Have you ever looked into the eyes of an animal and thought that the life looking back at you was the same as you? We experienced this several times during our week and a half in Malaysian Borneo.
We split our time between the jungle of Sabah and under the sea scuba diving around the islands of Mabul and Sipadan. In both places we observed incredible wildlife. Sadly, we also saw plastic litter in quantities we’d never seen elsewhere. This dramatic contrast between beautiful nature and abundant pollution drove home our understanding of the perils both animals and people face in a world where plastic just doesn’t seem to be going away. Unfortunately, it’s the most vulnerable communities and wildlife habitats that are impacted the worst.
- Day 1: Arrive in Sandakan
- Day 2: Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Kinabatangan River
- Day 3: Kinabatangan River
- Day 4: Gomantong Cave and back to Sandakan
- Day 5: Bus to Semporna
- Day 6: Transfer to Mabul diving resort
- Days 7-8: Diving
- Day 9: Return to Semporna
- Day 10: Fly out
Dates: June 8-17, 2018
We flew into Sandakan, a city on the eastern coast of Borneo. It was a long day of travel from remote Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, but we finally arrived nearly 24 hours later. We checked into the Four Points by Sheraton using SPG points to stay for free. We were early enough to still take advantage of the free breakfast buffet. We had a relaxing day after our exhausting travel. While we prefer local accommodations like Airbnbs, there’s something to be said for the familiarity and comfort of a trusted hotel chain. Plus, when it’s free using our points, it helps us keep our budget low.
We also found that the easiest and most cost-effective way of exploring this region was to hire a private driver and guide for the next few days. We booked through Amazing Borneo Tours, and with the exception of one communication issue at the beginning of the tour (the representative from the company told us the wrong time that our guide, Jon, would be picking us up from the hotel), we had a great experience.
Borneo Jungle Adventure
Our adventure began with a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This wonderful organization rehabilitates orphaned or injured orangutans. When the ape is ready, he or she is released back into the wild. If that time never comes, however, the ape has a safe home in the tall trees of the sanctuary. Every morning, staff at the sanctuary sit on a platform in the trees with a bucket of bananas.
The orangutans choose if they want to come eat or not. None arrived while we were there (though plenty of opportunistic macaques showed up), and Jon explained this is a good thing. It means the orangutans are foraging for food on their own, just as they would in the wild, and are not dependent on the sanctuary.
After the feeding time, we headed over to the juvenile rehabilitation center, where several young orangutans learn how to climb, swing and avoid predators, while playing with each other on a jungle gym that could have easily been in an elementary school playground.
Watching them peel bananas with their hands, pick at each other, run around the playground and swing across the monkey bars, I saw first hand how similar they are to human children. In fact, humans and orangutans are more closely related to each other than Asian elephants are to African elephants. This blew my mind.
When playtime was up, the caretakers came outside to bring the kiddos in. Most were excited to see their human (each orangutan had their own person) and would amble up to them and hug their legs. Some weren’t ready to go inside yet and did their best to evade their caretakers. It was just like watching a child throw a tantrum and refusing to climb off the play equipment.
After visiting the sanctuary we traveled about 2 hours to Kinabatangan River, where we would be staying for the next two nights. The wooden lodge sits right on the river, and plenty of macaque monkeys freely roam the area.
We ate lunch and checked into our room when we arrived. The food wasn’t great, but it was fine. Honestly, we hadn’t been impressed with food in Malaysia up to this point, and this wasn’t any different.
That afternoon, we had a river cruise in search of unique Borneo wildlife. Not even 15 minutes into the trip, we spotted a herd of pygmy elephants grazing near the riverside. Our guides explained that seeing the world’s smallest elephants in the wild is very rare, and it just comes down to luck whether a herd happens to be migrating through at the time you’re there.
For several minutes, we watched the members of the herd (mostly adult females, but also some babies and juvenile) use their trunks to grasp the tall grasses and curl their trunks up to bring their meal to their mouths.
