Mabul Island ~ Sabah , Borneo

Why Mabul?

Mabul is a little island some 25mins by boat from Sipadan. Many who visit the area stay either at Mabul or at Kapalai. You may have found out by now that Sipadan no longer caters to overnight stays. All operators who had resorts on Sipadan have now relocated their operations elsewhere.

passing the mabul water bungalows, on the way home..

Mabul itself is a small island, currently with 4 high end resorts in the area, 1 converted oil rig stationed just in the shallow waters off Mabul , a bajau fishing village, a mosque, a school and an admin centre for the village. However, in recent years there have been a few guesthouses that have mushroomed on the island. (Dive with them at your own peril) Just to the left of Sipadan Village Resort are several stalls selling all sorts of seashells. Please do not buy them as you may have been informed that it is an offence to take anything of this sort out of Malaysia and could be an offence to take them into your home country too.

young girl pumping water

Just to the back of Borneo Divers Resort is the village. A stroll round showed us how basic their lives are out here in the vast Indo-Pacific Ocean. Mostly fisherman, the bajau laut has always been noted in history accounts of being hostile and were better know in the old days as sea gypsies. Sea Gypsies had a notorious reputation of being ruthless to visiting boats. Progress has changed all that now. Many have turned to living on land and making a life out of fishing. Even so, please as a visitor on the island do dress appropriately if you intend to visit the village. They are conservative and don't take to visitors disrespecting their way-of-life much.

But Mabul has a beauty and it's not the kind you may get at Sipadan. Having been quite used to diving on coral reefs, diving in Mabul is as much a WOW! as being on coral reef. At Mabul it's called 'muck diving'. Not familiar with the term, we were not too sure that we would actually appreciate wading and finning through muck. But once we got accustomed to the fact that we've hit rock bottom..the only way to go is macro. Apparently, 'Muck Diving' was coined by a bunch of divers on a liveaboard down in PNG (Papua New Guinea).

keeping the goats in the pen, the yard tidy and grandchildren clean

Nothing to do in the evening possibly prompted an adventurous diver to jump off the boat and into the silty yonder just below the hull. Muck diving is usually in conditions where divers scour the silty, sandy shallow beds for the weird and wonderful creatures that hunt and breed and live in this seemingly barren area. Visibility is usually pretty poor but vis is not a priority in muck diving. Underwater photographers get to take their time taking as many pics as they like in conditions good for them and for the environment. No thrashing divers, no broken corals and no broken hearts.. (for the environmentalists at least)

some creatures you dont have to dive to see. this young banded sea krait was seen slithering across the bar floor. It was caught and quickly released into the water

We saw as many creatures muck diving as we did diving on the pristine coral reefs at Komodo/Flores and perhaps even more! It was simply amazing. And when muck diving, don't shrug off debris on the beds, such as old tyres, concrete blocks, bottles etc. there may be lots of creatures taking cover.

Mabul Dive Sites

Rainy season is between mid December and mid February so bear in mind if you're thinking of getting away during Christmas. The nice thing about going during these months is that the crowds are manageable. Sometimes it may just be you and the divemaster on a dive - no rush, no hassles. We went in early March and although the vis wasn't too good and currents were pretty unpredictable plus the rains would catch up on us from nowhere, it was great for muck diving if micro is what you want. Good diving months are from months April till November. Best diving months is in July and August.

The currents can be unpredictable and divers must at all times stick close to the divemasters. There have been cases of lost divers, only to be found a distance away or not to be found at all..

Seaventure Platform Wreck Dive

blue ringed octopus ~ highly venomous. pic courtesy of Moti Uttam

Perhaps early March was a bad time to dive at this particular site or we just picked the wrong day to dive. The surface currents were rough but the underwater currents were worse. Visability was perhaps some 2m at most and we had to descend using the buoy and rope. As we were descending by rope, I could see the other divers in the group were hanging on desperately and they were at right angles to the rope as the currents threatened to drag us away. As we got down to the seabed, at about 12m, the currents slacked and we were able to regroup and made our way to the large cement blocks and twisted metal at the bottom.

We found that the concrete debris was the perfect place to start. There were frogfish of different hues.. yellow, black, red and then a couple of large crocodilefish lounging on metal rods. A shoal of batfish were resting in what seemed to be an old construction cage and large moray eels laying in wait in rusty metal pipes. Nudibranchs were scattered all over. clearly visible even in such low vis. As the currents started up again, it brought in a school of mackerels, a shoal of fusliers... However, we couldn't stay down anymore due to the current and had to ascend before time. For those of you not familiar with current diving, it may be good to dive in protected areas first. One diver had such a rough time in the currents, that she came up in tears. Diving in the north sea, in the red sea or anywhere else non tropical is indeed an experirnce but do make sure that you're comfortable enough in our waters before taking on more challenging dive sites. Do a couple of refresher dives..

Froggy Lair

ghost pipefish. pic courtesy 0f Moti Uttam

This is a great place for muck diving. A short boat ride from the Sipadan Water Village jetty to the site. As we back rolled off the boat, it wasn't much farther to go down to the sandy bed. A bit of orientation by our divemaster and we were off. It was a sea of nothingness, just sandy bed as far as we could sea. As we moved along, a banded sea snake slithered past, then a lonely longhorn cowfish which my buddy was ecstatic to find. Just a short distance down there were a few mantis prawns marching its way to the unknown, moment later a lone 1.5m barracuda sliced through the murky water looking shiftily at us. But one of the greatest finds were a pair of flamboyant cuttlefish; one slightly bigger than the other but they're only about 2inches in length, it's a wonder our divemaster spotted it. The changing of colours were spectacular. If you get to dive at Mabul, tell your divemaster that you need to take a pic of this creature. By the end of the photo shoot, you'll find that each pic can be passed off as a different creature - its colour change is dramatic to say the least. The only thing you may have to watch out for is the scorpionfish or the stonefish, it's so well camouflaged in the sand that I almost elbowed one as I knelt down to observe a patch of corals.

