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Published: October 28th 2009
We hadn't heard of the islands Sipadan & Mabul when we were in the UK planning our trip but as you venture out to this part of the world then you will often be asked the question "so have you dived at Sipadan?" The reason for this is that Sipadan has been voted one of the world's best dive spots and is famous for it's huge limestone drop off that is crowned by the island itself. Here in this area you find huge shoals of fish, sharks and turtles and a whole host of other marine life you probably won't find elsewhere.
Access to Sipadan and the other islands in the area is via Semporna, a very rough around the edges town on the South East side of Sabah state in Malaysian Borneo. After coming across to Tawau from Tarakan by the public ferry and spending a couple of days in the town to run some errands, we got to Semporna and immediately set about trying to book a dive trip to Sipadan for Dale. In order to dive or snorkel here you need a permit and numbers are limited to 150 per day so if you haven't booked at
least a week in advance (more in high season) then you have to prepare yourself for diappointment. We did find one dive shop who had a permit available but not for another week and we didn't fancy hanging around for that long so Dale admitted defeat and booked a 3 dive day trip to Mabul island which is also a top dive spot in itself so not really that bad. Semporna really is a dingy town and we didn't fancy staying there so we organised for Sophie to go on the dive boat to Mabul where she could organise some accommodation and we could enjoy some island fun for a few days too. We booked our trip with Scuba Junkies who seemed like a good reliable company at the time but we would not recommend them for reasons we'll explain later.
While Dale went off to do his diving around the island Sophie sorted out a room.. not at the nice resort as Scuba Junkies had made out we'd be staying in on the mainland, but at the Longhouse which is on the opposite side of the island and not quite what we were led to expect. It wasn't
so bad though becuase whilst the Longhouse is ultra basic the atmosphere here is great and is owned by a lovely Philippino couple who make everyone feel right at home by providing copious amounts of rum to get the party started!
Dale thoroughly enjoyed his days diving and although it wasn't quite the island he'd hoped for Mabul certainly didn't disappoint. First they stopped just short of one of the most exclusive resorts on Mabul and were told that the first dive would be an artificial reef. Dale was not to sure what to expect from an artificial reef as he had only dived real reefs but all the same was looking forward to something new. Dale's buddy for the day was Rebecca a fellow Brit and a young Kiwi divemaster called John. On the boat they went through what we may see down in the artificial reef and the depth they would be going to then geared up ready to enter the water. They entered by doing the James Bond style backwards roll (minus the tuxedo) off the boat which is always great as it gives all the guys a bit of an ego boost before heading into
the depths! The artificial reef was made up of many sunken wooden frames, wheel barrows and a sunken fishing boat which was all a bit strange but seeing the amazing amount of fish this attracted was mind blowing. There were schools of barracuda and yellow tails which darkened the light seeping in from the surface and spiraled up to make some great fish stairways. On the sea bed were groupers the size of cows and lion fish everwhere you turned. After about 45 minutes they headed back to the surface as Rebecca had a problem with her BCD and we all talked about how great that was on our way to the next site.
The next two dives were muck dives which basically means you see smaller stuff than say sharks and rays but all the same it's very interesting. We headed down to a depth of about 18 meters with visability up to about 8 meters. These dives were much more dark and eerie than the the first, it really did feel like another world with the miserable mouths of the crocodile fish in front of you and turtles jumping out everywhere. When they spotted a huge stone
fish Dale was very excited as he'd always wanted to see one. He'd missed out in Flores when a fellow traveller had seen one but it had swam away before he got to see it. Everything down here looked evil as if it was straight out of a creepy science fiction film and then out of the muck we spotted two of the most beautiful angelic looking fish he had ever seen.. Fire Gobbys. They don't move much but are very small and pretty always staying in a solitary pair for most of their life.
Next John spotted a huge lion fish hiding under a rock and called (signalled!) them over to have a look. By now Dale was getting the hang of the buoyancy and felt fairly confident swimming over to join John and Rebecca who at this time were looking under the rock. Anybody who dives will tell you that its a bit of a skill trying to maneuver up very close to people without bumping into parts of them. As he was getting closer and closer to John and Rebecca he realised he'd had never done this before and wasn't quite sure how to stop! It
wasn't looking good as the lion fish was pretty big and landing on one of these would have definitely put a sudden end to the trip and probably his life, so instead he headed for a piece of the coral wall what was next to John. CRASH!! John and Rebecca looked around in fright and probably thought he was trying to commit some kind of underwater suicide, but after brushing the rubble of coral off his wetsuit and making many hand signals of OK to the others we headed back to the surface all in tact.
The diving in Mabul is incredible, not for the coral but just the sheer variety and diversity of fish on display. It's easy to see why this is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world alongside Sipadan because if you are on a two week break you are guaranteed to see a multitude of rare and colourful fish. You do get many of your ego headed divers out here though who do like to boast how long they can stay under water on one tank of air but they soon shut up once they put their regulators in so
don't let that put you off!
While all this was going on Sophie checked into the Longhouse and they asked if she would be interested in diving at Sipadan the following day. Of course she said she would be but needed to get word to Dale to double check. Unfortunately she made the mistake of doing this through Scuba Junkies staff without knowing that Dale was actually 'their property' and therefore not allowed to dive with anyone else but them for his remaining time on the island, including Sipadan which they didn't have any permits for. By telling the staff here she not only wiped out any chances of Dale being allowed to dive at Sipadan with another company but also got the couple in trouble for promoting a dive with an alternative company when the boss at SJ phoned up to compain.. oops! We found this most frustrating because it was never explained when we were on the mainland that this would be the case were really annoyed that they'd flexed their muscles in this way because our money would be going elsewhere. Needless to say after this we are not the biggest fans of Scuba Junkies and
conveyed our disappointment when we returned to pay!
Our remaining days here on Mabul were predictably spent snorkelling both around the island and over to neighbouring Kapalai which is basically a small sand spit with a posh stilted resort built alongside it. Although we'd heard many people come back from snorkelling around the piers in front of the drive resorts saying they'd seen turtles, sharks and even octopus we didn't manage to spot any of these which was a bit of a shame as Sophie is desperate to see an Octopus on this trip! Having said that the snorkelling here was still excellent and again we found masses of coral in the most beautiful colours and types with yet more amazing fish we'd never seen before. We even managed to spot a sea snake cruising in the surf on one of the beaches! The most exciting time was had over at Kapalai where everything seemed to be super sized! Here we saw the biggest sea cucumbers ever in a variety of beautiful colours, we reckoned they must have been around 3' long and about 30cm wide. Not only that but we saw huge lion fish, bump headed parrot fish
Dale and Sipidan
about the closest we got to it!
and even one turtle who scared the life out of us as he popped up behind us from nowhere!
With not much to in the evenings on Mabul we were glad that we were staying in the Longhouse where the atmosphere is great, ok we had a really good group of people there with us but it's hard not to have fun when Phillipino rum is pushed on you to celebrate another guests birthday and out comes the guitar! To be honest we were glad we hadn't stayed in Scuba Junkies resort in the end as we heard reports that the evenings there were quite sedated with groups sitting on separate tables and not mixing at all so it all worked out for the best in the end.
In the end the fun we had at the longhouse combined with the beautiful marine that was accessible more than made up for the disappointment of not being able to go to Sipadan and it'll give us a reason to return one day! All the islands in this group are beautiful and whilst we cannot comment on Sipadan (no bad feelings!) everyone that did come back from there said it
was awesome and they could really see why it is one of the best in the world!
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