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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

LIVING AQUARIUMS


PULAU MABUL (Pu•lau meaning Island.) Mabul Island is located in the Malaysian part of Borneo in the State of Sabah and first became popular due to its close proximity to Sipadan Island. Mabul Island is recognised as one of the best “muck-diving” sites in the world. It is a small oval shaped island surrounded by sandy beaches and perched on the northwest corner of a larger 200-hectare reef. The reef is on the edge of the continental shelf and the seabed surrounding the reef slopes out to 25m-30m deep.


PULAU SIPADAN (Pu•lau meaning Island.) The internationally famous island of Sipadan lies off the northeast coast of Borneo and is Malaysia’s only oceanic island. Sipadan was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, which rises 600m from the seabed. At the dropoff, five metres of white, soft sand in knee-high deep water suddenly gives way to a precipitous drop of discovery. Few islands in the world offer such prolific marine and coral life, it guarantees that every dive is a memorable experience.


FAM TRIP DIARY

It is very difficult to describe Mabul Island and Sipadan Island in just a few words. There is much to be said about these small paradise islands that both have enormous amounts of magical sights to offer below their shimmering surfaces. This is by far the best diving I have ever experienced to date and I’ve travelled to quite a few different places now in the 15 years I’ve been a diver. They are both an underwater odyssey where you glide through realms of breathtaking visions you think you could only ever dream about. If you can make it a reality to go to Mabul and Sipadan, it’s worth every effort as a diver to go there! Put it on your bucket list! You cannot possibly imagine to see as much as we’ve seen in the three days we were there, unless of course, you have already been. Those who have, know exactly what I’m talking about. On the third dive of the first day, we thought we’d seen everything and we couldn’t possibly see anything more. We had seen so many things we’d never seen before, that we didn’t know how/where to look from one spot/creature to the next. The second day, blew us away. It would be a lot quicker to list the species not found there. How are there still so many new things to see? It really is an amazing place and I definitely want to go back!


Lets start at the very beginning and I’ll give you our daily itinerary to see if this can help you in any way to make plans to go there yourselves.


DAY 1 – 19th JULY 2008

06:00 Arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and transfer to hotel.


Our flight had departed the previous night from Dubai at 18:35 and very little sleep was had on the flight as I ended up watching two movies from the in-flight entertainment. It was good landing in KL and we were buzzed with excitement from having arrived and were already planning to go straight out to explore and take photographs as soon as we had checked in to our hotel. We only had the one day in Kuala Lumpur and wanted to make the most of it.

Petronas Twin Towers
Petronas Twin Towers

We stayed at the PNB Darby Park Executive Suites which are conveniently located in the centre of KL. Pretty much everyone, everywhere in KL is incredibly friendly. We were welcomed in to the hotel, our luggage was piled up on a trolley, labeled and sent to our rooms while we were ushered over to the breakfast buffet for our first taste of Malaysia.

A good and varying breakfast (you can have noodles and soup at any time of the day in Malaysia), most importantly lots of coffee, a quick shower, change of clothes, cameras in tow and off we went!


Our hotel was a 10 minute walk from the Petronas Twin Towers where there is a shopping mall inside the towers. We were on a mission to find Rita – EDA’s Marine Biologist – an underwater housing for her camera as she had not found one in Dubai. Alas, we did not find one, but we had a good old wander around in the search and took some photos of the towers from the outside, stopped for a coffee break as we were beginning to flake from the lack of sleep, and it was then time to meet up for lunch with the rest of our group.


Our host to our Malaysia FAM tour was Tuan Razali Tuan Omar from Tourism Malaysia Dubai. He was waiting for us looking refreshed as he had very cleverly had a nap instead of going out. We met at Madam Kwan’s Restaurant for lunch inside the Suria KLCC (Petronas Towers, Suria Kuala Lumpur City Centre). One member of our group was still missing. Siobhan Leyden from one of the UAE's radio stations, Dubai Eye. She had slept through her alarm and joined us not long after we’d ordered, looking very panicked… but refreshed none the less.


