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Are you looking for a tropical paradise island in Malaysian Borneo, with world-class snorkeling right from the shore but without the crowds? Search no more: the remote Lankayan Island offers the best snorkeling in Borneo! Imagine total seclusion with just one dive resort and blissfully empty stretches of powdery sand. Water is so clear that you can spot turtles, rays, and other creatures already from the beach.
The Best Snorkeling in Sabah is Serene – Forget Crowded Sipadan Island!
Whereas tourists flock the snorkeling and diving sites nearby the world-famous Sipadan Island, the jewel-shaped Lankayan remains a remote tropical paradise off-the-beaten-track.
Comparing Snorkeling Experiences in Sipadan and Lankayan Island
Many people say that Sipadan has the best diving and snorkeling in Borneo, but we disagree. The crowds at Sipadan make the experience rather stressful – and it’s even more stressful to get the permit. Yes, in Sipadan you can see large shoals of fish, but you won’t be the only one snorkeling in those tourist-infested waters. You can expect to see shoals of tourists, as well.
In Lankayan, you can snorkel or dive with turtles and shoals of jazzy fish upon bright and healthy coral reefs, spotting intriguing – and rare – species such as jawfish and nudibranchs! For us, that’s the best snorkeling in Borneo.
The best news for snorkelers: just plunge into the turquoise Sulu Sea in the front of your chalet or from the stairs of the Lankayan Island dive shop. Snorkeling is fantastic right at the Lankayan jetty, where you can spot turtles and sharks, together with clownfish, pufferfish, lionfish, and herds of huge fellows like grouper and tuna.
We loved the convenience of snorkeling at the jetty and the variety of species, so for two days, we didn’t even feel the need to take a boat to the nearby reefs – which are, by the way, even more stunning!
Snorkeling in Lankayan Island: What Can You See?
But what did we see, then? The list is endless, and the species evade my memory. But I could start with a dazzling lionfish, which we saw already from the pier, before plunging in. Maybe luckily so, as I suddenly remembered how venomous those beauties are. Various butterfly fish, parrot fish, gobies, and angelfish were our loyal companions; they were everywhere. “Nemos” a.k.a. clownfish (or anemones) were also easy to find at the jetty.
I remember a couple of close encounters with the blazingly yellow blue-spotted common rays when we got spooked by those sneaky creatures, quietly slipping from the sand and gliding just beside us. We also spotted a couple of scorpionfish, pufferfish, and stonefish right at the shore; the latter is so common here that you should use water shoes – or fins – when plowing through the shallow water. Crocodile needlefish were plenty below the pier – I wasn’t so happy to hear that they could spear people! Sea cucumbers are easy to spot on the sand, between the jetty and the shoreline. We also loved to observe several giant clams, which are listed as threatened due to climate change and fishing.
We couldn’t get enough of the stunning blue sea stars, which for our luck were omnipresent. We also saw some “cut” versions and learned that these starfish can do self-amputation to escape from predators. Crown-of-thorn starfish are also so common that their population needs to monitored, as they feed on coral.
Then there were groupers, jacks, and tunas together with several other big fish beyond our recognition, mostly hiding below the dive center or swimming under the pier. We also managed to see a couple of (harmless!) black-tip reef sharks in the shallow waters, both near the pier and further away, where the reef slopes down. The edge of the reef was also the best spot to swim with the turtles, though we saw several green turtles even just beside the pier. Mornings were the best time to spot sharks and turtles in the shallow waters.
We also had several other memorable moments right at Lankayan jetty, floating upon vast stretches of various corals, watching fish getting together and whirl up dust, as they were ferociously eating their way through the corals. Vast, unspoiled stretches of staghorn and lettuce corals hide shy residents, and delicate feather stars, sea fans, and whips entertained our eyes. I just couldn’t get enough of it – Piritta had to drag me out for lunch and dinner.
Approaching Lankayan Island Dive Resort with a boat, after 2-hour trip from Sandakan, Borneo
Micro and Macro Diving Sites in Lankayan Island and the Sulu Sea
Lankayan is famed as a macro diving destination: many divers come here for nudibranchs and small creatures that we haven’t even heard of before. But it’s not the whole story, as you can guess from my snorkeling hype.
Divers praise the pristine reefs of Lankayan and the combination of macro and micro diving. More than 30 dive sites surround Lankayan, and there are some fascinating wrecks nearby – the first being right at the jetty with some resident frogfish.
The rare species abound, also jawfish can be spotted already at the jetty (also while snorkeling, though we missed it!). The macro treats include, for example, ghost pipefishes. Leopard sharks are rare, but possible to spot here.
Although the internet pours stories about annual whale shark migration, the last sightings are from 2004. But there are so many wonders to unfold that you probably won’t even remember hearing about the whale sharks!
Snorkeling with turtles in the shallow waters of Lankayan Island, Borneo
It's easy to spot turtles even from the pier of Lankayan Island, Borneo
Swim and Snorkel with the Turtles in Lankayan Island – And Support Turtle Conservation!
Floating silently upon the sea turtles was utterly the highlight of snorkeling for us. Our respect for those graceful creatures is immense, so observing them in their natural habitat feels magical. We even lost the count during our underwater explorations at the Lankayan jetty, but I’d bet we saw turtles more than 20 times during the two days. Of course, we must have seen the same turtles many times. I cherish the moments, when we followed a turtle for several minutes – it felt eternal. The turtles didn’t mind our presence as long as we didn’t splash, but just silently swam beside them.
