Sipadan/Mabul, East Malaysia

Note: I am not paid by Scuba Junkie. I was just very happy with their service and I had a wonderful experience with them. Their website is also very informative.

I love diving. I am a certified Open Water scuba diver. I love exploring lands but I also love exploring the world beneath the lands, a world where most of the world doesn’t see.

At the beginning of December 2013, my original plan to visit the Philippines fell through due to Haiyan. As an alternate option, I chose to visit East Malaysia, mainly to dive in Sipadan Island. A journey to Sipadan requires a few connections. One has to fly into Tawau, southeast of Sabah. From there, it takes about 1.5 hours to drive to Semporna, which is the launching point to Sipadan (and islands around) by some dive operators. I had arranged to dive with Scuba Junkies (SJ) and to stay in Mabul Island, a world-renowned location for underwater macro photography (and what a world it is!).

To dive Sipadan, one has to book with dive operators ahead in advance. This is because there is a limit to how many people can dive in that location, per day. I had the worrisome moment of being on stand-by, despite trying to book one (or was it two?) months in advance. I would recommend people to book about 3-4 months in advance, just to be safe. It’s always nice to have peace of mind when you’re about to make a long journey although I would add that the other islands there offer fantastic diving too. Eventhough I was on standby and was ready to make peace with the fact I probably wouldn’t be diving in Sipadan, I got very lucky. Someone had cancelled and a permit was up for grabs and it went to your’s truly.

It took 1 hour to get from Semporna to Mabul Island, where SJ has a “resort” set up, next to a Sea Bajau tribe, or nomadic and stateless folk of the seas.

Being of Malaysian descent and being able to speak Bahasa Malaysia, I wasn’t too afraid to walk around the island, even in the late evenings. It was very easy to get lost in the local village as the wooden homes all looked identical but I managed to ask for directions and found my way back to SJ. All the Bajau knew SJ because SJ works with them in return for the Bajau’s help in preserving the environment. For example, SJ will pay the Bajau more per turtle egg than if it was sold or eaten. I think it’s wonderful that both sides have needs and both are willing to work with each other to meet each other’s needs.

A group of sea bajau kids, playing amongst themselves.
Kids watching TV on Mabul Island.

Mabul and Sipadan are two different dives; Mabul is for those who like the small things (or “macro”) and Sipadan is for those who like the big things.

During my Mabul dive, I learned about nudibranches. They are super tiny sea slugs but they are some of the most colorful creatures in the sea. It’s very hard to spot nudibranches but the trained eyes of our dive instructors ensured we saw several. Find out more about Mabul “muck-diving” here:

Nudibranch. Now imagine one of about 3000 species in all colors. Image courtesy of

The Sipadan dive was one of my all-time favorite dives. The visibility was about 40-50 m (you can spot sea life clearly from a distance) and we encountered many giant sea turtles, some swimming and some resting. These old guys surely must have tales to tell of the sea. Read more about Sipadan dives here:

Imagine that you are underwater, looking out for sea turtles, sharks, eels…and suddenly, the “sky” above you turns grey and light is slightly blocked out. Those aren’t rain clouds; they are a school of thousands of jackfish. By itself, they aren’t impressive. But as a school, what a sight!

Jackfish. Image by Raimundo Fernandez.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see the barracuda “tornados” at the famous Barracuda Point. Sometimes, it comes down to luck. I did, however, encounter several yellow moray eels who peeked out through their “homes”, wondering what all the pesky humans were doing, mouths opening and closing as they observed us. They are very beautiful, graceful, and aren’t dangerous if you keep your distance.

Overall, diving in Mabul and Sipadan was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. There’s so much beauty in the seas and oceans that it is unfortunate that many people only wish to experience it on their TVs because they are afraid of diving. (Not that I can blame them, it’s not easy, at least for the first few dives but you get used to it.)

A wonderful video I found on Youtube that will give you an idea of diving there: