Just over the border from Sabah, Malaysia in Indonesian Borneo is the island of Sangalaki - a superb dive spot that can be visited by liveaboard where big numbers of manta rays frolic all year round.
Many destinations claim that mantas are frequent visitors but few can truly lay claim to having resident mantas all year round, and so many of them! Locations may hold encounters with mantas if you're lucky, but when you're scuba diving at Sangalaki, luck is not a pre-requisite. Nature is on your side, guaranteeing manta rays at almost every site.
In the waters around Sangalaki there are numerous manta cleaning stations - cleaner wrasse are found aplenty here, which obligingly clean all the grime and parasites off the skin and gills of the manta rays. Mantas gather here for their regular cleaning sessions. If you head out to one of these cleaning sessions, you have quite an experience in store for you. You'll find yourself eye-to-eye with the mantas as they are generally inquisitive and quite friendly by nature and will probably approach you.
The manta rays are found in huge numbers at the dive sites found on the east coast, namely Manta Avenue, Manta Parade and Manta Run. Usually, you'll find these graceful creatures near the surface with their gills wide open as they feed on the rich plankton to be found in these waters. The mantas can also be found cruising the seas or less often foraging for sustenance down on the sea beds. They may not be huge oceanic manta rays but you will have no complaints if you find yourself in the middle of 6 or 7 mantas swooping all around you.
Another highlight of Sangalaki diving is the site known as Jellyfish Lake on nearby Kakaban Island - the sight of thousands of jellyfish floating around you has an almost other-worldly beauty to it, and you need have no fear of stings while snorkelling here (you can't dive in the lake). There are 4 different varieties of jellyfish in the lake situated in the middle of the island. With no access to the open sea, the jellyfish here have had no encounters with their natural predators and as a result have lost their sting.
Add great macro diving sites and it is clear why many people believe the diving in Sangalaki to be without rival in the region. It's like being in several great dive destinations at once - manta rays, macro, enormous numbers of green turtles, Jellyfish Lake and splendid wall dives, a winning combination.
Coral Gardens - Almost every dive location in the world seems to have a site named Coral Gardens. The island of Sangalaki is no exception and its 'Coral Gardens' is located west of the island. Show more
At its deepest, this dive site is just flat sand where you'll find a number of goatfish nosing around. Above the seabed though, it is a gradual incline of shelves full of hard and soft corals. You'll find acropora corals and mosaic corals, among which are a rich variety of reef life such as anthias, damsels, snappers and triggerfish.
Other favourites to be found are cuttlefish, flat worms, sea stars, cushion stars, sea cucumbers, feather stars, frogfish and lizard fish.
Do remember to look up every now and then, for in the midst of watching all the busy coral life, you'll probably come across a manta or 2 feeding in the waters as well as green turtles which regularly lay their eggs on the beaches of Sangalaki.
Coral Gardens is also a scuba diver's favourite at night. Nocturnal sightings include big hermit crabs with their hairy orange legs, cute little baby cuttlefish (and adult ones as well), lobsters, octopus and shrimps. All in all, a very satisfying night dive.
Jellyfish Lake - Known as a biological paradise the like of which you can find only at one other place on earth, this lake hosts a huge colony of jellyfish. Show more
4 species of endemic jellyfish lives in this lagoon, including the upside down Cassiopeia Ornate, Mastigias Papua, Aurelia Aurita and Tripedalia Cystophora. These jellyfish are quite special; unlike their sea-living counterparts, they have been living in a lake, protected from their natural predators such as turtles and barracuda. Through time therefore, they have lost their ability to sting simply because they have had no need for them.
It's an otherworldly experience swimming with these jellyfish in hues of transparent pink and almost invisible blue as they gently pulsate and orb around you. Some find it eerie, others find it indescribably beautiful.
Try looking down into the depths of the lake where, among the green algae, you'll spot some snow white anemones. These are the new predators of the jellyfish; and any jellyfish which head down to the bottom of the lake are usually gobbled up by the anemones.
Lake Kakaban was created through a geological uplifting of the seabed over a period of 2,000,000 years, effectively landlocking 5 km² of sea water within a 50 metre high ridge. Over this long period of time the trapped marine life have adapted to stagnant, brackish and less saline water, low mineral levels and a simple food chain. Fringed by mangrove and with a shallow bottom densely covered in green halimeda algae, the lake is also home to sea snakes, cardinalfish, gobies, tunicates, sea cucumbers, tube worms, crustaceans and other simple marine life forms.
Jellyfish Lake is actually a snorkelling site (you won't be allowed to dive here) comprising a lake in the middle of Kakaban Island, about 25 minutes from Sangalaki Island. You'll have to take a short trek through an untouched rainforest to the lake from the shore, after which you can snorkel to your hearts content.
