Labuan is the Latest Diving Paradise in Malaysia
Labuan, Located 115km south of Kota Kinabalu, is the perfect destination of wreck diving.
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One of three federal territories in Malaysia, Labuan is located 8 km off the Borneo coast in East Malaysia. Its name is derived from the Malay word “pelabuhan”, which translates to “port”.
Labuan is made up of the main Labuan Island and 6 smaller islands, forming a combined area of approximately 92 square kilometers. The population of Labuan is approximately 87,000 people (2010), of which 76% are Muslims, 12% Christians and 9% Buddhists. The main languages are Malay and English, and also certain indigenous dialects.
The islands experience a tropical climate and is mostly hot and humid, with temperatures ranging between 24°C to 34°C. The weather gets wet towards year-ends.
Labuan International Business and Financial Center (IBFC) was established in October 1990, making it Malaysia’s only offshore financial center.
What is the Best Time to visit Labuan?
Any time is a good time to visit Labuan because there is no real monsoon season and it’s free from hurricanes and typhoons. However, it is best to avoid the rainy season during year-ends. The island can also get quite busy during the local school holidays.
How to Get There?
Labuan Island can be visited by air and by boat. There is a daily ferry service from the mainland (Kampung Menumbok) to Labuan Island. The ferry from Kota Kinabalu takes three hours to reach Labuan. There is also the possibility to travel by boat from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei via Labuan Island. Most tourists however arrive through Labuan Airport. There are daily flights from Kuala Lumpur (and also from Kota Kinabalu) to Labuan. Flights are operated by Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and MASWings.
The amazing Big 4
If Wrecks are your “thing”, Labuan is the place to be. The four major wrecks in Brunei Bay off the coast of the Island of Labuan are among the best in South East Asia.
The 4 ship wrecks are:
- Blue Water Wreck (depth: 35 meters, sunk in 1981)
- Cement Wreck (depth: 31 meters, sunk in 1980)
- American Wreck (depth: 30 meters, sunk in 1945)
- Australian Wreck (depth: 33 meters, sunk in 1944)
The American Wreck has a rich and tragic history, having been capsized during the WWII era with the loss of 9 lives.
Diving about The American Wreck fills divers with a sense of sadness at the devastation caused by the mine which literally blasted the US Navy mine sweeper out of the water and broke it in half on 8 June 1945.
The poignant feelings heighten when one comes across the plaque listing the names of the 9 servicemen who perished. The plaque designed by Dick and Wayne Shafer was placed on the wreck by members of the Brunei Sub Aqua Diving Club (BSADC) in 2007.
The journey back in time is complete with the sightings of bullet clips, depth chargers, wire bottles and canon artefacts still left intact at this tangled mass of a shipwreck.
The Australian Wreck provides a very atmospheric dive thanks to the combination of the less than 10-metre visibility, rich coral growth, the skeletal remains of the ship, her tragic end and reputation to be haunted.
Originally a Dutch cargo and passenger steamer built in 1890, it was scuttled by the Dutch during WWII to prevent the Japanese from using it. The enterprising Japanese, however, managed to salvage it, renamed it ‘Imbari Maru’ and put it to service as a cargo vessel.
Fleeing Borneo towards Manila, she hit a mine and sunk 23km southwest of Labuan in 1944. Originally believed to be struck by a bomb from the Australian air force, the name stuck till today. 339 people lost their lives including many female prisoners (comfort women) as the Japanese took to the life boats.
Some divers believe the wreck to be haunted by the ghosts of these tortured souls. Who knows, sightings of a lady in flowing white robes weaving through the ship may very well be the resident marbled ray. Only one way to find out – dive and see for yourself!
Blue Water Wreck
The Blue Water Wreck (Mabini Padre) is a large Philippines fishing trawler, which caught fire and sank in 1981 with no loss of lives.
Named after the crystal clear blue waters she resides upon, the wreck does not suffer much from inshore murk – benefits from being the furthest from the coast.
On a good day, a 40-metre visibility is possible. The completely intact vessel with masts lies on its side and is further enhanced by an abundance of marine life – guaranteeing an interesting experience for wreck divers.
Of the four wrecks of Labuan, the Cement Wreck is the shallowest with its super structure rising to 19m and the way it sits makes it the easiest to pass through and great for wreck diving training for beginners.
Offering stunning underwater views with its top half covered by a coral garden and being home a wide variety of colourful marine creatures, the Cement Wreck also give rare whale shark sightings to lucky divers.
It received its peculiar name because it sank while transporting cement to Brunei for the construction of the Sultan’s new palace. Fondly known as the perfect shipwreck for the upright way that it sits on the sea bed, the wreck is stunningly beautiful with its top half covered by a garden of soft and hard corals, sponges and ferns; and the schools of small tropical fishes.
