Scuba diving in Sipadan

Scuba Diving at Mabul and Sipadan Island of 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.

gang to Semporna
The diving gang to Semporna

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. ♥♥♥

Diving among school of Jackfish
Poisoned by Scuba Diving.. I always dream about this scene after I left Mabul.

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.

Seaventures Dive Rig in the sea
Seaventures Dive Rig at Mabul Island

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.

Elevator of Seaventures Dive Rig
Elevator of Seaventures Dive Rig

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.

Tour package to Kota Kinabalu
Dormitory room in Seaventures
Dormitory room in Seaventures

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.

Upper deck of Seaventures Dive Rig
Upper deck of Seaventures Dive Rig. Some are nut enough to jump into the sea from here. It’s about 20 Meters high!

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.

Scuba diving map guide pamphlet of Sabah and Labuan
Dive map of Sabah and Labuan. You can download the pamphlet here.

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.

Stone fish in camouflage
Stone fish in camouflage

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.

Nudibranch in Mabul

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.

Pygmy seahorse
Pygmy seahorse on sea fan

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.

Whip coral shrimp
Whip coral shrimp

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.

Orangutan Crab
Orangutan Crab

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.

pair of Flamboyant cuttlefish
Pair of Flamboyant cuttlefish

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.

Recompression chamber
We wanted to enter this recompression chamber for fun but the hole is too small.
Leopard shark
Leopard shark

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.

This eel didn’t expect a photograph I guess
Leaf fish?
Leaf fish?

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.

Nudibranch in Mabul
If you love nudibranch, you will love Mabul. So many of them there.

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.

Turtle in Sipadan
Turtle is everywhere in Sipadan

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.

Crocodile Fish family
Crocodile Fish family

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.

White tip reef shark
White tip reef shark

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.

School of Jackfish
School of Jackfish

Nevermind that there is no barracuda tornado. We had fun entering Jackfish Storm anyway.

Selfie with Bumphead Parrot Fishes
Selfie with Bumphead Parrot Fishes

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.

Welfie on Sipadan Island
Welfie on Sipadan Island

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.

Kapalai House Reef (Mandarin Valley)
“Fish Chalets” of Kapalai Island

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.

Group photo at Sipadan Water Village
Group photo at Sipadan Water Village

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.

Walking in the village of Mabul Island
Walking in the village of Mabul 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.

Seashells shop on Mabul
Seashells shop on Mabul

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..

Shark jaws for sale
Shark jaws for sale

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.

Party time after diving
Party time after diving

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.

Scuba diving group
Great dive buddies and divemasters = Happy Moment

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.

Photo with Suki, my divemaster
Photo with Suki, our Divemaster

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.

Dive log book
Adding 12 awesome dives into our log book with stamps from Suki.

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.

Keep calm and dive
Yeah, just keep calm and have fun ok

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.

Selfie with gas tanks
12 is the number of tanks I used in 4 days

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.

star shape by five hands
Diving brings us together!

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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