Kakaban - Here's a site which offers some thrilling big fish action. Kakaban Island, which is also home to Jellyfish Lake, is a 25 minute boat ride from Sangalaki Island, and this rugged deep wall dive lives up to pretty much any expectations you may have of it. Show more
On the big fish front, common sights which will greet you at this Sangalaki scuba diving site are pelagic fish species such as manta rays, hammerhead sharks, barracudas, blue finned tuna, jacks or trevallies, as well as big reef residents like leopard sharks and grey reef sharks.
Smaller reef life which congregate along the walls of hanging soft coral tiers, fans and whips, come in the form of fusiliers, parrotfish, turtles, surgeon fish, gobies, butterflyfish and angelfish.
Lighthouse Reef - is a site located on the eastern part of Sangalaki Island. Your dive boat will be moored at the lighthouse which gives this reef its name, and this is where your dive will begin. Show more
Within this site there are 2 small wrecks. The older one is identified by the proliferation of more soft corals of the dendronephthya species and magnificent sea anemones, where you'll find sweetlips, gobies, scorpionfish, anemonefish and clownfish, jawfish, ribbon eels and groupers lurking furtively under the wreck.
Among the gorgonian fans, keen eyesight will allow you to spot pygmy seahorses. While on the sandy bottom watch out for tridacna giant clams dotted around, always a pleasure to find.
Manta Parade - As the name of this dive spot indicates, majestic manta rays parade up and down this manta highway, coming to you from all directions. More often than not, you'll find them just breaking the surface as they feed on the rich plankton to be found in these waters. For that reason, snorkelling at this site is just as good as diving at it. Show more
Located at the north of Sangalaki Island, Manta Parade is actually one of the 3 dive sites which form manta highway land. If the mantas are not feeding in the waters, they're usually being preened by cleaner wrasse at cleaning stations.
The sight of the manta rays is awe inspiring. They glide and swoop by you; the friendlier and more inquisitive will come right up to you. Watching their sleek movements underwater, one is reminded of fighter jets in the skies - in fact, black manta rays look just like a stealth bombers (if you use your imagination!).
The topography of this Sangalaki scuba diving site starts with Manta Avenue which is a set of coral steps where, besides mantas, you'll find elegant fire gobies and dancing gobies. It then continues onto Manta Parade where the reef is a set of ridges which rise up and down like little underwater hills. Here small coral heads, gorgonian fans and large barrel sponges lie on a flat sandy bottom, littered with alabaster sea cucumbers and feather stars. Within them, you'll find sea anemones with clownfish, flat worms, fan worms, sea stars, cushion stars and reef fish like frogfish, crocodilefish, parrotfish, angelfish, triggerfish, snappers, fusiliers, sweetlips, lionfish, scorpionfish and stonefish.
When you start seeing rocky coral outcrops and bommies, you're at Manta Run. Here, you'll find more gorgonian fans, soft corals and barrel sponges, all topped off with feather stars. Within the numerous crevices and overhangs, there are leaf fish and frog fish which, if you happen to stumble upon them during feeding times, you'll witness preying on the somewhat gullible cardinalfish.
Turtle Town - Green turtles are the main attraction at this Sangalaki diving site, as implied by its name. You'll either find them feeding, mating or resting. When you bare in mind that an annual average of 20 - 30 turtle nests are laid on the beaches each night, you'll have a better idea of the size of the mating activities of the turtles. Show more
Turtle Town is the more famous of the 2 sites in Sangalaki where you will come across its famous green turtles. Located in the southwest corner of Sangalaki, there are gullies and stony ridges all over the place at this rather flat dive site, which make this place ideal for green turtles to stop for a bite to eat or rest up for a while.
Along with them, you'll also find reef fish like pufferfish, moorish idols as well as sea stars and feather stars. Other marine life which you'll see here include octopus, giant cuttlefish, popcorn crabs, catfish, shy mandarinfish and for lovers of macrolife, flamboyantly coloured nudibranchs.
There only resort on the island is Sangalaki Dive Lodge, which is undergoing a major renovation. For ease of travel, and if you want to be on the doorstep of the most amazing manta dive sites, then we recommend a liveaboard cruise.
Being only 2 degrees north of the equator means that Sangalaki isn't really visited by a monsoon season so the diving and weather conditions are steady and fine throughout the year.
Good for: Large animals, underwater photography and advanced divers
Not so good for: Non-diving activities
Depth: 10 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 30m
Surface conditions: Can be choppy
Water temperature: 28 - 30°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: 13
Recommended length of stay: 6 - 8 days