One of the perks of having marine conservationist friends, is that you have the inside scoop to the many islands they work in. So, when I made good on my promise to take Jason to a Malaysian island, I already knew about the endangered dugong population of Pulau Sibu, because a friend from my time in the Perhentian Islands is now involved in that research.
This fact was, in fact, a key reason why we chose Sibu Island over other East Coast island options like Tioman or the Perhentians. We thought we could learn a bit about dugongs. And if we’re super lucky, maybe perhaps possibly hopefully catch a glimpse of them.
But it was only when we arrived that I learned just how unique Pulau Sibu really is, among all the Malaysian islands.
- The Drive from Kuala Lumpur to Pulau Sibu
- Pulau Tinggi Marine Park @ Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
- The Improbably Diverse Ecosystems of Pulau Sibu
- The Village of Pulau Sibu
- Pulau Sibu’s Feral-Domestic Animals
- Island-hopping Around Pulau Sibu
- Bonus Tip: Optional Firefly Road Trip Stop
The Drive from Kuala Lumpur to Pulau Sibu
Pulau Sibu is located off of the east coast of Johor, the most southerly of Malaysia’s peninsular states. Connectivity is less established than for the more popular peninsular East Coast islands such as Perhentian and Redang, which allows it to retain an understated ambience.
There are a small number of resorts on the island. If you are booked there, chances are they will facilitate transfers from the major cities for you (e.g. Singapore or KL).
However, it is also an easy drive to Tanjung Leman jetty in Mersing. So we decided we would drive it ourselves. Because I don’t believe in duplication, see detailed driving instructions to jetty linked here, by another traveller who has already published them.
The roads from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing are good. However, by the time we got to Mersing, I was worried about missing the appointed time for the boat transfer, because I felt we needed to double back a little bit to refuel the car.
We had not started the drive with a full tank, since I was so used to the fuel efficiency of my Toyota Yaris. But the interval between petrol stations grow longer in these rural areas of Malaysia. I felt better to actually reach one and get rid of the orange fuel light that had come on for some time. Thoughts of being stranded in Mersing upon return from the island chafed at my uber-planning circuits.
But, despite the detour, we arrived in good time, after all.
Tanjung Leman jetty
We parked at the open air parking area of the jetty, where plenty of parking was available.
The jetty complex is a small one, with small kiosks and a restaurant within the building prior to the jetty proper. We discovered that there was a bit of a wait for the boat to arrive. The resort had alerted us beforehand that the exact time might vary depending on tide conditions.
Meanwhile we were directed to the Marine Park fee collection counter.
Pulau Tinggi Marine Park @ Sultan Iskandar Marine Park
Pulau Sibu is located within the area of Sultan Iskandar Marine Park. It is also known as Pulau Tinggi Marine Park, after the largest island in the marine park. Hence, fees are levied from visitors to support conservation activities.
The Marine Park fee collection counter is at the jetty fee counter, next to the boat ticket counter. However they are not the same counter, and these are two separate, albeit fairly nominal, fees.
You will not need the boat ticket if you have pre-arranged transfers from a resort, but you will still need to pay the Marine Park fee. Upon payment, the counter staff is supposed to give you a receipt. You will need to show this to the resort staff, in order to qualify for snorkelling or diving trips in the marine park.
We were there at about 4pm, but found the marine park counter already closed. We later told our resort what had happened, to explain why we didn’t have the fee payment slip (Rimba Resort really does check when we booked a snorkel trip). So, in our case, it became a de facto ‘free’ marine park trip.
The boat ride to Pulau Sibu
Like most boat transfers in Malaysia, we went by speedboat. It took the speedboat under an hour to reach Sibu Island.
Not all beaches on Sibu Island are equipped with a jetty. We opted to stay at a secluded resort at its north tip, because of their many sustainability efforts. Since they only had a small beach, which was exclusive to the resort, there was no jetty. The speedboat landed us by beaching onto the sand. Staff from the resort were waiting for our arrival, to assist us off the boat.
This is very normal for Malaysian islands. On boat transfer days, be sure to wear clothing and footwear which are appropriate for disembarking into ankle- or calf-length water.
