Tag Archives: Semporna
Our world is beautiful and more than half of it is in the sea, where divers can enjoy zero gravity and swim freely among the fishes. Last year I was bogged down by a project and got it over after half a year. Life was stressful, and I really deserved a break. When my friend Dodo was calling divers for a 5-day diving trip in Semporna. Without hesitation, I joined.
After months of waiting, finally, 10 divers met at Tawau Airport. Even though we are from different background and places, and I met most of them the first time, we had so much fun together in the next few days, and it was so hard to say goodbye at the end. I always recall the wonderful moment. Miss them all. ♥♥♥
The resort picked us up at Tawau airport, after one hour of land transfer and one hour of boat ride, we reached Mabul Island.
Seaventures Dive Rig Resort
There are dozens of accommodations available on Mabul Island. We stayed in Seaventures Dive Rig Resort, which is an oil rig being converted to a PADI 5-Star dive resort and ranked as one of the most unique hotels in the world by TripAdvisor.
The dive resort is about 700 Meters in the sea off Mabul Island. This fortress-like structure is so cool that I had been wondering how it’s like staying there. The setup is basic. The room is small. The food is great. Their staffs are friendly and helpful. If you don’t expect 5-star service & facilities and particular about small things, you will be quite happy.
One of the awesome features of Seaventures is its elevator for entry and exit (I got this recorded on a video). Some crazy guests can’t resist to jump into the sea from the deck for fun. However, the resort discourages this because you can hurt yourselves.
I was staying in dormitory room (air conditioning available). They also have twin-sharing and VIP rooms. A 4-day dive + accommodation package starts from RM2,730 (about US$700). You may visit the website of Seaventures for more details.
Someone calls the islands of Semporna the Maldives of the East. Though Semporna has over 1,000 dive sites in Celebes Sea, the best dive sites are concentrated in the “Top Three Triangle”, namely, Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai, which are only 30 minute from one another by boat.
Mabul Island (Pulau Mabul)
If divers talk about diving in Sabah, Sipadan is always No.1 choice, and Mabul is nothing close. The most likely reason divers stay on Mabul Island is due to its proximity to Sipadan Island, but they would find that Mabul is the most memorable part of their trip with friends.
Mabul Island is famous for its world-class muck diving. Many dive sites have artificial reefs made up of rubble, ship wrecks, planks and various junk that you can imagine. This might be an eyesore to divers, but for most marine creatures, it’s a perfect shelter.
Therefore, with observant eyes and guiding by good divemaster, you will spot many little gems, some are rare or colorful, hidden among the rubbish and corals.
I saw nudibranch, flatworm, frogfish, pygmy seahorse, flamboyant cuttlefish, whip coral shrimp, eel, barracuda, lobster, stingray, lion fish, sweet lip, skeleton shrimp, robust ghost pipe fish, stone fish, and many other critters.
In fact, Mabul has become a paradise for underwater photographers who search for bizarre and exotic macro sea lives. Just check out the videos of Borneo From Below, most of their footages were shot in Mabul.
The visibility of most dive sites in Mabul is only 5 to 6 Meters, and it’s quite dim after 17 Meters deep. Inexperienced divers can have panic attack sometimes, so you better stick with your buddy and group all the time.
If you dive with large group which has divers with poor buoyancy skill, it would be quite irritating if someone keeps stirring up the sediment of sandy bottom and make the water more murky. Hehe I did that too by accident because being pushed by the strong current.
Not every life in Mabul is tiny. Turtles and giant groupers are quite common here. Sometimes divers are delighted by surprises such as leopard shark, dolphin, and devil ray in the water of Mabul.
Some dive sites such as Lobster Wall has astounding density and variety of corals. The current is quite strong, and we had some fun with drift diving.
One of the benefits of staying at Seaventures is – you can enjoy unlimited dive in their House Reef under the rig, which is an excellent muck diving site too. We spotted long snout pipefish, snake eel, cleaner shrimp, cockatoo (wasp fish), lion fish, small barracuda, flatworm, big eye fish, etc.
