dog barking during full moon, and even occasionally see her walking on the island.

Arung Salamiah Princess
The romantic story of Arung Salamiah was even played in Sabah Fest 2010.

Giant clam nursery on Bohey Dulang
Giant clam shell exhibition

We dropped by Bohey Dulang island on the first day, not to visit Salamiah, but to look at the giant clam nursery. I blogged about this giant clam nursery before. FYI, you may snorkel here because they release many giant clams in front of the giant clam nursery.

We also checked out the cultivation of abalone on the island. The species of our abalone is relatively smaller.

Our initial itinerary included a 30 to 45 minutes trekking up to the high point of Bohey Dulang (probably Salamiah stood on this hill before?), to get a bird eye view of Tun Sakaran Marine Park. Due to time constraint, we had to cancel the plan, too bad, next time then.


Later Pom-Pom sent us to Mantabuan Island for snorkeling. Being one of the islands of bio-diversified Semporna Islands Park, we saw so much in only 8 Meters of depth! Luckily coral bleaching does not affect the cooler Celebes Sea of Semporna, so the corals are in great shape. In merely 1 hour of snorkeling, we saw stack horn, brain corals, blue corals, lettuce corals, thorns of stars, huge sea cucumbers, puffer fish, crocodile fishes and 3 Green and Hawsbill Turtles!!! I was told by my friends that they also spotted turtle when they snorkel near the jetty of Pom-Pom in next morning. A scuba diver also said that she found 13 turtles in the sea in front of the jetty.

Mantabuan Island
Above: Mantabuan Island

The sea current was not strong and the visibility was about 9 Meters. To see more, you can join scuba diving to see the precious black corals in deeper water. It’s about RM365 (USD$110) for 2 boat dives, permit fee and rental of dive equipments. Pom-Pom Island Resort has a dive center.

Night Patrol

Another feature of Pom-Pom is the night patrol for sighting of turtle laying eggs. The staffs of Pom-Pom were trained as the wildlife warden, so they know the right steps and measures on conservation of sea turtles. The nesting records will be submitted to WWF and Sabah Wildlife Department. The guests were offered a night walk with the guides around 8pm.

Ghost crab
No turtle nest found during my stay. I only saw a ghost crab on the beach. The luck was not with us that night.

Turtle hatchery
If any turtle nests on Pom-Pom, for better survival rate, the staffs will collect the eggs and move them to a protected turtle hatchery next to the dive center. The eggs will hatch after 2 months and the baby turtles will be released back to the sea. The staff (Sally) told us the number of eggs of Green Turtles and Hawsbill Turtles are nearly equal. FYI, you can sponsor the nest.

Turtles say goodbye
Before we departed on second day, two turtles showed up near the jetty, as if they were saying goodbye to us.

To know more about Pom-Pom Island, you may visit their website at:
They also have an interesting and updated blog.

>> Click Here to see more photos of Pom-Pom Island

Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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