The Improbably Diverse Ecosystems of Pulau Sibu
Sibu Island is not very big at all. You could walk the north and south length of it easily in a day – and back! The village is located in the south part of the island, where the main jetty is. There are small roads in this area, up to the narrow ‘neck’ in the middle of the island, where there are two sand beaches opposite each other.
Beyond this is a hike to the resorts in the northern part of the island. The final portion to Rimba Resort, where we stayed, is a short hike over rocky coastline and through jungle.
By the time we met up with my conservationist friend the following morning, the hikes that we did should have alerted us already to the uniqueness of Sibu Island. But it did not register to me until he pointed it out.
“Did you realise, that even though Pulau Sibu is so small, it has all the coastline types in a single island?” he remarked that morning, as we walked to the coconut groves in the middle of the village grounds. “That’s what’s special about this place.”
I stared at him. As he listed them all, I realised I either knew about it already, or had just hiked across it in the last 24 hours.
He was right. For an island so small, it was amazing!
Sibu Island’s rocky shore
OK, so Sibu Island doesn’t literally have all possible coastline types. It doesn’t have the salt marsh, for example. But it does seem to have all the climatologically plausible ones for a tropical island!
The hike south from the resort emerges from the jungle on the east side of the island onto an incredible rock shore formation. The rocks are furrowed and pitted by the patient efforts of water over time, shot through with maroon iron veins.
Indeed, the rocky shore along the Sibu Island north coast is particularly interesting. You can see the layered rocks in the open as they thrust upwards and out, even though the beach landscape isn’t very big. The variety of rock textures and patterns that you can observe on Sibu Island, and in surrounding islands, is also variable and curious.
The mornings are lovely in the magic hour. The tide is slack and the water nearly still. The rock pools are clear mirrors of the sky above. Utter peace.
The rock pools of Rimba Resort
Part of the Rimba Resort beach is a rock shore – to my delight, since I have a soft spot for rocky shores. The rock pools left behind as the tide ebbs are sometimes rich with gobies and juvenile shrimp. At the least there would be sea snails and crabs skittering about for sure.
I went walking out to the beach one night when the tide was out. It exposed a portion of the shoreline that stays underwater in the daytime.
The beach was surprisingly noisy at night. It wasn’t the sound of waves; breakers are far away. The shoreline made popping sounds! For the life of me I can’t say why. Although I learned later that the reef is indeed noisy!
I also noticed strange looking blobs tucked between crevices of rock and coral. It took me a while, but I worked it out when I ventured into areas that still had water, smartphone light held aloft. It is what anemone looks like, when it’s out of the water!
Sibu Island’s twin sandy beaches
It wouldn’t be much of a paradise island if there were no sandy beaches. Don’t worry; the rest of the north shore is sandy beach. The sand isn’t super fine, but still very nice.
Hiking southwards from the red-veined rocks, the route to the village shifts to more beach coastlines, where the other resorts are located. The north and south portions of the island are connected with a narrow neck of land.
This is another distinguishing feature of Sibu Island. You can be on one beach, and look across to the other beach! There is a resort in this middle part that has the enviable characteristic of having twin beaches – one on either side!
So… Pulau Sibu has sandy beaches… does it have turtle landings?
Why yes! Yes it does! In fact, Rimba Resort hosts a turtle hatchery on its own sandy beach!
Sibu Island’s mangrove forest & Instagrammable jetty
At the main resort areas, the paved roads leading to the village begin. Walking on the road takes you down the western side of the island. This side of the island faces the mainland, and is where the mangrove forest is located.
Here, there is a most Instagram-worthy jetty leading out to sea, flanked by tall mangroves. The red-stained wooden planks have faded to an attractive pink under the equatorial sun. The wood itself has warped, making the jetty slightly uneven – but in an entirely charming way!
Coral reef around Sibu Island
Like the other East Coast islands of Malaysia, Pulau Sibu is fringed with coral reef. Unlike its more northerly neighbours, the visibility here is more variable, since it receives more turbulence from the South China Sea. When we were there, we were unlucky. Visibility was quite poor throughout the weekend.
