Mabul and Sipadan

Posted on May 1, 2019


“Your dive gear has been left in Semporna,” came the reply after the radio response ended.

I squinted at the manager. I could feel the exasperation building. “WTF,” I let out under my breath. “I specifically asked the woman at reception this morning, “Is everything on the boat?” and she told me “Yes, yes take a seat. We will call you.”

This was not a good start. Incompetence irritates me, especially when I try to double check things, to avoid situations like the one I am now in. Gggrrrrrrrrrrr!

“Look I can only apologise, I don’t know how this happened?” said the manager stood on the dock, clutching a clipboard. “You can of course use all the necessary gear today free of charge and your stuff will be here by 3pm today for diving tomorrow,” he added diplomatically, motioning to the kit room behind me where a queue of people was building.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But shit happens. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled awkwardly and nodded in silence. “Suck it up Asha at least you’re still diving,” I reminded myself.

Rental gear is horrible. Don’t care what anyone says. If you are a professional or serious diver, you will never be happy wearing a wet suit that’s been peed in and used by hundreds of other people. Fins and a mask that don’t fit properly, are cheap and break easily. Wearing an ill fitting BCD and reg that’s uncomfortable and arduous to breath from.

I sound like a brat, I know, but when you have a personal uniform, it’s an alien feeling diving in equipment that’s not snug or doesn’t feel like second skin. You can do it, you just don’t enjoy it. It’s like wearing something your mother chose, at a party you were looking forward to going to! Disaster.

I turned on my heels grabbed what I needed and boarded the boat. A quick five minutes out from Mabul Island our DM, Afat, warned us about the current during the briefing. Stingray City would be the first site. I was grouped with two other experienced divers – a lovely couple from Seattle now living in Germany (rescue and a fellow instructor).

The next 55minutes were spent in a fast moving drift current that reminded me of Komodo, in Indonesia. Dumping air, twisting and turning to avoid damaging the reef we whizzed past a magnificent technicolour wall of coral, soft and jelly-like, wobbling in the water….vibrant and stunning. We saw at least ten turtles, sting rays, moray eels, nudi branchs as big as egg cups and all manner of fish in huge shoals. Lobsters and crabs. This set the bar for the next five days. Borneo is rich in marine life, there’s no doubt about it. I was in marine heaven.

The dive resort I stayed at is a well organised machine. Customers leave for diving after breakfast between 0830 and 0915. Groups of four max. No more than eight in a boat with two dive guides. You’re put with divers with near enough the same capability to maximise your underwater experience.

The boat either comes back to the island for a surface interval of tea/coffee cake/fruit or stays on site. Second dive is always at 1140. Lunch is served at 1300 and dive three is at 1430. Sunset dives take place at 1745 and night dives an hour later.

I did all three dives every day with a sunset dive once (it costs extra) and near enough all my dives were at least an hour long, some longer. With the exception of one day when my group was full of novices who sucked up their air like a vacuum cleaner. Dive over in 43mins. Hmmmm.

Mabul showed me so many amazing critters. I saw frog fish the size of dinner plates and tiny bitty ones, no bigger than 1 cm. Many varieties of ghost pipefish and electric blue eels. Jaw-dropping numbers of fish. Flamboyant cuttlefish, pygmy cuttlefish feeding on delicate cleaner shrimp, decorated crabs with head pieces to rival Ascot and orangutan crabs bouncing around in the bosom of bubble coral; endless species of tiny shrimp and, peacock Mantis shrimp and mandarin fish. Old, wise looking turtles that dwarfed large men. Their shells rivalling most people’s coffee table. I experienced incredible visibility, sudden thermoclines and ripping current that left my heart racing and senses on high alert. My legs definitely got a work out. It was thrilling, all of it! I drank in every second and felt alive and so damn happy. Wildlife Safari fix.

Everyone stays on the island of Mabul and it’s tiny. You can visit from Semporna for a day’s diving, but it’s an hour each way. On Mabul all resorts are all inclusive. There’s not a lot to do on land and unless you eat local, dining options are slim. I would imagine the land living conditions for staff is very challenging. I’d go mad, I know that for sure. It’s like being on a big atoll. You can walk around the island in 30 minutes. There are around 20 dive school crammed onto this piece of marine paradise.

The locals live in extreme poverty. The wealthier resorts are cordoned off from the squalor and real life. It reminds me a lot of The Philippines. Geographically it’s actually not that far. There was until recently concerns about terrorists and pirates frequenting the waters and taking tourists hostage. Not anymore. The naval presence put a halt to that. And I also heard because no one paid out any ransom money. It wasn’t exactly a lucrative trade. Ha!

Kids run amok on Mabul playing in the sand, dirt and rubbish. Fishermen repair their boats, small grills are lit at dusk and the air is filled with the scent of charcoal and smoked fish. I went exploring in the village on the first night. I found the local basketball court, mosque and local shacks that sell everything for gasoline, shampoo to coconuts and illegally fished shells and marine trinkets. Better work helping the local communities is needed if conservation ideas are gonna work. To me the vibe still felt very much like “us and them”. I wonder whether the locals resent Mabul being taken over? Yes it brings in tourism but not many people benefit from that directly. I would have liked to have spoken to the community about their thoughts. It’s a picture I’ve witnessed all over the world. Same, same but different.

Divers coming to this region also have the opportunity to buy a one-day permit to explore the waters of Sipadan National Park which is close by. But they sell out like hot cakes. I booked mine from London in February and it was all I imagined and more. The topography of the reef is insane. Caves and channels, deep walls that drop into a dark abyss. Hypnotic landscapes I was mesmerised. All four dives offered something different and left me spellbound by Sipidan’s beauty. Sharks galore but no hammers- just white tips and reef sharks.

Some shallow areas felt like I’d travelled back in time. The reef was so colourful and bursting with life it left me very emotional. It’s how the ocean was when I learned to dive twenty years ago. It gave me hope. Sipadan closed down its resorts more than a decade ago to safeguard its heritage. And good job too. Only divers with permits are allowed in the water. The rules are strict and it’s clearly working. No night dives. Four dives a day max and all boats entering the marine park must sign in and leave before twilight. The number of dive boats are also limited and the area is patrolled by the military.

It’s an extraordinary marine park and one I’d love to revisit again. It’s just 45 minutes from Mabul. On the way back our captain spotted a pod of pilot whales. We turned off the engine to watch their dorsal fins comb through the water. The whole day vanished so fast as did my holiday.

Seventeen dives in five days and now I’m headed back to Thailand. I met some very cool people from all over the world. And made some friends who I’ll definitely travel to dive with again.

I’ve already started plotting my next dive extravaganza…..!