When I first began dating a birder, I noticed a trend. Many, it turned out, only dated and married each other. After a while, this case of sexual selection began to make sense to me, as most birders require travel companions with an incredible amount of patience for staring into the tree canopy. I have never been a birder, and I eventually came to grips with the fact that most outdoor activities — hiking, for example — would forever take second place to avian pursuits. For the arrangement to work, it became clear that traveling together would necessitate breaks between periods of birding. One of these breaks, Jessie and I discovered this summer, was jumping into the ocean with some scuba gear.
Tropical birding and scuba diving both entail observation of colorful animals in the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems: the tropical rain forest on land, the coral reef in the sea. The means of observation, however, could not be more different.
The former requires hiking for hours in saunalike heat for brief glimpses of rare species. The latter, on the other hand, stresses weightlessness — neutral buoyancy — in warm, comfortable water, with schools of fish swimming all around you. There are required breaks to avoid decompression sickness, and the less effort (and therefore oxygen) you use, the better recreational diver you are said to be. Tropical birding provides a stark contrast again here: The better tropical birder you are, the more willing (and sometimes even excited) you should be by the prospect of enduring physical misery, subjecting yourself to periods of heat, humiliation and exhaustion in pursuit of an elusive sighting. They are different kinds of searches, with different kinds of payoffs.
A few tropical hot spots in the world provide this kind of marine and terrestrial combination. Since we live in Beijing, Southeast Asia was the obvious option. The Indonesian archipelago, in particular, is a paradise for such travel, and we eventually settled on Sabah, a province in the Malaysian half of Borneo known for its national parks both on land and in the water.
The Danum Valley, one of Borneo’s most famous lowland rain forests, lies just a five-to-six-hour drive from Semporna, a fishing town and dive mecca in the Coral Triangle that features many coral reefs, most notably the one at Sipadan Island. On the west coast of Sabah lies another pair of marine and terrestrial animal havens: Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park, home to one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a wide variety of endemic animal species. The Kinabatangan River winds in between the two coasts, which planes can traverse in an hour. Given a few weeks, it’s possible to visit each site and obtain basic dive certification with some of the most affordable prices in the world. Travelers must only decide which world to visit first— the jungle or the ocean?
We chose the ocean, enrolling in a standard three-day course with Scuba Junkie, one of the larger outfits in Borneo. Our instructor, Rachel, was patient and enthusiastic, and was unexpectedly joined by juvenile yellow trevally fish, each about the length of a lemon, on a few training dives. While the three-day course can be tiring at times — clearing masks of water, swimming blindly or managing air failure— training dives off Mabul Island provide glimpses of what’s to come. On one simple training dive, we swam by a green sea turtle on top of a wreck, a group of juvenile spotted eagle rays and a crocodile fish, all while the trevally continued to swim beneath Rachel.
Diving around Mabul was rather like trying chocolate for the first time — in Belgium. The Coral Triangle, an area of tropical seas surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, is one of the most biodiverse marine areas on the planet. With more than 600 species of coral and 2,000 species of reef fish alone, diving felt like floating through a living jewelry shop. The most tasking part of the experience came during coffee and tea breaks, when I struggled to identify all that we had seen.
Jessie took to the exercise quickly, transforming her bird-watcher’s eye to a diver’s. In just two days of underwater training and two days of full diving, our list continued to grow, from sea turtles to frogfish and all sizes in between. And that was without ever making it to the permit-limited Sipadan, a 2,000-foot coral tower in open sea where hammerheads and barracudas school and where whale sharks are not an uncommon sight. At some point, I gave up trying to identify the fish and just floated with the current.
We returned to land by flying to Kota Kinabalu, gazing at the land below, overwhelmed by palm-oil plantations. Featured in documentaries such as the BBC’s “Planet Earth,” Borneo is famous for its rain forests and coral reefs, but its national parks are more akin to islands floating in a sea of monoculture that dominates the landscape and much of the Malaysian economy. A picture of the oil palm graces the Malaysian 50 ringgit bill.