New dive site discovered at Vernon Banks in Labuan
Labuan could well be the next underwater paradise for scuba divers from all over the world with more unique dive sites being discovered, including the latest one the Vernon Bank dive site’.
The new dive site, located over 40 nautical miles off north Labuan was first discovered about five years ago by an engineer turned boat operator Ahmad Nasir Othman, 60, who has been taking anglers there.
However, it was Clement Lee, and his diving colleagues who explored the pristine reef for the first time in April 2017.
The Labuan born Lee, 65, is the Tourism Malaysia Ambassador for the diving segment (2017-2024) and is an internationally renowned diver as well.
Based on his observation there, he believes the dive site has the potential to be on par with other popular scuba dive sites across the globe.
“The new dive site has its own uniqueness compared with other internationally renowned dive sites and it is certainly a great site to be explored,” he said adding that this new dive site is different from the much sought after dive sites of Sipadan and Mabul islands in Sabah when it comes to the marine species and underwater landscape.
The Vernon Bank is stated in the old British admiralty charts and publication and the site has a number of rare marine species like the porcelain crab, fishes like the bubble Goby and the colourful Nudi branch among others.
Vernon Bank’s uniqueness
Under good weather, with a twin engine 115HP boat, the journey to Vernon Bank from the Labuan marine jetty takes about one and half hours.
“I did not discover the Vernon Bank site but we heard of it many months ago. Hence, we have been planning to dive at the site since last year with our diving team.
“Yet we had to postpone our intention many times due to our tight schedule and the weather.
“Me and the other divers including Miri based Co.Co.Dive general manager, Ross Kelly, and the diving centre’s Labuan-based manager Roy Jak Ngau finally reached Vernon Bank on April 26 and again on May 1.”
Vernon Bank like an atoll
Lee described the reef in Vernon Bank being akin to a huge underwater atoll split into different levels with a five-metre crater in the middle. It took Lee’s group more than 20 minutes to get from one edge to the other.
The fringing reef at the eastern side is located between 10m and 25m underwater while at the west end is in the depths between 15m and 50m.
The depths are provided by the depth echo sounder installed in the fishing boat that took the group to the site.
The group did six dives in the two days and only managed to cover a small portion of the Vernon Bank site.
In such a big reef area, as expected, the group saw pelagic marine fishes including a huge Manta Ray on the surface and then one underwater.
“Probably because they have never seen divers before, hence they were shy and swam away quickly. I had no chance to snap a picture of them,” said Lee.
“As Vernon Bank is structured like an atoll, I believe this will be a cleaning station for Manta Rays and turtles.
“We also observed fast swimming Tuna and other pelagic fishes. I m sure sharks too can be seen there particularly at the deeper ends up to 70m.
“I also believe there are reef walls and with the up currents bringing nutrients to shallow water, larger pelagic fish like sharks, hammerhead sharks and manta rays will be there too,” Lee added.
In the smaller critter world, Nudi Branch, porcelain crabs, whip Coral Goby, Stone fish and Scorpion fishes could be seen along with lot of sea fans and pygmy seahorse.
There was also another interesting find at a shallow area (8-10m), continuous bubbles were seen coming up from the sea bed.
“This is a surprise find and can be a real attraction to divers. I could not figure out what and why this is happening but some of my geologist friends are going to finding out.
After six dives at the Vernon Bank, Lee is confident that the site has the potential to be developed into a popular dive site.
“My view is that this Vernon Bank can be developed into a ‘mini Layang-Layang 2’, which is a much bigger underwater atoll (13km long and three km in diameter),” he concluded.
Layang-Layang Island is located approximately 300km northwest of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, a little gem within the deep blue sea fondly known as ‘The Jewel of the Borneo Banks’.
Vernon Bank, another gem in the ocean
An international underwater photographer and scuba diver Rudy Whitworth was enthralled by what he saw at the Vernon Bank dive site.
The Michigan, United States, based Rudy said; “I have not seen the rare Bubble Goby throughout my entire of 39 years diving in any of the dive sites in this part of the world, only at Vernon Bank, it is a beautiful and colourful fish.
Being the founder of Seahorse Production, LLC, dealing with underwater photography and dive sites presentation to the tourism industry players, Rudy has vast diving experience witnessing the various type of marine life throughout his career.
Among the dive sites across the country he has explored are Tioman, Miri, Kuching, Labuan shipwrecks and Layang-Layang.
“I will be assist in promoting this new dive site to my diving friends,” said Rudy .
Labuan Diving Rates
Price depends on the number of dive per trip.
Fun Dives Include:
- Refreshment on boat & lunch
- Full dive gears, with tanks & weight belts
- Dive guide’s service (either DM or Instructor)
Fun Dives Excludes
- Air tickets or any transfer not mentioned
- Marine fee payable to the local authority
Click here to Book your Reservation (Special Online Discount)
Note: Scuba diving at Labuan can be combined with a trip to Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai (Tawau airport). Please contact us for more information on how to get there.