Witness Turtle Nesting and Hatching in Lankayan Island
Lankayan Island is a nesting site for hawksbill and green turtles. The island has its own conservation center, which monitors the health of coral reefs, protects nesting and breeding of sea turtles, and fights against illegal activities. You can visit Reef Guardian’s House to learn more about marine conservation – and if you’re lucky, you can even witness turtle nesting and hatching! By visiting Lankayan, you will support the conservation of these beautiful creatures.
Sea turtle hatchery in Lankayan Island, Malaysian Borneo
Sea turtles' egg buried in the sand in Lankayan Island's turtle hatchery
Why Snorkelers Should Head to Lankayan Island Instead of Sipadan
The world-famous diving destination Sipadan has gained some reputation among snorkelers, as well. The tiny island of Sipadan lies in the north-eastern corner of Borneo, on Malaysian side. It’s ringed with a reef, which suddenly slopes down steeply more than 500 meters, creating a channel for thousands of big fishes. Picture, for example, tornado-like shoals of barracudas and everything from hammerhead sharks to turtles, tunas, manta and eagle rays – mostly huge, pelagic fish.
Sipadan is ranked among the top 5 diving destinations in the world. To make this even more clear, Sipadan is a scuba dive destination, and thus the operators here cater divers, not snorkelers. Entering the overly popular marine reserve is restricted by daily permits, which are nowadays hard to gain. The daily 120 permits are divided between 12 nearby dive resorts. During the high season, all resorts are full, accommodating altogether 600 guests, all avid to dive at Sipadan. Naturally, the resorts favor divers staying multiple nights (at diver’s packages) while allocating those permits among their guests.
Another nuisance is getting to Sipadan. Firstly, you need to fly to Tawau (from Kota Kinabalu) and then proceed to the village of Semporna (1,5 hours by a taxi or minivan). Semporna itself is recommended only for budget travelers: another leg in a speedboat whisks you to nearby islands of Kapalai or Mabul, which offer more pristine surroundings and a shorter boat trip to Sipadan. Sipadan used to have one, exclusive dive resort (owned by the same company, which owns Lankayan Island Dive Resort), but it was closed to minimize the footprint of tourism in 2005 – daily permits were introduced at the same time.
Still Anxious to Snorkel in Sipadan?
Our tips: avoid high season (diving in Sipadan is excellent all year round, as there’s no monsoon), book early, stay long enough, and try to secure your permit at the time of booking to avoid disappointment. If you’re “only” snorkeling, I’d still recommend avoiding the hassle and choosing Lankayan.
If the spell of Sipadan remains irresistible, choose nearby Kapalai Island, which is known for its turtles and has superb reefs for snorkeling. Kapalai Island Resort holds 14 daily permits for Sipadan (which is the maximum for one resort) – I wish you the best of luck!
LANKAYAN ISLAND FAQ
Where to Stay in Lankayan Island?
The first question is easy to answer: there’s just one lodge in Lankayan Island, so you don’t have any options. Worry no more, Lankayan Island Dive Resort is a perfect place to stay in Lankayan!
Lankayan Island Dive Resort has wooden cabins right by the shore, some of them on stilts upon the turquoise ocean. All cabins have unobstructed ocean views. You can swim and snorkel right off your own beach, or at the Lankayan Jetty (in front of the main building and restaurant).
All-inclusive rates include all meals and boat transfers from Sandakan. Buffet dinners at Lankayan Island Dive Resort are flavorful affairs with some of the best seafood that we had in Borneo.
Currently, many countries have travel warnings advising against traveling to the Eastern Sabah and Lankayan Island. All these travel warnings are based on old kidnappings in Sandakan area in 2015. After that, there haven’t been any incidents.
When we visited Lankayan Island, the governments had similar travel warnings against all but essential travel in the Eastern Sabah area and especially the islands of the Sulu Sea (including Lankayan). We decided to go anyway, and felt totally safe in Sandakan area and Lankayan Island.
Lankayan Island has a military base, which made us feel even more secure. I’d say that visiting Lankayan Island felt safer than visiting the other islands in the Eastern Sabah area due to the military base.
Behind all those warnings are the kidnappings five years ago. Five years is a long time. I don’t quite understand why the governments are not updating their travel warnings based on the curret security situation. There haven’t been any tourist kidnappings in the Eastern Sabah for many years.
How Long to Stay in Lankayan Island
We recommend staying at least three nights in Lankayan Island. Traveling to Lankayan takes time (check out the next chapter) and boat transfers might feel too rough, if you’re planning to stay just 1-2 nights. It’s a vacation, after all, so we recommend slow pace. I’d say that two nights in Lankayan Island is the absolute minimum for a stress-free beach holiday.
How to Get To Lankayan Island in Sabah, Borneo
Fly, drive or take a bus to Sandakan, a coastal town in Sabah area of Malaysian Borneo.
Lankayan Island Dive Resort will pick you up from airport or hotel inside the boundaries of Sandakan. Pick-up and speedboat transfers are included in the prices. T
he speedboat to Lankayan leaves from Sandakan at 10 AM (and departs from Lankayan at 7 AM). The trip takes typically 1,5–2 hours depending on sea conditions (and it might be a rough ride). If you arrive at Sandakan airport after 9 AM, you have to stay the first night in town.
Would you pick Lankayan Island for your snorkeling adventures in the turquoise waters of the Sulu Sea?
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