Reefs and Rainforest in Malaysia

Author: Mark Walker

The scheduled Malaysia Airways flight out to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo was very comfortable and without delays: some sleep, some films, some food and some drinks! We soon found ourselves comfortably installed in the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort, which was every bit as luxurious as I remember from my last visit, and I honestly think it is one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in. With a good night’s sleep we were up early the next morning as we had to return to the airport and board our small plane for the 300 kilometre flight out to Layang Layang Island Resort. By eleven o’clock we had checked in, had breakfast, unpacked and we were stepping off the purpose built dive boat into the crystal clear water below.

My first reaction on hitting the water was WOW look at the visibility! You can see right back to mainland Borneo (well almost)!

The next thing that strikes one immediately is the pristine quality of the reef. Huge and beautiful seafans, magnificent corals and gorgonians – in fact some of the healthiest reefs I have seen in a long time. It is obvious that that this area has been protected from the damaging influences of dubious fishing techniques and human pollution. Perhaps it is the fact that the island is also home to a Malaysian Naval base could have something to do with this!

Ken, my buddy, and I are dedicated underwater photographers and therefore we tended not to follow our friendly dive guide. However, the other six divers on our boat seemed very happy to make use of his able services, and we were very happy to be left to our own devices. The choice is up to the individual diver: follow the dive guide, or make your own dive plan and follow it yourself. As long as you have a buddy, you are free to plan your own profile. We soon settled into a daily routine.

0700 wake up call and tea and toast

0800 1st boat dive

0915 buffet style cooked breakfast

1115 2nd boat dive

1230 buffet style cooked lunch

1500 3rd boat dive

1900 buffet style evening meal

2000 chill out

Night dives are available at any time so long as its dark!

As the days whizzed by we soon realised that the stunning visibility was a normal feature of Layang Layang and it was a big plus for our wide-angle photography. Some of the diving highlights included a large school of jacks, many shark sightings, a school of Bumphead Parrot fish, a large school of Barracuda, several large Frogfish, Leaf fish, many giant clams, big shoals of snappers, fusiliers and several turtle encounters. One of the best dives we did was inside the lagoon at the entrance to one of the channels that leads to the outer reef. It was obviously a nursery area for reef fish with lots of juveniles of various species, some interesting nudibranchs and several enormous Giant Clams with their wonderful flesh patterns.

Our routine of dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, sleep was made all the more pleasurable by the really comfortable surroundings. We used the large fresh water swimming pool after each dive as a cool way to desalinate and compare notes with the other guests about the previous dive. Some of the resorts facilities include a large choice of books, magazines and an extensive video library as well as a table tennis table. Happy hour at the well-stocked bar was a popular event, which we enjoyed supporting. The food was good, varied and plentiful with a choice of both western and eastern cuisine.

It was sad to leave this wonderful little island but we were also looking forward to our jungle adventure. It was just a 40 minute flight over to Sandakan, on the east side of Borneo, where we were met by Rudi, our expert wildlife guide. We started our new adventure with a visit to the famous Gomantong Caves, home to two million insect-eating bats and one million swiftlets, whose nests are harvested to make the Chinese delicacy, birds’ nest soup.

It was quite an experience to walk along the boardwalks that lead into the heart of one of the largest caves. All around the cave walls are thousands of bats, birds and insects that live on the droppings from the bats and birds. The smell is ‘interesting’! Looking at the ladders and ropes that the resident nest collectors use I was glad it was not my job to harvest the swiftlets’ nests.

From the caves we continued into the jungle reserve and to our base for the next three nights on the banks of the river Kinabatangan. We both found it a very relaxing place, by the river and in the heart of the jungle.

Our first day of exploring was a river cruise up to an ox-bow lake. It was great fun spotting all the creatures in the trees that line the river and once again our addiction to photography grabbed us. Some of the highlights of our first exploration included two sightings of wild Orang Utans, macaques and numerous varieties of kingfishers, hornbills, eagles and lots of other colourful and exotic birds.

Rudi was a fountain of knowledge and made the whole jungle experience a rich and informative adventure. The pace at the lodge was pleasantly slow with time to relax - a change from the busy pace of the dive resort. We had no problems with mosquitoes, but we continued to protect ourselves at all times. The late afternoon cruise was a different experience to the morning. This is the best time to see the rare Proboscis Monkey in its natural environment. It was fantastic to watch and photograph them as well as the multitude of rainforest creatures that we came across, and Rudi was continually feeding us with lots of information about everything that we saw.

Each of the river cruises brought new surprises. I was particularly pleased to have spotted a Buffy Fish Owl perched on a low branch. We were able to get really close and take some great shots. Our best encounter without doubt, was during the last cruise when we got very close to a large male Proboscis Monkey (I can’t tell you at which angle I got this shot, but I would like to say that it is a MOST unusual photograph!).

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