Three little blips on the radar form the Mantanani Islands, laying about 40 kilometres northwest of Kota Belud. Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan are your quintessential alabaster-fringed tropical archipelago, reef ringed and sitting in crystal-clear aquamarine waters.
The largest island, Mantanani Besar, is about three kilometres end to end and no more than 750 metres across. Here you’ll find two small villages, no roads and a growing number of resorts, mostly catering to daytrippers from Kota Kinabalu who come to snorkel and dive among the reefs and World War II shipwrecks. The muck diving is known to be excellent too and the waters have good visibility up to 30 metres. The sheltered bays and seagrass beds were once ideal habitats for dugongs, but sadly these days sightings are extremely rare. It was suggested by one source that the name Mantanani comes from manatee (not the same animal as a dugong, but easily confused).
Mantanani is a popular birdwatching destination, as the rare Mantanani scops owl (Otus mantananensis) is endemic to this tiny archipelago. If you hear a goose-like honk, it’s possibly one.
As well as daytripping, it’s possible to stay longer on Mantanani. Most resorts offer all-inclusive packages with buffet meals, the boat trip to the island and diving or snorkelling, however there are exceptions. Or you can get to know the traditional fisherfolk, the Bajau Ubian, and spend time in the village with a homestay programme. Make sure to bring everything you’ll need to the island, including sunblock and insect repellent, as there are only a couple of basic village shops and no minimarts (yet). Phone signal is poor to non-existent, so the island is ideal for a digital detox.
If you do stay overnight, make sure you head to the western tip to watch the spectacular sunsets over Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan; it’s likely you’ll be accompanied by wandering cows and goats, no doubt intent on watching the show too.
As beautiful as Mantanani is, it’s not pristine, and has a huge rubbish problem. The beach is littered with plastic, particularly near the villages. Some NGOs are trying to tackle the problem, but from what we saw it only seems to be growing.
To get to the Mantanani Islands, it’s a one-hour boat trip from Kuala Abai, near Kota Belud, usually as part of a package. A taxi from Kota Belud to Kuala Abai takes about 30 minutes (30 ringgit). Many packages include return transport from Kota Kinabalu. Go with a reputable company as sea conditions are known to be treacherous and there have been several incidents of boats capsizing.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 3rd October, 2016.