Semporna, Sipadan, Mabul, and Kapalai. This is the holy grail for scuba divers. Semporna, a kind of sketchy and rag-tag town, is the departure point for about a a dozen islands and nearly a hundred unique dive sites. Mabul is a resort and sea gypsy island known for the macro-diving and underwater photography opportunities. Kapalai is a high end resort island with plenty of diving for all budgets. Sipadan is truly the holy grail, however. Whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, schools of fish 40ft wide, and 100ft visibility. The diamond of Malaysian diving in Borneo.
I wish I had the money to dive there, but we didn't. Instead we enjoyed two days of non-stop diving throughout the other two islands, and it was a stellar experience. We'll be back for Sipadan, one day.
To get to Mabul, our destination island, we took a bus and found ourselves sitting in the stairwell of a crowded bus for the second time. Why are these things always so crowded? After landing in Semporna and noting the sketchy vibe, we shipped out to Mabul to stay with a dive center called ScubaJunkie.
Mabul is the island where “macro-diving” or “muck diving” was invented. Although the visibility is mediocre, the reef is brilliantly colored and it hosts an array of intricate and beautiful small species. It's common to see cuttlefish, octopus, turtles, sea horses and nudibranchs. The island is also home to a population of sea gypsys. Many of these nomadic village people don't have a citizenship with any country and vary between living on the island and in the sea.
ScubaJunkie turned out to be an awesome company for reasons beyond the dives. To start, they have created a turtle hatchery and emergency rescue center, with hope to offset the human impact on the beaches. Next, they host weekly beach clean ups, and they have started to get the village involved in helping and learning about the environment, littering, and sustainable fishing. The dive center refuses to serve local fish until the villagers fish sustainably. Also, they give out and collect biodegradable trash bags from the villagers so they can stop littering directly into the ocean, and hire local help. Finally, they do their part to create awareness about the fall of the shark populations (10% left) and banning shark fin soup.
On to the diving… One word: Awesome!
I apologize in advance, we didn't take pictures. We didn't want to fiddle with a camera, composition, and angles, so we selfishly enjoyed all of it to ourselves.
We dove through reefs, walls, drop offs, artificial reefs, and sandy bottoms. We dove in the morning, afternoon, and even the night. We were basically alone (besides the dive master) the whole time. We explored coral and navigated underwater village reefs. We swam through schools of barracuda and watched cuttlefish hunt. We found moray eels thicker than me, and spotted octopus, squid, porcupine fish, orangutan crabs, and frog fish. It was great.
On the side, we played volleyball with the locals, took saltwater showers (no fresh water taps on the island), talked about future dives, and ate.
On the way out we enjoyed some delicious food from Semporna and finally took a fresh water shower. Now, back to KK and then the peninsula!
Grant and Danielle