Sipadan Island (Pulau Sipadan)
Sipadan Island is one of the top 10 dive sites in the world, so it needs no introduction. Everyone wants to go to Sipadan, but the maximum number of visitors is limited to 120 people (snorkellers and divers) per day, to minimize the impact to the environment.
Therefore, if you plan to dive in Sipadan, you better book with your dive operator a few months before the trip. Do at least 3 dives per day if you get the permit.
In contrast to Mabul, the visibility in Sipadan is superb and can reach more than 20 Meters.
This is my third visit to Sipadan, and it is still another amazing journey. Turtles are everywhere, and they only mind their own business and oblivious about our presence. Early morning is the best time to dive when the marine creatures are most active.
For first timer to Sipadan, dive sites like Coral Garden (wall diving), South Point (large pelagics), and Barracuda Point (sharks and barracuda tornado) are highly recommended. But I didn’t see school of barracuda this time.
Nevermind that there is no barracuda tornado. We had fun entering Jackfish Storm anyway.
Bumphead Parrot Fish? I didn’t even need to dive deep to see them. Other seafood, no, I mean sea lives I saw included white tip reef shark, bat fish, leopard shark, ghost pipe fish, octopus, grey reef shark, and moray eel.
Being so excited, some divers would be tempted to “interact” with charismatic sea creatures, for example, chasing or touching the turtle. Do keep in mind that divers are not allowed to harass any aquatic animals. You, or your group, could be banned from diving, if divemaster finds that you got itchy hand. They are very serious about this, so it’s not a joking matter.
Kapalai Island (Pulau Kapalai)
At Kapalai Island, we only did only one dive at Mandarin Valley, where we saw octopus, school of baby barracuda, nudibranch, cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, gobby, etc.
They build some “fish chalets” (House Reef) with artificial reef (racks) to house the fishes and to promote the growth of corals. This site is popular for its colorful Mandarinfish (like fish wearing a Cheongsam), but too bad it’s not our day.
Walking around Mabul Island
Seaventures Dive Rig Resort is on the sea, but they have boat transfer to Mabul Island at 5pm (return time: 6:30pm) every day, for you to shop for some supplies or just to explore around.
Mabul Island has become an Accommodation Center for divers who want to dive at Sipadan (which has no resort). You can find resorts and lodges range from budget to luxury type on the island.
Most of the villagers on Mabul Island are living in poverty. I felt sad seeing those shabby houses and ragamuffin children who asked tourists for money. The islanders are very friendly, and it’s definitely ok to explore around. Most residents are conservative Muslims. To be courteous, please don’t walk around with “overly exposed” swimsuit in their village (though they are used to it). Wearing at least a T-shirt and short.
You will find dozen of small shops that sell souvenirs, seashells, cigarettes, diving stuffs and many other items. Personally I won’t buy any seashell, coral or shark products because I don’t want to encourage them to harvest these, sorry..
Besides, you can buy fresh seafood from the locals. On the island, there is a turtle hatchery maintained by Scuba Junkies and Sabah Wildlife Department. The tour operators have been educating the villagers on sustainable fishing, turtle and corals conservation, and garbage management. The progress is slow, but we see positive changes gradually.
Dive ❤ Party ❤ Friends
Diving and Drinking with Friends were what we did on Mabul most of the time. We had 3 to 4 dives per day, and at night we partied hard, it’s a dream vacation
to get wasted for 4 night. We had so much fun and already talked about the next trip.
I’m not a good drinker. After some shots, I would doze off with glass held in my hand. When I was awake hour later, they refilled my glass then I got K.O. again. This went on until late night lol.