We had our lunch and then our KL tour began.


13:30 Petronas Twin Towers, Sungei Wang Plaza, Menara Kuala Lumpur (KL Tower), Petaling Street and Central Market.


Of course, with the FAM trip consisting of four women, we made sure to stop at some of the shopping destinations as we only had the one day to do so. First thing was first though, we got to go inside the Petronas Twin Towers which tower the city at 452m with 88 storeys and took some photos from the sky bridge on the 41st floor. This is a must when visiting KL. You must also go to the KL Tower which is the world’s fourth tallest communication tower. The observation deck stands at 276m and gives you a 360º aerial view of the city.


There are a lot of malls similar to that of Dubai’s in KL, in the sense they have the same retail designers and are of the same price range, so we headed to the Sungei Wang Plaza for something different. There are 7 floors with over 700 retail outlets to choose from in this very entertaining and outrageous mall that is very easy to get lost in. There are so many unique things to buy in there, you won’t find anywhere else. You do have to like shopping to go in though. Bintang Walk is also a very good shopping, dining and entertaining area to go to when you have more time to spend in KL.


We also stopped at Petaling Street which is KL’s Chinatown and at Central Market for more of the local artisanal items which is a good place if you’re looking to buy souvenirs. There are so many other places of interest to visit while in KL and around it besides the shopping, which we did not have time to do, but recommend you take the time to fit it in. One I can suggest as a must see, is the Batu Caves just outside of KL. I visited it a few years back and loved it.


DAY 2 – 20th JULY 2008

06:00 Check out from hotel and transfer to airport

09:20 Depart to Kota Kinabalu

11:55 Arrive at Kota Kinabalu Airport and transit

13:15 Depart to Tawau

14:00 Arrive at Tawau Airport

14:20 Transfer to Semporna by mini van

16:00 Arrive at Semporna Jetty and transfer to Mabul Island by boat

17:00 Arrive at Mabul Island and check in to Borneo Divers Mabul Resort


What a day! You lose this day completely to all the travelling, and there is lots of it to do. I could have said, planes, trains and automobiles, but there are no trains in this excursion, there is however, a boat!

Kota Kinabalu is the modern gateway to the rest of Sabah, and you have to get here to get to the other parts! Direct flights between KK (the name by which Kota Kinablu is fondly referred to) and the regional capitals of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney to name a few, make Sabah easily accessible to travellers everywhere. Everyone has told me that if you get to KK, stay in KK for a bit and go to Mount Kinabalu which is a 2 hour scenic drive from KK itself. In particular, do not miss out seeing the Orangutans in Sepilok, the world’s largest Orangutan sanctuary.


Borneo Divers Mabul Resort is a lovely little resort tucked in along the beach on one side of Mabul Island. It is one of the four resorts there. The other three are, Sipadan Water Village Resort, the Sipadan-Mabul Resort and the Mabul Water Bungalows. We were welcomed onto the island by Clement Lee, the Managing Director of Borneo Divers.


We learnt a little history about the resort on our welcome tour. Borneo Divers actually began 25 years ago on Sipadan Island. Because of environmental protection and conservation efforts, they had to leave Sipadan in 2004. Half a year before that, they had already started building the Borneo Divers Resort on Mabul Island which is now in its fourth year running.


Sipadan Island had too many divers diving in its waters and it caused a depletion in the coral and marine life. The island is now owned by the government for its protection. No one can stay or walk around on the island and there are only 120 divers a day permitted to dive Sipadan, so planning your diving holiday well in advance is necessary as dive permits need to be obtained.


Clement said that it has made a big difference there and that the marine life numbers are coming back up. “The environment is our silent partner. If the environment is not well, we are ill. We vacated the island to protect the future of this world heritage site.” And it’s definitely paying off from what we've witnessed.


Borneo Divers have one policy! One dive boat, two divemasters. Our divemasters during our stay were Maadil and Lianah and we could tell that we were going to have a lot of fun we these two! Water visibility is 20-30m all year round and water temperatures are between 27-30ºC, also all year round. Being a tropical climate, annual rainfall varies from 2,000mm to 2,500mm. It rained a little while we were there, but they still go out diving when it does. It’s up to you whether or not you want to go out.


