My Dive | Pom Pom Island
This little known Sabah dive destination is one of Malaysia's gems. Eric Goh, Cristabel Tan and Nurul Yazid share their favourite dive spots
The Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo is well known for its excellent diving—the most popular destination of which is Sipadan Island, an oceanic island rising 600m from the seabed. Sipadan is one of the world’s top diving destinations, and its unique geography and tropical marine life have made it a must-visit destination for divers around the world for decades.
The secret that most divers don’t know, however, is that Sipadan isn’t the only island in Sabah that’s worth visiting. One hour north of Semporna lies a cluster of relatively undiscovered islands that are Sabah’s hidden diving gems. They boast healthy reefs with impressive biodiversity, and rare and interesting macro life. These islands are a diver’s haven—conditions are great and the diving is flexible and relaxed. And the best part: no crowds.
Pom Pom Island
The diversity of macro life at this little, unassuming island can rival that of much more well-known Southeast Asian macro dive destinations. Pom Pom itself is small, but has a sloping reef that goes down 163m. The dive conditions here are good all year round, with the water temperature constantly between 27 and 29 degrees Celsius, and excellent visibility that averages between 15 and 30m. Divers can dive all around the island, and there are several dive sites that provide particularly unique diving experiences. At most other dive sites where there are mandarin fish, divers are often told that they have to dive at sunset in order to stand a chance of seeing these shy creatures. At Pom Pom’s Mandarin Playground, however, divers can spot the delightfully colourful mandarin fish all day long. Another popular site is Pom Pom’s North Point, which is also known as a 'Mini Sipadan' because it provides a similar experience: a wall dive that starts at 18m, where you can expect to see Napoleon wrasses, alongside schools of batfish and surgeon fish. The wall itself is also particularly beautiful, with lots of large sea fans and barrel sponges that are home to different types of nudibranchs and crustaceans. This site’s unique topography makes it a popular site for photographers looking for both wide-angle and macro opportunities.
1 CBR House Reef
The most popular dive site on Pom Pom, and a particular favourite of underwater photographers and macro life lovers, is the Celebes Beach Resort (CBR) House Reef. CBR is one of two resorts on the island, and specialises in providing excellent dive services, particularly for underwater photographers. Divers who enjoy macro life will find that the best critters are to be found at the CBR House Reef itself. The reef itself is simple and unassuming. A shore dive starts with a seemingly mundane sandy bank—but before long, you are sure to find at least two or three green turtles and hawksbill turtles that are fond of this particular site because of its healthy growth of sea grass. On some evenings, you might see ten turtles on a single dive. Between the months of May and October, many of these turtles even come up to the island to nest. Venturing deeper, you’d come across a few artificial reef structures that are home to lionfish, leaf fish, and an array of crustaceans. The natural reef itself is teeming with macro life, and on any given dive (the resort offers unlimited shore dives at no additional cost), you could see humpback shrimps, pygmy seahorses, bearded gobies, frogfish, several uncommon species of nudibranch, and the super macro hairy shrimp in several different colours. Night diving at this site is especially spectacular—you cannot shine your torch at any single spot without seeing a pair of eyes reflecting light back at you. This is when some more unique critters and crustaceans come out to play, and divers are likely to see brokeback shrimps, Doto and Eubranchus nudibranchs, large candy crabs, and the almost ubiquitous skeleton shrimp.
2 Mataking Jetty
Ten minutes away from Pom Pom by speedboat is Mataking Island, a popular destination for wide-angle photographers. There is a working wooden jetty that’s located off Mataking Island Resort’s House Reef, and its geometric structure and architecture make it an interesting backdrop for wide-angle photographs. As for subjects, there is a school of several hundred jacks that can usually be found near the jetty, as well as a resident giant barracuda that has been there for more than eight years, and whom locals have lovingly christened Charlie. There is also a school of batfish and some trumpetfish that live at the jetty, and can make for equally exciting subjects for wide-angle photographs.
