Diving in Lankayan
Wrecks and Reefs in Borneo
Lankayan may not promise the heart-stopping underwater action of high profile neighbours Sipadan or Layang Layang but if you seek a little slice of paradise on a remote tropical island with plenty of easy diving over pristine reefs, this could be the place for you. Being much less crowded and with a desert island feel to it, the island has only one resort.
It is one of the few destinations worldwide that offers macro diving, wrecks and coral reefs - a concoction any dive addict would find hard to pass up. The area was recently afforded national marine park protection status and for good reason. This is one of those destinations where in April and May a mighty whale shark may well cruise by. And during hatching season you can witness one of nature's most fascinating spectacles - baby turtles scurrying out to sea for their first swim.
During the rest of the year the island offers everything that is good about Lankayan diving - plenty of wrecks housing numerous octopus and cuttlefish, and some excellent macro opportunities including frogfish and ghostpipefish. Snorkelling is quite thrilling too, with squadrons of black-tip reef sharks patrolling the shallows.
Dive Site Descriptions
Goby Rock - One of the 40+ sites surrounding the Lankayan Island Dive Resort, this reef is a clear example of the positive effects of marine protected area projects. Just 10 years ago this region was heavily over-fished and now there is a strong chance you will be diving here with white tip reef sharks patrolling the reef edge.
As its name would suggest, Goby Rock is home to gobies of all colours and descriptions. You can take your time on this dive checking along the sandy floor to witness the fascinating symbiotic relationship the gobies enjoy with their shrimp partners.
While the shrimp does all the work of building their home and keeping it clean, they are almost blind. The goby guards the entrance, thus alerting the shrimp of any danger before it leaves the safety of the burrow to push a load of debris from the tunnel. What a marvellous example of how 2 disparate species can form mutually beneficial partnerships for life.
While diving slowly close to the sandy bottom, one thing you will not help but notice is the large number of blue-spotted stingrays in the Lankayan area. There are so many and your presence could cause a number of them to suddenly take off from their sandy resting places. It is a startling sight; as if the ocean floor suddenly bursts into life.
Also home to jawfish and a wide range of nudibranchs, the hard coral garden that covers the upper part of the rock is in excellent health with so many different species growing in close proximity that you could spend your entire dive in a few square metres and still not be able to identify them all. Your 5m safety stop will surely fly by atop this coral masterpiece.
Jawfish Lair - Robust staghorn coral, fine table coral, bush coral, maze coral, lobed pore coral covered with Christmas tree worms, mushroom coral and bubble coral. These are just a few of the varied and colourful hard coral varieties fused together to create the perfect home for all manner of critters at Jawfish Lair.
Recently declared a national marine park, this is one of the best loved dive sites at Lankayan. You'll really appreciate the expert eye of your Divemaster as he guides you straight to the modest home of the resident yellow jawfish at about 28 metres in depth who, if you are lucky, will have a mouthful of eggs. This makes for a photo opportunity that will wow your land-lubbing chums.
That is not all there is to see here. Often you can watch the chameleonic behaviour of the mimic octopus.
Venture here and there and you could be rewarded with other examples of macro heaven such as rare nudibranchs, ghost pipefish, frogfish, cuttlefish, and devil scorpionfish. Don't think that it's only small stuff here though. Be on the look out for stingrays in the sand and resting leopard sharks that frequent many of Lankayan's diving sites.
Jetty Wreck - This site is an artificial reef, made from the wreck of a small fishing boat, located right in front of the jetty. Just giant stride off the Lankayan Island Resort jetty at any time of the day, descend and follow the guide rope to this wreck dive.
Within minutes of descending into the waters, you'll come across a school of batfish and sometimes a school of jacks as well. The wreck itself is home to a couple of frogfish - you can find them on the rope around the wooded pyramids.
Other life on board are groupers, blue spotted sting rays, cuttlefish, scorpionfish and ghost pipefish. As well as that, within a lone anemone, you'll find a family of anemonefish. Also considered a good location for night diving, nocturnal visits will bring you up against more frogfish and other reef life.
On your return to the jetty, spend some time around the coral encrusted pillars, home to families of beautiful but dangerous common lionfish. They make willing subjects for photographers and the shallow, clear waters are perfect for sharpening your photographic skills.
Lankayan Wreck - Descend onto a wreck that was once engaged in the odious practice of fish poaching. There is a certain pleasure to be had from the thought of how this craft now harbours all manner of fish whose only imminent worry is being assaulted by the sight of some divers in garishly coloured wetsuits.
This site is quite a shallow wreck, so is suitable for most levels of divers to peep around at the lurking cardinals, groupers and yellow sea perch. Pay attention here and you will be the first to spot the resident ornate ghost pipefish who calls this wreck home.
Given that macro diving is Pulau Lankayan's specialty it is not surprising that the visibility here is not amazing. However it is always worth keeping an eye on the blue for some big stuff passing by. Huge bump-headed parrotfish and barracuda are common as are the mighty whale sharks between March and May.