Borneo Divers is a 5 star IDC Dive Centre, so you can also do your dive certs there. Clement Lee is a Course Director and he has 22 Instructors and Divemasters at the resort. Mabul and Sipadan both have 12 dive sites each, so there is lots to explore.


The islands do not only attract divers. We arrived on the island with a group of bird watchers which we later learned was becoming a very popular pastime. 4 different types of pigeons have been found on the islands. It just comes to show, there is a little something for everyone.


Mabul Island itself is very small and Rita, Siobhan and myself took advantage to explore it the one morning it rained. It only took us 30 minutes to walk around the entire islet. There are two villages on each side. One is a gypsy village, where the people live on their boats. They do not stay for long periods of time and eventually move to other islands. The other village is built on stilts and bustling with children. The ratio is 10:1! And these kids love to have their photographs taken. They will accompany you while you walk through and pose and giggle all the way until you reach the end of their village. They are very simple folk and all of them a joy. They don’t have much, but they certainly know how to enjoy life!


DAY 3 – 21st JULY 2008

Our dive gear was collected from our rooms and sent to the dive centre and we’d got there a little early to put the things we needed to one side. The team at the dive centre took care of the rest and had it all sent to the boat. They even assemble your kit for you. The only thing you have to do, is make sure you have your weight belt and that you take it off the dive boat at the end. Of course check that everything you need is in fact on the boat and not back at the dive centre.

Rita rented an underwater camera from Treasure Images to try and take some underwater photos and they didn’t turn out bad at all. Treasure Images is an underwater filming service at the resort if you wish to have your own personalized DVD of your dive trip.


My video camera's batteries were all charged up and a brand new tape was in place and ready for a new underwater experience. I was more excited about the visibility than anything else at this point. The rest was all to be a surprise as I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And boy oh boy, was I surprised! Rita, my trusty buddy is very much like myself underwater and we have an understanding. Well I can tell you one thing for sure, we’ve not laughed as much as we had on this trip. The rest of our group would turn around every now and then to look back at us because they could hear us yelling, doing a little boogie, laughing or chatting away underwater. We had found our underwater paradise. We saw things we knew of, that we had seen photographs of, and we were now finally seeing them with our own eyes. Rita and I had never seen a sea horse face to face, until this trip. The following animals I list are ones I was very, very excited about.


DIVE 1 – MABUL | LOBSTER WALL

★★★

9:03 | 22.4m | 27ºC | 50mins


Borneo Divers consider the first dive the orientation dive, which is done with your Divemaster (DM) in order to see how things go while checking equipment, weights and buoyancy. This was a good fast drift dive and easy enough to hang on to see things. Great fun!

  • Turtles

  • Orangutan Crab

  • Razor Fish


DIVE 2 – SIPADAN | BARRACUDA POINT

★★★★★

13:51 | 21.6m | 29ºC | 55mins


Best dive I've had to date!

  • Moth Fish

  • Clown Frog Fish

  • Turtles 30+

  • Barracudas 1000+

  • Whitetip Reef Sharks


DIVE 3 – SIPADAN | DROP OFF & TURTLE CAVERN/TOMB

★★★

15:58 | 20.7m | 28ºC | 51mins


The Drop Off is 600m deep, just 5m from the island shore! The Turtle Cavern or Tomb (known as both) is still to this day a mystery as to whether turtles enter the cavern to die, or die in there unable to find their way out. We did not enter far into the cavern, but it can be done.


DAY 4 – 22nd JULY 2008

DIVE 4 – MABUL | RAY POINT

★★★★★

14:52 | 24.4m | 29ºC | 52mins


What an unbelievable dive. I finally got to see a seahorse and not just any seahorse. A Pygmy Seahorse is so hard to see (2cm – it really is that tiny) that we didn’t find another one, although I was told there would have been a lot more on the gorgonian sea fan on which the seahorses live. Maadil, had actually brought a magnifying glass down with him to see if it would help. You really have to stare down hard at a spot to see these little guys, as they really do look like part of the gorgonian. I knew it was a seahorse only after I managed to see it breathe, it was truly amazing.