Crocodile Avenue

A herd of bumphead parrotfish. pic courtesy of Moti Uttam

At 6am, the wake up call was unfair. A 7.30am dive just doesn't cut it especially waking up to a cold, gloomy morning. My dive buddy decided he had to catch up on some sleep after having flown halfway around the world just to get wet. When I got to the dive centre, I found that everyone else had decided to forego the dive too. So it was just the divemaster and I , which was GREAT! Our quest of the day was to go look for the illusive seahorse. Certainly was a difficult task. We found hawkfish, loads of nudibranchs, fire gobies, all the usuals - butterflyfish, wrasses, triggerfishes, the odd lionfish here and there, a small group of young striped catfish and a particular red gorgonian fan. The red fan was what we've gotten up at such hour to look for. It took the divemaster some 10min to find what I've been dying to see all this while. A microscopic seahorse. It had exactly the same colouration and even knobbly bits as of the sea fan. Looking through a magnifying glass . it was the most magnificent creature ever. A mythical creature nonetheless. Unfortunately after a further search, we found no more than that one so let's hope that there are more there so the creature doesn't die out soon.

Eel Garden

the ribbon eel

As the name suggests, it's a garden of eels. From afar, they can be seen swaying in the gentle current. As divers near the area, the eels quickly retract into their tiny tunnels. But if you stay still long enough, the eels will pop up again. The depth is generally from 5m to 25m. It can get deeper here but the fun really is in the shallower waters where the alien world lives.

There are little crevices and holes where each is a lair for some creature. There are numerous goby species, lots of juveniles from different species - some with no resemblance to the adult; starfishes, one or two crown of thorns were spotted but still manageable.

Getting To Mabul

Borneo ~ Sabah ~ Tawau ~ Semporna ~ Mabul Island

Most of the resorts provide pick up and drop off service from Tawau Airport or Tawau Town.

This is generally the route to take when thinking of travelling to Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai. Catch a flight to Sabah, normally point of entry is Kota Kinabalu or Tawau. For those arriving at Kota Kinabalu airport, you are possibly flying in from Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong or any other country of origin apart from Malaysia. For those flying from Kuala Lumpur, then you will have a choice of either to fly direct to Tawau or to fly via Kota Kinabalu and catch a connecting flight.

Before doing all this, best for you to do a little homework on which resort you wish to stay at whilst visiting Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai. Then resort operators will make arrangements to meet you at the Tawau airport and who will then whisk you off to Semporna by private van which takes about 1hr or so. The roads connecting Tawau and Semporna are good. Not much can be said for the scenery though. Miles and miles, as far as the eye can see of ...palm oil plantations.

It's always best to book your trip in advance as the busy diving months can mean full occupancy at the resorts. The last thing you'd want to be is disappointed.

Always book the earliest flights out to Tawau as some of the resorts have scheduled boat transfer times and if they have to transfer divers at an unscheduled hour, it'll cost.

By Air

There are several routes to take:

1. From Kuala Lumpur

Air Asia flies direct to Tawau daily ;

Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu with connecting flights to Tawau daily ; , Mas Wings

2. From Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia Airlines flies from KK to Tawau daily ; , Mas Wings airline webpage

3. From Singapore

Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday ;

SilkAir flies to Kota Kinabalu on Monday and Friday ;

Air Asia flight from KL to Tawau, no delay this time...lucky us!

Flights coming in from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu normally arrive late evening. It will be advisable to spend a night in KK (accommodation is much better than in Tawau..) and then take the connecting flight to Tawau early the next morning. Flight time from KK to Tawau is about 40minutes.

Those of you waiting in between flights, and have 3 to 4 hours to spare, just catch a bus from Tawau airport to town for a walkabout. Cost is minimal , about RM9 and takes about 20min. Tell the driver you want to be dropped off near the market place.

Tawau Airport Bus Schedule to Tawau town : 7.15am, 9.15am, 10.50am, 12.15pm, 2.30pm, 3.50pm 6.50pm

Tawau town to Tawau Airport Bus Schedule:5.30am, 8.00am, 8.30am, 10.30am, 1.00pm, 2.30pm, 5.00pm

If you're unsure, take a taxi to town for about RM35 per way. But on the way back from town, you can bargain with the taxi driver for a cheaper rate taking you back to the airport. You can pick up a taxi from the 'bemo station'.

By Bus

For those not wanting to take the private van or arriving at Tawau from another part of Sabah, it's possible to take a public van like a bemo, from Tawau to Semporna. This 'station' is situated close to the markeplace. But be prepared to wait.

Those not wishing to fly on return to Tawau from Semporna, there are buses leaving for the larger towns in Sabah from the outstation bus terminal eg to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan.

By Boat

The speedboat ride from Semporna to Mabul is about 45min depending on the weather and to Sipadan is about 1+hr

By Taxi

If you wish to take a taxi from Tawau airport to Semporna, cost is around RM160

Minivans are available at the airport based on SIC (seat-in-coach) sharing basis and will cost approx. RM40 - RM45 per person to Semporna. However,expect to wait till the seats are filled before they depart. If you have plenty of time, this may be the best option for you