Very few places in the world can offer you such incredible biodiversity and beauty above and below the water than the rich tapestry that awaits you off the North East Islands of the Semporna Archipelago.
Imagine a picture postcard view of sugar-white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and crystal azure temperate waters and you are here. This little hidden gem of glistening emerald islands, nestled amongst the richest marine environment on the planet can truly be described as one of the last true frontiers of South East Asia.
Protected in law by the local state government and closely treasured by the local communities alike, a short boat journey from the thriving, bustle of Semporna town, this diverse pot pourri of cultural heritage will leave you breathless.
Comprising of 5 coral encrusted isles, your journey to these lands that time forgot whether it be above or below the surface will remain in your dreams.
Timba Timba Island
The first island on our list of “must-visits” lies the incredible Timba-Timba Island. Barely 1km long from end to end, this gorgeous island has an incredibly tranquil sand spit at its northern end, which is exposed at low tide in a similar vein to that of nearby Mataking.
For the snorkelers amongst you, this place is your heaven. The shallows of the reef are adorned with the coral colours of the rainbow where you can spot Hawksbill turtles coming up from the depths to sunbathe amongst the coral outcrops.
An equally exhilarating scuba dive can be found off Timba -Timba at the Sting Ray City dive site. Aptly named, this site never fails the scuba diver to find the shy and beautiful Blue-spot stingrays resting under the coral beds and rock formations. Watch in wonder as they try to conceal themselves under the white sands, or try to spot the camouflage skills of the giant frogfish that also frequent the black corals. This is a truly awesome dive site that will keep you coming back for more.
Pom Pom Island
A simple 10-15 minute boat journey away from Timba-Timba lays the majestic island of Pom Pom. Like many others in this archipelago, the island has no local inhabitants, although is visited by the local sea-fairing Bajau in their little wooden dugout canoes from time to time. There you will see the young copper-skinned island children snorkel diving for shells and small sea urchins baked by the midday sun.
The delightful plectrum shaped Pom Pom is barely 2km in circumference and can be easily circumnavigated along the white sand beaches in under an hour, depending on how leisurely your pace is!
Home to 2 independent small scale resort operations, over the recent years, Pom Pom has become recognized as a mecca and significant nesting ground for both Green and Hawksbill turtles, being common varieties of turtles found in this little corner of the Coral Triangle.
Both resort operations and a local conservation project have set up thriving turtle hatcheries with support from other government and voluntary partners, mostly managed by teams of passionate volunteers and local people. Depending on the season, over 100 nests can be seen at any one time with each nest being carefully cared for and nurtured. If you are an extra lucky, you may even see the newly-hatched babies being released to the sea once they are born, a sight which is surely not to be missed!
With clear water reef flats protected this isle ranging from 50 to several hundred metres, it is again a magnet for snorkellers and divers alike. From shallow depths it is possible to witness the incredible reef rehabilitation work that has taken place over the years, and bear witness to both hard and soft corals that are thriving because of it.
Look out from the Westerly beaches of Pom Pom Island and you will spy the shimmering green palms of Pulau Pandanan, the next hit on our whistle-stop tour for island lovers.
Not to confuse Pulau Pandanan with Pandanan Island off the coat of the Philippines, our Malaysian Pandanan has both an inner and outer beauty that is second to none.
Sometimes referred to by its older name “Pulau Kapale”, the enchanting Pandanan Island is literally sandwiched between Pom Pom and Mataking, and is therefore protected by the elements also.
For the mermaids and mermen amongst us, Pulau Pandanan boasts the very best of both worlds with a sloping reef on its East shores and a deep channel on its West, where quite often divers will spend an entire day on the island at different sites.
A morning dive may very well begin on the famed “Treasure Hunt” dive site that faces the channel between the island and nearby Mataking. With your dive boat dropping you in the water close to the reef edge, running with a light current you will drift along one of the finest slope walls this region has to offer with much to see at all multi-levels. Starting a dive at 20-25 metres, divers are reminded to keep an eye out for lazy nurse sharks which are often to be found resting underneath the table coral overhangs, together with some of the largest cuttlefish to be found in the region as well as visiting Great Barracuda.
Following a spot of lunch under the shade of one of Sabah’s numerous coconut trees, divers and snorkellers alike will often carry out a second dive off “Police Jetty”. Due to it’s shallower depth and wonderful light to be found here it is often an underwater photographers haven as the coral formations and variety of soft sponges are simply wonderful.
Smaller reef life can be found at this site but certainly love to come out and play for the tourists. If the tide is at one of it’s highest points you will often jostle for space with the Green turtle population of the area who particularly love this nutrient rich playground, whilst blue ribbon eels are often seen with their yellow trumpet snouts sticking out of a rock crevice to seek out their next snack – just make sure it isn’t one of your fingers!
Finally, for some true local culture, a tour of the North East Archipelago would not be complete without visiting the nearby Bajau inhabited Kalapuan Island.
This vibrant community is the home of the Bajau sea-gypsy’s, traditionally a tribe of sea-faring nomad’s who many generations ago settled on the then uninhabited shores of Kalapuan and called it their home.
These days, Kalapuan is a thriving mecca of local culture that will whisk you back in time as you witness first hand how these amazing people thrive.
As you step off the boat, young people who just smile from ear to ear will undoubtedly meet you. Don’t expect any stimulating conversation from them as many speak their own language of “Bajau”, but many will try with a chorus of “Hello, how are you?” Smile back at them and you will have a friend for life!
This bustling little community are always happy to greet travellers to their village, so much so, don’t be surprised if even the head of the village comes over to say hello.
Kalapuan is great for an afternoon stroll amongst the shades of the coconut trees along the eastern end of the island, whilst if local culture is more your thing, the heart of the village has some crazy little trinket stalls to visit.
As for diving at Kalapuan, with dive sites such as “Macro-mania” and “Mandarin Valley” you can imagine what you can see here. Yes, it’s a muck divers paradise with regular sightings of flamboyant cuttlefish and the elusive yet hypnotically stimulating mandarin fish.
We have found that the marvellous thing about this drop of paradise is that due to the massive variety of islands to choose from despite the regions popularity, you can always find your own little spot of vast, unpolluted and unspoilt heaven.
To enrich your senses in, on and above the waters edge of Eastern Sabah, you really don’t want to go home without paying a visit to the splendour, charm and tranquillity of the North East Islands of the Semporna Archipelago!
Best Times to Visit
Diving around Semporna Archipelago is open all year round, but visibility will be best during the dry season. Visit March through October for the very best dive experience.