As alcohol is one of the highlight, you can buy beer and hard liquor in Semporna town. One of such shops is located between Restoran AR Rahman and Crystal Coffee Shop, and opposite to Agro Bank. You can call Mr Lim (+60 14-6743069) or Ms Lim (+60 16-8121169) for info. I tell you this because many foreigners think it’s difficult to find alcohol in Sabah. You are welcome.
Though my dive buddies rocked, this diving trip would be less fun without the company of Suki, one of the best Divemasters I’ve ever met. She is very professional, serious but playful.
While diving with her, I was so impressed by her perfect buoyancy skill. OMG, is she a mermaid? Her enthusiasm was contagious and all of us got excited diving next to her. Thanks to Suki, she taught me a lot to improve my diving skill.
Is Semporna Safe?
I’ve been asked this question by readers many times. Tourists concern about their safety in islands of Semporna because of the abduction in the past. I would say Semporna is relatively safer than most places on earth, so don’t worry too much about it. Nowadays, no place is 100% safe due to threat by IS. Some countries make hoo-ha about kidnapping cases in Sabah and forget that more of their citizens were dead in terrorist attack. As a local, I can tell you that Sabah is safer than London, Paris, and Sydney.
I have visited Semporna many times and won’t hesitate to travel there again. Most tourist destinations in Semporna have garrison. I’ve seen how the armed force works. They are serious and vigilant day and night, to keep the tourists safe. They are not sitting there drinking and gambling. With curfew and more proactive defense mechanism in place, hopefully Semporna will be totally safe.
How to get there?
To go to Mabul and Sipadan Island, you can take a 40-minute flight, operated by Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, to fly from Kota Kinabalu City (Code: BKI) to Tawau City (Code: TWU). You can use Google Flights to check the schedules and prices.
At the Airport of Tawau, you can hire a taxi to go to Semporna Town, which takes an hour. You also can request your dive operator or resort to fetch you at the airport. I advise you to book the tour or accommodation before you come to Sabah. You can walk-in to enquire, but the resort or tour could be fully booked during peak season.
It’s also possible to travel from Kota Kinabalu City to Semporna Town by long distance bus.
Special Thanks to Dodo and Dora for contributing most of the photos and videos to this article.
Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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My urge to visit Bohey Dulang Island started with a photo seven years ago. “Nice painting!” I praised a big drawing of islands hanging in the office of my friend. “Actually it’s a PHOTO taken in Sabah,” he replied. I was stunned. The islands look so surreal, such place doesn’t even seem exist. After some lookup in local bookstore, I found that it is the photo of Tun Sakaran Marine Park (or Semporna Islands Park) taken by Michael Patrick Wong.
Pic: aerial photo of Tun Sakaran Park by Michael Patrick Wong
Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP) is located off Semporna at east coast of Sabah and comprises of eight islands – Bohey Dulang, Bodgaya, Tetagan, Sebangkat, Selakan, Maiga, Sibuan and Mantabuan, covering a total land and sea areas of 350 km².
Pic: view of Tun Sakaran Marine Park from Semporna town. Locals call it Sleeping Old Man and I guess you can see why.
TSMP is the largest marine park in Sabah (but will be superseded by 1-million-hectare Tun Mustapha Marine Park soon). I was also told that you can get a fascinating view of TSMP (they call it one of the most beautiful views of Sabah) from the peak of Bohey Dulang Island.
Below is the location map of TSMP. You also can see it in Google Map:
Every now and then I contacted some travel agents for a trip to this park, but they all wanted me to charter the whole boat (for nearly a thousand bucks) if I traveled solo, so the plan was held indefinitely until last month Edward from Borneo Star Cruise texted me, “bro, I’ll visit Bohey Dulang tomorrow. You want to join?” Of course I was more than happy to tag along!
About Bohey Dulang Island
Bohey Dulang (or Boheydulong, Bohaydulong) is the second largest island (size: 313 hectares) of TSMP and about 23 Km away from Semporna. Legend says there lives a beautiful princess named Salamia from Bum-Bum Island. Her family hid her on Bohey Dulang, to avoid a forced marriage by a notorious Sultan from the southern Philippines.