Driving from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu Park took less than two hours, and we arrived in mist to the only cold weather we experienced in Borneo. The skies eventually cleared, revealing the high- elevation rock faces of Mount Kinabalu, shooting up from the jungle. The next few days were spent catching glimpses of birds endemic to the mountains as well as a spectacular blood-red sunset. Of Borneo’s 52 endemic bird species, 37 are found only in the island’s mountain areas. I spotted my first on the ground: a family of red-breasted hill partridges foraging in the dirt, extending my layman’s streak of sighting jungle fowl. While I traversed the wide range of trails at Kinabalu, Jessie moved slowly, catching birds in her binocular lenses.
We returned to the lowlands after a few days, flying to Sandakan and then journeying on to the Kinabatangan River, home to monkeys, elephants and crocodiles. There had been reports of a herd of rare Bornean pygmy elephants, of which there are only about 200 left in the area, moving upriver. On our first day, we got lucky: a group of five emerged from the forest, bathing and roughhousing in the water. The next day, 27 elephants emerged, chomping down on elephant grass at the water’s edge. As we sped down the river, leaf monkeys, hornbills, serpent eagles and troupes of proboscis monkeys lounged in trees by the riverside, their long noses visible from the boat. In late afternoon, thunderstorms pounded the water and relieved the afternoon heat. Dusk emerged into crisp skies, and the river canopy lit up in deep, spotlighted green. Our first night walk revealed a variety of insects; on our second, a Western tarsier — an ancient, miniature primate about the size of a clenched fist — fled our headlamps, hopping between tree trunks near the forest floor.
On our way into Danum Valley, our final stop, we shared a van with two Spaniards, Carla and Alex. It was a fortuitous meeting: Like me, Carla was a fair-weather birder accompanying an avian fanatic. When heat and humidity outweighed our dedication for spotting wildlife, Carla and I retreated to reading on the lodge deck while Alex and Jessie pushed on.
This went on for days, with Alex and Jessie spotting a wide range of birds while Carla and I tagged along intermittently. Dinner on the field station patio — a comfy assortment of lounge chairs and tables — quickly became an exercise in comparing notes with other guests. Two Texans, Amy and Jay Packer, joined the four of us at dinner each night to discuss the day’s sightings. Over the next few days, birding around the lodge became a team effort among Amy, Jay, Jessie, and Alex. When a helmeted hornbill was spotted in the fig tree near the lodge, birders fetched deck loungers with the enthusiasm of kindergartners who had glimpsed an ice cream truck.
On the other hand, non-sightings drew despair. Bird watchers and animal seekers tend to have a few dream species; for Alex, that meant orangutans and Borneo’s endemic pittas — small, elegant, colorful birds that scavenge for insects and leeches on the forest floor. The pittas proved elusive, and Alex grew dark at times. “I hate the pitta,” he muttered at dinner one night, with the air of a spurned lover. At one point, he compared Danum’s birding to the Vietnam War: In the hot, dark jungle, he could hear the birds everywhere — but though they could see him, he couldn’t see them. When the Texans lent me an extra pair of binoculars, Jay told me that after he and Amy were married, the gift of binoculars had converted her to bird watching. Alex told me to exercise caution. “Birding is a vice,” he warned. I held the lenses with trepidation.
With binoculars in hand, I joined Alex and Jessie more often, and our persistence in searching for an orangutan eventually paid off. At the end of a long day, a ways up the access road, we glimpsed a figure clambering up the trunk of a tree in the distance, scratching its belly. When it reached the top of the canopy, a loud cacophony of crashing limbs commenced as it constructed a nest for the night. Eventually, the crashing stopped. It lay down, carefree, and scratched its arms. Alex danced a jig of happiness, and we watched until the light grew dim.
Selected marine sightings:
Green and hawksbill turtles; false clown anemonefish; angelfish; masked butterflyfish; chocolate chip and blue sea stars; moorish idol; giant moray, black-finned snake, white-eyed moray, honeycomb moray and yellow margin moray eels; triggerfish; pipefish; boxfish; pufferfish; bumphead parrotfish; giant grouper; raggy and devil scorpionfish; broadclub cuttlefish; and giant and painted frogfish.
