Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai – Diving Gems of Malaysian Borneo

The cuttle fish was as big as my head. My first encounter ever. Chrome-like spade fish, as big as hub caps, hovered nearby. On the bottom, an alligator fish stared up at my every move. And this was only a fraction of what was seen on my first dive at Mabul. I was at the middle island of the three jewels of the Celebes Sea—part of the world’s most marine biologically diverse area of the world. I was going to see more animals here than anywhere I had ever visited, or ever will.

Off the west coast of the Malaysian Borneo, in the western Pacific, province of Sabah, lies three tropical jewels that are diver heaven. These islands are Mabul in the middle, the famous Sipadan, and Kapalai. Residence for our trip was Mabul at the Borneo Divers Mabul resort.

Most of the diving near the resort was just 100 to 200 yards away, but boats take you out. Even so, there are dozens of dive sites, just a few minute-boat ride further out. Great diving on wonderful shallow coral is also right off the beach and easy with a dive shop right on the water.

Given the biodiversity that is the greatest in the world, the eye candy is incredible. Mabul’s reefs hold huge anemones populated with clownfish of several varieties (I never knew there were so many kinds), lionfish (again, multiple varieties), and big clown triggers that attack your fins in territorial fits. Macro photographers will delight in the dazzling nudibranchs on the reef and small fish and mantis shrimp across the sand and mud flats.

Reaching beyond the Mabul waters we also went diving to Sipadan, less than an hour’s boat ride away. Sipadan (pronounced See-pa-don by locals, Seep-a-dan by Americans) was made famous by a Cousteau film featuring turtles, walls and cave. But what will likely leave you reeling is the upper edges of the walls. Nutrient-rich cool upwelling currents explode the marine life growth. Corals of every shape, size and color, along with sponges equal in diversity and spectrum dazzle your brain. Fish swirl in masses close to the reef and in open water, also in every color of the rainbow. Sharks, barracudas, huge schools of jacks; they are all here. Then there are the turtles. It is unusual to see less that a half a dozen on a dive. And they are big.

To the north of Mabul just a short boat ride is Kapalai. Kapalai can barely be called an island. It is really not much more than just a sand bar atop a huge coral reef. This is probably the least famous of the three islands but, personally, it was my favorite. Walls are not a dominating dive destination but rather large expanses and mounds of shallow coral that you can spend large amounts of time photographing and looking over an abundance of brightly colored invertebrates.

All of these coral reefs are a photographer’s paradise—wide angle on the walls, macro on the reefs and sand flats. Even so, on our trip, several of the divers did not carry cameras and had an excellent trip.

The Borneo Divers Mabul Resort (www.borneodivers.info) is an excellent way to dive here. Accommodations are multiple, but private, air conditioned bungalows gathered around a central dining and multi-function building. The food is fantastic and free wireless internet is available to keep in touch back home in an easy way.

The three gems of Malaysian Borneo is sure to delight the diver looking for the most amount of colorful animals for just a week’s worth of diving.

Tips for Malaysian Borneo

– It is HOT. Prepare yourself accordingly. Wear a broad-rim ventilated hat and light clothing.
– This is a modest Islamic (but friendly) country. Try to avoid shorts and tank tops, especially women.
– Kota Kinabalu is entry city and relatively clean. Although there are several excellent hotels, I recommend Sutera Harbor Resort. Don’t bother with the mall, rather head for the waterfront handycraft market. Prices on pearls are good, especially the freshwater variety. It is okay to barter.
– Semporna is a the jump-off point for the boat to the island. It is a stink-hole of a town but safe. Don’t wander around here if you have a sensitive nose. Stay close to your guide for good eats.
– Ecotourist opportunities bountiful in Sabah region. Spend some time on land here if possible.
– Rain comes in deluges. Carry a poncho.
– On the dive boats you’ll need to do back rolls and climb ladders. A bit tough but worth the effort.

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