Macro Diving at Tunku Abdul Rahman Parks

Residing and working in Kota Kinabalu offers a myriad of advantages, especially with the azure expanse of the sea merely a stone’s throw away. Though I may not be among the most ardent of divers, I’ve grown to cherish the instantaneous tranquillity and stress relief that diving affords me.

Whenever the need for some “blue” therapy arises, a simple call to any diving operator at least a night before, a swift packing of bags, and a journey to Jesselton Point jetty the next day would suffice. From there, a brief 15-minute boat voyage transports me to the enchanting dive sites nestled within the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP).

Diving TARP

Unlike some other states in Malaysia, which may experience monsoon seasons or unpredictable weather patterns, TARP enjoys relatively stable weather conditions year-round. This means that divers can plan their underwater excursions without the concern of weather-related disruptions, ensuring uninterrupted access to the park’s breathtaking dive sites.

While enthusiasts may argue that Sipadan Island off Semporna, also in Sabah, reigns supreme for divers due to its rich marine biodiversity, I implore you not to underestimate the splendour of the dive locales awaiting exploration within TARP.

Diving TARP

Situated in Gaya Bay, a mere 3 kilometres offshore from Kota Kinabalu, this state park bears the moniker of Malaysia’s inaugural Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Geologically, these islands were once part of the Crocker Range but were severed from the massif when rising sea levels followed the last ice age.

Diving TARP

Designated as Sabah’s second national park in 1974, TARP spans an area of 50 square kilometres encompassing five islands—Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik, and Sulug—along with their encircling reefs and waters. Its primary objective upon gazettement was the preservation of its fauna, flora, and marine ecosystems.

The crystalline waters of TARP provide excellent visibility, allowing divers to marvel at the intricate details of coral formations and the kaleidoscope of hues displayed by the myriad of marine creatures that call this underwater paradise home.

Diving TARP

Following nearly two years of movement restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2022, the underwater realm of TARP has undergone notable transformations, with previously elusive species making notable appearances. Spotted eagle rays, colossal groupers, majestic marlins, and burgeoning populations of orange ball pseudocorynactics and steephead parrotfish are among the myriad of captivating sightings.

Species such as green turtles and hawksbill turtles also call the park’s pristine waters home, finding refuge and sustenance in its rich marine ecosystem.

During the months spanning from November to February, the flourishing plankton blooms in the waters of TARP become a magnet for krill, drawing in magnificent whale sharks as they pass through. For lucky divers and snorkelers during this period, there exists the thrilling possibility of encountering these colossal creatures firsthand.

Contrary to previous assumptions, sightings of dugongs, typically found in Mantanani, Kota Belud, have been documented in the waters of Kota Kinabalu for extended periods.

The marine park boasts an array of shipwreck diving sites, ranging from three Vietnamese vessels near Rainbow Sepanggar Island to the decommissioned Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA)’s Kuraman Wreck off Mamutik Island. The 31.4-meter-long Kuraman wreck, which was submerged in 2016 and renamed the Mamutik wreck in 2022, served in naval and MMEA service for 52 years.

Additionally, there are a few more repurposed fishing vessels, which were transformed into captivating wreck dive sites not far from Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Three of those vessels were scuttled off the Sepanggar islands between November 2022 and January last year, marking a significant addition to the region’s dive offerings.

Since its submersion, the “Mari Mari” wrecks have already begun attracting a diverse array of marine species, including juvenile barracuda, groupers, and Trevally lobsters, among others. With depths ranging from 2 to 27 metres, the wrecks offer varying challenges and experiences for divers of different skill levels. However, open water divers are advised to limit their exploration to depths of up to 18 metres for safety reasons.

Despite the wealth of options available within TARP, I derive immense pleasure from the simple act of leisurely exploring the vibrant reef teeming with schools of fish, particularly when encountering the mesmerising spectacle of a barracuda tornado.

