The country of Malaysia is split in two: there's peninsular Malaysia, which is considered the mainland, and Malaysian Borneo, which takes up most of the north end of the island of Borneo. Diving takes place off the coast of Malaysian Borneo and includes such legendary regions as Sipadan and Mabul, Layang Layang, Sarawak and the dives off Kota Kinabalu. Sipadan Island defines pristine and represents one of the world's top dive havens. Sea turtles come so thick you'll actually start pushing them aside (figuratively) so you can see the tornados of barracuda, the legions of little critters and hard coral wonderlands. You'll find sharks, rays, soft coral covered walls and even a turtle tomb. To dive Sipadan, you stay on nearby Mabul, which is a macro heaven all of its own. The diversity of Malaysian Borneo is astounding. But, do not travel this far and just dive. Borneo has some of the world's most interesting and intriguing natural and cultural heritage, including orangutans, forest elephants, probiscus monkeys and some stone age tribes. Malaysian Borneo is as raw and real above and below as you will find anywhere in the world.
When to go:
Year-round, although monsoon season lasts from December through February.
Marine Life Seasons:
During the cooler months from November to February, plankton blooms attract krill, which in turn attract whale sharks.
When to Get the Best Deals:
September to early December.
What to Pack:
3/2 wetsuit, sunscreen, insect repellent, light rain jacket, water hiking shoes for rainforest treks and DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 27°C/82°F in winter and 31°C/88°F in summer.
Seasonal averages: 22°C/71°F at night to 32°C/89°F during day year-round.
Ringgit (MYR). Credit cards are accepted in many larger hotels, restaurants and shops.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
IIncluded in your airfare.
What to Eat:
Malaysian food has been greatly influenced by neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, India, the Middle East and China. Rice is the staple served with every meal. You may start your day with nasi lemak, which is rice steamed with coconut cream and served with vegetables, meat and spicy sauce. Enjoy the seafood prepared in a variety of ways with coconut milk and spices, often accompanied by fresh vegetables and tropical fruit.
What to Drink:
Teh tarik (pulled tea - named for the motion used to pour it) is the national drink, usually served hot, sweet and with condensed milk. Fruit juices are fresh and readily available. Tiger is the well-known Malaysian beer, but Guinness and Carlsberg both brew a variety of beers in Malaysia. As a Muslim country, alcohol is very expensive although available in most places.
Hike Mt. Kinabalu; look for monkeys and trees filled with fireflies along the Klias River; Orangutan Preserve to see the majestic apes; Kota Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Caving in Gunung Mulu National Park; Chinatown for knock-offs in Kuala Lumpur; Experience ancient cultures in jungle villages; peruse the markets of Kota Kinabalu; Trek in Taman Negara on Peninsular Malaysia; tour the many monkey ridden temples around the country; dive into the nightlife of Kuala Lumpur; ride an elephant in the jungles of Borneo.
Customs and Culture:
Malaysia is predominantly Muslim.
Chinese New Year, January/February; Ramadan, July/August; Moon Festival, October .
Electricity and Internet:
240-volt 50-cycle system, though some dive resorts offer 120V outlets.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
Malay, although English is widely spoken.
Amazing Marine Life
Green Sea Turtles:
So prolific off Sipadan's reefs that they will be part of every single dive.
These giants soar like winged flying carpets through the night waters, feeding on plankton.
Many species of anemonefish inhabit Malaysian reefs.
Several species, including white-tip, silvertip, and grey reef sharks are common on Malaysian reefs.
These small, abundant and wildly colorful sea slugs come in amazing patterns and shapes.
Striking and stealthy, one of the many exotic species that inhabit Malaysia's reefs.
At less than 2.5 centimeters/one inch long, these tiny seahorses almost defy the imagination. You'll need a magnifying glass and sharp-eyed guide.
Also known as the Maori wrasse, this enormous and vividly colored fish can grow to lengths of up to two meters/six feet.
Blue Ribbon Eels:
Photogenic blue and yellow eel.
These predatory fish are often seen on the reefs in huge numbers, enough to block out the sun.
Top Dive Spots
Barracuda Point, Sipadan:
At the aptly named Barracuda Point, divers find themselves the middle of a swirling vortex of chevron or blacktail barracuda. Grey reef sharks patrol the perimeter, and watch for bumphead parrotfish and turtles.
The Drop Off, Sipadan:
Widely regarded as the best beach dive in the world, the 550-meter/1800-foot drop-off is only steps off the beach. Look for jacks, bumphead parrotfish, white-tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, and green turtles, as well as a wide array of coral and sponges. Great for night dives, the reef is home to crabs, shrimp, octopus, and other invertebrates and nocturnal fish.
This drift dive along a vertical wall features soft corals, navy knotted sea fans and orange gorgonian fans hanging from ledges. Look for pygmy gobies, whip gobies, hawkfish, five-lined cardinalfish, harlequin sweetlips, Sulu fangblennies (known only to northern Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago), schools of moorish idols, redtooth triggerfish, unicornfish, bannerfish, round batfish, napolean wrasse, and bumphead parrotfish.
Turtle Cavern, Sipadan:
Sipadan is famous for its population of green turtles and the smaller hawksbill turtles. Turtle cavern is possibly their mausoleum where they come to die, or maybe they became lost in the caverns at night and drowned. The entrance to the cavern located at about 18 meters/60 feet and inside you will see the skeletons of many turtles. Deeper penetration of the system reveals the shoals of fish specifically adapted to the low light environment.
White-tip Avenue, Sipadan:
The wall at this site is full of terraces, crevices, ledges and vertical chimneys covered in multicolored sponges, black coral colonies, and gorgonian fans. Watch out for groupers, emperor angelfish, moorish idols, triggerfish, parrotfish, clownfish, boxfish, scorpionfish and butterflyfish, and (of course) white-tip reef sharks.
Crocodile Avenue, Sipadan:
A favorite of macro photographers, this sandy slope hides seahorses, crocodilefish, ghost pipefish, and other shy reef animals. Night dives reveal nocturnal cuttlefish, nudibranchs and crabs.
Eel Garden, Sipadan:
The sandy seafloor at 18 meters/60 feet is home to a colony of garden eels, as well as coral heads, gobies, blue ribbon eels, cleaner shrimp, frogfish, the rare lemon-colored moray, wrasses, damselfish, and mantis shrimp.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah:
The five islands of the Marine Park are characterized by shallow waters, coral gardens, and white sandy beaches. Look for scorpionfish, blue-spotted rays, cuttlefish, mantis shrimp, and the occasional green or hawksbill turtle. To dive in the marine park you must contact one of the local dive centers based in Kota Kinabalu.
Layang Layang is a small oceanic atoll rising 1800 meters/6,000 feet from the seafloor in the middle of the South China Sea, making it a wall diving mecca. Noted for dense schools of hammerhead sharks (sometimes hundreds) year-round, the site also boasts coral gardens, pristine reefs, and a spectacular array of reef life.
Luconia Shoals, Sarawak:
Underwater topography ranges from shallow coral gardens to magnificent drop-offs. To the south, the reef is covered with coral, gorgonian fans, sponges and various fish species. Large pelagics like sharks, dogtooth tunas, rainbow runners and snappers can be seen in the vicinity. The wall to the north features a drop-off to 30 meters/100 feet, with soft and hard corals, barracuda, snappers, tuna and occasionally manta rays.