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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

DIVING A DREAM | Mabul and Sipadan with Borneo Divers


Sipadan Island

I was last on the islands of Mabul and Sipadan with Borneo Divers back in July 2008, and I have returned three years later, in August 2011 – to find that this place is still one of my favourite places on earth to dive. Leaving it behind, proved much harder the second time round.


INFORMATION SUPPLIED BY BDMR:

Borneo Divers Mabul Resort

Located on the South Eastern coast of Sabah and about 20 minutes from Sipadan, 30-40 minutes from Semporna, perched on the Continental Shelf, lies the island of Mabul, rated the “Mecca of Muck Diving.”


Mabul is surrounded by the Celebes Sea and white sandy beaches. Borneo Divers Mabul Resort is wholly owned and operated by Borneo Divers & Sea Sports (Sabah) Sdn Bhd – pioneers in recreational diving tourism in Sabah and the Dive Resort management in Sipadan. The underwater world of Mabul houses the most incredible marine habitats where divers today continue discovering new species.


HOW TO GET THERE

Fly from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau (40 minutes) and then take a coach of about 90 minutes to the coastal fishing town of Semporna where you will catch a ferry to Mabul Island in about 30-40 minutes.


MABUL ISLAND

Mabul is recognized as one of the world’s best “muck diving” sites. It has a shallow reef profile with a sandy bottom with patches of sea grass, and is one of the richest single destinations for exotic and small marine life in the world.


The diversity of macro life inhabiting the coral rubble and sea grass sites are what put Mabul on the diving map. Flamboyant cuttlefish, blue ringed octopus, mimic octopus, gobies and frogfish are everywhere, as are morays, snake eels and practically the whole scorpion fish family. You will also get to see the beautiful mandarin fish at dusk performing their mating rituals. There is no doubt about it, Mabul is a magical macro site. The beauty of Mabul will also greatly appeal to non-divers.


SIPADAN

Sipadan diving was pioneered by Borneo Divers. Above the water, the island is just a tiny 40 acre spot of jungle with a white sandy beach. But below the water, Sipadan’s vertical topography and abundant marine life, make it one of the world’s most desired destinations.


Sipadan entered a new age of conservation on January 1st 2005 when all resorts were vacated from the Island and it became a fully protected conservation zone and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Borneo Divers are proud to have supported this conservation effort and they continue working with the Malaysian government to secure Sipadan’s future protection.


Diving in Sipadan is not rated as the best in the world without good reason. The waters are calm and warm, visibility is generally good, and the quantity and variety of marine life is astounding. A mere 15 metres from the beach is a vertical wall starting at a depth of 3 metres which plunges straight down to 600 metres.


No single dive site epitomizes the diversity of Sipadan quite like Barracuda Point. Named after the huge schools of chevron (blacktail) barracuda that are frequently found there. In addition to the barracudas, large schools of jacks, batfish and scores of huge bumphead parrotfish can also be seen there. Turtles abound as well as dozens of sharks. You never really know what you will see at Barracuda Point from one dive to the next, you just know that whatever it is, it will be good!


For more information, go to: www.borneodivers.info


The Dive Station

THE TRIP

If I had a soundtrack to dive to in this magical place, it would have to be from Gladiator, the music, ‘Elysium’, ‘Honor Him’ and ‘Now We Are Free’ by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard! All I have to do is close my eyes and I’m right back underwater in Sipadan with the turtles, the sharks, the walls of barracudas, the jacks and the bumphead parrotfish. Diving a dream.


I have been fortunate to dive quite a few places before getting to Sipadan. I have dived the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, Bentota in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Terengganu in Malaysia, Djibouti, Oman and the UAE and can’t wait to continue expanding my list, but I have got stuck on rating Sipadan as my absolute favourite place to be – both above and below the surface. This beautiful and protected marine environment is exactly what I imagined an underwater paradise to look and feel like.


The journey to get to Mabul is long but worth the stretch from anywhere you are based in the world. The minute you arrive on Mabul Island, you are warmly welcomed by the Borneo Divers Mabul Resort (BDMR) staff and given refreshments, a full brief as to how everything works, where everything is found, and then left to relax in your chalet to unpack, refresh yourself before lunch and get ready for your first dive of the day.


