Layang Layang

The island resort of Layang Layang lies 300km north west of Kota Kinabalu, Northern Borneo. It is a cigar shaped atoll formed by thirteen coral reefs linked together, providing an incredible dive site 7.3km long and 2.2km wide, with a central lagoon reputed to be 60m deep.

The outer reefs drop to 2000m with the reef tops just visible at low tide, except for a small low lying area of 15 acres which was originally reclaimed from the sea in 1982 by the Royal Malaysian Navy for a 'shore' base. Subsequently, the luxury holiday and diving resort of Layang Layang was buiIt.

The main feature of the island, as seen from the air, is the 1000m runway. This is the no-nonsense way to travel to the resort, taking just one and a half hours by twin otter from Kota Kinabalu airport.

When I visited in June 1998 the resort was run by an Australian couple, Steve and Coralie Steward. Steve is a commercial diver who trained in Bovisand, Plymouth and who has dived all round the world; Coralie is a trained nurse who deals with all medical problems, including decompression and evacuation procedures.

The resort certainly lives up to its three star status, built in a rich brown timber, Malaysian style, with covered walkways connecting all the main buildings. 

The accommodation is very comfortable with queen-sized beds, colour TV, fridge, a kettle and pot and a good-sized table for the camera gear. The toilet / shower area is designed so that you can watch the TV while having a warm shower between dives. They have a very nice freshwater swimming pool set between the restaurant and the living accommodation, if you get time to use it between diving and eating. There is also a small shop selling T-shirts, books, videos and small items for the diver. There was no provision for E6 processing if you are a film user.

The leisure area is a large well-appointed lounge and bar with the walls covered in locally-taken photographs. The bookshelves are full of underwater world books and videos just in case you need photographic inspiration in the evenings.

The food is excellent, being a mixture of Asian and European, served buffet style three times a day with early breakfast and afternoon tea if you feel peckish between meals. Tea, coffee, Milo etc. are always available during daylight hours and the bar is open throughout the day offering all kinds of drinks. The dive centre is spacious and well equipped with tanks for washing gear and cameras.

The dive boats are some of the best I have used, being twinhulled and very stable with easy exit and entry via a short ladder.

The dive sites are located around the outside of the atoll so all dives are boat dives, including optional night dives, unless you want to dive around the jetty. I did try this once, following a boat dive, but the visibility was poor due to the weather conditions so there was not much to be found. I was told "it was a bad week".

The corals and sponges were in very good condition. I did not detect any damage you could put down to divers or the infamous dynamite fishermen, only that caused by natural wave action and some silting from the rainwater run-off at the eastern end of the island.

The first dive of the day was at the eastern end of the island to take advantage of the rising sun on the reef, this was before the cooked breakfast at 8.30am. This dive site, known as 'The Point', extends around the end of the island to either 'Gorgonian Forest' to the north or 'Dog Tooth Lair' to the south - usually current-dependent. Here the reef drops from the surface to 10m, then steeply to 25m, then vertically to 40m and beyond. This is the area of the hammerhead shark, which attracts all the divers down to the resort maximum depth of 40m, on the first dive of the day. However, during my stay the elusive hammerheads did not put in an appearance - as with so many of my trips "they were here last month at 25m"!

I liked this particular dive site in the 15 to 20m range. Here there was a profusion of corals and fish life including four different types of clown fish, some in those photogenic anemone 'balls', eight different types of butterflyfish and six different nudibranchs. I saw a shoal of yellow striped barracuda on two occasions and a shoal of big-eye jacks, although not as photo-friendly as the shoals at Sipadan. Triggerfish, puffers and rabbitfish, the list goes on. With my macro/portrait set-up I would shoot a roll of film before being 'air embarrassed'. Time was never a problem as the dive-guides would just wait in the water or boat until all the divers surfaced.

The mid-morning dive at 11.30am could have been at any of the eight designated sites along the south of the island, each with a different aspect. Some were sheer walls from the surface to infinity and others had sandy patches at 10m with coral bommies shelving to the reef edge at 20/25m, then down. I loved the red-eyed hawkfish as they waited on small coral outcrops to be photographed with a black or blue background before moving off to another perch for a different photographic angle. Dozens of reef fish patrolled their own patches, unconcerned at my presence. It was during such an absorbing dive that I heard the familiar bang-bang signal from our dive guide - this time he was close enough for me to hear - to point out a passing manta 'flying' close to the reef a few metres away.

All along the south end you have the opportunity to see white-tipped reef sharks, turtles, lone barracuda, and if you are lucky a range of large pelagics as they cruise past the island.

The afternoon dive at 3.30pm was usually sited at the west end. The most popular site was 'D; Wall', a sheer wall with ledges and caves and the opportunity to see lemon sharks, stingrays and a resident leaf scorpionfish. There were a few soft corals on the wall together with gorgonians and fan corals but these were not as prolific as one might expect with the unobstructed water movement along the reef. On the north west tip of the island there are two sites called 'Wrasse Strip' and 'Valley'. This area, I discovered, was one of the best macro/portrait sites on the island: bannerfish, pipefish, butterflyfish in profusion, emperor angelfish, the beautiful moorish idols and a passing shoal of bumphead parrotfish, all in 10 to 15m of water over an almost continuous forest of coral. Not so popular with the 'deepies' but a spectacular photographic dive.

Layang Layang offers a great opportunity for the adventurous diver with so many sites to explore, but luck and timing have to be part of the equation if you are going for the big fish.

For me, photography was my reason for being there and apart from the poor weather (my story for 1998) I enjoyed the experience immensely and would go back, but next time with a group of like-minded photographers. I would also go with Divequest who, through their sister company Bird Quest, would advise me of the best time to go to avoid the annual ornithological odour experienced by some, and much loved by the twitchers, as is ozone by the divers! www.divequest.co.uk

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