Layang-Layang Island, also known as “Swallows Reef,” is a man-made island and was originally constructed as a naval base for the Malaysian Navy which later developed another dive resort, Layang-Layang Island Resort. The island is an oceanic atoll of the Spratly Islands administered by Malaysia situated approximately 300 kilometers northwest of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The atoll is not large – it only covers about 7km long and 2km wide with a central lagoon. The extreme location of Layang-Layang, the pristine reefs, excellent visibility, steep coral walls down to 2000m and regular sightings of pelagic animal has given Layang-Layang a much-deserved reputation of being one of the top ten dive locations in the world.
Layang-Layang means “Swallows” in the Malay language – referring to the migratory birds that inhabit the island. As a bird sanctuary, the island is home not only to swallows but also brown foot boobies, egrets, and crested terns. Finding refuge within the lagoon, the birds use this predator-free area as a migratory stop and a breeding ground. As a world-renowned dive destination, Layang-Layang is one of the best-known atolls among the Borneo Banks. Called the “Jewel of the Borneo Banks,” Layang-Layang is also home to several manufactured structures. These include a large windmill, the only one of its kind in Malaysia, which provide extra electricity to the naval base on the island. The Malaysian Navy has held a base on the island since 1983 and the Royal Malaysian navy help maintain security within the area. The Malaysian Fisheries Department also operates a marine research facility, MARSAL (Marine Research Station Pulau Layang-Layang) on the island.
Another attraction found on the island is the underwater postbox located 40 meters below sea level – a project initiated by Pos Malaysia and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). It focuses on extending the postal services on the island by introducing a special postcode, special postmark, postbox, underwater postal workers, and the appointment of a stamp agent at the island. Mail will be collected from the postbox by underwater postal workers; stamped with a special postmark depicting the hammerhead shark (the island’s signature marine life) and dispatched by a MAS-Wings’ plane to Kota Kinabalu for further processing. The Pulau Layang-Layang underwater postbox has made it to the Malaysia Book Of Records as the deepest postbox in the country.
Layang-Layang Island Resort, which is the only resort on the island is designed in a traditional “longhouse” style, with an unpretentious elegance that suits its wild surroundings. The buildings are rustic yet charming, constructed with local materials and decorated in a classic, simple manner. The island can host a surprising number of guests; space is available for conferences or weddings of up to 200 people, with 86 rooms each with its private veranda. In the communal area, a large infinity pool seems to merge with the horizon, and a restaurant offers a constantly changing array of Malay and European fare. Throughout the day, guests are treated to the view of gorgeous flocks of birds that nest on a nearby island sanctuary, although nothing above the sea can truly be said to rival the beauty of what lies beneath.
Notable Dive Sites
The island is famous for its outstanding dive sites with warm crystal-clear waters rich in pelagic animals such as barracuda, hawksbill turtle, manta rays, and tuna. Schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, leopard sharks, and the occasional threshers and silvertip sharks can all be seen. Several must-see dive sights are the Dogtooth Lair, D’Wall, Sharks Cave, The Tunnel, The Valley, Wreck Point, and The Lagoon.
- Dogtooth Lair
Named after the dog-tooth tuna often found swimming off the reef, this site offers the best in pelagic and colorful reef fish. A gently sloping sandbank that quickly plunges to the seabed of 2000 meters below, this site offers reef walls covered in yellow gorgonians surrounded by batfish, angelfish, and colorful parrotfish. Barracuda and sunfish may also be found out in the blue.
- D’ Wall
At the right time of the year, schools of hammerhead sharks can be seen. This site is home to grey reef sharks as well as many reef fishes. The wall at this site is very steep. As you swim down 40 meters, you will find a shelf covered in huge barrel sponges as well as coral fans in shades of red, blue. and purple. Rare black coral bushes can also be found in a small triangular cove at 25 meters down, surrounded by trevallies and giant frogfish. This dive site is so large, it may take several dives to cover it all.
- Sharks Cave
One of the island’s more famous dive sites, this site is known for its hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, manta rays, and eagle rays. A shallow cave about 30 meters down is home to several white tip reef sharks with giant trevally and dog-tooth tuna guarding the entranceway. Beautiful purple fans and sponges cover the ledges of this dive with triggerfish, squirrelfish, and parrotfish swimming overhead.
- The Tunnel
South of the island this dive site turns the diver’s attention away from pelagic and back to the reef. Table corals, staghorn, plate, mushroom, and brain corals cover this dive with their beautiful colors. The coral colonies form vertical stacks that divers can search for morays, lobsters, and small shrimps or crabs. Mantis shrimp, sea urchins, parrotfish, and pufferfish also call this site home.
- The Valley
A flat dive site with a gentle slope The Valley may not have interesting geography, but it is home to a rich array of marine life. Turtles nestle along the slope surrounded by schools of groupers, sweetlips, and snapper. Nudibranchs and small crustaceans can be found nestled among the coral overhangs and on the edge of the reef you may see a few hammerheads. Look out for triggerfish nests as you swim through as these fish are quite territorial.
- Wreck Point
Of the wreck that was once here all that remains are a few scraps of metal. Instead, this site is covered in a beautiful coral garden of soft and hard corals. Squirrelfish, goatfish, and hogfish are prominent. You may also see barracuda, trevallies, and white tip reef sharks.
- The Lagoon
Although most divers tend to stay on the outer reefs this atoll’s inner lagoon should not be forgotten. With a depth of 20 meters, the lagoon is an excellent place for divers and snorkelers to look for macro creatures such as seahorses, cuttlefish, and pipefish.
The only way to get to the island is by air charter flight that takes about one hour. Travel by boat is an exceptionally long option (16 hours) and not readily available to the scuba diving traveler. The dive season and resort in Layang Layang lasts from March through August and closed for the monsoon season during the rest of the year. Between the 1st of April and the 15th of May, a surcharge (10%) is asked because of the high number of hammerhead sharks cruising past the island in that period, due to mating season. The waters are unspoiled and unpolluted; there are no fishing activities and almost no other disturbances.