3 Shipwreck Post
Another unique dive site is the Shipwreck Post, where the highlight is a 30m-long wreck of the Sipadan Mermaid. This shipwreck lies at 27m deep, and it is therefore crucial to ensure that you do not get too distracted by the myriad of marine life that has made this former liveaboard their home. Lionfish, sweetlips, and jacks seem to particularly favour the ship’s dark depths, but there is also macro life that have moved in, with a variety of nudibranchs and shrimp living along its surface. The shipwreck is also Malaysia’s only functioning underwater post office, and only the third such post office in the world. Divers can mail postcards and letters to family and friends back home via the Shipwreck Post by placing them in a weighted waterproof case, on the wreck.
4 Two Brothers, Bohey Dulang Island
Another popular macro dive site is the nearby island of Bohey Dulang. The name Bohey Dulang itself is a combination of Malaysian Malay and the local Badjao language, and comes together to mean 'Water Tray'. This island has no dive resorts, and there is still a significant population of local indigenous people who live in houses built on stilts around the island. They’ve chosen the island because it is the only hilly volcanic island in the vicinity, and a vital source of fresh water. Trekking to the top of the 600m-high Bohey Dulang Peak takes 45 minutes, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the nearby islands. Two Brothers is a popular dive site for photographers because it brings together the best of both macro and wide- angle subjects. The sloping reef here is lush and vibrant, with beautiful corals that are teeming with macro life. In the shallows, there is a good mix of soft and hard corals, with healthy populations of sea fans, brain corals, bommies, and acropora corals. Large schools of snappers and batfish, along with turtles and giant frogfish, are common sights. Be careful of the stinging hydroids that come in many colours here, although they are often home to some very interesting critters and nudibranchs. Divers who are hardcore macro lovers will want to dive down to where the slope ends and the sandy patch begins at around 18m—here you might find flamboyant cuttlefish, a blue ring octopus, popcorn shrimp, different squat lobsters, a variety of nudibranchs, and a new species of crustacean, the idiomysis.
5 Stingray City, Kapikan Reef
While this is not technically an island, this submerged reef is definitely worth a mention. The dive site’s name comes from the numerous blue-spotted sting rays that have made this reef their home. As Kapikan Reef is an atoll, the currents here can be rather strong, unlike most of the other dive sites in the area. Therefore, it is recommended that only divers who are more experienced at dealing with currents dive here. Its interesting geography provides good grounds for critter hunting, and is popular with spotters and dive guides who want to bring underwater photographers to a challenging, but potentially highly rewarding dive site. Many of the particularly interesting critters to be found here fall within the super macro category, such as nudibranchs that are as small as 2mm. Other highlights of the site are its pygmy seahorses, frogfish, crustaceans, and leaf fish.
Born and raised Malaysia, Eric has always had a passion for water sports, and a penchant for photography. Underwater photography was therefore the natural next step for him, and he has now been taking underwater photographs for more than fifteen years. He first started taking photographs underwater on film with the Nikonos V 35mm, and he’s currently using a Nikon D7000 and Nikon D8000E. When he’s not making a living as an entrepreneur or taking photos, Eric loves sharing his knowledge with budding underwater photographers.
NEED TO kNOW
When to go
Pom Pom and its surrounding islands are diveable throughout the year. However, the best months are between April and November, when the visibility is at its best and the sea is generally calmer.
The water temperature ranges from 28-29 degrees Celsius for most of the year. December and January tend to be the coldest months, and the temperature can drop to 25 degrees Celsius. A 3mm wetsuit or an additional rash guard will usually suffice. A reef hook is highly recommended for those who want to dive the sites that are known to have stronger currents.
How to Get There
There are several daily flights into Tawau Airport in Sabah, Malaysia. You can fly into Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu. Most dive resorts in the Pom Pom Island area will offer airport transfers as part of the package. The resort van will take you from the Tawau airport to the port city of Semporna (a one hour ride), where all the boats to the islands depart from. It is then a 45-minute boat ride from Semporna to Pom Pom Island.
Celebes Beach Resort is a PADI Dive Resort that offers full board diving and non-diving packages: www.celebescuba.com