Pulau Sapi, Malaysia

Pulau Sapi  is one of the Islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman (Marine) Park, off Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia.


This page only covers information specific to this one island. It’s probably a good idea to first read the general information about the area and the Park here.


Sapi was my favourite island in the park for snorkelling.  There are two spots where there are huge fields of beautiful, diverse coral.  Other than at these two areas, the snorkelling is not too special.

There are a few walking tracks on the island, some of which lead to remote, unpopulated beaches where the crowds don’t go. On land, you can see treesnakes and a lot of big monitor lizards.

Best-ish seascape:

Typical seascape:
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.

– – – –


MSTARPSapi_03_Sapi-MAP-MAIN.jpg MSTARPSapi_04_Sapi-Board-Map_P7051646.JPG


As you come off the boat and walk down the jetty towards the island you will see roped-off beaches to your left and right.  Let’s start with the left.

The best bit of snorkelling on this beach is centred about 70m south of the jetty. If you follow the line of blue buoys round from the beach/jetty you should run into it. There’s a beautiful big coral garden (maybe 100m square) about 2m deep at area ABCD on the map.  On the jetty side of it, there’s a small drop-off  that goes down to about 5m.

This coral garden has really good diversity, often with ten different species of beautiful coral all nestled next to each other.

The pictures from ABCD speak for themselves:

MSTARPSapi_05_best-of_P7051869_.jpg MSTARPSapi_13_ABCD_P7051710_.jpg MSTARPSapi_14_ABCD_P7051711.JPG MSTARPSapi_15_ABCD_P7051807.JPG MSTARPSapi_16_ABCD_P7051721.JPG MSTARPSapi_17_ABCD_P7051867.JPG MSTARPSapi_18_ABCD_Moon-Wrasse_P7051924_.jpg MSTARPSapi_19_ABCD_P7051893.JPG MSTARPSapi_20_ABCD_P7051703_.jpg MSTARPSapi_21_ABCD_P7051804.JPG MSTARPSapi_22_ABCD_P7051737.JPG MSTARPSapi_23_ABCD_P7090407.JPG MSTARPSapi_24_ABCD_P7051725_.jpg MSTARPSapi_25_ABCD_P7090435.JPG

Note that a lot of this coral garden is outside the blue line.  The line of blue buoys designates the official swimming area.  The line of red buoys further out seems to be the boundary for speedboat-taxis/ferries (but you might find the occasional slow-moving dive-boat inside the red buoys). I don’t recommend going outside the red buoys (the speedboat-ferry drivers are mostly twenty-something boy-racers, who seem to be not too worried about whether they chop your head off).  You should be fine between the blue and the red, though.

The islands have a team of enthusiastic lifeguards. They are only on-duty during busy periods, but they will rush out in their kayaks if they think you are breaking the rules.  They seem pretty happy as long as you are inside the red buoys.


Outside the sweet spot of ABCD, but still in the general area, the corals weren’t quite so good, but were still OK.
MSTARPSapi_27_E_P7051665.JPG MSTARPSapi_28_E_P7051743.JPG


Heading further South in the blue-buoyed area (around E), there were a few artificial structures that had been sunk to encourage coral growth and fish habitat (the structures look like 2m-tall upturned teacups with big holes drilled in them). Have a peer inside and see who’s hanging out there.

The coral is not so impressive here and gets more sparse the further West you go.


By the time you get down to the edge of the buoyed swimming area (F), the coral has all-but faded out completely and has been replaced by sandy bottom and some boring rocks.

On-land, this end of the beach (F) has the start of the hiking trail and is also where the monitor lizards come to feed on food scraps from the restaurant/BBQ.

If there are lifeguards on duty, you’ll have to quietly sneak out of the designated swimming area to swim round the rocky headland towards the unpopulated beaches to the West.  There are some shallow rocks at G, so be careful of swell and breakers there.  Boats are less of an issue here as you are away from the route of the speedboat ferries.


Just after the rocky cape, there is some pretty boring seascape at H:
MSTARPSapi_32_H_P7051656.JPG MSTARPSapi_33_H_P7090459.JPG

But still a few interesting fishies hanging around:


About 150m after the cape, and about 100m from the shore, you can see the attractive looking beaches in the distance.

