Most divers associate Malaysia’s Sabah on Borneo with the Galapagos-like Sipadan Island and the muck diving on the eastern coast in the Celebes Sea. But it’s not the only diving gig in Sabah.

Just ten minutes from Kota Kinabalu on the western coast is a little known gem called the Tunka Abdul Rahman National Park ”“ or TARP. A national park, both above and below the waterline, TARP is a collection of five islands all with fringing coral reefs.


False clown anemone fish

You will be amazed at the quality and diversity of the coral reefs around these islands, the water clarity and the variety of marine life considering TARP is such a short distance a major city.

TARP offers over 40 known dive sites which vary from scenic reef dives through coral gardens to muck dives where you might find such weird and wonderful creatures as a stargazer, razor fish, pipefish and zebra lionfish.


Barrel sponge with feather star and bushy coral

I enjoyed a trip out to TARP with Dive Downbelow, part of the Downbelow Marine and Wildlife Adventure Company. Downbelow are a PADI 5 star scuba diving centre and also an adventure travel centre who can arrange trips throughout Borneo, including a trip to Sepilok to see the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre which I added to my itinerary.

I was staying at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort spoiling myself a little in the lap of luxury. As well as activities from archery to watersports, the Rasa Ria provides a kind of holiday home for young orang-utans in the forest within its property, so I’d had the privilege to observe the these amazing creatures in their natural habitat for an hour or so.


Diving with Downbelow

Downbelow’s dive centre is actually located on Gaya Island ”“ the largest of the islands within TARP ”“ which is quite literally a 10 minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu’s Sutera Marina. They have all the gear you could need at the dive centre, so you can literally turn up with your swimmers and your cert card. They cater for all capabilities, so even if you haven’t dived before they can get you underwater with the Discover SCUBA Diving programme.

The fun dive package gives you three dives across the different terrains available in the Park. My first was through an amazing coral garden on the north side of Gaia Island. There I encountered turtles, an amazing array of sponges from twisted pipes to barrels and blue plate coral bigger than bedsheets. All this was home to an amazing array of fish from tiny clownfish through to shoals of yellowtail snapper.


Sponge-tubes and coralfish at Pyramid

My second dive was on a pinnacle called Pyramid which had lots of nooks and crannies housing yellow moray eels, banded coral shrimps and the crazy looking burr fish who looks so cute but not quite so cuddly. There are also plenty of Nudis and a squat lobster known locally as ’the Orang-utan crab’.

For non-divers there is plenty of snorkelling right off the beach, and on nearby Sapi Island; as well as the option for some bush walking in the island’s leafy interior. For the more adventurous, there are also day trips or multi-day trips out to places like Pulau Tiga (the island where Survivor was first filmed) where you will be rewarded with sightings of marble rays and schools of barracuda.


Zebra lionfish at Sapi Shores

The last dive was on Sapi Shores, an island nearby to Gaya known for its excellent snorkelling. For us this was the muck dive and yielded a stargazer, blue spotted stingrays, zebra lionfish, and a host of razor fish.

The dive guides were excellent, and before each dive we had an excellent dive brief chalked up on a blackboard by the dive guide who was going to take us, so we knew that he knew the dive site inside out. The day was punctuated by a lunch of tasty chicken, rice and salad, and rounded off with a cold beer as I sat down on the dive centre veranda enjoying the view, writing up my dives and listing all the new critters that I’d seen diving down below that day.