Hayley and I have been scuba diving a few times before and absolutely loved it, however, we've never previously found the time to do the PADI Open Water (OW) course. This 6-month trip was the perfect opportunity for us both to get certified.
Chatting to some fellow travelers in Ho Chi Minh City, we heard that scuba diving in Malaysian Borneo was really good value for money. We looked into it and discovered that we could do the OW course in Kota Kinabalu (KK) over 3 days for just £190 each. That's the cheapest we've found anywhere in SE Asia. Not only is it cheap, but Borneo, as we found out, is also home to some world-class diving spots, including the famous Sipadan Island, which is repeatedly named one of the top 5 diving sites in the world. Decision made!
We did the OW course with Scuba Junkie in KK for just RM1,033 (£190/$230). Scuba Junkie, it turns out, are one of the largest diving operations in SE Asia, with diving centers around Malaysian Borneo and Komodo Island in Indonesia. We chose Scuba Junkie because they get excellent reviews whilst also being one of the cheaper dive schools.
The OW course was 3 days long with the first day spent in the classroom learning diving theory and the remaining time spent in the open water, turning that theory into practise.
The classroom day was pretty dry; videos and pop-quizzes culminating in a final multiple-choice exam. We spent the following two days in the water around Sapi Island - a small island about 20 mins from KK by speedboat.
Often, dive skills are first practiced in the safety of a swimming pool before entering the unpredictable ocean. However, the conditions at Sapi are ideal for learning how to dive; calm seas are pretty much guaranteed.
Hayley setting up her kit
Although the sea was calm, the visibility was pretty awful; 2-3m at best. Not great for fish spotting but on the upside, good experience for more challenging dives in the future. Through the murkiness we did manage to spot a rare nudibranch (sea-slug) crawling along the seabed, but not a whole lot else.
Despite the dreadful visibility we had an absolute blast, which is testament to the quality of service that Scuba Junkie provided. In particular, our dive instructor Awie was an absolute legend who kept us smiling and laughing throughout, above and below the surface.
Certified Divers Coming Through
It’s fair to say we left KK with the diving bug, which is not a great bug to have when you're trying to stick to a tight £25/person/day budget. We immediately decided to add Semporna to our Borneo itinerary, it being the gateway to the famous Sipadan Island as well as numerous other great diving sites.
It was a rotten 10-hour bus journey from Kinabalu Park to Semporna, made even worse by a constant chorus of crying babies accompanied by a loud knocking every time the driver pumped the breaks. Still, at least it was cheap, just RM50 (£9/$11) per person.
Buses coming from KK can be flagged down outside the park entrance. Approximate passing times are listed in the restaurant across the road from the entrance.
Located on the southeast tip of Sabah, Semporna is a pretty miserable looking town. Most visitors to the area pass straight through Semporna on their way to exclusive resorts on nearby islands. We, however, keen to mitigate our diving costs, decided to stay in Semporna, which has a few cheap hostels to choose from. We stayed at the Scuba Junkie Lodge, which is the obvious choice for anyone planning to dive with Scuba Junkie since they offer a 50% discount to all their divers. We got a private double with shared bathroom for RM80 per night (£14.50/$18).
Wave of Luck
We got lucky whilst at Kinabalu Park. We managed to get a cut-price ticket to climb the most expensive mountain in SE Asia, Mt. Kinabalu. You can read about it here. We continued riding this wave of luck into Semporna.
We didn't book ahead, and on first enquiring about diving in Semporna, Scuba Junkie told us that they were fully booked. Nightmare! Not only were we unable to dive with our new favourite dive school, but we had already committed to staying in the Scuba Junkie Lodge, which was now going to cost us twice as much. We were told to check back later but not to hold our breath. Miraculously, when we checked back they had managed to shuffle the boats around to fit us in. What a relief!
Diving Mabul and Kapalai Islands
The famous Sipidan Island was never really on the cards for us. Similar to Mount Kinabalu, just 120 permits are available each day. People who want to dive Sipidan have to book months in advance and must commit to a minimum 4-day diving package to guarantee just one day at Sipidan. We didn't have the time or money.
Most people going to Sipidan stay on the nearby Mabul Island, which has a plethora of its own fantastic dive sites. Just north of Mabul is Kapalai Island, which also has lots of great diving. On our one-day trip from Semporna, we did two dives at Kapalai and one at Mabul. The trip cost just RM300 per person (£55/$67) which is incredibly cheap for 3 fun dives, including all dive equipment and lunch.
In a word, the diving around Mabul and Kapalai was phenomenal! Visibility was between 15-20m and the marine life was stunning. We saw huge giant groupers, beautiful lionfish, beady-eyed moray eels poking out from the coral, turtles everywhere, stone fish, scorpion fish, barracuda, octopus... you get the idea. Hayley even saw an eagle ray glide past the reef. Our dive master Shantha was fantastic; she was an encyclopedia of marine life and knew the hand signal for every creature in the book.
Diving Kapalai's man-made house reef
A very poisonous lionfish
Can you spot the deadly stone fish (both of them)?
To top it off, we arrived on Mabul Island for lunch just in time to see a turtle nest hatching (which rarely happens during the day). We got to watch lots of freshly-hatched hawksbill turtles flap their way down the beach for their first swim in the ocean. All in all, it was a fantastic day out!
- We 100% recommend diving with Scuba Junkie in Borneo. We had an amazing time during the PADI OW course in KK and fun diving around Mabul and Kapalai Islands. They run a tight ship. They were so good, we’ve since booked a 4-day dive package with them at Komodo Island in Indonesia.
- Whilst we really enjoyed ourselves in KK, the visibility and marine life doesn't compare to that around the islands off the southeast tip of Sabah, so we'd recommend diving there over KK.
- Even if you can't dive the famous Sipadan Island, the other nearby dive sites are more than worth the long journey down there. They're also a lot cheaper :).