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For much of the history of the Semporna region on the south-eastern part of Sabah, this region consists of a sleepy town and a few villages with the main occupation being fishermen. This is not the case any more, since the last two decades this region has become the underwater paradise for the state. To protect the marine diversity of this region, Tun Sakaran Marine Park was established in 2004 and managed by the Sabah Parks. This Marine Park has eight islands as well as three large reefs and the park is surrounded by the Celebes Sea. Because of its proximity to the world's reknown Sipadan Island Park, divers, snorkellers and tourists are also taking time to visit this park. If one comes from the Semporna Jetty, this would take about 30 to 45 minutes and covering a distance of 15 to 25 kilometres, depending of which island is the destination.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park is also popularly known as the Semporna Islands Park. This park covers an area of 350 square kilometres making it the biggest marine park in Sabah. Some experts agree that there may be even higher levels of marine biodiversity in the Semporna Islands Park than the Sipadan Island Park. For example over 520 species of fish has been recorded here so far. As for the corals 255 species have been spotted, as well as 140 species of sponge. A significant numbers of these species are only here and they are not found in other parts of Malaysia. These species include a number of new ones that are yet to be described.
At the centre of the Semporna Islands Marine Park stands the beautiful grouping of three islands, Bodgaya, Boheydulang, and Tetagan. Experts believe that these three islands belong to part of the rim of an ancient volcano. If view from a certain angle, the three islands form an intriguing figure which looks like a giant lying on his back in the sea. Closest to the Semporna town is the Sebangkat island, sea weed cultivation is the main activity here. Near Sebangkat island is the Selakan island, these two islands are linked by a common reef. Maiga island and Sibuan island which lie at the northern side of the park are popular choice for divers and snorkellers. Furthest out to the open sea lies the smallest island of the grouping namely Mantabuan island, and many believe that this island is the best diving destination in the Semporna Islands Park. Please note that there are no public facilities in all of these islands.
Besides the islands, three patches of reefs with white sandy beaches that come and go with the tides are also found at the park. The Chruch reef is located on the northern part which lies next to the Sibuan Island. The Kapikan reef is on the eastern side of the park and it is even further out to the open sea than the Mantubuan Island. Both of these reefs will have dry sandy areas during the low tides. The Southern Rim Reef is located south of the Bodgaya island, and it is connected to Boheydulang island under the sea. The Southern Rim Reef is also part of the rim that forms the ancient volcano.
Bodgaya, Boheydulang and Tetangan
Bodgaya is the largest island of the park and it covers an area of 796.4 heactares. The island has a length of 8 km and a width of 1.5 km. Boheydulang is the second largest and it has an area of 313 heactares. Tetangan is just a small island besides Bodgaya, and this small island has a land mass of 30.24 hectares only. All these three islands form a slightly curve line of a dead volcano. From an earlier exploration to these three islands, experts found that they are formed from volcanic rocks.
The few high points of the park are located at the hill tops of the two big islands. On these high points one will get a very good bird eye view of the rest of the islands. The hills of these islands are over grown with lush green tropical forests. The hill tops of Bodgaya and Boheydulang are often seen covered by the wandering clouds. During low tides all the three islands are joined together by two small sand bars, which have appeared from the sea floor. On the foothills of the two large islands lie some of the longest white sandy beaches in the park, great place for picnic and photography. Diving and snorkelling sites are plenty, the experienced boat men will be able to guide one there.
Sebangkat and Selakan
Sebangkat has a land area of 51 hectares, and Selakan covers an area of 32 hectares. Both islands are located on the southwest corner of the Sebangkat-Selakan reef and are closest to Semporna town. On the east side of these two islands is the big Bodgaya island. Both islands do look flat and are covered with coconut trees. Seaweed cultivation is the main activity at the Sebangkat island, and the industry is located at the south-west corner. These two islands also inhabited by many local villagers. A lot more houses on stilts are seen on the beaches and the sea as compared with the others. For diving and snorkelling sites, an experienced boat man will be required.
Maiga and Sibuan
The Maiga and Sibuan islands are located on the norther part of the Marine Park. Maiga island has a land mass of 20.16 hectares. It is just a bit bigger than Sibuan Island which is shaped like a chilli and has an area of 15.16 hectares. Both islands look similar from afar as both are very flat and are covered with a lot of coconut trees. But the similarity ends here. Sibuan is a much easier island to access, since its southern end has a deeper channel that allows the speed boats to come in. While Maiga island can only be reached during high tide at the south-western point, as most parts of the island is surrounded by a huge shallow reef. A handful of villagers are seen sheltering on both sides of the Sibuan island, but not much activities are seen on the Maiga Island. Both these islands have good diving and snorkelling venues.
Mantabuan island is the furthest out at sea and also the smallest of all the islands in the Semporna Islands Marina Park. It has only an area of 10.08 hectares. But small does not mean less, many scuba divers believe that this small island has the best dive sites in the park. The small Mantabuan has a big outer reef that is more than 10 times the size of the island. During the monsoon months the currents here can be very strong. Divers need to be careful here.
How to go there? Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines have a few daily direct flights to Tawau airport from Kota Kinabalu. Both airlines also have daily direct flights from Kuala Lumpur. From the Tawau airport one will have to take an hour transportation to Semporna, a coastal town. There are also daily buses from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna, which take about 9 hours. In Semporna, check in with the tour agents which have daily excursion to the Semporna islands. Day trip to one of these islands can cost from RM 100 to RM 200 per person.