From the sea, it looks like they are three separate beaches. When you get towards the end of the second one (at the start of the big rocky patch), the seabed erupts into an explosion of colour.  A few metres deep, there is another big coral garden here (J), about 30m wide and 100m long. This is pretty awesome – equal or better to the earlier patch at ABCD.

Here’s some pics:
MSTARPSapi_37_J_P7090481.JPG MSTARPSapi_38_J_P7090462_.jpg MSTARPSapi_39_J_P7090464_.jpg MSTARPSapi_40_J_P7090466_.jpg MSTARPSapi_41_J_P7090480_.jpg MSTARPSapi_42_J_P7090468.JPG MSTARPSapi_43_J_P7090475.JPG

There are some particularly beautiful clumps of blue Staghorn coral.
MSTARPSapi_44_J-Blue-Staghorn_P7090469_.jpg MSTARPSapi_45_J-Blue-Staghorn_P7090492.JPG MSTARPSapi_46_J-Blue-Staghorn_P7090489_.jpg MSTARPSapi_47_J-Blue-Staghorn_P7090491_.jpg

…and a coral flyby:



Aside from swimming here, you can also get access to this part of the island by taking the hiking-trail from the South end of the main beach. I also saw people rock-hopping over the headland to the more westerly beaches.  The reef is about 100m off the beach.


Further on west, the coral slowly fades out.
MSTARPSapi_50_JK_P7090511.JPG MSTARPSapi_51_JK_P7090512.JPG


The little headland at K is rocky with some clumps of long-dead Porites coral, but a good showing of sea-stars.
MSTARPSapi_52_JK_P7090515.JPG MSTARPSapi_53_JK_P7090517.JPG


The West and North coasts around Areas K, L, M are boring underwater and it’s not worth making the long swim:
MSTARPSapi_55_KLM-boring_P7090545.JPG MSTARPSapi_56_KLM_P7090546.JPG


It’s shallow and rocky around point M, which at least keeps the speedboats at bay, as they head out to the open sea for some parasailing.

From point N to the jetty is another swimming beach, cordoned off by lines of buoys.  The snorkelling on this side is less impressive than on the Eastern beach. There is plain sandy bottom around N. As you move out towards O, you start to get some bigger patches of coral.
MSTARPSapi_61_NO-boring-bottom_P7090582.JPG MSTARPSapi_62_NO-boring-bottom_P7090587.jpg

There are big colonies of black spiny sea urchins around here.  They are probably too deep to accidently step on, but their preponderance is not a good indicator of water quality.


In a line from O to P, about 3 metres deep, there are occasional patches of OK coral.
MSTARPSapi_65_OP_P7051842.jpg MSTARPSapi_69_OP-ornrey-staghorn_P7090581.JPG

The main highlight around here were some spotgill and hookfin cardinal fish hanging around the Yellow Staghorn coral.
MSTARPSapi_71_OP-staghorn_P7051846.JPG MSTARPSapi_72_OP-spotgill-cardinalfish_P7051837_.jpg MSTARPSapi_73_OP-hookfin-cardinalfish_P7090578.jpg


Big Gaya island is only about 200m away, across the channel.  Some guidebooks romanticise swimming across to it, but don’t do so in the daytime when the speedboat ferries are running. This is a heavy traffic lane and it would be almost-certain suicide. If you have to cross to Gaya, bring a tent, stay overnight on Sapi and swim it at 6pm after all the boats have gone back to KK.


If you are snorkelling-challenged, they sell a “sea walking” trip on Sapi.  In return for a stack of money, you can put a toilet bowl on your head and walk around on the seabed manhandling sea stars while having air pumped into your hat from the surface.

As their poster says – “You won’t get your hair wet and you can put on your makeup for the photo session!”  hmmm



Other relevant pages:

Lots more pictures from Pulau Sapi

Tunku Abdul Rahman Park – general

Pulau Mamutik

Pulau Manukan

Species list




First visited/written:  July 2012                     Last updated: July 2012


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