Close Encounters of the Nature Kind: Pulau Tiga, The Survivor Island

by Heng Wah, Aug 10, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sabah
Lobster Hunt on Survivor Island

Lobster Hunt on Survivor Island

Lobster Hunt on Survivor Island

The secret is out! Pulau Tiga, a "Survivor Island" is certainly the secluded island where travelers can come to escape from the humdrum of daily life, immersed in an unhurried world and to be pampered by the charms of Mother Nature for a couple of days. Since the CBS network released in 2000 their first "Survivor" serials, a reality-based TV game show depicting the lives of 16 ordinary Americans from different walks of life marooned on the island, many people throughout the world begin to know about the pristine South China Sea island of Pulau Tiga (meaning Three Island in Malay). In this game show the 16 castaways divided into two groups, the Pangong and Tagi tribes entertained audience to the dog-eat-dog world in their mission to be the last remaining "survivor" who would take home One Million US Dollars.

Over a span of 39 days, the two groups pitched against the other in a series of competitions which included gulping live rhinoceros beetle larvae without feelings of queasiness and challenging one another to a meal of barbequed forest rats. At the end of each round of competition, the losing team would amongst themselves vote one of their members out of the island. Members of each tribe lived together in rather primitive abode put up by themselves in separate parts of the island along aptly named beaches, the Pagong-Pagong beach in the north east of the island and the Tagi beach in the south east. The 13-episode series was so popular that CBS soon followed with sequels shot in the Australian Outback, Africa, the Marquesas, the Amazon, and Tarutao in Thailand.


Pulau Tiga Park was gazetted a national park in 1985. It is located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south west from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah. It can be reached directly by boat from Kota Kinabalu or one and a half hour by road from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Penyu, and then by boat from Kuala Penyu. Kuala Penyu is a small village located at the tip of the northern end of the flat Klias Peninsula, a scenic paddy planting area where sights of diligent buffaloes are common. From the jetty in Kuala Penyu, the rest of the journey will take half an hour to reach the island of Pulau Tiga. The motor boat route from Kuala Penyu is rather scenic, traversing the Kimanis Bay which 30 and more years ago would on any particular day play host to several log carriers. These ocean going vessels would take their valuable cargo of timber logs to Japan and Taiwan to meet their fate under the highly intimidating saws in the mills.

One beautiful morning in late March 2003, my Kota Kinabalu pal, Casey, dropped me off at the office of the Pulau Tiga Resort in downtown Kota Kinabalu's Wisma Merdeka which is next to the Hyatt Kota Kinabalu Hotel. On the way the van driver picked up my two newly found traveling companions from a nearby hotel. They were two Dutch men -- Eric, a post-graduate student and Pieter, a distributor of textile garments in the Netherlands. They had just completed a four-day trek in Sarawak's Bario Highlands. Similar to their long gone compatriot the intrepid 17th Century Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, they trekked the wilds of Sarawak and a small part of Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) without any guides and using just maps and compasses. The best part was that neither of them understood a word of Malay, the lingua franca of Malaysia and Indonesia.

On the way to Kuala Penyu, we passed miles and miles of rolling countryside much of it with light secondary forests and occasionally traversing the small kampongs (villages) with their small paddy farms and fruit orchards. Many of the dense primary forests have long disappeared as the trees had been rapidly chopped down and relentlessly fed to the hungry mills for the construction, furniture and wood-making industries.


The Park covers an area of 158 square kilometers (61 square miles). Most of the area consists of the sea with coral-filled reefs rich in reef fishes, crinoids, sea cumbers, sea urchins, shrimps, lobsters, sea turtles, sharks, barracudas, squids and other wonderful gifts of nature. Within the Park grounds are three islands namely Pulau Tiga, the main island, Pulau Kalampunian Damit (better known as Snake Island) about a kilometer north east of Pulau Tiga. Sandwiched in between is the slightly larger island of Pulau Kalampunian Besar which has been eroded by wave action some time ago and reduced to a large sand bar.

As the Park lies in the equatorial belt it receives a lot of rain throughout the greater part of the year except that the less wet months are from February to April during the inter-monsoon period between the South West Monsoon from April to October and the North East Monsoon from October to January. Total rainfall recorded some 250 centimeters (100 inches) per annum. The average daily mean temperature varies between 22° to 33° Celsius (70° to 90° Fahrenheit). Although Pulau Tiga receives a high precipitation there are not many sources of fresh water because of the absence of water catchments in view of the very low elevation of the summit on the island. Most of the rain waters just run off into the sea.

