School of jacks in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
School of jacks in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.

Diving in the blue of Borneo

  Borneo: Indonesia + Malaysia - July 2013

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

I'm coming back from Borneo! Highlight of the trip: the dives in Sipadan, Malaysia ... Yes, for me, Borneo has more the color of the sea than the jungle.

Return trip

Oops, I haven't posted anything in a long time... 😡 The fault of non-existent, random or ultra-slow internet connections during my trip to Borneo, this July 2013.

Yet I like to tell my trips as they happen, almost live. The sensations are new, the discoveries are fresh... But here, it was really not possible. I only managed to put some pictures on the Facebook page Small Bubbles of Elsewhere.

I've been back in France for a few days, but I still have my head there, in Borneo... Underwater, mostly 😉

The Kakaban pontoon. Derawan Archipelago. Borneo, Indonesia. July 2013.
The Kakaban pontoon. (Archipelago of Derawan, Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013)

Borneo in blue

My own Borneo is more blue than green. I have spent more time above the coral reefs than under the jungle canopy.

As always, diving was the main theme of the trip ...

Kakaban, Jetty Wall. Derawan Archipelago. Borneo, Indonesia. July 2013.
Kakaban, Jetty Wall. (Derawan Archipelago, Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013)
Barracudas Bank in Maratua. Derawan Archipelago. Borneo, Indonesia. July 2013.
Barracudas Bank in Maratua. (Derawan Archipelago, Borneo, Indonesia, July 2013)
School of jacks in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
School of jacks in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)
Shark and divers in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
Shark and divers in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)
Turtle in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
Turtle in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)

Five big steps

This trip of 2013 is my third stay in Borneo, after my previous trips to 2006 and 2009. I was gone for almost a month, with five main stages.

1. The Derawan Archipelago (Kakaban, Sangalaki, Maratua), Indonesian side.
2. Mabul and Sipadan, Malaysian side
3. Kota Kinabaluon the north coast of the state of Sabah
4. Kuchingon the northern coast of Sarawak State
5. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, Peninsular Malaysia

Borneo: my journeys and stages. July 2013.
Borneo: my journeys and stages. July 2013. Click on the map above to open interactive Google Map in a new large window.

Three diving spots

1 - Sipadan / Mabul / Kapalai

The best! I really wanted to see Sipadan again, where I had already dived in 2006 and 2009. And Sipadan kept its promises: sharks and turtles in abundance, swirls of barracudas and jacks...

School of jacks in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
School of jacks in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)

Located in the Malaysian part of Borneo, the island is a protected area, where the number of divers is limited to 120 per day. Underwater, Sipadan remained as spectacular as during my first visit in 2006.

As for the diving around the neighboring islands of Mabul and Kapalai, it has nothing to do with the great show offered by Sipadan, but it remains very interesting for the muck-dive and the small fauna.

2 - Derawan / Maratua / Kakaban / Sangalaki

The Derawan archipelago, on the Indonesian side, where I had dived in 2009, rather disappointed me: I did not manage to see that many "big" fish in Maratua (a few barracudas on lucky days).

Giant sea fan in Maratua. Derawan Archipelago, Borneo, Indonesia. July 2013.
Giant sea fan in Maratua. Derawan Archipelago, Borneo, Indonesia. July 2013.

But the most alarming thing is that the Sangalaki Mantas have disappeared, or have become very rare, whereas they were very numerous and very easy to observe 4 years ago. We were almost sure to meet them around the island...

There, we did not see anything. It seems that some other diving tourists saw one, a few weeks before my stay there, but from a distance, and from the boat. In short, the encounter with beautiful manta rays seems to have become much more random

The area of the Derawan Archipelago, of which Sangalaki is a part, is not protected, and these harmless giant rays are now very fished for their gills which end up in soup (like shark fins). Dynamite fishing is also still practiced in the area (we heard several times explosions under water). In short, in my humble opinion, the situation is not going to get any better...

I detailed my diving impressions in Sangalaki and Maratua during this new stay in July 2013 in this new article :
Sangalaki and Maratua: sadness and disappointment

The sites of Kakaban are the ones I finally found the nicest, the most rich in coral and fauna. And then there is always the incredible lake with jellyfish that do not sting that I discovered in 2009. Regarding my 2013 journey, I have posted these new articles on Kakaban :
Snorkeling in the Kakaban Jellyfish Lake
Multicolored dive on Kakaban reef

Finally, the island of Derawan itself remains very nice for the muck-dive. As for the turtles, they can be found everywhere in the archipelago. To read at the end of this link :
Derawan, the turtle archipelago

3 - Pulau Gaya / Kota Kinabalu

Finally, I did some diving around Pulau Gaya, off Kota Kinabalu, which I did not know. But a big storm had shaken the bottom a few days earlier, so that the visibility was particularly bad and did not allow me to really appreciate the sites. However, there is a lot to do with the small tropical fauna and in muck-dive.

