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Trip Report: Visiting the Reef at Koto Kinabalu

Published on: 10th November, 2016 | Travel and Exploration
Photo credit: Ashton East on Canon S95 (compact)
Visiting Koto Kinabalu in Malaysia we took the opportunity to dive with both Borneo Dream and Scuba Junkies on the fantastically diverse reef, and to enjoy some excellent street food.

Koto Kinabalu is exclusively reef diving, and as such is not the sort of diving we generally prioritise. Typically on a dive holiday we would spend a couple of weeks of decompression dives on shipwrecks in and about the South West Pacific. However, it was time for a relaxing holiday and some simple diving to recover our earlier enthusiasm for all things underwater.

Comparing recent entries in our logbooks to those from a couple of years ago showed a huge change in perspective. Earlier entries were detailed taxonomic records of everything seen on that dive. We remembered pouring over fish identification books to decide exactly what type of wrasse we had just seen. Nudibranchs would be listed by species courtesy of Neville Coleman's work.

More recent entries for the same dive site would read "reef dive, vis ordinary", and possibly note what type of gear rigging we were adjusting or familiarising ourselves with.

About halfway through the first dive at Koto Kinabalu, the thought foremost in our minds was?"what have we done, we are stuck diving reef for the next week". Happily, it did not take long to get back into the spirit and enjoy ourselves. The plentiful opportunities for an amateur photography did help sooth the transition.

Local dive companies

We took the opportunity to dive with both Borneo Dream and Scuba Junkies in Koto Kinabalu. Borneo Dream runs two dives in the local marine park each day, and Scuba Junkies runs three each day. The price for a day is roughly equivalent and includes cooked lunch on one of the tourist islands. Both operations are professional and helpful.

When an o-ring failed in one of our regulators on the Borneo Dream boat, Gary was very helpful in our attempt at an onboard service, although ultimately the o-ring is not a size that would usually be carried as spare on a dive boat.

Ash and Dave at Scuba Junkies were very accommodating and quickly separated the experienced divers into our own group and planned our itinerary for the four days so that we would not visit the same site twice.

The dive boats launch from Jessleton Jetty, which is about 10 minutes walk from most accommodation. If you have your own dive gear, then you definitely want to bring a dive bag to carry it back and forth even if only on the first morning and last evening. Both dive operations can store your equipment overnight in their secure lockup if you are diving with them for consecutive days.

The diving

The dive sites available at Koto Kinabalu are almost exclusively reef dives. There are not really any wrecks, caves or other significant topographical features within the local marine park that the operators visit.

Each dive site is either an isolated reef that slopes from an underwater peak the shallows of an island down to the sand at 20 meters. The only navigation variable is whether you will drift in the current with the reef on your left or your right.

There are all manner of fishing boats, parasailing boats, dive boats, and island ferries all over the marine park. At one point we saw 4 parasailing boats operating in the same area at the same time. You should definitely consider Koto Kinabalu to be a high boat traffic area and plan accordingly. You do not want to be doing a freewater ascent without a surface marker if you get separated from your guide. Pack a finger spool and an orange SMB, and make sure you know how to deploy an SMB from 5 meters before your trip.

The main attraction of diving at Koto Kinabalu is the coral reef structure itself, which is diverse and spectacular in the variety and types of hard corals. You can expect to see lobster, clownfish, leopard moray eels, lionfish, and a wide variety of nudibranchs, shrimp and crabs in and about the reef. In sandy areas you can find flounder, mantis shrimp, and we were informed, stargazers and mimic octopus. There was no shortage of photographic opportunities.

We saw dwarf lionfish on almost every dive, often lurking within the ubiquitous barrel sponges. Lionfish are the perfect subject for an amateur point and shoot photographer. They look impressive, stay still while you try out every camera setting and focus length you can think of, and if you get too close, they just flare up and look even more impressive for the camera.

Unfortunately, local fishing practices are not sustainable, low impact or environmentally friendly. For example, on more than one dive we heard the distinctive bang of dynamite fishing, on the same marine park reefs we were admiring. We saw precious few large pelagic and virtually no schooling fish. Possibly as a result of this ecological imbalance, there are also far less reef fish of all sizes than would normally be expected, and anecdotally the coral has suffered degradation over the last decade.

Visibility was generally poor. The proximity of the marine park to the large tourist based city centre of Koto Kinabalu itself means there is substantial runoff and pollution in the area. When planning a trip it would be worth checking the expected conditions with the local dive shops.

Sort of nearby shipwrecks

There are three shipwrecks located at Usukan Bay, and another deeper wreck off Pulau Gaya. These are all Japanese freighters sunk during the Second World War. The Usukan Bay wrecks are some distance (1 hour by vehicle) from Koto Kinabalu, and then some way offshore.

Ambient weather conditions, and the presence of large numbers of recreational divers happy to do the closer reefs meant that we were unable find a dive boat willing to do the wrecks in the holiday period.

For divers specifically wanting to visit these wrecks, we suggest making absolutely clear with a dive company that you are making a booking to do the wrecks, and lock the booking in before you purchase flights. Allow for multiple days in case the highly variable island weather is not co-operative.

The nightlife

There is a large backpacker presence in Koto Kinabalu with all that implies regarding nightlife. Otherwise accommodation is generally reasonably priced even for five star hotels.

A word of warning to anyone who is considering one of the resorts, particularly newer resorts, be very careful to confirm that the resort actually provides all the services and activities they advertise. We contacted a local resort to arrange a day of diving only to be told they are not yet set up for diving, despite all the advertisement to the contrary. We were also told of certain resorts that advertise many non-diving services they are not yet prepared to deliver.

While in Koto Kinabalu, you should definitely visit the night markets. We ate tiger prawns weighing 250gm each, and all manner of deliciously prepared whole fish, fresh squid and crab. For two people to eat a kilogram of scallops, two whole fish with whatever sauce, and two bottles of water came to AUD$20 total.

Simultaneously, you should keep in mind the dubious local fishing practices, and let your conscience decide before partaking of the seafood.

AUTHOR

Ashton East

OC and CCR trimix, stage cave, underwater photographer; NSW, QLD and UK Legal Counsel.