  • Pygmy Seahorse

  • Nudibranches

  • Spotted Garden Eels

DIVE 5 – MABUL | PARADISE 2 (Sunset/Night Dive)

★★★★

18:30 | 13.6m | 28ºC | 65 mins


This dive site is just off the Borneo Divers pier, so easily accessible and a much anticipated dive. We got to see the beautiful Mandarin Fish that we had heard so much about. Rita and I had also discovered a toilet, but were without camera at the time. Probably for the best.

  • Mandarin Fish

  • Crocodile Fish

  • Diamond Decorator Crab

  • Long Arm Octopus (tiny)

  • Stumpy Spined Cuttlefish (70mm)

  • Moray Eel

  • Banded Shrimp

  • File Fish


DAY 5 – 23rd JULY 2008

DIVE 6 – SIPADAN | BARRACUDA POINT

★★★★★

06:40 | 28m | 29ºC | 54mins


This is now my best dive to date. It’s actually the best dive site… ever! We had to get up ridiculously early to catch the Bumphead Parrotfish. What amazing fish. They are so ugly, that they are actually beautiful, if that makes any sense. They are huge and follow through like a herd of buffalo. They are mesmerizing.

  • Gray Reef Shark

  • Bumphead Parrotfish

  • Barracudas by the thousands

  • Whitetip Reef Sharks

DIVE 7 – SIPADAN | TURTLE PATCH

★★★

08:36 | 28.1m | 29ºC | 53mins


A tame dive in comparison to the others so far.

  • Whitetip Reef Sharks

  • Unicorn Fish


DIVE 8 – MABUL | SEA VENTURES DIVE RESORT/OIL RIG

★★★★

11:08 | 17.1m | 29ºC | 58mins


This is an awesome dive site found directly below the oil rig, which is in fact, a dive resort. This is a really fun dive, not to miss if you get a chance to do it. At first, it seemed dirty as there is a whole lot of junk down there, but then you realize that all that junk adds a whole lot of character to this bizarre underwater world. Frog fish – if you have ever seen and had the pleasure of meeting one – are one of the oddest looking fish out there. I faced a black Giant Frog Fish in person! He’s a round fat ball and he has feet. This fish walks! I was absolutely fascinated by him and as it turned out, he by me. I watched him through my viewfinder as he clumsily turned towards me with his strange stumpy feet, while snapping his mouth wide open, and then gave a little bounce and was – as best I can describe it – airborne. They don't look like they're meant to swim. Rita got behind me and we roared with laughter as this little black blob started chasing us as we swum backwards. I could hear Rita saying, “It’s ok, I’m behind you!” It must have been quite a sight as Siobhan watched us from the side keeled over, while Frog Fish stayed on our pursuit. I think he was actually chasing his reflection seen on the housing's dome as I was still filming all the commotion. When I pulled the camera away from him, he backed away and went back to plonk himself on the sand. I turned to look at Rita and she was still trying to clear her mask at the same time as trying to have a conversation with me about the flow of events. A great moment! This entire dive was full of remarkable creatures I’d never seen before.

  • White Leaf Fish

  • Crocodile Fish (they really do look like crocs)

  • Demon Stinger Stone Fish (huge)

  • Yellow Giant Frog Fish

  • Black Giant Frog Fish

  • Orange Juvenile Frog Fish

  • Moray Eels

  • Ribbon Eels (gorgeous)

  • Giant Sea Cucumber

We saw so many other strange and wonderful creatures on all the dives that I cannot remember to list them all.


This was one of my diving highlights. I would like to give a big thank you to Tuan Razali Tuan Omar and Tourism Malaysia for making the trip possible and I would especially like to thank Clement Lee, Maadil, Lianah and the rest of the team at Borneo Divers for the adventures and knowledge they gave us of their living aquariums.



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