The new and fully equipped dive station is now found on a platform stood tall over the reef where the exquisite dive site, Paradise 2 is found right below your feet. You can jump off the jetty and snorkel at any time you want and see an incredible variety of life. They’ve got frogfish (Antennariidae), ghost pipefish (Solenostomus) and mandarin fish (Synchiropus splendidus) just below the ladder. Keep a lookout for Indian walkers on this site. We found three of these strange fish with what look like chicken feet attached from their sides, which I had never seen before.


When you’re at the Dive Station, you are introduced to Amin who is incharge of the daily operation of the dive centre, and he makes sure you are fully equipped and that you have everything rinsed and placed in a crate under your room number for your next dives. Your dive equipment is so organised that you get onto the dive boat and find everything has already been lined up and assembled for you. There are no excuses for being late on leaving for your dives, it’s efficient and prompt clockwork management.


Amin is also the one to see for access to the new photography room – made especially to setup your video and photography equipment. This is a fantastic room with electrical outlets at every individual photographer’s spot on the work bench, for you to recharge batteries, change lenses and safely leave your equipment overnight whilst you stay on the island ­– if you choose to do so. It is air conditioned, so you don’t have to fear the housing fogging up when you put your cameras back into place.


We then met Eljer, a familiar face to me from my last visit, who has been with BDMR for 18 years and incredibly well suited to the island/diving life. All the guys there are, they have a fantastic sense of humour and they know how to strum a guitar and sing away for hours when the days diving is done.


Eljer took us on our first two introductory dives on our first day around Mabul, and it was exactly as I remembered it and a perfect start to the trip. He pointed out a new species of frogfish which had recently been discovered under the jetty. New species are still often discovered there, it’s incredible. He pointed out the first two poisonous Indian walkers to me, which I had to take a double take on, as I had not quite seen them clearly at first. The chicken claws really did surprise me. They are such a strange looking fish and once I’d seen one, I seemed to find them more regularly. I had not seen or noticed them back in 2008. It’s great to have a spotter point things out.


The rest of our week’s dives were from then on in Maadil’s care, while Eljer went off to start a diving course for another couple who had just arrived on the island. Maadil had been our dive guide on our last trip over, and a very good one at that.

I said it three years ago, and I say it again – Maadil has one hell of an eye on him! We set out to do a dive at Mantabuan Island and this particular dive site is known to have the very small orangutan crabs (Achaeus japonicus) which Underwater Photographer, Simone Caprodossi had on his list to photograph. I looked into every single bubble anemone I could find for 50 minutes and didn’t come across one! Maadil found the smallest bugger there was to find, hidden in an angled gap in a very large boulder. Go figure. Same went for a seamoth (Pegasidae). I was desperate to find one, I love these guys, they are such awesome little creatures and Maadil, sure enough, found one in Sipadan. I managed to lose it the minute I took my eyes off it.


We went down to the Turtle Cavern dive site just off the Drop Off in Sipadan, and Maadil took us straight down to see two beautiful resident ornate ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus). I spend so much time watching marine life through my video camera’s view finder trying to capture all the moments, that I keep telling myself to plan at least one dive without equipment, so I can actually take the time to enjoy it with my own eyes for once. But alas, I never do in fear of missing a great opportunity that I can then watch back over and over again. I always look back at my footage, and still watch it in awe at how things move and appear. And I know that they had actually been right infront of me for that moment I filmed them. That’s pretty special in my book.


I’m happy to have had Simone with me as EDA’s Underwater Photographer to capture them in his own style, as photography and video are two very different mediums – and where would a story be without images to illustrate it! Selecting just a few photos out of the hundreds that he captured for the cover story, was challenging for us both.


To provide you with a list of all the species you can see in Sabah would be ridiculously long, but the great thing is knowing there is so much more out there to discover on top of what I’ve already mentioned. I’ve added 4 new fish to this 5 day trip.


The really big stuff in Sipadan is just so exciting. The walls of chevron or blacktail barracudas (Sphyraena qenie) are always such a spectacular sight to see, as are the huge schools of jacks that you swim through at the shallower depths. My favourites are the giant bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum). They are so huge and beautiful in their own unique way, and from a distance, they look like a herd of buffalo grazing on pastures. They are fantastic to film.


There is always a gorgeous backdrop with all the beautiful colours of the corals. They are huge and healthy, and teeming with all sorts of colourful anthias, little humbugs, the beautiful coral groupers, butterflyfish and so much more. Whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) beat the numbers I saw last time – which was fantastic – and looking out into the deep blue, you can see the grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) as well – so we know all is well in Sipadan.