Eventually our guide started the motorboat up again. There was more to see! During the ride we saw a long crocodile lunge out of the water to attack prey, his huge jaws clamping down with a clap and a splash. Once the croc slipped below the surface, we quickly moved on, as our guide explained that crocodiles can be dangerous when we can’t see them. Yikes!
Over the next hour we saw a monitor lizard, a Hornbill bird, many pink tail and long tail macaques, a white bellied sea eagle, and silver leaf lemurs.
The real stars of the show, aside from the pygmy elephants, were the several proboscis monkeys in the tree tops. Proboscis monkeys are very easy to identify, thanks to the Gonzo-esque noses on the faces of the males. The females, on the other hand, have pointy up-turned noses, similar to those of Dr. Seuss’ Hoos down in Hooville. While we think the males’ large noses are funny looking, for a female proboscis, the bigger the nose, the sexier the fella.
Proboscis monkeys only live in Borneo, and the chance to see these crazy primates in the wild was one of my primary motives for coming to Borneo to begin with. Thus, I was really excited for our good fortune!
We had several more river cruises during our stay. During our night cruise we spotted various birds sleeping, including the black and red broadbill, stork bill king fisher, and the standard king fisher. On our morning and afternoon cruises, we saw more pygmies and proboscises, as well as more birds like the Oriental pied hornbill, dollarbird, crescent serpent eagle, grey headed fish eagle, a rare storm stork (only 500 of these birds are left in the wild), and a black hornbill.
We also spotted a baby crocodile, a bearded pig, and a group of long tail and pink tail macaques all hanging out together.
Sadly, the abundance of wildlife along the river is partially a result of habitat loss in the greater forest. Deforestation is a major problem in Borneo, as palm oil plantations replace natural habitats. I was simultaneously happy for the opportunity to see these animals, but heartbroken to know this was the only place they really have left.
After our two nights at the river lodge, Jon took us back towards Sandakan, with a stop at the Gomantong Caves along the way.
These caves are famous for their swallow birds nest, which are prized in Chinese medicine for alleged health benefits. While there is no scientific data to support these claims, the nests can sell for amount.
The cave itself is scenic, but incredibly stinky thanks to enormous amounts of bat guano. Additionally, the ground looks like black dirt, but in reality it’s the dark backs of millions of cockroaches. If you look closely, you can see the subtle movement of the critters scurrying about. It’s a fascinating place, but not exactly pleasant.
The walk through the jungle to the cave, though, was another story. During our walk, we spotted a unique-looking red and black centipede crawling on the wooden boardwalk railing. We stopped to take a photo, and while we were standing there we heard a sharp snapping sound. We immediately looked up to the treetops.
Hidden among the green leaves we saw the unmistakable orange-hued hair of an orangutan. He snapped another branch with his human-like hands and ate it. Then he grabbed onto the branch above him and swung over to another tree. This tree was in even better view for us to observe. We stood there for about a half hour just watching him eating breakfast.
As I looked into his eyes and he stared back at mine, I felt such a strong feeling of familial love. His facial features are undeniably human. It almost feels like pure chance that I was born from the evolutionary branch that created humans, and not an orangutan.
This was easily the highlight of our time in the Borneo rainforest.
Jon dropped us off back at the Four Points for one last night in this region. The next day, we took a bus (which he had helped us book and even arranged a cab to take us to) to Semporna, about 6 hours southeast.
Under the Borneo Sea
Semporna as a city is, frankly, disgusting. It smells of sewage, thanks to poor sanitation systems and an abundance of garbage. This is one of the dirtiest cities I’ve ever been to. It was baffling to me that so much trash was being disposed into the ocean with seemingly no concern for its impact, especially given the unique abundance of sea life around the islands less than an hour boat ride away. Semporna needs a major cleanup, if not for the environment, at least for the preservation of what many say is the best scuba diving site in the world which draws in thousands of tourists each year and therefore a lot of tourist money.
Thankfully, we only stayed there one night before transferring by boat to the Scuba Junkies dive resort on the island of Mabul. Scuba Junkies has a reputation for being the most conservation- and community-minded diving organization in the region.
