Turquoise water, white coral sands and five jungle-covered islands make up the protected Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu.
The last evening ferry putters away from the jetty of Pulau Manukan, and lifeguard Royzems Lundus can finally hang up his float for another day. Shadows are falling across the beach as the sun dips towards the horizon, but a few snorkellers are still splashing around in the lagoon beside his guard-tower. “This is always the best time of the day,” he says. “We call it the magic time. And, on an evening like this, you can see why, eh?” A half-hour boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is one of Sabah’s best-known island getaways.
Comprising five tropical atolls (locally known as pulau) scattered over 5,000 hectares of ocean, the park is famous for its glassy waters and abundant marine life. At weekends, city-dwellers clamber aboard one of the ferries buzzing around Jesselton Harbour and skim over the bay to bask on the islands’ manicured beaches, or dive among their coral reefs and sandbanks. Of the five islands, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sapi are the most popular, with barbecues and cafés set up along the sand to cater for a stream of snorkellers and sun-worshippers. Tiny Pulau Sulug is sleepier, a wooded islet fringed by a perfect comma of white sand. Quietest of all is Pulau Gaya, the largest and craggiest of the islands, with a backbone of ridges and peaks teetering above hidden coves, most only accessible by kayak or speedboat. “There are plenty of empty beaches, but to find them you need local knowledge,” Royzems notes, as he watches grouper and parrotfish flash below the jetty. “I think I know them all by now, but there are still a few I like to keep to myself!”
The islands are well-known for their snorkelling, but the most impressive scenery lies at greater depths. Seasonal plankton blooms coupled with powerful ocean currents attract some of the signature species of the tropics here: nurse sharks, stingrays and barracudas lurk in the deep water, while green turtles and whale sharks pass through the national park during their springtime migration.
Royzems is in no doubt about the islands’ beauty. “In most places, you’d have to travel for days to find a place as perfect as this,” he says. “But here, you can leave the city and be in paradise in 10 minutes. That’s why I love it.” He watches the lights of Kota Kinabalu twinkle across the bay as the sun dips into the sea, and the islands trace wooded silhouettes against the orange clouds.