Kota Kinabalu Island Travel Guide

Home>Sabah>Kota Kinabalu Islands>

Overview of Kota Kinabalu Islands

Kota Kinabalu Islands, otherwise known as Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, comprises five islands - Gaya, Manukan, Mamutik Sapi and Sulug - spread over a vast 4,929 hectares of ocean.The islands are located just 15-20 minutes boat ride offshore Kota Kinabalu city in the east Malaysian state of Sabah. In 1974, the park was gazetted as Sabah’s second national park and was named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. It was created as an initiative to help protect the natural flora, fauna and marine ecosystems of these islands and has now flourished into a thriving eco-tourist destination.

Island hopping in Kota Kinabalu is the epitome of Sabahan tropical living.The islands, with pristine white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, are ideal for swimming, snorkelling, various water sport activities and basking in the sun. As a well-preserved marine park, the coral reefs are in excellent condition and filled with a plethora of marine life. Each island has a number of popular dive sites with regular sightings of sea turtles, nudibranchs, sting rays and reef sharks.

The islands are easily accessible via Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal where a number of boat operators and dive centres can be found. Along with your ferry ticket, here you can also arrange various water sport or scuba diving activities on the islands.

Where to Go

Gaya Island

The largest of the islands, Gaya derived its name from a local tribe word “Gayo'' which means big. For those preferring to spend a night or two on the islands, visitors can choose between three leisure island resorts. Gaya Island has a lot to offer visitors - the breathtaking marine ecosystem, which is spectacular for snorkelling and diving, is accompanied by dense untouched tropical rainforest with 20 kilometres of hiking trails to explore. Some may just prefer to bask under the tropical sun on one of the island’s spectacular beaches such as Malahom Bay or Police Bay.

Manukan Island

Manukan Island is the second largest and one of the most popular islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park with its endless pristine beaches. Even at peak times you’ll be able to find a spot for yourself on the beach! Some of the best stretches for sunbathing and picnicking can be found on the eastern tip of the island. Manukan is the most developed amongst the five in terms of tourist facilities which includes the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges island resort, a local restaurant, sports playing field, a dive centre and a variety of water sports activities such as parasailing and banana boating. Head to the south and east side of the island for great snorkeling spots and thrilling water sports or explore the island along the designated nature trails. 

Mamutik Island

This is the smallest of the islands at only 15 acres. It is also the closest island to the mainland, taking approximately 10-15 minutes by speed boat. Though it is small, this island has some of the most beautiful coral reefs and best snorkeling spots in the park. It is quieter than the bigger islands such as Manukan, and is perfect for both solo travellers and families who want to spend the day out. Public facilities that can be found here include changing rooms, convenience store, restaurant, toilets, picnic shelters, tables and barbeque pits. The Borneo Divers dive centre is located on Mamutik Island. For those who would like to spend the night, visitors can arrange to camp on the island.

Sapi Island

Sapi Island is linked to Gaya Island and during low tide, it is even possible to wade between the two islands. Here you can find the Coral Flyer, and at 235 metres long, is the second longest island-to-island zipline in the world. The clear waters of Sapi Island make for excellent snorkelling and exciting water sports such as parasailing and banana boating. The busiest times on the island are from 10 AM to 4 PM, and once the last ferry leaves at 4.30 PM, the island quietens down for the adventurous who choose to camp overnight.

Sulug Island

Sulug Island is the furthest away amongst the five islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park and is the least visited. It does not have a jetty, nor any local development and is mostly reserved for snorkelling and diving tours. Untouched and remote, Sulug is the place to go for those who want to to get away from it all and pretend having your own private island.

What to Do

Island Hopping

Depending on which island, there are various activities to enjoy ranging from snorkelling, hiking and a variety of water sports. Most of the islands will have similar activities available. You can hop between islands easily and discover what each has to offer. For an adrenaline rush, why not try the Coral Flyer zipline (flying fox) between Gaya and Sapi islands. 

Water Sports

Many of the islands offer exciting water sport activities which can be arranged directly on the island or at Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal when purchasing your ferry ticket. Popular activities include banana boating, parasailing, sea walking and flying fish. Many visitors come to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park specifically to experience the vibrant coral reefs and diverse marine life that inhabit the islands. Visitors can snorkel straight from the beach on most of the islands and daily scuba diving trips are available to a wide selection of dive sites.  

Hiking & Nature Trails

Hiking trails can be found on both Gaya Island and Manukan Island which you can take to explore the lush, undisturbed rainforests found on both islands. 

Camping

The most adventurous visitors can arrange to camp on both Mamutik and Sapi Island with the permission of Sabah Parks.

Family Friendly Get-Togethers

Facilities such as picnic shelters and barbeque pits can be found on the islands for some outdoor family fun. There are also field areas for visitors to play ball games such as volleyball and Sepak Takraw.

Swimming

The crystal-clear waters make it a haven for swimming and frolicking in the water followed by a good sun tanning session on the sandy white beach.

When is the Best Time to Visit Kota Kinabalu Islands

Sabah can be visited all year-round but the best time of the year to visit the islands is from May to September when it is relatively “dry”. For those who would like the best chance to avoid rainfall, October to March is considered a “wet” season.

How to Get to Kota Kinabalu

With regular flights going into Kota Kinabalu, you can fly from anywhere in Asia.

For those on the Island of Borneo, you can take a long drive and go by road on a bus or by taking a taxi. 

How to Get to the Islands

There are a few ways to get to the islands, the most popular is from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in downtown Kota Kinabalu which is the main ferry terminal for those heading to the islands. Plan ahead and get the ferry times in order to avoid any disappointment. Wake up early and get most out of the day for those hopping between islands as the ferry service ends at 4.30 PM.

For those staying in Sutera Harbour Resort, there are boat operators that offer island transfer from the Sutera Harbour Marina. Check with the resort for boat transfer schedules. 

What to Bring

Spending a whole day out in the sun, the most important items to bring are sunblock and plenty of water. 

A good cap or hat and sunglasses would be extra protection against the UV rays.

Have your swimmers, bring a good towel and pack a change of clothes to have a dry ferry ride back. A dry bag is useful to avoid your personal items getting wet.

Those with motion sickness, best to be ready with motion sickness pills.

Those planning to go for a hike or to explore the nature trails, it is advisable to wear proper footwear and apply insect repellent. 

What to Wear

Proper beachwear such as comfortable cooling light clothes that can also dry easily. 

Bikinis and swimwear is acceptable though avoiding clothes which are too revealing would be respectful to the community. 

As Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, nudity and going topless is completely unacceptable.

Things to Know

There are restaurants or places to eat on the bigger islands but for those going to the more remote islands, pack your lunch and bring some snacks. 

Hold onto your tickets.

Bring enough cash as there are no ATMs.

Be aware and look out for sea urchins around the corals and rocks.

Be careful of jellyfish which tend to surface after rain.

Summary