The turtles, as always are everywhere. Both green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), and you shouldn’t see less than 30 of them on a dive. With it being the turtle mating season, we witnessed a green turtle couple getting together to mate right in front of us as we were coming up from one of our dives at Hanging Garden. Turtles don’t shy away from the cameras, if anything, they actually pose for you. Our cover star was a little poser herself.

In Mabul, Simone and I spent 70 minutes under the jetty at Paradise 2 on a dusk dive, watching and photographing the one and only, mandarin fish. Unless you know which bit of rubble exactly to look for them, you won’t see them! A dive guide is mandatory to point them out to you. We didn’t explore anything else on that dive as we went down for that sole purpose and hadn’t taken any torches with us, so we wouldn’t have spotted any of the other cool stuff that comes out at night. Paradise 2 really is exquisite and just so easy to dive, or snorkel for that matter. There are trumpetfish, cornetfish, pipefish and blennies everywhere you look. They even have ornate ghost pipefish, stargazers, as well as the Indian walkers – which are the 3 I added to my seen list. And of course, you can see the awesome and very camouflaged frogfish of all kinds, new species included.


We also got to dive at Kapalai and Mantabuan Island which I had never done before. Mantabuan is the furthest away, taking 50 minutes to get to by boat. We didn’t see as much as expected ­– which happens sometimes, but the drawback was how cold it was due to the thermoclines. At least we found an orangutan crab after all the time we spent looking for one, and a juvenile harlequin sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) which is so unexpectedly different from its adult form. The juveniles are brown with large white blotches and mimic the movement of a poisonous flatworm for defence against predators. They gain more spots and the spots reverse from white to black as they age.


I really liked Kapalai and recommend going there as well which is just next door to Mabul. The island of Kapalai was a beautiful island two hundred years ago, but is now only a sand bar. Erosion has reduced the island to sea level and the village now sits on the edge of the extensive Ligitan Reefs. All of the building structures sit in the water on stilts. We managed to get one dive in at Kapalai and there are a lot of dive sites to explore, but our diving schedule was already packed. As you will see, there are no lack of sites to dive in this area and they are all so close by.


Another thing to do when you are staying on Mabul ­– if you’re not diving, is to go for a walk around the island. It takes approximately an hour to cover it, and along the way you will see the many children of Mabul Island. On the left side, if you are looking at Borneo Divers straight on, you will find the small settlement of the Filipino Water Gypsies, and on the right, the larger settlement of the Malaysian fishing villagers. Although they both having fishing backgrounds, both poor and one is prominently stateless in Sabah, having no birth identity in Malaysia, they are both superior examples of sheer content! They lead such simple lives and yet so colourful. They want not and they take not. Three years earlier I had visited them and taken their photographs and not one of them asked me for anything in return. I’ve come back and noticed how much bigger the populations and settlements have become, and still, no one asks you for anything other than to take their picture as they pose, smiling so profusely you think they might explode waiting for you to show them what they look like, and they thank you for it when you’re done and erupt into fits of giggles. It’s quite remarkable at how humble they are.

Clement Lee has explained how he has tried to help them out and given them ideas of how to work with the tourists that come to the island through the rest of the resorts scattered around, but they have no interest whatsoever in making money, or working for that matter. They are perfectly happy just the way they are, and they don’t feel the need for anything more as they are self efficient and practical in everything they do.


One problem that the resorts continuously try to tackle with the villagers though, is how hard it is in educating them about the cleanliness and the impact that waste has on the environment. They are hoping that the children of the island will be the ones to grasp the concept and be the ones to pass on the knowledge and understanding to the adults through the education the school on the island provides them. When you walk through the villages, you will see large holes that have been dug out every few metres and filled with rubbish, the majority including plastic packets and sweet wrappers. When the holes overflow, the rubbish is disposed of by burning them into the ground.


The children spend most of their time in the water and seemingly know how to fish the minute they learn to walk. One bright side to the larger junk items lying about, is the entertainment and imagination the larger objects create for them when they play. You see that the adults do monitor the safety of the children through it all. A large polystyrene box makes a perfect boat and one little boy had made a perfect kite.


Clement Lee has said, the trick is to not give up and continue trying to educate them the best way they can, and he’s absolutely right!

If you ever plan to go and discover the diving world of Sipadan for yourselves, I can promise only wonderful memories. I know from personal experience and from the people that I have met, that you will want to keep going back there to rediscover it all over again. Listen to my three consecutive soundtrack pieces and close your eyes, it will prepare you mentally for your first breath underwater in the magic that is Sipadan…


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