The Celebes Sea bathes the shores of a tiny emerald isle in crystal blue waters. We are off the Northeastern coast of Borneo. White sands, a fishing village on stilts, swaying coconut palms and two resorts rest on the island. Standing on the beach in front of the Smart Divers Resort, one can see a lush green seamount rising in the distance from the azure sea. This is the Malaysian island of Mabul and we are gazing at Sipadan, a short boat ride away.
Mabul and the Smart Diver's Resort (Sipadan MAbul ResorT) was our home for three weeks last month as we enjoyed diving in Malaysia for the first time. Mabul has been used as a stepping stone to the diving in Sipadan but it is gaining a reputation as a great dive site in its' own right. Although there are resorts on Sipadan, the facilities are more basic than those on Mabul at Smart Diver's and the Sipadan Water Village. We were particularly interested in Mabul as the muck and macro diving there was said to be excellent and we were not disappointed. The islands provided a great variety of diving as we headed off to Sipadan to dive with the larger critters and enjoy the wide angle action and then back to Mabul and Kapali for the macro critters. This is definitely one location where you will need both your 20 mm and macro setups.
Getting to Mabul is a bit of an adventure in itself involving planes, buses and boats (sorry, no trains or camels). You fly first into Kota Kinabalu in Western Borneo from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and then fly across the island to the metropolis of Tawau. The Smart Divers reps are waiting for you at the airport and the next step is a ninety minute bus ride through the jungles of Sabah to the boat dock at Semporna. It is a 30-40 minute boat ride from here to the island of Mabul. Everything was well organized and the flights on Malaysia Air were quick and comfortable aboard full size jets.
Smart Diver's Resort was very comfortable with aircon and 24hr electricity. There was plenty of water available and the staff did everything they could to make sure you were comfortable. The open air dining room not only served excellent buffet style meals with plenty of variety and plenty to eat but also served as the social center for chatting and video and slide shows. Coffee and snacks were available from early morning till night. There are two televisions available for video viewing and a good selection of critter ID books.
The photo facility is called and is run by Ian and Matt. Ian is the video pro, shooting excellent videos for the guests almost daily. Matt is E6 meister. ScubaZoo provides processing not only for Smart Diver's, but also for all the other resorts in the area so there were E6 runs daily and sometimes 2-3 times per day depending on the volume. It was great to be able to shoot and see the shots after dinner and plan changes of technique (like removing the lens cover or putting film in the camera) or return critter visits for the next day for better shots. The quality of Matt's processing was consistently excellent.
The dive boats were fast with adequate room and the dive staff was one of the most helpful and friendly that we have ever had the pleasure to dive with. Things couldn't be easier for photographers as the guys pulled the camera trolley by your room before each dive to take your photo gear to the boat. After each dive, the staff would rinse your gear in fresh water and leave the camera back on your porch.
Mabul has both classic muck diving surrounding the island well as nice walls in areas like Lobster Wall. One of our favorite dives was "The Platform" which is a retired oil drilling platform that was towed and set up a few hundred yards off the shore and turned into a unique dive hotel. The boat would tie up at the platform and the bottom was about 50 ft down and classic muck with piles of debris and metal parts providing a habitat for leaf fish, robust pipefish, twin spot gobies, octopus, cuttlefish etc, etc. This could not be dove at all times due to the tidal flow but was lots of fun when the currents were not ripping. Any of the platform pilings provided great critters to check out while making a safety stop.
The island of Kapali is only about 10-15 minutes away and is not really and island but a small resort built on stilts over a sandbar. There is a surrounding reef with some great macro critters and one popular site called Mandarin Valley where the afternoon dive usually turned up herds of Mandarin Fish running around groups of long spine black urchins.
Sipadan is the best known dive site and sure lived up to its' reputation. Our favorite site was Barracuda point with large circling schools of Jacks, Barracuda and Travale. There were more turtles than I have ever seen at one time and plenty of shark photo opportunities. Leopard sharks are seen from time to time and the other fish life is also prolific. At first, we had planned only a couple of trips to Sipadan, but after our first visit we were hooked and a two tank morning dive off Sipadan was a great way to start each day.
The Mabul/Sipadan area offers a great mix of macro and large critter diving in beautiful surroundings from a comfortable and friendly resort. Who could ask for more?
(Background Image created from wide angle shot of schooling Barracudas, Manipulated with Photoshop 5.0)
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