Selected bird sightings:
Temminck’s sunbird; chestnut-hooded and Sunda laughingthrush; golden-naped, gold-whiskered and blue-eared barbets; Bornean flowerpecker; Bornean whistling and everett’s thrush; pygmy blue-flycatcher; Bornean forktail; pale-faced bulbul; fruithunter; whitehead’s and black-and-red broadbills; whiskered treeswift; purple-throated sunbird; spectacled spiderhunter; blue-crowned hanging parrot; Blyth's hawk-eagle; Bornean falconet; crested fireback; Bornean bristlehead; oriental pied and Asian black hornbills; thick-billed green, large green, rock and green imperial pigeons; greater racket-tailed, bronzed, hair-crested and ashy drongos; and asian fairy-bluebird; zebra, spotted, emerald and little cuckoo doves.
Ford is a writer based in Beijing.
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Mabul Beach Resort
Block B 36, 458 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Scuba Junkie has its own lodging in Semporna, but also runs a small beach resort of bungalows on Mabul Island. Though a bit more expensive, the amenities are comfortable and the lodge is cozy. Guests who spend four days and three nights at the resort qualify for Sipadan diving permits, which are limited in the area. Private rooms for divers start at $37 a person.
Danum Valley Field Center
Danum Valley Conservation Area
Block 3, MDLD 3286
Ground Floor, Fajar Centre
Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia
There are two lodging options in Danum Valley: Danum Valley Field Center (DVFC) and the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. DVFC is by far the more affordable option, but it has nice, simple accommodations. The main office can be a little hard to reach by phone, so sometimes a third-party tour agent can help. Transport via van can be arranged from the DVFC office in Lahad Datu leaves three times per week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), and private rooms start at $44, not including food.
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
The lodge is located a kilometer from the entrance of Kinabalu National Park.
The area surrounding Mount Kinabalu is dotted with guesthouses, lodges and hotels, but this one might have one of the best views for an affordable price and is also family friendly. It’s located just up the road from the park entrance, down a mixed dirt and paved road. Vistas from the balcony are stunning. Private rooms start at $27 a night.
Kedai Kopi Lotus
Jalan Damai, Kota Kinabalu (just down the street from Queen Elizabeth Hospital)
Made up of multiple stalls, this local haunt is a cheap but delicious find in KK and boasts the best chicken wings in town. Pork satay, fried and steamed dumplings and its famous barbecued stingray are just some of the highlights. A basic meal will set you back $5.
Kedai Kopi Yee Fung
127 Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu
This is a great spot to sample Malay laksa noodles. The curry laksa is also especially well-known, as well as the claypot chicken rice. Enjoy — it’ll all cost you less than $3.
Fat Mom’s Seafood Restaurant
Lot B4, Ground Floor, Semporna, Malaysia (on the waterfront)
Semporna isn’t exactly the gourmet capital of Southeast Asia, but there are quite a few seafood restaurants around, and this is one of the best. Overlooking the waterway into the docks in Semporna, it’s a great place to relax after a day of scuba, and perhaps sample some of the marine life you just saw! A standard dinner should cost no more than $8.
Block B 36, 458 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Sabah has many diving spots, but the most exciting are located around the islands off its east coast, near Semporna. Many scuba operations run out of Semporna and Scuba Junkie is one of the largest, with a wide range of affordable certification courses and an international staff. The coffee, cake and tea during breaks aren’t too shabby either. Diving around Mabul (the minimum two dives in one day) starts at $62.49.
River Tour in Kinabatangan
While a lot of wildlife watching requires trekking through lowland jungle trails, tour by motorboat offers a more relaxed option. A wide range of tour companies run packaged tours in Kinabatangan, and the wildlife hanging over and along the riverbanks is well worth it. For an efficient three-day experience, check out Scuba Junkie’s sister company, River Junkie. Standard three-day tour with a private room in a river lodge starts at $160.44.
These caves were featured in one of the more famous shots from the BBC’s “Planet Earth” documentary, and for good reason. Colonies of echo-locating swiftlets and bats nest in the caves (the swiftlets’ nests, constructed from mucus, are a local delicacy), and their droppings are digested in enormous mounds on the cave floor by teeming clusters of cockroaches and other scavengers including crabs. Truly a creepy-crawly ecosystem unto itself, the ammonia-scented caves are worth a visit on the way from Kinabatangan to Danum Valley (south) or Sandakan (north). Most tour operators in Kinabatangan can help book a car there. Admission to Gomantang Caves is $7.50. To arrange taxi transport, contact Best Borneo Tours Sdn Bhd (sabahtourism.com, 011-60-88262780).