Sunday, October 07, 2012

Let’s go island hopping at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

WAKING up at 6.30am on a Sunday is definitely the last thing on most people’s mind, especially after a ‘late night out’ the previous day.

But if you’re in Kota Kinabalu with friends, the chance to go on an island-hopping adventure is too good to pass up.

After a fun-filled Saturday of golf and a reunion dinner with former classmates, we decided on enjoying the rest of our stay by going on an adventure.

We decided – in our excitement – to go snorkelling at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, about three kilometres from the coast of the Sabah capital.

We went to Sutera Harbour Resort to catch a boat. There are actually two jetties to the marine park – one at the posher Sutera Harbour, some five minutes drive from the city centre, the other at the Jesselton Point ferry terminal at the edge of the city.

Although many would suggest taking a boat from Jesselton Point, given the much cheaper fares and tour packages, Sutera Harbour marina pier, we were told, offered even better deals, not to mention tour operators there being more professional, transporting island-hoppers much faster with their superior boats.

It wasn’t all that surprising, therefore, to see Sutera Harbour pier already full of both domestic and foreign tourists when we arrived at 7.30am.

According to the tour guide we managed to hire later, the marina averages some 3,000-5,000 tourists per day during weekends.

Despite the heavy volume of visitors, Sutera Harbour (for registered member tour guides only) managed to handle the high traffic quite well. We got our boat in 10 minutes despite no prior bookings.

There were a few tour operators offering various packages but we opted for the two-island tour of our choice package.

For only RM80 per person, the package included unlimited drinks throughout, lunch buffet on one of the islands, snorkelling gears and lifejackets. Not bad at all, given the excellent hospitality the crew showed us for the whole trip. Visitors can also bring their own food for barbecue on the island.

The earliest boat leaves the pier at 8.30am while the last one at 3.30pm. The return trip starts from 10am to 5pm, the latest. Visitors can pretty much choose their island packages and stay on each island for as long as they want. Be careful, though, you don’t want to miss the last boat home, especially if you’re a day-tripper.

Other packages offered by operators at Sutera Harbour – apart from the island-hopping trip – include sunset cruises, sunset fishing, traditional fishing excursions and many more. If you’re into water sports, you can try out parasailing, banana boat ride, jetski ride, kayaking, diving and many more on the islands.

One particular package that caught my eye – but one I missed out on – was the Pulau Tiga trip departing on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, the first ever season of Survivor (US version) was shot on Pulau Tiga.

Marine Park

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park comprises a group of five gazetted islands – Gaya, Manukan, Mamutik, Sapi and Sulug between three to eight km off Kota Kinabalu. The park is spread out over 4,929 hectares where two thirds cover the sea. Gaya island is the largest and closest to the mainland.

The park was established in 1974 after the gazetting of a major part of Pulau Gaya and Pulau Sapi covering 8,990 acres (36.4 square km). The park was increased to 12,185 acres (49.31 square km) following the inclusion of the three nearby islands of Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug.

Gaya island has 20km of hiking trails and two five-star resorts – Gayana Eco Resort, home to the Marine Ecology Research Centre, and Bunga Raya Island Resort on the northeast part of the island. Another resort is now being constructed on a spot used to be known as Hornbill Bay near Gayana Eco Resort.

Sabah Parks, in charge of protecting the park, is situated at the southeastern part of the island in a bay shared with the Downbelow Marine and Wildlife Adventures dive station. The island offers a quiet beach for public recreational use and crystal-clear water for swimming. The coral reefs along the entire coast of Gaya island are in excellent condition, making it a good diving destination.

Manukan is the second largest island with good stretches of beaches and beautiful coral reefs offshore, making it ideal for snorkelling. Out of the five islands, Manukan features the most developed tourist facilities that include 20 chalets, a clubhouse, restaurants and a diving centre. Recreation facilities include a swimming pool, football field and various sporting courts.

Mamutik is the smallest of the islands at the park – only 15 acres. The island offers some good beaches and coral reefs. It also has a three-bedroom resthouse for rent.

Urban legend has it that Pulau Sapi got its name from the colonial era when sick cows were sent there to be isolated. Today, it is one of the nicest beaches at the park and the most popular tourist destination for snorkelling and scuba diving. Macaques abound in the forest.

Sulug is the farthest of the lot, considered relatively untouched, remote and undeveloped. The 20-acre island is popular with tourists preferring a tranquil atmosphere.