However, if you are a good enough swimmer and able to freedive close to the reef, you can see that the reef is actually quite nice. (Operative word see – do not *touch* anything in the sea in a marine park!). I thought the house reef of our resort was really good.
Sibu Island’s seagrass beds (where the dugong hang out!)
Of course, Pulau Sibu also has a seagrass bed, located off the southern tip of the island. It is why there is a population of dugong around Sibu Island – albeit an elusive one – somewhere in its vicinity.
The GEF-funded Dugong & Seagrass Conservation Project partners with Marine Parks Department of Malaysia to study this particular population. We were hopeful of striking it lucky after seeing footage like this.
However, the daytime tides were high when we visited, so the visibility was poor. We could not see the seagrass beds of Sibu Island nor its resident dugong.
In hindsight, this may be why the dugong still survive here compared to other locations with clearer waters. This particular population may owe its continued existence to its evasive, mistrustful behaviour, and the cover of its sometimes-turbulent habitat.
Sibu Island’s tropical jungle
Aside from the coastal ecosystems, Pulau Sibu’s northern interior is still forested. What this means is, if you stay towards the northern part of the island, you would get a taste of tropical jungle as well. Indeed, ‘Rimba’ means forest in Malay.
Due to the nearness of the jungle, Rimba Resort has a more rustic character compared to the other resorts on the island. The wood stumps and deadwood in the resort grounds frequently sport mushrooms. And on two different nights I returned to the chalet and found a curious jungle insect on the mosquito netting around the bed. One of them was a beautiful leaf insect!
Pro tip: always, always tuck the mosquito netting tightly around your bed in the morning when you get up. You do not want to sleep the next night with trapped mosquitos inside the netting with you!
The Village of Pulau Sibu
Pulau Sibu is inhabited, and has a small village. Although it is a village of fishermen, there is also a wide coconut grove in the middle of the island, which makes for an arresting, charming rural landscape. I have personally not seen a flat plain of coconut groves like this in any other Malaysian island. Apparently, once upon a time, there were even more coconut palms.
The village’s main strip fronts the main jetty. Here, there is a short row of shops selling simple groceries and confectionery, and a typical Malaysian style local cafe (i.e. kedai kopi, literally ‘coffee shop’). We had breakfast here as my friend told us a little bit more about island life.
The village manners of Pulau Sibu
The tourism level on Pulau Sibu has dropped since its heyday, nor did it ever reach the giddy heights of its northern neighbours, such as the Perhentians. So it is in that sweet spot where it does have good resorts, but has not lost its character.
However, this also means that egalitarian village manners still apply in Sibu Island’s public spaces, rather than ‘customer service’ manners. For example, you would be served complimentary local Malay confectionery and cookies, ‘just because’, even if you came as a paying customer. Especially if you came just after the Eid festival, like we did (yay kuih raya!!!).
On the other hand, you would be silently judged for not clearing away food wrappers and rubbish yourself, even if you were a paying customer of that very shop!
Pulau Sibu’s Feral-Domestic Animals
I’m sorry, did the caption say feral cow?
Ah….. yes, as if hosting multiple shore ecosystems in a tiny circumference was not unique enough. There are also the feral domesticated animals of Sibu Island.
No, I don’t mean wild animals that became domesticated. I mean, domesticated animals who have since gone feral.
I have to say that this totally daft, random thing of Sibu Island is what catapulted it to be among my top favourite islands ever!
The wild cattle of Pulau Sibu!
Pulau Sibu today has a population of wild cattle, thought by now to outnumber the human residents. It is quite normal to see random small herds of cattle ambling across grass lawns, poking around garbage cans, nosing up to restaurant tables, or strolling up and down the main thoroughfare like (extremely) oversized stray cats.
To best appreciate this phenomenon, you need to consider that cattle rearing is not traditionally a thing in this region, especially on fishing islands. A glance through the supermarket aisles in the cities reveals this immediately: all the ‘good’ dairy products are imported. We Southeast Asians are not a dairy nation.
But at some point, a bright spark decided it would be a great idea to rear cattle on Pulau Sibu. You know, for meat and dairy.
It was not a terrible economic idea, except that animal husbandry isn’t really a culture on the island. So in the end the cattle were just left to range free.
