Heading to Malaysia and want to do something adventurous? I suggest going for a dive in Sabah, Borneo, in particular the island of Mabul. The diving in Borneo is spectacular, the water is warm and clear, the wildlife is plentiful and the people are friendly. If you are a dive enthusiast or just a lover of all things in the ocean then I can’t recommend Borneo enough! It was an amazing experience and one of my all time favourite places to dive, but there are a few things I wish I had thought/known to ask before I left. Hopefully this post can help you plan your own Borneo dive adventure.
Where did I dive in Borneo?
I stayed on the island of Mabul which is off the coast of Semporna and is where most people stay when they dive the world famous Sipidan reef. Unfortunately, because I didn’t get my act together quickly enough, I wasn’t able to dive Sipidan, but the dive spots around Mabul were amazing in my opinion (though obviously I cant compare them to Sipidan).
Is it safe to dive in Borneo?
First things first, never take chances with your safety. It isn’t worth it. There is a travel warning on most of the dive areas in Borneo, in particular Sipidan, due to pirates from the Philippines. I strongly suggest doing your own research to work out if you are comfortable traveling and diving in the area.
At first I was concerned about how many people said they weren’t going to go due to the travel warning, but the more I dug, the more I discovered that there was still a large volume of tourists visiting the area with no harm coming to them. Doing the percentages, I would be safer diving in Borneo than I would be walking the streets in London or New York.
While there, I felt nothing but safe. I can’t imagine how a pirate would be able to kidnap you. I stayed on the island of Mabul which is the launch pad for Sipidan and there was always a Malaysian navy boat in sight. Not to mention that most of the dive sites were within eyesight of the island, which is densely populated, therefore any pirates would be seen approaching from a long way off. I had zero worries for my safety from pirates… hurricanes maybe, pirates none.
You need to make your own judgement by doing some research, but if you were to meet me on the road and ask for my opinion, I would say go for it.
Travel tip: Check that travel to this area doesn’t null and void your travel insurance. As some companies wont cover you if you go into areas with a travel warning associated with them.
Where to stay to dive in Borneo?
You have two options. You can stay on the mainland in the town of Semporna and do day trips out to the various dive spots including Sipidan. Everything is nice and close so the transit each day wont be a big imposition on your time. However, everything I read before I got to Semporna said that it wasn’t the nicest place to stay… I was only there for one night and that was enough to determine that everything I had read was correct. My advice, take option two and stay on the island of Mabul.
On the island of Mabul (like Semporna) there are a number of accommodation options that include diving in the price. I definitely recommend going with one of these packages as it is cheaper. There are a lot of places to stay, though a lot of them are not easily found on the internet. I made the mistake of only booking one nights accommodation, thinking I would be able to find somewhere cheaper and better than the one I booked… worst decision of my life. If you are heading there the best deal on the island is Scuba Junkie’s Resort – by far!
Travel tip: Book in advance. There is limited GOOD accommodation on the island, book early to ensure you do not have to stay somewhere horrible like I did.
How to arrange your diving in Borneo?
As mentioned, most accommodation places include diving in their packages. These all inclusive deals range from 1-3 dives per day, snorkelling or just chilling out. You can definitely tailor them to your own needs. In fact, Scuba Junkie would let me arrange a day with 2 dives and then at lunch time I had the choice to commit to 3. This was great for me as I was suffering from some ear equalising problems and didn’t want to push it too far. If you do what I did, and end up staying in one of the guest houses, as you stupidly thought it would be cheaper (it wasn’t) and more authentic (hole in the floor for a toilet may be authentic, but for the same price stay, in the resorts), then you can easily still arrange your diving through the resorts such as scuba junkie.
Where to eat and drink when you are staying on the island of Mabul to dive in Borneo?
With most accommodation packages (including the guest houses) your food is included. Which makes it even more cost effective! If you are doing a day of diving with one of the resorts as you stupidly didn’t book enough nights, they will also feed you morning tea and lunch. I found the quality of the food to be amazing and healthy. They had plenty of vegetarian options as well as healthier versions of everything. Delicious.
If however, you want to get out and explore the gypsy and fisherman villages there are a number of places to eat… but to be honest, the quality isn’t as good. If you are on a budget I recommend eating the food that was included in your room price.
Most resorts also have a bar which you can party in. Keep in mind, that although dive communities do like to down a beer or two, most people have to be up early and ready to dive so the party is usually over by 10pm. Also most people are usually completely exhausted from a long day of diving.
Travel tip: Take cash! There are no ATMs on the island and all of the beer and ice-creams need to be paid in cash… so take enough to keep you well supplied in both.
Do I need to bring gear to dive in Borneo
No, most dive places supply everything at a set rate. The gear was good and kept in good condition in my opinion. I had no concerns about my BCG or tanks.
Do I need any experience to dive in Borneo?
No, I have my open water ticket so was able to do a few of the deeper dives. But I travelled with a girl who didn’t so could only do assisted dives. She had the best time as there was so much to see at 12 meters, probably as much as the 18 meters. If you wish to do your open water course there, then I would recommend doing the online component before you go so that you can spend as much of your time in the water as possible. All of the instructors are very competent and helpful, it is very much an island that revolves around diving so you are in safe hands.
What am I likely to see if I dive in Borneo?
Turtles, turtles and turtles. I have never seen so many turtles in my life! Some were so gigantic, I felt overwhelmed by how small I was next to them. Of course there were lots of fish as well! The usual suspects: rays, lobsters, nemo’s, eels, barracuda and even octopus. We were very lucky to see the extremely dangerous and rare blue ringed octopus! The coral is a little faded thanks to global warming and over population of the area, but there are still some amazing structures. The dive resorts are also trying to rehabilitate as much of the reef as the can.
There is a down side. The locals on the island do not have access to proper trash disposal so a lot of their waste ends up in the ocean. There were parts that were like diving in a garbage dump… where fish lived. It broke my heart. It wasn’t all like that, some parts were pristine… but then others were terrible. Just beware that it isn’t perfect.
How many days do I need to dive in Borneo?
If you plan on diving Sipidan no shop will take you unless you commit to a full 4 days of diving. This is in part, due to weather changes, they want to ensure that they are able to take you to Sipidan on a good day. I only did three days diving as I wasn’t going to do Sipidan, and then I spent one day just snorkelling and eating ice cream. Great day!
I hope the above helps you plan your diving adventure in Borneo. It was definitely a beautiful and amazing experience for me.
Photo credit: Thanks to my travel buddy for these amazing underwater photos!