Justin Juhun, the resort’s naturalist, grew up on a timber plantation on the other side of Sabah. The 42-year-old has been around animals all his life and once kept crocodiles as pets. “At feeding time, they’d become playful and excited, just like dogs,” he told me early one morning as we trekked up into the island’s hilly interior, following one of the forested ridges that meet along the island’s spine. Before long, I was picturing Juhun in the robes of a Buddhist monk, not just because of his moon face and close-cropped hair, but because in the jungle—and when we kayaked in the still, thick air of the mangroves a couple of days later—he seemed completely at peace, even with mosquitoes circling his calves and ants scurrying across the back of his neck.
As we walked, I learned that Gaya and the other islands in the marine park were geologically part of Sabah’s Crocker mountain range, and that rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age had separated them from the mainland. “This is all primary coastal dipterocarp forest; there are only a handful of islands in the world like Gaya,” Juhun enthused. “Proboscis monkeys live here. So do 18 species of lizard, 21 different snake species, and 72 species of birds.” Farther on, he pointed out an endemic shorea tree (a teak-like hardwood) and then a nibong palm, whose soft heart could, in a pinch, serve as a meal. He picked up a pod from the forest floor; inside was a large seed sheathed within a blood-red film. “This is from the knema tree. Most people call it wild nutmeg. Hornbills eat the seed, as do green imperial pigeons.”
We walked past regiments of what looked like ants (“Those are termites,” he corrected me) and spotted a flying lizard asleep on a gnarled old liana vine. Higher up, when the forest’s din grew louder, Juhun said, “Cicada. Most people think that the sound comes from them rubbing their wings together, but it doesn’t. Cicadas eat tree sap—high in water, lower in nutrients. They secrete the water and retain the nutrients. When the water leaves their abdomen, which is a like an accordion of membranes, this sound happens.” Minutes later, I felt droplets on my head. “Cicada pee,” he grinned. Nice.
But as I said, the sea is where the local fauna is most spectacular, as I discovered while snorkeling a robust reef just a short boat ride from the resort. My guide was Mayback, a shy New Yorker who transforms in the water, moving with a fluidity befitting someone who makes his living from the sea. In addition to leading snorkeling tours, he runs Gaya Island Resort’s marine center at Tavajun Bay, not far from where I encountered the wild boar. There, he rehabilitates rescued sea turtles, grows coral, and teaches guests and local schoolchildren about conservation.
Shortly after we entered the water, Mayback dove down to the seabed and brought up a piece of broken coral. “Looks like this was done by an anchor,” he said. “Boats aren’t supposed to anchor in the park, but they do.” After slipping back down to reattach the coral, he pointed to other damaged patches, assigning blame variously to a diver’s fin or the coral-munching drupella snail. But generally the reef was vibrant, in hues of green and dun with pops of red, orange, pink, blue, and yellow. At one point a blacktip reef shark sped past us in a monochromatic blur, clearly rattled by our presence.