Sibuan, the Battleship Island
Going to Sibuan Island is exciting. You will love that dreamy moment while your boat is slowly gliding on different shades of blue sea toward the island, the water changes from dark to light blue colors like liquefied gemstones, and dozen of swaying tall coconut trees beckon to you on the shore of Sibuan, one of the eight islands of Tun Sakaran Park (a.k.a. Semporna Islands Park), the second largest marine park of Sabah, Malaysia.
Sibuan Island (Local Name: Pulau Sibuan) is also known as Battleship Island (军舰岛 in Chinese) because of its long and narrow shape. Its “bow” is the long strip of white sandy beach pointing to the north, and the dense trees behind looks like the bridge of a ship. Covering an area of approximately 15.13 hectares (0.15 square Kilometre), Sibuan is a sand cays island built entirely from the eroded remains of coral reef.
The island is flat, with northern long tip extends almost 100 meters out to the sea, which is quite shallow during low tide. You can walk to far end and look like standing in the ocean. In the center of the island is wide area of coconut trees and a small village of about 10 families. The coconut trees must be very old as most of them are over 10 floors high, crazy.
Sibuan becomes famous when a few years ago someone listed it as one of the most beautiful islands of Malaysia. Really? In my humble opinion, out of 394 islands of Sabah, there are definitely many other more beautiful islands. Don’t get me wrong. Sibuan is fabulous but it’s lack of unique features. White sandy beach, coconut trees and crystal clear water are lovely, but these are common traits of a tropical island.
To get your best Instagram shots, the most ideal to photograph beach photos with blue sea is around 9-10:30pm and 2-4pm when sunlight penetrates the sea water at 45 degree and reflected by the white sandy bottom, making the blue colors glow more.
Walking to the middle of the island, you will see a few primitive houses constructed with leaves and wood facing the beach. Some local children would come to you asking for money. The villagers there are in hardcore poverty and not living in a paradise. They are stateless and not Malaysia citizens.
They are Sea Bajau people, the sea nomads who sail among the islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia for over 1,000 years. They spent most of their lives on the boat, include giving birth, and only came to shore to bury the dead. The problem is they didn’t own any land, so they don’t carry the identity of any country, until today.
Without any nationality, hundreds of their children can’t go to our schools (my dream when I was a kid). They don’t know how to read and write, and would forever stuck as a poor islander. I wish they will have access to education, the only hope to improve their livelihood. Now you only can help them a bit by buying coconut juice or seafood from them.
The local children seem to enjoy loitering around the tourists. You would notice almost every young girls wearing whitish mask, a big contrast to their dark skin. Actually it’s borak, a sunblock paste made from rice powder and turmeric which can prevent sunburn.
Sometimes you would see villager busy digging a log to make Boggo boat, a simple dugout boat of 2 to 5 Meters in length, mainly used for fishing in shallow sea.
Sea Bajau are naturally born with a special ability because they have a body part bigger than ours (Want to guess what it is?). They can free dive up to a depth of 200 feet and hold their breath for 13 minutes. They are sea people for centuries, so their spleen evolved to be 50% bigger, to supply more oxygen. They are becoming a mermaid!
You can photograph, picnic, sunbathing, swim, snorkel, dive and tour around Sibuan, but please don’t go nude. Sibuan is so small that you can walk one around of the island within half an hour. At the opposite end of the island is a military outpost that protects the tourists. No photo taking is allowed there. And flying drone is prohibited on Sibuan (and many islands in Semporna).
Be informed that other than a small and smelly toilet in the center of Sibuan, there is no restaurant and other amenities in Sibuan. Bring your food and water if you want to spend long hours on this island (usually travel agent will prepare for you).
As part of Tun Sakaran Marine Park, the dive sites near Sibuan Island is rich in macro marine lives and great location for muck diving. The highlight are Pygmy seahorse, frogfish, mandarin fish, nudibranchs, crocodile fish, lion fish and scorpion fish. A few dive operators such as Scuba Junkie conduct their PADI Open Water diving courses here, in case you are interested.
How to get there
To visit Sibuan Island, first fly to Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu city (capital of Malaysia and Sabah State respectively), then take a direct flight from these cities to Tawau City in East Coast of Sabah by AirAsia or Malaysia Airlines. Then get a taxi from Tawau airport to go to Semporna town, which takes about an hour. From Semporna town, the boat to Sibuan Island takes around 30 minutes.
You can sign up for an island hopping tour (mostly day trip) that goes to Sibuan Island. Besides Sibuan, usually such tour will bring you to a few islands such as Bohey Dulang and Kapalai. Any hotel / lodge in Semporna can tell you where to register this trip, or you can book in advance with online travel agent like sabahtravel.com.
Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo