When we set off backpacking around South East Asia, doing a PADI course to become qualified open water SCUBA divers was one of the first things we added to our list of things to do! After doing a taster session over 10 years ago on a family holiday to Turkey and also having friends who raved about it, it seemed like the perfect way to begin to explore our underwater world further. Everyone and I mean everyone does it in Thailand, it’s reportedly the cheapest and unofficially one of the most lax. In all honesty some of the tales of being herded like cattle, close calls and just passing anyone made us put it off long enough to think we might just not do it. However after arriving in the stunning Kota Kinabalu and having a few days spare whilst waiting for our slot to climb the mountain we saw so many posters and images of the stunning islands and their diving potential for our interest to be reignited. In the end we found a personal, safe, beautiful and also unique place to learn to dive with a professional and fun company in Borneo Dream. SCUBA diving in Borneo and doing our scuba diving course Malaysia was for us a travelling highlight and the Kota Kinabalu diving scene one we really enjoyed.
Kota Kinabalu diving: The desire to learn to explore our underwater world
10 years ago in a shallow area of the mediterranean we tried SCUBA for the first time. We were on a family holiday, I was only 18 and didn’t really know what all the fuss was about. Looking back with the hindsight of now being PADI open water qualified I can see that this was a haphazard and not particularly well run tour, taking us down to 10m for example with the only information being how to equalise our ears??? So when we began our Kota Kinabalu diving experience I was a little wary at first in all honesty!
However despite the obvious failings of that particular tour it did open our eyes to the beautiful world hiding below the waves, a colourful and alien landscape that many of us have never really had the chance to explore with such freedom as SCUBA provides. Swimming inside a flash of new colours, shapes and mind blowing sights was something we longed for once again, to be able to do it ourselves and begin to take our desire to see and explore our world as we do on land and take that under water! It was time for our next big adventure, but it would prove to be more than we anticipated as we set off SCUBA diving in Borneo!
Why do a PADI in Borneo and what is scuba diving in Malaysia like?
Why not!! Everyone who does a PADI does one in Thailand and as a result the quality has dropped. Over in Thailand a PADI might be marginally cheaper but you get what you pay for and SCUBA diving might be a fun sport to get involved with but it is also a serious and hazardous adventure activity too.
For us we don’t want our instructor to tick boxes and tip us off the boat 50 at a time like cattle!! We actually wanted to learn and to be allowed the time, space and direction in order to do that and do it properly SCUBA diving in Borneo fit the bill for us! Plus the Kota Kinabalu diving options for us offered a much better preserved reef with the waters also being much less crowded, so scuba diving in Malaysia seemed like a good fit all round!
SCUBA diving in Borneo is a scene of professional divers who take their jobs seriously when it comes to teaching and keeping their students and customers safe whilst also having good fun. Here with Borneo Dream you have small groups, we had an instructor between 4 of us, meaning we each had enough one on one time for him to be able to really assess how we were doing as well as speaking to us individually about our questions and concerns. Our Kota Kinabalu diving experience as a result was pretty relaxed!
Not only that, but unless you hadn’t realised, Borneo is stunning! It’s not just jungles, monkeys and creepy crawlies out here but much more. It’s not just that this area of untamed land teeming with unique life exists above water, but that also extends below the warm waves and into another hidden world! In fact scuba diving in Malaysia offers so much more diversity and adventure of that in Thailand given the unique eco systems in Borneo and was one of the reasons our Kota Kinabalu diving experience was so enjoyable.
The turquoise waters off the mesmerisingly perfect islands just a short boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park are the perfect setting for SCUBA diving in Borneo. A protected area of diverse coral and sea life they form part of the Coral Triangle, and are recognised as some of the most important marine sites on Earth.
The area also provides both the confined water and open water needed to gain confidence and progress as well as some amazing beaches to relax after a day of incredible Kota Kinabalu diving! With this in mind SCUBA diving in Malaysia and specifically Borneo has to be some of the best in the world!
Besides, doesn’t it make you sound more interesting to be the only one on the boat who bucked the trend and did their PADI course in Malaysia and went SCUBA diving in Borneo! I know everyone else I’ve met didn’t go SCUBA diving in Malaysia and instead did it in Thailand!
SCUBA diving in Malaysia: How much theory is involved in a PADI?
The short answer is a lot less than it looks at first! For some reason I had never really considered the theory to doing a PADI course and just thought it involved doing a few dives and off you go! The good and bad news is that you have to do a bit of studying in order to gain your qualification. I say good and bad because firstly, I am not sure any of us considered we might be back sitting exams whilst backpacking around Asia (ok, it’s not that formal but I’m trying to be dramatic!) but if you consider the fact that this isn’t just about ticking it off the bucket list, but about actually becoming a competent diver who has to keep themselves and their diving partners safe. Now that is the most important part for me and something we kept in mind during our Kota Kinabalu diving course.
However, that being said, on your first day you will be presented with a hefty looking book to work through and you’ll wonder when you can actually start SCUBA diving in Borneo! But once you begin actually dissecting each section you will realise that it really isn’t hard to take in or to pass. We watched a video for the first day which really made it so much quicker, on the others we did our exams whilst eating lunch, plus, once you get into the water most of it makes much more sense! The theory side might seem intimidating but trust me it actually makes you feel more safe in the water and made our time SCUBA diving in Malaysia much more enjoyable.
Kota Kinabalu diving: Day by day progressions that took us from panicked to confident
The first day in the water loomed, we were chatting away on the dock and I will be honest with you I was a little nervous as well as being excited. After reading through our theory we had all realised there is so much more to SCUBA than we had ever anticipated; decompression sickness, setting up equipment wrong, running out of air. It all seemed a bit more scary than the images of backpackers frolicking underwater had conjured up but at the same time we knew a lot more about what SCUBA diving in Malaysia entailed and at this point we were eagerly awaiting our Kota Kinabalu diving experience to begin!
But here we where, kitting up and getting into our wetsuits with the heavy and claustrophobic BCD that seemed to entirely surround us. Non of us felt comfortable and on diving to the grand depth of 1.5 metres we each had a panic and sprang to the surface gasping for air. I can’t breath! My mask is filling up! I feel like I’m in a straight jacket! This isn’t for me! These were all shouted in frustration in just the first morning, we all honestly considered just packing it in and sticking to the snorkel set rather than SCUBA diving in Borneo! Our Kota Kinabalu diving experience started abruptly but doing a PADI course is a steep learning curve for sure!
But thankfully our instructor Amir is well used to the shock factor of not just SCUBA diving for the first time but also the idea of performing tasks which seem pretty scary whilst in a situation completely out of your comfort zone! Over the next few days we all went through a complete transformation, that first day, grasping at the regulator and fighting the urge to hold our breath as we frantically flailed our arms searching for it felt a long way away. During this intense Kota Kinabalu diving experience we all came such a long way in such a short amount of time!
As the 3 full days SCUBA diving in Borneo went on our feelings of confidence and comfort rose to levels we could never have imagined. Taking our masks off 15m below, simulating out of air situations with composure and learning to control our buoyancy was a liberating feeling. Upon reaching our target depth of 18m we were all in amazement of how calm we all were and how natural it felt! SCUBA diving in Malaysia was now a dream rather than a nightmare!
At Borneo dream they really do structure the course to allow you to progress in well planned stages that allow you to enjoy the process rather than find it stressful, by the end we ventured out for our last dive of the course, freshly qualified to just explore the ocean and enjoy SCUBA diving in Borneo, it was a monumental moment of achievement for all four of us! From something that felt impossible just a few days earlier to SCUBA diving in Malaysia with absolute confidence, the transformation throughout our Kota Kinabalu diving experience was incredible!
SCUBA diving in Malaysia: What exactly is involved in a PADI?
Ok, so what do you really do on a PADI course. Well in truth there are quite a lot of “tasks” to complete and prove you can do competently in order to pass. This usually takes the form of them being explained above water, performed by your instructor in confined water (shallow and near the beach) before you have to repeat them both in confined and then open water.
These are broken down into each stage and each dive and explained in full before and whilst in the water meaning that it’s not all that overwhelming or challenging in reality. You are given ample time to try again and your instructor is always there to make sure everything is safe.
These tasks mostly range from removing your regulator (what you breath through) underwater and replacing it, simulating out of air situations where you then share air with your buddy or make an emergency ascent. Removal of mask and replacing it underwater, removing your gear and weight belt and putting it all back on. Safety descending and ascending, learning general safety and communication and of course setting up and changing your gear before and after a dive. There is also a navigation section as well as learning how to control your buoyancy more effectively and of course just getting used to breathing properly underwater! Non of it is overly difficult or scary, especially with the structure of the course building up slowly.
For me the worst part was removing my mask as I always had the urge to breath through my nose and opening your eyes in salt water stings a little! I won’t lie, there were times when I felt totally uncomfortable doing these tasks whilst SCUBA diving in Malaysia but doing a course like this IS about pushing yourself and learning new things!
Kota Kinabalu diving: Feeling safe in the hands of Borneo Dream
Owned by a British couple and managed by one of the UK’s most experienced and accomplished divers you know you are in good and reliable hands for SCUBA diving in Malaysia. The company was set up to provide a 5* service that prides itself on giving the customer a quality experience, high safety standards and of course fun, making sure that their absolute passion for SCUBA diving in Borneo is infectious! They have two specially built boats to provide for different experiences, from various levels of PADI qualifications to simple fun dives or recreational Kota Kinabalu diving for those already qualified. You are guaranteed a great atmosphere on board these state of the art boats as everyone gears up for a great day in the water.
For me the main concern when embarking on what is a sport with many elements of danger is safety. Many people tell us climbing is dangerous, and it is, but if you do everything right then it really isn’t as risky as you might imagine. This was a huge factor in choosing this location and also Borneo Dream. They don’t cut corners, they offer small groups and the most up to date equipment and years of experience. They also know the area well, where to dive and where not too making them the perfect Kota Kinabalu diving company. Any concerns you might have about the safety of this region are a non issue and instead you can get on with enjoying SCUBA diving in Borneo!
Kota Kinabalu diving: Check out Borneo Dream and read more about them here:
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Find them at G27 in Wisma Sabah in the heart of KK!
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How to get to Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is assessable pretty much entirely by air travel, it is possible to get here via a ferry if you are in Brunei as we did the trip there and back.
However for most you will have to arrive via a plane. Flights are cheap, frequent and short from Kuala Lumpur and Kuching (Another city on the other side of Malaysian Borneo)
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Where to stay in KK for your Kota Kinabalu diving trip!
We recommend the Faloe Hostel for backpackers and those on a budget, it’s a family run modern, clean and friendly hostel with a low key vibe. It is also out near Kota Kinabalu Times Square in an apartment block so it’s a short distance from the city centre but it has a mall nearby and is in a quiet area.
Getting around is easy as the city is pretty small and walkable. UBER and GRAB are great ways to get around too and are really cheap. We would often take an UBER in the morning to SCUBA and then walk back in the afternoon once we were done. It took us 10 mins in the morning to drive down and around 30 mins walk back.
There though are many reasonably priced places to stay in KK with also many chain brand hotels too and smaller guest houses. However some of the main streets with bars and restaurants, specifically Jalan Gaya can be pretty loud at night, we stayed in “Fat Rhino” for one night and it was ridiculously loud with live acts playing well into the night right below us! However if you are after a party atmosphere are you’re planning on being at said bars all night then its a convenient location!
If diving is your main activity in Kota Kinabalu then staying as close to the harbour as possible is ideal, however as we said above the city especially in the centre is very walkable so you don’t necessarily need to worry about location for diving. It’s also possible to pay for a pick up too each morning if needed.
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Have you ever done a PADI course or gone SCUBA diving in Borneo or around South East Asia?
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Things to do in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Borneo: The Ultimate Kota Kinabalu Itinerary
Penang Itinerary: What to do in Penang in 3 days. A Guide to this Beautiful & Historic Town in Malaysia
Seeing Orangutans in Borneo: A magical experience
Exploring the Bako National Park Borneo
Experiencing the unique culture of Borneo up close and personal at the Mari Mari culture village
The two day trek up the 13,435 ft Mt. Kinabalu
A day in Bandar Seri Begawan: The capital of the tiny country of Brunei on Borneo
How to get to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu
Hiking in through the dramatic tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.
A guide to the bustling, diverse and fascinating Malaysian capital: Kuala Lumpur
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Disclaimer: This post was in partnership by Borneo Dream. As always, all opinions are our own!