Clownfish near Pulau Gaya. Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia. July 2013.
Clownfish near Pulau Gaya. (Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)

Here I am, I am just back and I am already nostalgic for Borneo... I console myself by diving back into the blue with my pictures. There is a lot to do: more than 3 000 photos and videos stored in the hard drive.

Of course, I'll be back to tell you all about it very soon!!! You can always find all the articles for this trip by clicking on the link below:

  Borneo: Indonesia + Malaysia - July 2013

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  1. Always beautiful images... Well, I'll really have to leave my flippers in the region one of these days...

  2. I was delighted with everything, as usual, but I really appreciated the visualization of the different stages of the trip, and the "large" map with a simple click! Thank you very much.

  3. This article makes you want to see more!
    For us this year it was a trip to Sri Lanka: I was able to do 6 dives there. It's not as good as Indonesia or Malaysia, but it's still a great place to meet people.
    Looking forward to read more!


  4. What beautiful pictures,
    I'm due to go there in 4 days, but I've heard that the area is somewhat unadvisable because of the clashes between Filipinos and Malays...

    Should I review my plans? !!!

    1. @Roman: but no... The area where these clashes took place in February 2013 (which still left dozens dead) is not at all in the same place as Sipadan.

      A dark tale of former territory belonging to a Filipino governor that a small troop wanted to take back from Malaysia... I guess you're not going to hang out in the jungle and palm plantations where these guys in arms have taken refuge. Besides, I imagine it's all been over since February...

      In short, as a tourist, you have nothing to fear.

      Finally, the Sipadan / Mabul area has been ultra-secure and protected by the Malaysian army since the Jolo hostage crisis (back in 2000). There are military personnel on Sipadan and the other islands where divers stop.

      I'm coming back from the corner, no problem.

  5. Hi Corinne,

    In view of your photos FB you have still dipped with Billabong Scuba Mabul?

    Without thinking you're a travel agent 😛 😛 😛 (I know everyone else does, sorry 😐 )

    Would you still advise?

    (I'm hesitating with Scuba Junkie, the roots aspect doesn't bother me more than that, I'm more looking for a pro diving and safety center)

    Thank you in advance and good luck with the recovery.


    1. @Steven: oh, but I don't mind giving fresh info and personal impressions about places I've been (it's just that I get tired when people ask me things that are in all the travel guides or easy to find with Google, or when I have to design the itinerary for people who want everything and its opposite... 😡 )

      So, yes, I opted for Billabong Scuba, because they're good at getting permits and I was able to dive 5 days in Sipadan (out of 10 days). That was my main criterion: to dive as much as possible in Sipadan.

      The Billabong experience can be very cool or disastrous, in my humble opinion, depending on :
      - the influx of Chinese tourists, who are diving in ever-increasing numbers (at the start of our stay, a group of 19 Chinese arrived to learn how to blow bubbles, which changed the atmosphere).
      - the motivation of the dive-guides (there are days when some of them are bored and you can feel it, which is a shame, because when they're in shape, the dives are really top-notch, and they know the sites very well).

      There's a lot of turnover in the staff, as in most Mabul centers. So all this can change from month to month, of course... When I was there in July, they were short of people (guides and instructors), so the organization (and even the security) was a bit limited at times. So I'd recommend the place to divers with a bit of experience, who, like me, don't particularly need to be "supervised", who know their limits and are old enough to take care of themselves.

      But the atmosphere at Billabong was great. It's great when you travel solo like I did, you get to meet lots of people after the dives, in the evening, over dinner. I really had a great time.

      Scuba Junkie has become a huge beach resort since I was last there 4 years ago. The cottages are much more comfortable than Billabong's (where the "comfortable" cottages, pretty on the outside, take on water inside on stormy days), but Scuba Junkie's atmosphere has become much more impersonal than it used to be when it was smaller (as far as I could tell from going there for a drink).

