Established in 1974, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consists of five islands in Sabah off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Regular ferries and shuttles take visitors to each of the islands from Jesselton Point. Gaya, the largest, sits closest with steep forests, mangroves, hidden bays and a floating village. Hiking and bird watching are favourite activities. A short distance to the southwest is Sapi Island separated from Gaya by a shallow channel. Visitors can enjoy some of Sabah’s best beaches, snorkelling, diving and occasionally spot sea turtles. Manukan, the second largest and most popular, boasts a developed tourist infrastructure including chalets and the option to take part in water sports. Mamutik, the smallest and least visited, and Sulug, the furthest, will intrigue the adventurous.
Pulau Tiga, the youngest island in Sabah, formed after a volcanic eruption in 1897. After featuring on TV reality show Survivor, Pulau Tiga, with its dense rainforest and mud volcano, gains in popularity as a tourist destination. Today, visitors can stay overnight at the Pulau Tiga Resort and enjoy the therapeutic mud volcano spa. Getting to the island can be challenging. First, tourists need to reach Kuala Penyu just over 100 kilometres (62 miles) southwest of Kota Kinabalu before taking a boat to the island. Or, just join a guided tour.
The small archipelago of the Mantanani Islands to the northwest of Kota Belud, a small town approximately one hour from Kota Kinabalu, features some of Sabah’s best diving locations. More than 20 diving spots around the islands include virgin and unexplored areas as well as three shipwrecks. Several species of stingrays, seahorses, large schools of fish and the occasional dugong (sea cow) live off the coast. Other activities on these relatively unexplored islands in Sabah range from sea kayaking, relaxing on pristine beaches, sunset cruises and island-hopping between Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Mantanani Lungisan.
Layang Layang, or Swallow Reef, might not feature on a list of islands in Sabah for external beauty. The former military base in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands offers little in the way of aesthetics. But the real beauty lies in the water. Not only is Layang Layang 300 kilometres (186 miles) from Kota Kinabalu in unspoilt water but the area has a refreshing lack of fishing and commercialisation. A total of 12 dive sights and a 20-metre lagoon with beds of coral housing a variety of marine life. Lucky divers might see pigmy seahorses, manta rays, and barracuda along with whale sharks, bottlenose dolphins and hammerhead sharks.
An hour from Semporna by boat off the eastern coast of Sabah lies a small island called Sipadan. Sipadan, a limestone pinnacle, claims some of the best diving spots in the world. Protected since 2002, the island lacks accommodation and tourist facilities giving it an unspoilt appearance. Certified divers can join a day tour, which visits several unexplored areas. Expect to see vast swarms of barracuda and turtles among many other types of marine life. Because of its protected status, only 120 diving permits are issued each day. Non-divers can visit and snorkel through the coral reef.