The presence of experienced guides, intimately acquainted with the dive sites, further enriches the experience, as they lead us to the secluded corners where special species thrive. It has been recorded that tiger-tail seahorses, half-spined seahorses, blue-ringed octopuses, marble-mouth frogfish, among others, were spotted off Kota Kinabalu waters.

Diving TARP

For Tourism Malaysia’s esteemed four-year dive ambassador, Clement Lee, the allure of Kota Kinabalu’s waters remains ever-fresh.

With over 6,000 dives spanning 41 years across the globe, Lee’s passion for discovery knows no bounds. Reflecting on his extensive travels, Lee acknowledges the envy he once felt towards the marine life showcased in other countries.

However, he emphasises the interconnectedness of oceans, believing that what one nation possesses, others can also access. With this mindset, Lee champions the exploration of uncharted territories within the macrocosm of TARP, confident in the abundance of undiscovered treasures awaiting revelation.

Contrary to popular belief favouring dives in visually resplendent coral areas, Lee advocates for “drain diving” sites characterised by sandy bottoms and scattered rubble. In these less frequented domains, he contends, an array of elusive critters thrive undisturbed by human interference, offering an enchanting glimpse into their secluded habitats.

Macro species are characterised by their small size with some being like dust particles.   They are often intricate and have cryptic appearances.

Those creatures have evolved to blend seamlessly into their surroundings, making them challenging to spot but incredibly rewarding to discover.

What sets macro species apart from other marine life is their size and often unique adaptations. Many macro species have evolved specialised camouflage or mimicry techniques to evade predators or ambush prey. Additionally, macro species often exhibit fascinating behaviours and interactions that provide ample opportunities for observation and photography.

Diving TARP

Lee’s awareness of the abundance of underwater marvels heightened when he delved into macro underwater photography around a decade ago after tired from diving operations.

From the elusive pink and reddish rhinopias to the discovery of vibrant purple hues, Lee’s revelations underscore the richness of marine life awaiting exploration in seemingly unassuming locales.

“Even for elusive critters like Shaun the sheep, I used to journey to Tioman solely for photo opportunities. However, it’s surprising to find such species right here in our local waters.

Diving TARP

“The underlying message is clear: wherever there’s water, there’s an array of fascinating creatures waiting to be discovered, particularly in areas less frequented by divers.”

Recognising the delicate nature of small critters vulnerable to diving activities, Lee encourages divers to embrace photography as a means of fostering deeper understanding and respect for marine ecosystems.

By honing their photography skills, divers gain insights into the behaviour and intricacies of underwater species, thereby fostering a culture of responsible exploration and conservation.

As a steward of Sabah’s tourism industry, Lee underscores the imperative of environmental stewardship in sustaining diving activities.

Gillian Tan, representing Gayana Dive Centre within the Echo Resorts group, resonates deeply with the ethos of environmental protection.

This commitment is translated into action through the diversion of earnings from dive center operations and accommodation bookings to the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC), a vital hub for scientific inquiry.

At MERC, a dedicated team of marine scientists spearheads initiatives focused on the propagation of giant clams.

Tan elucidates the pivotal role these majestic organisms play as natural filtration systems within the marine ecosystem, likening them to the vital functions of the liver.

Diving TARP

However, the vulnerability of giant clams, stemming from their limited defence mechanisms and mobility, necessitates intensive conservation efforts.

Through meticulous propagation efforts, MERC hopes to bolster the populations of these invaluable creatures, ultimately reintroducing them to their native reef habitats. The team at MERC is engaged in coral planting endeavours within the resort areas of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, further fortifying marine biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.

As both a spokesperson for conservation and an avid diver herself, Tan believes that engaging in scuba diving activities can foster a profound appreciation for the environment.

Witnessing the awe-inspiring beauty of marine life, such as turtles and whale sharks, during dives serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of our oceans.

This firsthand experience inspires individuals to adopt environmentally conscious behaviors, such as eschewing single-use plastics, with the aim of safeguarding marine ecosystems for future generations.

Last reviewed: May 15, 2024

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