      As for the dives themselves at Scuba Junkie, it looks (from a distance, eh, I've only glimpsed the boats and divers) more "square" and organized than at Billabong. As there are quite a few Western dive-masters, the organization seems more "Western" too. But as with Billabong, we see a lot of Chinese tourist groups arriving. Finally, they welcome more people but don't have more permits than Billabong, it seems to me, from memory (but I'll have to check, I took a photo of the Sipadan rangers' board where the resorts are listed and the number of permits granted...).

      That's it, then. So, if what matters to you is something a little square and "serious", I'd go for Scuba Junkie. If you like a more relaxed atmosphere and are a truly autonomous diver, you can opt for Billabong.

      Otherwise, as "affordable" options, there's also Uncle Chang (which has also expanded a lot, with small cottages on a long pontoon); or Seaventure (the converted oil rig), which I've always heard good things about. Or, more expensive, if your budget allows it, Borneo Divers, which has a very good reputation in every respect (comfort, welcome, diving, safety). Finally, the only way to dive in Sipadan every day for sure is to take a cruise on the Celebes Explorer...

      But I'll talk about all that again in a future post. Now that I'm back at work, I'll have to find the time to tackle it when I get home in the evening... 😉

    2. Thank you so much for this super comprehensive reply... very full of information, you bet!

      In the end, I booke with Billabong, and I'm not afraid of the relaxed side... we'll double our attention and avoid making profiles that are too far-fetched!

      I can also confirm that they seem to have the best ratio: capacity/permit.
      They are the ones who "guarantee" us the most dives on Sipadan (to be taken with a pinch of salt for the moment, we'll see on the spot).

      For information, on the Christmas period (at least at the most expensive):

      Billabong scuba: among the cheapest... but you have to be patient and extremely detailed and clear on the quote/reservation request (which they treat really cool !!!) but in the end: for 7drs/6nts we have 3 days on Sipadan (3 x 3 dives) and with 2 people that makes a pretty good ratio I think: 16 dives Mabul/ Kapalai etc for 18 dives on Sipadan.

      Scuba Junkie (the most transparent, but not flexible at all on their package): 3jrs / 2nts mini to do 1 day of 4 dives on Sipadan

      Seaventures (the oil platform): 4d/3nts mini to do 1 day of 3 dives on Sipadan, but they let you dive unlimited on their "house" reef.

      Borneo Divers: 5 days/4nts minimum for 1 day of 3 dives on Sipadan, but they let you dive unlimited on their "house" reef.

      Sipadan-Mabul Resort (SMART): 5 days / 4 minutes mini to do 1 day of 3 dive on Sipadan.

      To understand the benefits and advantages / disadvantages of each resort:

      I can't wait to read your future posts (no pressure though 😉 ) and see the beautiful photos from your July trip.

      PS: To return the elevator: don't hesitate to contact me for info (real time) on Australia 8) .


    3. Before diving again at Molluques and Alor (Indonesia) in May 2015, we're thinking of making a "little" stop in Borneo and discovering the mythical dives of Sipadan. I'm carefully reading the various posts (as well as the replies, including Steven rihe's in info) in order to take options (cruise and/or resort). Difficult to get an idea of budget on the resorts listed by Steven. In any case, thanks for the map, the various articles and photos. I'm always on the lookout for new info (especially on safety). If you have any, let us know. Thanks Corinne ... we'll be sure to bump into each other one day, underwater maybe! Isa and Marco

  6. What beautiful images. I particularly like the one of the dive with the sharks, which proves, once again, that the shark is not the serial killer it is claimed to be here on Reunion Island...

  7. Thank you for sharing these always beautiful pictures well documented.
    I understand that there are economic problems, but fishing with explosives is a calamity that saddens me deeply. 😡 So the disappearance of the great mantas doesn't seem like a myth...
    A +

  8. Hello Corinne,
    I really hope that the next time we (re)meet, we'll both have time to share a Bintang 😉 . I too spent 3 weeks in August on the Sangalaki archipelago, and really loved it, especially the turtles. People there told me there were still plenty of mantas on Sangalaki 3 months ago...but they come and go depending on the currents and plankton. A friend of mine saw a lot of them in Nusa Penida (near Bali) in August. In any case, like you, I'll be coming back to Derawan.

    1. @Anne Lafon: Yes, really, it's funny that we bumped into each other like this at the airport... Next time, we'll take the time, promise!!!! 😈

      Sangalaki's mantas were, not so long ago, almost permanently present around the island, like those of Nusa Penida near Bali (which are still there, it seems).

      So much the better if you can still catch the occasional glimpse around Sangalaki, but you've got to be really lucky from now on.

      Glad you loved the archipelago! 8)