Granted, given the resort’s location right next to a sea gypsy village, it’s hard for them to ignore the communities on the island. In addition to a village of Malaysian islanders, the island of Mabul is also home to a village of stateless people known as “sea gypsies”. For hundreds of years, sea gypsies have roamed the waters and the islands that sit at the intersection of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Because of their nomadic heritage, none of these countries recognizes them as citizens. This means adults cannot be legally employed, nobody has access to healthcare, and the children are not entitled to public education. The infant mortality rate is a staggering 20%. The prospects for the children who do survive are frankly slim, as there are no opportunities for them to go to school or get a job.
The only thing physically separating the sea gypsy village from the resort is the resort’s wooden pier, but with relatively wealthy recreational scuba divers vacationing on one side, and an impoverished community living in dilapidated shacks among a mess of trash on the other, the worlds could not be further apart.
The scuba diving around Mabul Island itself is very good – we saw turtles, octopus, rays, countless colorful fish, and micro fauna like the vibrant multicolored slugs (called nudibranch) that can be found in abundance in this region. There is even a scuba diving playground underneath a former oil rig (now a hotel), with metal sculptures and even an old car on the sandy bottom, full of sea life who have made these structures their homes.
What really brings people to Mabul, however, is the opportunity to scuba dive off the nearby island of Sipadan. Considered one of the best diving locations in the world, Sipadan sits where two currents come together. This means that in addition to resident sea life like turtles, migrating animals like sharks and whales also pass through.
In order to dive there, you have to book a minimum of 4 total days of diving. Three days will be around Mabul (9 dives total), and one day will be Sipadan (4 dives). These four days were the densest dive days we’ve ever had – we had maybe 20 dives total since our PADI certification in 2014. In this one week, we had 13!
It’s impossible to pick one dive that was the best of all these, but major highlights were:
- Swimming out to the “blue” (away from any coral in deep ocean, so ask around you is the same shade of blue) to look for whales and sharks. We didn’t see any, but the sensation of being seemingly suspended in the middle of nothing was incredible. With above, below and around me looking identical, it was a bit like how I imagine sensory deprivation might feel.
- Swimming within a swirling school of jackfish. It was like being inside a tornado of silver fish
- Swimming with thousands of barracuda at Barracuda Point.
- Dozens of sea turtles, some larger than me, swimming or resting virtually everywhere at Hanging Gardens.
- The unique geology at Hanging Gardens. The shape of the rock walks reminded me of hiking the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park in Montana – except we were scuba diving it!
For me, however, the highlight of our time in Mabul happened above the sea. On our last night, 51 baby sea turtles broke out of their eggs at the hatchery maintained by the resort to increase the endangered turtle population.
Caretakers released the babies onto the sand, facing the ocean. Each at their own pace, they scurried towards the water, their little feet clapping against the ground. In a matter of minutes, all 51 were in the ocean, embarking on their life’s journey. Only 1 in a thousand sea turtles survive to adulthood, so statistically, it would be very lucky if even one of these babies made it.
My heart aches thinking about the difficulties they face in the ocean, but I also feel a certain warmth and joy in wondering what will happen to each of them. Having seen many adult turtles in these waters, I now had a deeper appreciation for the journey they have each been through to be sitting on the ocean floor, or tucked among the coral, or swimming by, the full-grown beautiful animals that they are.
Borneo is home to amazingly magnificent and rare animals. Sadly, their lives are very fragile as plastic trash and deforestation rob them of their habitats. Simultaneously, without citizenship in any country, the sea gypsy people are also left with few options to call home. More so than anywhere else I’ve visited, Borneo showed me contrasts. Abundant wildlife with a shrinking habitat, stunning sea life in a plastic-filled ocean, people who have nothing living next to vacationers who have plenty. While I don’t have the solutions, I’ll continue to try to share what I see, in hopes of reminding myself and others to live mindfully and thoughtfully in this world.