The Three Islands

Pulau Tiga is an inverted "L" shaped island measuring 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) in length and 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) wide. The highest point is in the middle of the island where it rises to 100 meters (330 feet) above sea level. It has an area of 20.7 square kilometers (8 square miles). The island is formed from a series of eruptions of several mud volcanoes over a long period of time. Several active ones can still be sighted at or near the summit of the island. Some of them continue to ooze out slowly from the ground hot volcanic mud whilst others spew squirts of mud every few minutes with unpredictable intervals. Still others release combustible methane gas from subterranean fissures and flames can often be seen.

Except for the Park Headquarters and the adjacent Pulau Tiga Resort the rest of the island is generally forested with tropical hardwoods belonging to the dipterocarpaceae family. As is typical of dipterocarp forests the trees are festooned with climbers, creepers such as rattans and lianas or vines and epiphytic ferns and orchids. In the low lying swampy areas the nipah and nibong palms tend to proliferate. Along the island at several sandy beaches coconut palms bowed to the direction of the predominant winds.

Along several stretches of the shoreline one indigenous tree stands out -- the Barringtonia (Barringtonia asiatica) a sea poison tree whose fruit and seed when crushed produces a liquid which can be used to kill fishes when poured into placid waters found in sheltered coves. This tree produces flowers with puff balls of white stamens with pink tips. They bloom at night and a sweet scent waft the atmosphere. The scent attracts moths and nectar feeding bats. The next morning the flowers will be splattered profusely on the ground beneath the tree.

Roaming the forests are some herds of bearded pigs, families of long-tailed macaques and hordes of the Malaysian field rats (Ratus tiomanicus) which originally stowed away from boats of fishermen who operate in the waters nearby. Found in abundance are the monitor lizards which feed mainly on carrion and the common skinks which enjoy basking in the sun or lying still among the leaf litter and detritus from fallen trunks and branches. There are also a variety of snakes, frogs and other reptiles and amphibians. There are only a few species of mammals as the island does not have a permanent source of fresh water to maintain a viable population and diversity of species.

Pulau Tiga is renown for megapodes (Megapodius freycinet), a ground dwelling bird. The species known as the Tabon or Philippine Shrub-fowl is found mainly in the heavily forested center part of the island. It is a chicken-like bird with a bare red face and a pair of very strong legs which is suitable for digging a few feet into the ground for the female to lay its eggs in short intervals and bury them under moulds of earth and sand. The eggs are the favorite of the monitor lizards and the forest rats. The young chicks take some time to hatch by the heat of the sun and without the presence of either of their parents.

When the infant chicks emerge from the shell they straight away dig their way out from the huge mound of earth and sand and start life on their own without being weaned by their parents. The island is uninhabited prior to the setting up of the office for the Park rangers who currently number some 18 transients. There are seven walking trails radiating from the Park Headquarters. Trekking time ranges from half an hour to an hour and a half and none of the trails are too arduous for any reasonably fit and healthy person. The most popular is the Larai-Larai Trail which will allow trekkers to perambulate around a greater part of the western half of the island with the final lap involving traversing across the width of the island from Pagong-Pagong Beach in the north to the Resort in the centre south. This trail which takes an hour and a half to complete will bring one to a number of interesting places. Along the Larai-Larai Beach one can certainly spot the Great Crested Terns roosting among the white rocks stacked close to the shore line. However not far away I chanced upon a sight which rudely jolted my perception of a pristine environment in Pulau Tiga. I saw in a secluded cove along the shoreline one of the major scourges of Modern Man -- many hundreds of plastic bottles and containers were strewn haphazardly around. They were apparently flotsams brought in from the mainland by the tidal waves.

Moving inland we arrived at the first mud volcano which was the size of a soccer field. We discovered that besides the bubbling mud oozing out from the ground there were a few spots where jets of warm mud and water spurted from the mud volcano. Nearer to the summit at the center part of Pulau Tiga we encountered a smaller mud volcano with a gazebo beside it. While all of us were sitting in the gazebo to catch our breath we suddenly heard a hissing sound followed immediately with a shower of mud which splattered onto our hair and the rest of our body. There was not enough time for us to re-act by ducking or taking other evasive actions. All of us had a good laugh over our baptism of mud. We soon move on and along the trail where there was dense undergrowth we spotted a solitary megapode bird. We considered all of us as lucky to be able to experience some fairly close up glimpses of the mysterious mould building incubator bird without much of an effort and time.

It takes only a few minutes to reach Pulau Kalampunian Damit (Snake Island) by speed boat. The Snake Island is a rocky volcanic outcrop. It was formed from intrusion from the inner depths of the earth crust of molten magma which turned into igneous dolerite rocks. The Island is about 40 meters (130 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) high. The whole island is very rocky except for a narrow sandy fringe in certain parts. The island is covered by a canopy of vegetation with the Euphorbiaceae family contributing the dominant trees. Trees from this family are short in stature and they look like shrubs. Most of these trees are succulent and cactus-like and there is frequent occurrence of milky sap.

