Oct 4, 2019
A little-known north Borneo beach is Sabah’s best alternative diving spot, writes Marco Ferrarese, who asks that you keep Mengkabar Bay to yourself—and don’t disturb the tarsiers.
Chest deep in the sea, I watch the sun slide behind a scythe of golden sand and bare rocks. There’s nobody else on this beach sheltered by a wall of palm trees and jungle. I arrived in this peaceful hamlet only a couple of hours earlier, but already feel that my quest to find an alternative escape to Kota Kinabalu’s crowded shores ends here, in the pristine natural beauty of hushed-secret Mengkabar Bay.
A 30-minute drive from the backwater town of Kota Belud, the gateway to Mount Kinabalu, under-the-radar Mengkabar Bay is a horseshoe-shaped cove embracing inhabited islet Pulau Pandan. It soars in the middle of the bay, and is a perfect snorkeling spot reachable by boat. To get here, visitors must first go to Mengkabar village, where the road from Kota Belud ends, and then hop on a boat from the Dragon Pearl Resort (fb.com/dragonpearlresort; doubles from RM60) on the opposite crest of the bay.
Mengkabar’s main chiseled-rock beach, Pantai Merakit, is home to Bigfin Divers (big findivers.com; chalets for two including meals RM280), the bay’s only eco-friendly dive operator and boutique resort. “We love it here because it’s so unspoilt, and divers get the reefs all to themselves,” says Ella Morrison, Bigfin’s British co-owner. After diving and exploring Southeast Asia’s best spots for years, she opened the resort in 2018 with her husband, Kuala Lumpur–born dive instructor Syed Hafiz.
Beyond diving, Bigfin is all about getting up-close-and-personal to nature: four cozy chalets perched on the top of a scenic promontory sit next to a patch of rainforest offering an easy yet adventurous trek that loops back to the beach below (guided tours RM20 per person). It’s a good chance to spot the elusive slow lorises, palm civets and tarsiers that call these woods home. The resort’s intimate restaurant serves all meals, and its deck is an ideal spot to relax to the sound of cicadas and crashing blue waves.
So wild and pristine, and yet so close to the city, Mengkabar Bay has become the much-needed alternative to Kota Kinabalu’s over-touristed Tungku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Indeed, the city’s offshore islands have become so overcrowded with day-trippers who snorkel, dive and glide between Gaya and Sapi islets on the popular Coral Flyer zip line that in June Sabah Parks announced they’ll limit the number of daily visitors to 2,000 to lessen environmental damage.
Mengkabar Bay is still very far from those numbers, but its next challenge is to avoid going down that path of so many other popular destinations. “The area is already mapped out for low-impact eco tourism in the Sabah Tourism Masterplan, but both local and state authorities, with the involvement and pressure of the tourism ministry, will have to put their foot down to make this really happen,” says Jessica Yew of Sticky Rice Travel (stickyricetravel.com; tours to the Danum Valley, Sabah’s last primary rainforest, from RM1,300 per person), a cultural- and ecological- preservationist agency that works with Bigfin in promoting the bay.
For the moment, Bigfin’s team is doing all it can to keep mass tourism from knocking down their heaven’s door. “We plan to build an artificial house reef to encourage soft coral and sponge growth, and we are currently liaising with Mari team Malaysia to parole and protect the reefs in the Kota Belud area,” Morrison says.
The resort has helped fund road improvement to access Mengkabar village, and is working together with other developing accommodations in the bay to clean up the beach and pay for a rubbish collection point—for now, the closest is in Kota Belud.
Before I hop on a boat back to the found world, Morrison reassures me that the resort will remain small scale, up to 20 guests at a time. As I zip into the blue, I know I can take her at her word.