How Pulau Sibu became an unexpected cattle sanctuary
Wandering around the open spaces of the island, you will soon notice cow dung on the ground. Everywhere. It’s not so widespread as to make walking unpleasant, so I reckon there must be some kind of cleaning duty among the villagers to at least keep the paved roads reasonably clear?
I expressed my wonder that there is a place in Southeast Asia where there’s food simply wandering about unmolested. Why, not even mainlanders have attempted to ‘repatriate’ the cows? And if the venture failed, why did the villagers tolerate the cows (and the dung)? Aren’t they upset? And, don’t they know of the murderousness of cows as the most deadly animal in England?
Well, according to my resident friend, the lovely green grassy lawns on the island were a recent development – due to the manure of the cows!
So on balance, even though nobody was interested in the cows for meat and milk, the people still prefer for them to stick around – for the fertiliser!
The tropical sheep of Pulau Sibu!
I’m sorry… tropical… sheep? You don’t mean goats?
As if the feral cattle were not enough, there are sheep as well! On our first morning walk together, quizzical eyes confronted me from the other side of a foot bridge.
Now, I can be pretty assertive to my own species, but I am usually meek with animals with any kind of bossy tendencies. I let them have the right of way. (Yes, I am aware that sheep are notoriously supposed to be the opposite of bossy. Shush.)
In my defense, my meekness was partly also because I was gobsmacked by the sight of woollen sheep wandering about an island in a famously hot and humid tropical country.
So I asked my friend about that. He chalked it up to yet another agricultural scheme that didn’t quite take off as intended.
So… feral sheep and feral cows?
Yep, pretty much.
I didn’t ask how the sheep bargained for their unmolested existence.
Island-hopping Around Pulau Sibu
On top of being pretty amazing on its own, Sibu Island is also close to several smaller, uninhabited islands within the same Marine Park zone. Resort excursions would typically take guests to these spots for island hopping and snorkelling.
We went to two islands – Pulau Kukus to help my friend survey the reef there for bleaching, and Pulau Lima Besar with a resort excursion.
With a bright clear sky, there is a kind of haze in the air that lends the atmosphere an almost otherworldly unrealness. The speedboat splashed waves across the sides of the boat, throwing rainbows with every wave crest.
Lima Besar Island is picture perfect. Where the shore curves towards the open sea, the coral reef was more interesting. The sea was rougher here, though, and the waves rolled higher. You would need a higher degree of water confidence to snorkel in this part.
However, even if you never venture to snorkel or dive in the sea, only limiting yourself to frolicking in the shallows, the islands themselves are breathtaking.
Coral bleaching in Malaysia
At the time of our trip, there were coral bleaching events reported all over Malaysia. Sultan Iskandar Marine Park was not spared, though some islands fared better than others.
Pulau Kukus was pretty badly bleached at the time. Sections of the coral reef were entirely white. It was very sad to look at. The reef is very shallow here, so perhaps water temperatures around the coral quickly went above its tolerance.
The reef at Pulau Lima Besar fared a bit better. The sections away from the boat approach seemed to stay mostly healthy. Perhaps the churn in the water keeps mixing a flow of cooler water, helping to keep temperatures below stress levels.
The private royal islands of Johor
Not all islands in the area are technically open to the public. Some have been bought over by the Johor royal family and are private property. You’d know which ones these are, if they are left unoccupied. They’re the ones with the no trespassing signs.
I suppose in a roundabout way, it might end up serving a good purpose if it limits the exploitation of marine park islands, making it more likely that the tourism use of Sultan Iskandar Marine Park can be kept within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.
Bonus Tip: Optional Firefly Road Trip Stop
Jason drove most of the way back. It afforded me a rare chance to simply enjoy the drive, and get to look around for a change (usually I’m always the one driving!).
So for once, I have photos of what the view looks like on the road, while on a Malaysian road trip! It’s normally not a safe thing for me to obtain, aside from possibly in the state of Perlis.
It also led me to notice a sign I did not notice during the drive towards Mersing at the start of the trip. Along the southern route to Mersing, crossing the state of Johor, there is!