TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN NATIONAL PARK
Tunku Abdul Rahman was a leading figure in Malaysia’s independence movement in the 1950s and became Malaysia’s first post-independence Prime Minister. He is affectionately known as ‘the Father of Malaysia’.
Tunku Abdul Rahman (National) Park is a group of 5 islands a few km off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah on the North West coast of Malaysian Borneo.
Most visitors to the islands are on day-trips from the city for a bit of sun and sand. It’s a popular destination with locals and tourists. There are 11 different companies running boats as frequently as every 20 minutes, so don’t expect to find yourself alone on a deserted island paradise.
Underwater-wise, the islands are considered a second-cousin to their neighbours to the South East in the Tun Sakaran National Park (Sipadan, Malbul, Kapalay, etc). It’s true that you probably aren’t going to find many barraccuda or hammerheads here, but I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity and beauty of the few small coral gardens, here.
If you are in the KK area, it’s definitely worth a day or two out here.
Well, as this is a snorkelling blog, the answer is ‘the one with the best snorkelling’, of course. But which one is that? A famous travel guide book says that this is Mamutik, but I’d say that it was easily Sapi. See the individual island pages for details.
All of the islands have beautiful white sand beaches and roped-off swimming areas.
My order of preference is:
Sapi – smallest, cutest, island. Best snorkelling. Has a remote walking trail leading to a couple of empty beaches.
Mamutik – has some decent snorkelling, but this is limited to one quite small area
Manukan – has a larger area of OK snorkelling. This is the most developed island – there’s the National Park resort here catering to package tourists and corporate awaydays.
Gaya – this is a huge island. I didn’t go there. It doesn’t seem to be known for its snorkelling.
Sulug – you can’t get to this one by public boat – you would have to charter private transport there. I didn’t go. It doesn’t seem to be known for its snorkelling.
All the islands I went to are all more developed than I expected. They have full open air-restaurants laid out and tableclothed-up tables awaiting pre-paid package tourists. In the mornings, those package tourists are all receiving their briefings about how to hold on to a parasailer or banana boat.
There are toilets and shower blocks and lifeguard stations.
None of the islands have lockers or anywhere secure to leave valuables when you are in the water, so leave them back on the mainland.
In the water:
Access to the sea is pretty easy on all islands, with gentle sloping sandy beaches going into shallow, clear water. Your biggest challenge is a few eroded shells and coral fragments at the tideline. I saw a sign up on Manukan thanking you for not snorkelling at low tide, but I didn’t see any areas of coral where doing so would be a problem for people or corals.
When I was there (July), underwater visibility was much better in the mornings than in the afternoons. It was 10 metres at best, closing-in to about 3m in the afternoons.
There are roped-off designated swimming/snorkelling areas. Normally I hate this kind of thing, but with the nutcase speedboat ferry drivers around here, this is probably a good idea. Also it keeps the plastic flotsam from the sea offa you (the villagers on Gaya Island still dispose of food wrapping the way they did before foreigners brought that unnatural polyethylene stuff along). You can stray outside the roped areas if you like, but (1) make sure the lifeguards don’t see you as they’ll kayak out and tell you to come back and (2) ; stay in shallow waters (where the speedboats can’t go) for your own safety.
There are always two zones of roped-off-itude. The areas marked with the light blue buoys are strictly for swimming and snorkelling only. These areas often contain some decent snorkelling. Then there is a secondary area marked by another rope with bigger, red buoys. This seems to be prohibited for the speedboat/ferry boats, but OK for slow moving diveboats to enter (to access dive sites). It seems you are allowed to swim in these areas and some of the better snorkelling is found here.
Away from the designated beachy swimming areas, the coastline is generally steep, slippery rocks.
There are “beware jellyfish” signs up everywhere. There were plenty of small stingies around when I was there (the kind that gives you an itchy burn for a few days, like a mosquito bite), but nothing really serious. It’s probably wise to wear a t-shirt, anyway.
Generally, the underwater terrain is a flat, sandy bottom going from the beach to about 3m depth. Dotted around this are small patches of rather unspectacular coral in various hues of brown. Occasionally, you will bump into large sections of diverse hard corals in a spectacular range of colours – this is the main attraction, here. You can sometimes find 10 different species of beautiful hard-coral within a couple of square metres.
At a few places, as you go out further, you can see the seabed drop-off to 15+ metres.
