Scuba diving, Mabul and Sipadan, Malaysia

Photo: Diver Photo: Nudibranch Photo: Reef and fishes Photo: Necklace Sea Star

I spent a week scuba diving at Mabul, Sipadan, and other islands nearby, some of the best sites in Malaysia. Sipadan is frequently rated one of the top three dive sites in the world, and I can’t disagree with that. Mabul was really cool too.

These islands are about a 30-45 minute boat trip from the northeast coast of Borneo, between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. There used to be a couple resorts right on Sipadan but they were closed by the Malaysian government in 2004 to prevent environmental damage. So most dive shops moved their operations to Semporna (on Borneo) and nearby Mabul island.

Photo: unknown Photo: Nudibranch Photo: Sea sponges Photo: Nudibranch

I did three days of diving at various sites on Mabul, Sibuan and Kapalai islands; these islands are known for their “muck dives”: poor visibility, but tons of cool small things to be seen if you go slowly and look closely. One of the best photo subjects are nudibranchs (a kind of sea slug), because they’re so colorful and move really slowly if at all.

In addition to the nudibranchs there are tons of other crazy critters down there — ghostpipefish, crocodilefish, frogfish, and lots of cool sea sponges and corals. I could spend hours just examining different types of coral.

Photo: Ornate Ghostpipefish Photo: Painted Frogfish Photo: Crocodilefish Photo: Yellow frogfish

My divemaster/guide for most of my trips was a local guy named Awang, and he was fantastic; by far the best diver and guide I have ever dived with. He has been diving here for 10 years, so he knew where to find all the best stuff, he knew the best entry/exit points for each dive, and had a great guiding style: minimal, but extremely competent and helpful. He always let his divers choose what to do: if you wanted to dive the same site over and over again you could; if you wanted to go down to 50 meters, you could — he’d be keeping an eye on you from 40 or 45.

On the muck dives he found all kinds of stuff I never would have seen otherwise, like this tiny pygmy seahorse that was hidden on a huge sea fan. The seahorse matches the sea fan so well that it’s hard to spot even on a closeup photo taken with a flash.

Photo: Puffer fish? Photo: Coral reef Photo: Fusiliers Photo: Michael

And then there’s Sipadan, which has lots of small stuff too but you’re usually not paying attention to it due to all the big things in the water: sharks, turtles, big schools of barracuda and trevally. We saw sharks on every dive, often several encounters in one dive, sometimes 5-10 sharks swimming or hunting together. We mostly saw white-tipped reef sharks, but also saw a few gray sharks and one leopard shark. (and a devil ray, and tons of turtles.) I made a video chasing a shark around for a couple minutes.

Experienced divers seem like all they want to see when they dive are the big guys: sharks, manta rays, turtles, etc. Diving is still new enough to me that it’s all pretty exciting: I can spend 50 minutes swimming with sharks and then be excited to spend a few minutes at the end of the dive looking at coral while doing a safety stop in shallow water. But I guess the consistent shark sightings are part of what makes Sipadan so popular with experienced divers.

Photo: Diver Photo: Chevron barracuda Photo: Shark Photo: Turtle

The last four days I stayed at (and went diving with) Uncle Chang’s backpackers on Mabul island: $16/night including three meals a day. They had a couple guitars and pretty sweet drum kit made out of old pails etc, so I was psyched to pick up some new guitar skills but the locals just kind of played together and didn’t seem that interested in teaching.

But a couple of my fellow divers were a really cool couple from Vermont, Matt and Linda. They spend half of each year selling clothing at music festivals in North America, and spend their winters travelling. And they had a couple guitars with them as well. Matt’s in particular made my little backpacker guitar sound like a total piece of junk in comparison. He taught me a few things and we joined the others for a song or two; we must have had 4-5 guitars going at some point. Even the cat got into it.

Photo: Uncle Chang Photo: Uncle Chang Photo: Guitar playing cat Photo: Dinner

One afternoon after diving I went for a walk around the island to check out the other resorts which were pretty much as I expected (more upscale, more comfortable, much more expensive, and probably boring.)

There’s a Filipino fishing village on the island, and the kids were really friendly: they kept asking me to take their pictures, and then to see them on the LCD screen afterwards — the perfect subjects for someone like me who’s normally too shy to take pictures of people!

Photo: Friendly kids Photo: Little poser Photo: Girl on fence Photo: Kids posing

After my week here I decided I had had enough diving for a while and considered continuing south to Indonesia and maybe eventually the Philippines, but realized I’m running short on time to go everywhere I wanted (or even half of it), and I really want to see Cambodia, Laos, and more of Vietnam and Thailand, so I decided to head to Cambodia; I arrived a couple days ago.

More photos of scuba diving in Malaysia…

(videos not online yet; can’t find a fast enough connection)

3 Responses to “Scuba diving, Mabul and Sipadan, Malaysia”

  1. tankislon Says:

    I can’t wait to go there! Me and my GF are now in big dilema, because we dont now what are this Uncle Chang and Scuba Junkies like! Should we go with tem or shel we pay a lot more money to stay in resorts. She wants to have privat facilites?

    Thank you for all your answers!!!!

  2. ger Says:

    Depends what you want, Uncle Chang’s has shared facilities but is more fun in my opinion…

  3. rheanna Says:

    I’ve seen the rest of the pictures! What can i say? I was caught speechless by the stunning view downunder. Haven’t gone to Malaysia yet, my family & i are planning to go this year though…. How did the expenses/budget go?

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