Scuba Diving 101 – Kota Kinabalu

One of the cheapest places to get a dive certification in Southeast Asia is Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah region of Eastern Malaysia. By doing some research, one can find that are different diving certifications. Deciding whether PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), SSI (Scuba Schools International), NAUI, RAID, CMAS, and any other of the numerous acronyms that represent a diving certification, would be better than the others can feel overwhelming.


Map of Malaysia with a blue marker for Kota Kinabalu. Map credit: Scibble Maps

Surprise! Almost all certifications are similar with minor differences. PADI, SSI, RAID and other certifications are regulated by the standards set by the World Recreational Scuba Training Council [1]. However, keep in mind not all certifications are equal. For example, the PADI Advanced Open Water certification is NOT the equivalent of the SSI Advanced Open Water, but the equivalent of SSI Advanced Adventurer certification [2]. Personal preference is what drives the decision on which certification to get. Another important part of selection largely depends on which diving shop and dive instructor feels like the right fit as well.
There are several dive companies in Kota Kinabalu, and I chose Scuba Junkies. The reason I chose them was because of their ethical dive practices. This includes being part of Project Aware, Reef Check, setting up a turtle and shark sanctuary as well as completing shoreline clean-ups on the resort island of Mabul. Another reason I chose them is that they came recommended to me from the hostel I was staying for the duration of my scuba diving training (Akinabalu Hostel; recommended by Lonely Planet). What finalized my decision was that I spoke with an instructor. The general warmth and professionalism from the instructor and the individuals that I booked my course with made the experience enjoyable. Lastly, they had lower prices than the other dive companies! If learning to dive is a longtime goal, look at different companies, call them or drop by their dive shop and see if you get good vibes from them.
The Course
The PADI course itself takes either 2 days by doing the online E-learning theory beforehand or 3 days with one of those days learning theory in the classroom. The benefit of E-learning is that if you are short on time during your trip, you can dive right into the water and then skip the day of watching videos in a classroom. However, the online E-learning course is expensive, costing around 201 dollars USD [3]. Personally, I prefer the classroom option because the instructor is in the room with you and can clarify any questions that may bubble up.
After the first day of classroom work and passing the test, we finally got into the water in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. To learn to dive, you must be 10 years old, be in good health and you must pass the swim test:
“Your PADI Instructor will assess this by having you: Swim 200 metres/yards (or 300 metres/yards in mask, fins and snorkel). There is no time limit for this, and you may use any swimming strokes you want. Float and tread water for 10 minutes, again using any methods you want.” – PADI [3]
Once it was proven that I could swim, I started developing my underwater skills at a learning site on Gaya Island. The skills that I learned from my two days in the water ranged from assembling dive equipment, doing pre-dive safety checks, clearing water out of your mask, taking off your mask underwater and clearing it, controlling your buoyancy, properly inflating and deflating the Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), and emergency procedures and so on. I did two dives that day after all the technical work, one on Gaya Corner on Gaya Island and one on Fish Feeder on Sapi Island.
For the last day of diving, I was tested on some of the skills that I learned the previous day. On this day, two more dives were completed, one at the site Suluman on Sulug Island, and one at the site Midreef on Manukan.

Boat ride back to Kota Kinabalu after getting PADI Open Water certified! – Photo credit: J. Johnson

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Named after the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, this park was the second national park established in the Sabah Region in 1974. It is located 3 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu, so there is only access via boat. The park initially included covered two islands, Gaya and Sapi. In 1979, the park expanded in size and included Mamutik, Manukan, and Sulug islands. Overall, the park covers 50 square kilometers comprised of 5 islands, the reefs and the sea. It protects the fauna, flora, and marine ecosystems within the park boundaries [4].
Lonely Planet mentions that the park has beautiful beaches, but can get very overcrowded, and personal observation did find this true as well [5]. However, since most of the learning time was spent in the water, the overcrowding was generally avoided. As a result of the influx of tourists, there is a visible increase of garbage and waste on the islands and in the water. Further, the overall condition of the specific sites that I dove were not the best I’ve seen so far. There was a lot of coral bleaching in certain areas. However, there is a wide variety of fish and other marine life including echinoderms, turtles and blue spotted stingrays.
Though coral bleaching is seen throughout the park, the Marine Ecology Research Center (MERC) has been working on hard coral restoration. They have succeeded in planting 2500 hard corals to bring life back to the damaged ecosystem [6]. Furthermore, they do a lot of outreach work though environmental education, established a giant clam propagation program and inadvertently became a marine sanctuary that rehabilitates injured wildlife [7]. Through the work of the MERC, and some of the ethical dive companies, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is slowly becoming rejuvenated. For now, it’s a great place to learn to dive. You might even see your first Hawksbill turtle on your first dive!
Happy Diving!

Diving with turtles after getting my PADI Open Water in Sipidan, Malaysia.

[1] Recreational Scuba Training Council, Inc. (2004). Minimum Course Content for Open Water Diver Certification. Retrieved from:
[2] Thole, R. (2013, December 23). Padi vs. SSI, these are the differences you should know about! [Weblog Message]. Retrieved from:
[3] PADI. (2016). Become a Certified Scuba Diver FAQ. Retrieved from:
[4] The Board of Trustees of the Sabah Parks. (2017). Introduction to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Retrieved from:
[5] Bloom, G., Brash, C., Butler, S., Low, S., Richmond, S., Robinson, D., Stewart, I., Ver Berkmoes, R. & Waters, R. (2014). Southeast Asia on a shoestring. SG, Singapore: Lonely Planet Publishing Ltd.
[6] Marine Ecology Research Center. (2011). Coral Reef Restoration Programme. Retrieved from:
[7] Marine Ecology Research Center. (2011). Programmes. Retrieved from:
*** If any information is incorrect or needs to be updated, please let me know!***