Pic: drama about Princess Salamia in Sabah Fest 2010.
However, she vanished a few days later and believed to be hidden by the spirits of this island and turned into a fairy. Even nowadays, local people say they can hear Princess Salamia singing and her dog barking during the night of full moon. Occasionally, she is seen walking around the island.
The name Bohey Dulang is derived from bohi (bohey) meaning water and dulang meaning pools or depressions in Bajau language. This may refer to series of oval rock pools, roughly 2-3 m across, along the small waterfalls and main freshwater stream on the eastern side of the island.
People say these pools are a source of drinking water for Princess Salamia. A document reports a large cave (40 M high and over 20 M long) is situated on the east side of this island too. Could it be the home of Princess Salamia? I wonder.
Day Trip to Bohey Dulang
Ok, back to my tour. Edward and I were taking a boat from Semporna town around 11am. The weather was good and we approached TSMP in 15 minutes. The Best Time to visit Bohey Dulang are from February to April (the dry months). If you visit during wetter months like July, August, December and January, your trip would have higher chance of being spoiled by heavy rainstorm of monsoon seasons, or not, depending on your luck.
Our boatman showed us a “secret passage” where we could see dozen of sea turtles. We cruised slowly on the sea near TSMP. It was low tide and the water was crystal clear. We could see large area of corals and white sand under the ocean.
Then we did see over 10 sea turtles passed by our catamaran one by one. Gee… though turtles look heavy and clumsy, they swim as fast as a torpedo in the water. I totally fall in love with the beautiful nature and romantic legend of this island.
You may ask, “this magical destination should have become very famous for a long time. Why it only rises as a new attraction in recent years?” Good question. In 1963, Bohey Dulang was leased to Kaya Pearl Company to establish the first pearl cultivation center in Malaysia. The island was heavily guarded by armed personnel and stranger was strictly forbidden to enter the island. That’s why Bohey Dulang is nicknamed as the Pearl Island or Treasure Island.
Then the pearl farm was closed in 1993. In 2004, Bohey Dulang, with seven other islands, is gazetted as ‘Tun Sakaran Marine Park’ (TSMP) by the Sabah Government. As a national park and by word of mouth, it gains more exposure and now it receives hundred of tourists every day.
TSMP is managed by Sabah Parks and they have an office and giant clam nursery on Bohey Dulang. Visitors are required to get a permit from them before entering the island. I hope they will make it a public park soon, so tourists only require to buy ticket to enter. Furthermore, Bohey Dulang needs more tourism amenities such as restaurant, watersport center and resort.
For a fast overview of Bohey Dulang, you may watch the short video below:
Hiking to the peak
You need to ascend a 600-Meter nature trail to reach the peak with a height of 265 Meters, which normally takes 40 minutes. The climb can be a bit challenging after rain, because some steep areas will become slippery and muddy. Do wear proper walking shoe, I strongly advise against flip-flop. It’s warm and humid in the forest and hot on the peak, so please bring some drinking water.
Pic: the view points on the peak. The trail will lead you to the one at right, you can walk 20 Meters to the view point at the left for better sight. The dark grey rocks that form the high cliffs and large shore outcrops are mainly volcanic rocks of late Tertiary (Pliocene) and Quaternary periods. It’s unique because Semporna peninsula is the only place in Sabah where you can see these rocks.
There is a small toilet at the beginning of the trail. It is not so clean and well-maintained, but usable.
Limited supports such as boardwalk, handrails, ropes, stairway and plank path are available to make your climb easier, but you will walk on soil and rocky path most of the time and busy grabbing the small trees along the trail for support. For safety, a Sabah Parks guide will escort you on the way. Just go slow and everyone can make it quite easily.
