By Gaya Traveller on March 16, 2015
Even the name Mabul sounded very exotic and far. A check on the Malaysian map confirmed it.
Mabul is a small island tucked into the far southeast corner of Sabah, with Tawau being the nearest big town. Once a quiet fishing village, Mabul started to become popular in the 1990s among divers due to its proximity to Sipadan island. Mabul is merely 15 km from Sipadan and this 20-hectare piece of land is surrounded by sandy beaches and perched on the northwest corner of a larger two square kilometre reef.
We boarded the 7.30am Malaysia Airlines flight MH2660 to Tawau, which was right on schedule. Try to book seats that are on the right side of the plane, where you will get a good bird’s eye view of our Administrative Capital, Putrajaya, not long after take off. We landed at 10:05 a.m.
Besides Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia flies to Tawau too. There is also a service linking Sandakan directly to Tawau.
Tour operators provide transport from Tawau Airport to visitors travelling to Semporna and the islands beyond. It takes about 1.5 hours to get from Tawau Airport to Semporna town.
Alternatively, mini buses plying the Tawau-Semporna route pick up passengers on the main road outside the airport.
If you prefer to travel by land, there are air conditioned coaches that travel to Tawau (totalling 8 hours) from Kota Kinabalu. A network of roads link Tawau, Semporna, Lahad Datu, Sukau and Sandakan with buses, mini buses and long distance taxis available.
Once we reached Semporna town, we bought some supplies (drinking water especially) before departing to Mabul on speedboat. Jeti Umum Semporna (Semporna Public Jetty) is right at the town centre and it is not hard to find. The boat ride lasts about one hour, depending on the tide.
So that’s about 5 hours of travelling time it takes to get to paradise.
The scenery from Semporna to Mabul was breathtaking. The clear blue Celebes Sea was truly mesmerising; it has shades that range from sapphire to azure to jade green, sparkling in the tropical sun as far as the eye can see.
We passed by a huge seaweed farm on the way to Mabul – what an interesting sight it was! Seaweed farming is an alternative livelihood for the fishermen in Semporna, who consequently turn the place into the leading seaweed producer in Sabah.
On Mabul, we put up at Scubajeff Guesthouse for three nights. Scubajeff is basic kampung-style guesthouse located right on water, which means we could simply jump off from the verandah straight into the water (only during high tide) if we so wish. The owner is Jeff, a Malay from Negeri Sembilan who fell in love with the underwater world of Mabul and decided to call the island home.
Scubajeff offers attractive diving and non-diving packages for guests – we could not think anything better than taking up diving at one of the world’s richest marine eco-system like Mabul. This island is a macro diver’s paradise; in fact, the term ‘muck-diving’ is believed to originate from here.
Mabul is especially popular with underwater photographers, who come armed with digital SLRs and strobes, hoping to capture a once in a lifetime find. Scubajeff has many underwater photography equipment available for rent.
Scuba Jeff Sipadan Sdn. Bhd.
1st Floor, Lot 18, Block C,
Semporna Seafront New Town Ship,
Enquiry: +6011 252 65248 / +6019 585 5125
Office: +608 978 1566
For generations, the Bajau people of this region has been living aboard their boats, gathering fish, shells and sea cucumbers. They were gradually persuaded to drop their nomadic lifestyle and come ashore, although even today, many fisher folks keep one foot in the sea, with their houses built on stilts over the reefs and shallow waters surrounding Semporna and its islands.
Lucky for us, there are still some who still live in their boats, and we get to witness them carrying about their daily lives. We get frequent little visitors at Scubajeff’s. They are a friendly lot, often asking for food and money from guests. We have been warned by Scubajeff not to give money freely to the children, instead we are encouraged to ask them to take us around in their little boats so that they can earn money.
They may be small and puny in size, but their prowess in navigating the dugout boats in open water easily put adults to shame. Their beautiful sun-kissed skin and sun-bleached hair are testaments to the fact that they are the children of the sea.
When a Bajau Laut is born, the child’s father will carve a boat out of a piece of log. This primitive boat making technique is still evident, as we have seen the traditional boats around.
When the sun falls, the head of the family will bring their boats to a safer place and drop anchor. Perhaps it is to stop the boat from floating away while they sleep at night. Usually they will moor the boat right next to the houses on stilts. At the break of dawn, the boats are back to the open sea.
We had the opportunity to walk around Mabul and witness the daily lives of the locals. Besides Bajau Laut, there are other tribes like the Sulu people living on the island too. The island also contains school, mosque, police station and shops. The locals are friendly and welcoming.
Living on the water means we have access to very fresh seafood! The Bajau Laut folks would come by in their boats and bring their early morning haul such as blue crabs, lobsters, slipper lobsters and myriads of fish! The prices they are asking for almost felt like a steal. For example, a pack of eight crabs is RM20, and a lobster will set you back RM50. It also depends on your haggling skills, of course.
Jeff is an avid cook and loves food. Much to our delight, he successfully trained his cook in the art of making good Masak Lemak Cili Api Crabs (crabs cooked in coconut gravy mixed with turmeric and chilli)!
Seafood in Mabul and Semporna is claimed by the locals to be the finest and cheapest in the entire country.
Semporna’s dried fish market is also intriguing, with every kind of dried fish and sea cucumbers. On the way back, travellers should just drop by at Semporna’s market, which is only a short walk from the jetty.