First Time Snorkelling – Sapi Island, Kota Kinabalu
Our first Saturday in Sabah brought with it a number of firsts – on our first evening in Kota Kinabalu, we’d spotted a number of boating operators offering their services off Jesselton Point – a jetty jutting out into the sea, thronging with boats, largely servicing the islands of Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, which, along with Sapi Island, made up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park – off the coast of KK.
We had a fairly relaxed morning – after all, it was a Saturday – before we headed over to Jesselton Point. Once we arrived we went into the hall where the boat operators plied their trade. There was a large hubbub in there, as various businesses – all offering more or less identical services and itineraries – clamoured for the attention of the tourists amassed there. We settled on an operator that had a shorter queue and asked about the islands. Sapi Island, offering both snorkelling and a small trail that one could follow, seemed like the best bet. Looking at the posters around the counter, the trip appeared to cost 80 Ringgit (about £15) for both of us, including life jackets.
The gentleman operating the stand then said to us that it would be 60 Ringgits, I repeated this figure back to him – disbelieving that he’d knock 25% off the price just like that – to which he replied “Ok, 50 Ringgit – there is a boat about to leave”. Having inadvertently managed to get a somewhat lower price, and not wanting to wait around, this seemed fairly perfect. Money and tickets were exchanged and we were on our way.
We walked out onto the jetty and were handed our life jackets, and then directed towards a boat. As the boat spluttered into action, I felt particularly glad to have a life jacket, but once we were out on the open water, it seemed much healthier, with only the occasional jarring slam as we hit a particularly large wave. During the trip, one of a group of girls asked us to be in a selfie with her and her friend. Selfies seem to be a significant part of the youth culture in Malaysia, in only our first few days, we’d heard about selfie competitions on the radio, we’d seen phones with 20mp front facing cameras, to help improve people’s selfies, and now we were being asked to be in a selfie by a couple of total strangers. We obliged, engaged in a brief and stilted conversation and they went back to talking to each other in Chinese.
As Sapi Island came into view, the driver of the boat put his foot down and before we knew it, we were alighting. As we walked along the pier thronging with tourists, we were able to look over the edge and see a number of fish, which we were hoping would make an appearance once we got into the water. We paid our entry fee of 10 Ringgits (about £1.80) – not included in our ride over – and set foot on the island. What we witnessed then was remarkable, the sand was pure, powdery and white. And covered with roughly half of the population of China. We had been previously warned about visiting any of Kota Kinabalu’s islands during the weekend, as they tended to be incredibly busy as tourists flocked to them, but we hadn’t expected quite the numbers that we saw.
Daunted by the prospect of getting into such congested water, we elected to wander out towards the jungle. As we passed three men sat by a barbecue, they called us over, fully expecting them to try and sell us some of their delicious smelling fish, we politely declined, but they persisted. On closer inspection, the man appeared to be gesturing towards a bin, along with some offcuts of raw meat. Then we saw it – our first monitor lizard of the trip – tucking into some of the discarded meat.
Standing at roughly a metre long, from head to tail, this monitor was a fairly small one, particularly when compared to its larger brother in Komodo, but we were still amazed by it. After taking out our cameras and getting some photos, we headed on further along the trail. Upon reaching a fairly steep incline, we stopped to allow a fellow tourist enough room to climb down, as she seemed fairly nervous about it. She seemed more or less paralysed with fear of climbing down the admittedly steep path. Laura tapped me on the back and gestured toward a 2 metre long monitor, climbing up a leafy slope, only 3 metres from where we were standing. This was a much more reasonable thing to be afraid of.
We continued on up the track, never losing sight of the sea. We eventually came upon a small beach, with no company other than an abundance of small hermit crabs. We stayed here for a few minutes in this incredibly idyllic spot before moving on up the trail.
After a while, taking account of some pauses to look out over the amazing views of the sea, we hit a particularly steep climb, which headed inland. Knowing we only had a limited time before the boat was due to head back, we decided to turn around and return to the landing point.
Arriving back, we were pleased to find that the beach was a little less packed, with many of the people heading under the cover of capacious gazebos to eat from the buffets there. We took advantage of this, and headed to the scuba shop and rented some gear, plus a locker. I also bought a tasteful pair of swim shorts from the nearest shop.
We headed to the changing rooms/toilets, where I was dismayed to find that the liquid on the floor was indistinguishable from the liquid in the shallow channel that people were supposed to pee in. Mercifully, I somehow managed to successfully remain balanced on my shoes, avoiding making barefoot contact with the cocktail of urine and sea water. We stashed our stuff in the lockers and proceeded to the waters edge.
I am not a strong swimmer – when I am on my front, I have fairly significant issues remaining buoyant, and regardless of the amount of effort I put into the breast stroke, I am constantly fighting a losing battle to keep my head above the water. I was hoping that a snorkel would alleviate that need. Taking tentative first steps into the water, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was warm. I can’t say that I’ve spent a lot of time in the water off the coast of the UK, but even in the middle of summer, when we’ve taken trips to the beach, the sea has provided an invigorating refreshment on a hot day. The water off Sapi Island was marginally cooler than the outside temperature (a balmy 30 degrees), but not enough to cause any sort of shock.
As we got waist deep into the water we tried out the masks and snorkels. I found I was able to stay afloat, and see in the water. Emboldened by both of these things – and apparently having a stronger right arm than left arm, resulting in me edging slowly to the left – we swam out beyond where our feet could touch the bottom. I found that my mask promptly filled with water, causing me to inhale a large amount of the South China Sea. Panicking, I veered sharply to the right and swam to somewhere I could get my feet down and empty my mask. After a number of failed attempts, and a repeated tightening of the mask, we decided to remain in the shallower parts of the water, where, amongst the cloudy water, we managed to find a single shoal (assuming you can call a group of 5 fish a shoal).
I later discovered that my beard was the issue, preventing a proper seal forming, and that Vaseline would have helped ensure that I could have a snorkelling session without consuming a large amount sea water.
Returning to the shore, we decided that we should eat. We found a spot under one of the gazebos and headed to the buffet to find out the cost of a meal. This ended up being 50 Ringgits per person. Considering that the majority of our meals – of similar fare – had come in at under 20 Ringgits for both of us, we decided to give it a miss, instead sampling some Malaysian snacks to keep us going until we got back to the mainland, along with our first beer since we’d got to Borneo.
Sipping the cold Tiger beer, looking out over the channel between Sapi Island and Gaya Island, we took in the beauty of the area, before heading back to the changing rooms. We were ready a few minutes before our boat was due to leave, and were rewarded with another close encounter with a monitor lizard. This one was only 60cm long, but was the most active of the few we’d seen – walking along Sapi’s sea wall before making a beeline for the forest.
We returned to the boat, and were soon back in Kota Kinabalu. Happy to be back on dry land.