Lost Reef - You'll be scuba diving at Lost Reef 5 minutes after stepping on the boat. Visibility is generally quite good at Lankayan, but following heavy rains the outflow from the mainland's rivers can sometimes reduce it. Thankfully, the island has plenty of small stuff to see where good visibility is less of an issue. However, in less than perfect visibility you may miss a few of the larger fish swimming off the reef. Located to the north of Lankayan, there is better visibility here at Lost Reef than at the other sites in the area.
The eastern side of the dive site is open to deeper water and attracts more pelagic species. Here you will find leopard sharks flourishing under the protection of the Reef-Guardian's shield. Look carefully under the corals and you may find a bamboo shark or two.
If you like macro then Lankayan Island is for you: nudibranchs, ghost pipefish, gobies, stonefish and many more of the smaller and slow moving reef inhabitants. You will really benefit from unhurried, leisurely diving in this spot. Take your time to cover the area gradually and you will probably discover a whole wealth of small riches.
And then, suddenly you might realise that something is watching you with just as much curiosity as you have been displaying in the reef life. The clever cuttlefish is in abundance here, changing its colours and even the texture of its skin in the blink of an eye, before darting off to a safe distance. No dive with a cephalopod is a bad dive. The flashing chromatophores of a curious cuttlefish or the playful intelligence of an octopus take the human/marine life interaction to a whole new level. You are likely to run into both species during a few days of diving at Lankayan which will mean photographs or memories to last for a long time.
Mosquito Wreck - Mosquito Wreck is one of Lankayan Island's 3 wreck dives. The ship was once part of the Mosquito Fleet maintained by the Japanese during World War II.
The wreck itself has some great items of interest - from the bow gun which still remains intact to other interesting bits and pieces of its original cargo. As for fish life, around the surrounding waters you might come across schools of jacks and barracuda, plenty of tropical grouper species, with the occasional manta ray or even whale sharks.
Pegaso Reef - The newest addition to the Reef-Guardian family, Pegaso Reef lies to the north of the Lankayan and is well worth diving. Previously damaged by harmful practices of fishing boats, you might be surprised at the rate at which the ocean is regenerating this coral reef.
Giant clams can now grow here undisturbed by poachers. You will find these large molluscs with spectacular purple and blue mantles at around 20m, preferring the sandy ocean floor, or coral rubble. Giant clams are universally considered to be a barometer of reef health, thought to filter seawater, prevent fish toxins and in other ways promote coral growth so the appearance and success of them here seems to augur well for the future of Pulau Lankayan.
Diving here you will be surrounded by jacks flashing silver in the sunlight and often dashing around very close to the reef hunting for food. Your eyes will also drink in the sight of innumerable fusiliers that keep zipping up and down the reef face, with black tip sharks a little away from the reef, roaming the area as if on patrol and monitoring proceedings.
Photographers will delight in finding the bright yellow leaf fish that appear here and there around the island at dive sites such as Pegaso Reef. They sit balancing on their pectoral fins and swaying this way and that with the current, appearing to unsuspecting passers-by to be nothing more than a leaf being affected by the surge. You can get right up close to these beautiful fish here, close enough to almost see yourself in their hypnotic reflective eyes.
Pegaso is definitely one of the best dive spots in the Lankayan area if you're looking for an easy dive with plenty of creatures to see and is, in that sense, a microcosm of Lankayan Island itself.
How to Dive Pulau Lankayan
Lankayan Island Dive Resort is the only resort on the island and no liveaboards visit the area. This means that from your beachfront chalet you have an unrestricted view of the vast blue seas and you have acres of empty beach perfect for a romantic stroll or a naughty late night/early morning skinny dip!
Special local rates apply here for Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates living in those countries with work permits.
Lying just a few degrees north of the equator, Sabah enjoys an equatorial climate which means it's sunny all year round. The usual air temperature range is from 23°C to 31°C, on very hot days it may rise up to 33°C. The resort never closes because conditions are relatively stable and good for diving throughout the year.
Visibility is usually very good here. However, after heavy rains outflow from the rivers on the main island of Borneo can cause a reduction. The rainy season in northern Borneo is approximately December to March. In recent years the rainy season in Sabah has not been particularly wet nor the dry season particularly dry and, in any case , the region is sheltered from typhoons and the major monsoon rains.
Surface conditions and currents are usually calm and gentle around the island, making the diving easy and the boat rides a breeze, but occasionally currents can kick up a little and the sea's surface can become a little choppy.
For those with whale sharks on their mind try to visit during the months of April and May to increase your chances. Although far from guaranteed, this is the mostly likely time for them to appear. Underwater turtle encounters are year-round at Lankayan but you also have the chance to witness hatchlings being released into the sea particularly from June to September. Many of the other creatures of interest here are present all year round, such as giant clams, jawfish and baby blacktip reef sharks.
Good for: Wrecks, small animals, underwater photography and beginner divers
Not so good for: Non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - 30m
Visibility: 3 - 25m
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 26-30°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: >40
Distance: ~50 km (1½-2 hours) north east of Sandakan
Access: Dive resort
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 7 days