These destination diving islands, each with their own speciality, are some of East Malaysia’s best kept secrets
1. Pulau Mantanani
Just off the north-west coast of Sabah lies the Mantanani islands, made up of three islands: Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan. Mantanani is best known for the proliferation of dugongs in the surrounding waters, and it is for this reason that the group of islands is sometimes also known as the mermaid islands. The islands are a diving destination suited to both beginners and more advanced divers, with its beautiful coral reefs, great macro diving (look out for seahorses and blue-ringed octopus) and sightings of black tip reef sharks.
This private island is perfect for those who want to combine their diving with a slightly more secluded stay. From Mataking, divers can explore over 30 dive sites in the immediate area, taking in a wide variety of marine life, from muck diving to macro diving to pelagic fish. The Tun Sakaran Marine Park is easily accessible from this island resort, as are Kalapuan, Mantabuan and many more. The protected coral reefs in the area are a must-visit: look out for brain coral and staghorn coral. If you’re very lucky, you might even come across a whale shark.
3. Pulau Sibuan
One of the eight islands that form the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Pulau Sibuan is also known by locals as Battleship Island. The island is a great stop if you’re travelling with non-divers, as Sibuan’s lovely white sand beach and adjacent sand bank are perfect picnic spots. Sibuan is known in particular for the coral reefs in the area, which attract plenty of interesting sights like pygmy seahorses, mandarinfish and turtles.
4. Pulau Kapalai
Though it’s commonly known as an island, Pulau Kapalai is actually a sandback in the Celebes Sea that is almost completely submerged at high tide. Stay here if you love a stilted chalet experience – and if you want to be able to just jump straight off the pier for a dive. There are over 20 dive sites around the island, featuring blue ring octopus, stone fish, ghost pipefish and plenty of macro diving. This is not a destination for beginner divers though – there are limited diving spots on the island, and they are restricted to divers who have logged at least 15 dives.
Mabul is becoming one of East Malaysia’s most popular diving destinations, and for good reason. The variety of dive sites around the island is incredible, from the nearby shipwreck to thriving coral reefs, artificial reefs and wall dives. Mabul boasts two claims to fame: firstly offering some of the richest muck diving in the region, with sights such as pygmy seahorses, nudibranches and yellow and purple cuttlefish. Then there’s the turtles – Mabul visitors have reported seeing more turtles than fish on their dives.