There are quite a lot of the usual reef fish in the area, pecking away at the coral – butterflyfish, damselfish, parrotfish, rabbitfish, wrasse, etc.
You’ll see the occasional porcupinefish, pufferfish and coral cod/peacock grouper.
There are a few pretty sponges around and several species of anemone, but no soft-coral.
See the specieslist for more details.
You probably won’t see many pelagics or big stuff here. I did spot a single white-tip shark on the drop-off at Manukan, which was cool. (Scared about sharks? Read this). The other notables were a school of 15 baby-squid hanging around Manukan and a Bluefin Trevally at Sapi.
Transport and logistics.
Public speedboat ferries go from Jesselton Point pier, an easy walk North of downtown KK. Boats start at 0630. It’s better to start earlier in the day rather than later, as they only run boats when there is enough demand, and demand has often dried-up by 11am. You don’t have to start at first-light – 8am-9am should be fine.
If you want cheap-eats while you wait for your boat, there is a food-hall next to the ticket office and some cheaper-still food vendors along the pier.
As you enter the ticket hall, there is a line of ticket booths for the 11 ferry operators down the right hand side. The list prices are the same for all of them, so to differentiate themselves they all hang over the front of their booths and holler at you. Don’t just give-in at booth 1, eh?
(July 2012) list prices (return trip) were :
1 island – 23 MYR
2 islands – 33 MYR
3 islands – 43 MYR
..to this, add another 7MYR for various jetty/departure fees. There is also 10MYR National Park entrance fee (payable on arrival at your first island). It covers all the islands (i.e. you only pay once for the day).
It seems that there is a little space for negotiation on ticket prices. Also, some guesthouses in town hand-out 10MYR discount vouchers for booth 8.
Each company will only send a boat when it decides it has enough passengers, so shop around the 11 booths for prices and departure times (look at their lists of people already signed-up to go on the next boat).
If you arrive around 8-9am, you will probably only have to wait about 20 minutes for a boat to Mautik/Manukan. Maybe a little longer for Gaya/Sapi.
A note for single travellers – all the pricelists and ticket sellers say “minimum 2 people”. That means minimum two people on the whole boat, not 2 people in your travelling party. But the ticket sellers don’t explain this, they just refuse to sell you a ticket and then try and brush-you-off to the next ticket booth (who promptly do the same thing). Check all 11 booths to see if any of them have already signed someone up for your destination. If none have, just sit-tight and check back with each one every 10 minutes or so.
When you eventually buy your tickets, you will also have to choose your return boat time. Some operators have an option to change the return time by phoning a designated number. Some don’t.
If you are doing several islands in one day, you might find that you have quite a short time on one island and rather too long on another, depending on your operator’s schedules. Shopping around seems to be the only answer to this.
The last boat back to KK will probably be between 15:30 and 17:30 depending on the island and the volume of demand they have that day. This is another reason to start early.
You can camp overnight on the islands for a small fee (5 MYR in 2012), but you need your own tent. I read somewhere that there are also 6 person tents for hire on the islands, but I haven’t verified that.
There is expensive resort-accommodation on Manukan and Gaya.
Meanwhile, back at the ticket-hall – on the other (left) side of the hall, you can buy ‘guided’ tours to the islands (this just means that you use the same boat all day, rather than catching the public ferry boats).
50MYR one island;
60MYR for two
70MYR for three
Minimum two people. I think these prices include lunch.
You can pay for snorkel-equipment rental at the regular-boat ticket booths (10MYR for each of: fins; mask&snorkel; lifejacket). You will pick the gear up at the jetty.
When you’ve got your tickets, walk down to the jetty and tell a man in a red t-shirt where you are going. He’ll tell you where to wait for your boat. Eventually someone might shout the name of your destination, but don’t leave it all to chance – check with someone occasionally. If you rented snorkel gear, make yourself known to any guy who seems to have a lot of it.
Once in the boat, you will have to wear a lifevest to comply with harbour regulations. You’ll look like a dweeb, but werring one is not a bad thing, as the boat drivers are mostly twentysomething boy-racers who are more interested in a having a speed-duel with their buddy than with your comfort and security. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but one of my drivers went straight from zero to full throttle while still tied to the jetty. Classy.
It’s about a ten minute ride through plastic-strewn seas to your island of choice.
First visited/written: July 2012 Last updated: July 2012