Like other islands in TSMP, Bohey Dulang has one of the most unique and unusual plant communities in Borneo, especially coastal forest and scrub vegetation. Some plant species here are regional endemic to Semporna islands and Philippines, and not found in other locations of Borneo, for example, rare Paraboea leopoldii on cliff faces, Dracaena multiflora monocot, palm-like Cycas rumphii, cactus-like succulent Euphorbia lacei and trichoglottis geminata, a rare epiphytic orchid grows on volcanic rock.
I was looking for Selaginella tamariscina, a small plant of 4-5 cm high like a miniature tree fern. Its leafy distal branches curls inwards under hot sunlight but flattened during rain. This cute plant is a new record to Borneo, and it grows on exposed to partially shaded, gently sloping rockfaces of this island.
We saw probably nearly a hundred tourists on the way down. They looked tired but really happy. Some even encouraged us, “move on, you are close!”, “it’s awesome up there!”, “it is worth the effort.” A rain earlier turned part of the trail into creeks. Many tourists took off their flip-flop and descended barefooted, when their shoes were too slippery to hold their feet. I sweated a lot but the soothing sea breeze prevented me from overheat.
Wildlife such as long-tailed macaque and otter also live on this island but not in great number. A total of 48 bird species comprising mainly resident birds have been recorded around Bohey Dulang. The notable bird species are Metallic Pigeon (Columba vitiensis), Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), Tabon Scrubfowl and Pied Hornbill. I saw more mosquitoes than other animals though. The good news is – there is no leech.
Finally I came to a flat ground and saw the light in front. I could tell the amazing scenery was waiting for me outside the dense bushes.
The Most Beautiful Seaview of Sabah
On top of Bohey Dulang, you can have a bird-eye view of the sapphire-colored Bodgaya Lagoon embraced by emerald forest of three central islands (Bodgaya, Bohey Dulang and Tetagan), the only islands in Sabah made of volcanic rock and part of the Sulu volcanic chain. In fact, the lagoon, which is about 6.5 Km across, is a crater of an ancient volcano erupted 2.5 million years ago.
The central islands are the remnants of a Quaternary volcanic crater rim. Part of the “rim” is dissected and inundated by the sea but you can see it from its curved reef formation. I was standing on top of an extinct volcano. You may look at the satellite photo below for a clearer view of the rim.
Pic: I could see our boat at the jetty. All boats look like tiny toy from a height of over 260 Meters. The highest point of Bohey Dulang is 353 Meters and situated further south. They might open a new trail to there in future.
It’s noon time and most tourists have descended. The rest of us were happy to take hundred of photos. They didn’t build any fence, so be careful when you stand on the uneven surface of the cliffs.
Pic: To your right you can see the 120-Meter long channel between Bodgaya Island and Bohey Dulang. Bodgaya means “impressive mountain” in Bajau language, and it’s the largest island (795 ha) in TSMP and about 8 Km long. You also can see its highest peak, Mt Bodgaya, which is 455 Meters high.
If you say Bohey Dulang has the most beautiful seaview in Sabah, those who had been there won’t argue with you. You may forget many things in life over time, but you will always remember the breathtaking seascape of Bohey Dulang.
For the best view, you need to walk another 20 Meters to your right for second view point, which offers a truly panoramic view (like photo above). You would miss this spot if nobody tells you. This is the favorite spot of landscape photographers to capture the circular shape of the lagoon and “50 shades of blue” colors.
The volcanic rocks and mixture of Bornean and Philippines flora make this park looks a bit “exotic” even to Malaysians. Like the yacca-like Dracaena multiflora in photo above. It is common in summit scrub here but do you know that it’s only found in Philippines and Semporna Islands Park?
How to get there
A day trip to Bohey Dulang is possible even if you stay in Kota Kinabalu City (KK). Just take a 50-min morning flight from KK to Tawau City, upon arrival get a 1-hour land transport to Semporna town, then the park is only 20 minutes away by boat. The earliest flight to Tawau departs at 7:25am, and last flight back to KK is at 7:45pm. Both direct routes are served by Malaysia Airlines and available every day. You may use Google Flight to check out the latest prices and other flight alternatives. Please note you need a permit from Sabah Parks prior to visit the island.