The inhabitants of the island are sea snakes all of them from a species known as the Yellow-Lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina). On any one day a visitor may find as many as 180 of the pearly-blue with black bands snakes curled up among the rocks and boulders and the tree roots or crevices in the tree trunks. During the day they are inactive and lethargic as they are afraid of the heat. At night they are very active. Unlike true sea snakes (Hydrophiinae subfamily) which spend their entire lives in the water sea kraits or lacticaudine sea snakes come ashore periodically to rest, digest their food, mate and lay eggs. The favorite food of the sea kraits are the moray eels which are commonly found in the waters of the Park.

The eels make their homes among the reefs. The sea kraits in turn are hunted by the white-bellied sea eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster). When I was on the island I observed a pair of the sea eagles circling low over the island apparently looking for a prey. Later on when one of my three guides nonchalantly caught hold of the neck of one of the snakes in order for the three of us to have a close look at the snake. We observed that the body of that particular snake bore heavy scar marks caused apparently by the claws of a sea eagle which somehow accidentally let its grip loosen and drop the snake to the ground. It must be the snake's lucky day as it got to live another day! Without any qualms or squeamishness Pieter held onto the snake when Bonnie the guide offered it to him. I must admire Pieter for his feat as he was real cool with the snake.

On the way back to Pulau Tiga, we landed on Pulau Kalampunian Besar. As this island was formed mainly from sand-stone and sediments it could not withstand the mighty sea waves. Without the cover of vegetation this island does not have much animal life other than being a haven for hermit crabs, stone crabs and a colony of Great Crested Terns foraging for fishes in the shallow waters. I also sighted a pair of eagles belonging to the Braminy Kite species (Haliastur Indus). They were perched on two poles which were used as markers to ascertain the tidal level. As the waters around the island are home to an abundance of fishes in view of the ban on commercial fishing in the national park the eagles have plenty of choices over their pickings.

Snorkeling & Scuba Diving In Pulau Tiga Waters

Close by to all three islands are coral reefs which serve as a habitat as well as a source of food for much marine life including many species of reef fishes such as the butterfly fish, clown fish and the parrot fish. The crystal clear waters and the sandy sea bottom have conspired to ensure that the sunlight could penetrate quite deep under waters. Hence, the Park is ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling. Another fish commonly found among the corals is the Oriental Sweetlip (Plectorhinchus orientalis). It is a fascinating fish in that it provides sustenance to the smaller fishes which feed on its flaky scales and parasites residing on its scales.

Another denizen of the reefs is one species of starfish the Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata). This pantone blue beauty is spectacular as it can grow to a length exceeding 30 centimeters (12 inches). Scuba divers and snorkelers would certainly be mesmerized by the exquisite beauty of the healthily living corals, colorful reef fishes, graceful sea turtles, awesome sharks and barracudas and many of the other rich marine lives found in the protected waters of Pulau Tiga Park.


The resort offers accommodation ranging from deluxe chalets ideal for a family of four to twin-sharing cabins with an option to enjoy air-conditioning, attached bathrooms and open verandas to enjoy panoramic views of the Resort. The resort restaurant offers good food especially fresh sea food and plenty of soft drinks and beer. Fresh squids harvested from the sea just around the jetty area were served to Pieter, Eric and I for lunch. The game room includes a pool table, Karaoke set as well as an array of board games and darts. There is also a TV room with cable network channels and set of video cassettes on the "Survivors" shot in Pulau Tiga and produced by Mark Burnett for CBS. In addition there is a small library to while away one's spare time should the weather turn foul.

Pulau Tiga - come visit

It is not easy to find a place so close to a capital city with so much to offer to visitors, namely, a pristine environment, unpolluted seas, rich marine life, clean fresh air, unspoiled beaches and undisturbed wild life. Pulau Tiga is a great place to watch the sun rise and sun set with the reflections shimmering against the placid sea-waters while observing the egrets dived off the jetty for their catch. It is also an ideal setting for one to enjoy the sounds and sights of the forests.

The incessant screeching of the cicadas, crickets, and beetles punctuated by the occasional raucous calls of the hornbills and the animated chattering of monkeys as they swing from one branch to another all add to the cacophony of symphonic music of the forests. The thriving colonies of corals and the rich and myriad marine life make it a haven for scuba divers, snorkelers and other lovers of the sea. Pulau Tiga Park promises all these and more for a quiet, and serene holiday or a boisterous and fun-filled one which ever way you chose or want it. Pulau Tiga promises all these and many more.

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