Malaysian: (Adult: RM3; Below 18: RM1)
Non-Malaysian: (Adult: RM10; Below 18: RM6)
You may book a tour to Bohey Dulang with Borneo Star Cruise. They will arrange the land / boat transfer, permit, lunch, island tour and snorkelling gears for you. The following are the detail of their tour packages (departs from KK):
1) Day Trip
Price: RM399 (≈US$105) per person (Min. 6 people), 6% GST Tax included
Inclusive of: Hotel ↔ KK Airport Transfer, Tawau Airport ↔ Semporna Transfer, Tour to Bohey Dulang, Packed Lunch, Hiking (with mountain guide), Snorkeling Set
Excluded: KK ↔ Tawau Return Air Ticket, Dinner at Semporna
Price: RM499 (≈US$130) per person (Min. 6 people), 6% GST Tax included
Inclusive of: Hotel ↔ KK Airport Transfer, Tawau Airport ↔ Semporna Transfer, Bohey Dulang & Kapalai Island Tours, Packed Lunch, Hiking (with mountain guide), Snorkeling Set, One Night Hotel stay in Semporna
Excluded: KK ↔ Tawau Return Air Ticket, Dinner at Semporna
Please feel free to contact Borneo Star Cruise for more info:
Phone (24×7): +60 17-820 7911 (also reachable by Text, WhatsApp, Viber, LINE)
Besides sightseeing at Bohey Dulang, there are a few other activities you can do around Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP).
1. Visit Giant Clam Nursery
Due to overfishing, giant clams are highly endangered. TSMP is a refuge for seven species of giant clams (Tridacnidae and Hippopusporcellanus species).
Sabah Parks has a giant clam nursery and hatchery center on Bohey Dulang, where they breed and propagate giant clams inside and outside the Park. The display and settlement tank area, which houses a few species of giant clam, are open to public. It’s possible to arrange an educational tour to visit their lab and research center.
2. Snorkeling & Diving
TSMP is located in Coral Triangle (a.k.a. Amazon of the Sea), which supports one of the richest marine ecological zones in Malaysia. 528 species of coral reef fish are found in the park, much more than Sipadan Island (409), Redang (209) and Tioman (233). Teeming with over 320 species of hard and soft corals, and variety of sea creatures such as eagle rays, barracuda, turtles and nudibranchs, this park is getting well-known as a scuba diving and snorkeling site.
Mantabuan Island has the best concentration of corals and marine lives. Sibuan Island is featured as one of the 101 Best Beaches of Malaysia. Therefore, both islands are the favorite picks of travel agents to impress their guests.
You are wrong if you think that TSMP is only about nature. Many world-renowned photographers have visited this park for human interest shots here and won some international awards. Around the islands, there are about 10 villages of Bajau Laut (a.k.a. Sea Gypsies) people living either in temporary shacks or in their boats. They maintain very traditional lifestyles and possibly the only nomadic seafarers left in the world.
Most of them are fishermen in hardcore poverty. However, when their primitive houses, nude children and pristine sea are being framed into a photo, its visual impact is so overwhelming and so out of this world (though it’s a sad reality). Whenever I drop by Semporna, I never fail to see a few boatloads of photographers heading to TSMP.
For more photos, you may check out my photo album.
- New records of Bornean plants from the Semporna Islands off Sabah’s east coast, KM. Wong et al., Sandakania 13 (1999): page 31-40
- The landscape, vegetation and botany of the Semporna Islands off Sabah, Borneo, KM. Wong et al., Sandakania 13 (1999): page 41-65
- Semporna Islands Darwin Project (2001 Jan). Management Plan for the Semporna Islands Park
Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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