Borneo Divers Mabul
Trip Report and Photos by Jamie
4 – 9 December 2006
The Borneo Divers Mabul Resort is one of the cheaper options for diving Sipadan. The old Borneo Divers Resort on Sipadan had the best location right by the drop off, right on the beach and was a haven for divers looking for the best diving at the lowest price! The move to Mabul in 2005 meant leaving paradise behind and starting again. It’s taken a while for Borneo Divers to develop their resort, but over the last year, there have been huge improvements. Rooms have been upgraded, trees planted, a great pool added, and (you heard it here first) there are now plans to build a new jetty during 2007, with the dive station over the water, allowing no limit diving in front of the resort.
After a night in Kota Kinabalu and dining at the Waterfront, I took the 7am flight to Tawau, the first of many early mornings to come! Although December is low season, I was expecting maybe a few other divers to be on this flight, which is the one we recommend to ensure early arrival at the resorts. However, I was the only gringo on the flight! Tawau airport is tiny, and through the window of the baggage reclaim I could already see someone wearing a Borneo Divers shirt. There were a few other guests already on the minibus, who had been staying in Tawau town the night before. The transfer process from Tawau to Mabul is effortless. You don’t need to worry about your bags – you’ll see them again when you check in at the resort. The ride to Semporna is mostly palm trees, and then more palm trees. The road is not very busy, ad the drive took only about 90 minutes. Semporna town is small, not hugely pretty, but functional. The transfer boat was waiting at the jetty in front of the Seafest Hotel, which is the best one in Semporna, just down the road from the Borneo Divers local office and the Dragon Inn (a cheap floating guesthouse).
The boats used for the transfer are fast. This one had twin 100 HP engines. The one we used to return from Mabul a few days later had twin 200HP engines and threatened to take off and fly us back to the mainland! Just 45 minutes later we arrived at the small jetty used by Borneo Divers. The weather was hot, water calm, and I felt like diving in right away next to the jetty. Mabul is a very quiet island. No roads, no cars, no motorbikes…coming from Phuket and then KK, the peace is noticeable right away.
The check in procedure at the resort takes a while. You get a welcome drink and have a few forms to fill in, before having a resort briefing. The staff were all very welcoming and I must say that for me (being used to Thailand) it’s great to be in a place where everyone speaks English! All the briefings and form filling were over by 11:30 am, and we were free for a walk around before lunch and then a 1pm rendezvous at the dive station. You get 2 dives on arrival day so long as you arrive early enough, which is why we recommend the 7 am flight from KK, or an overnight stay in Tawau or Semporna.
I stayed at Borneo Divers for 4 nights, which meant I had 3 full days of diving including dives at Sipadan. The first day would just be Mabul dives. I would not really recommend a shorter stay than 4 nights. I was just starting to enjoy myself! Mind you, I met an English couple who just stayed 2 nights and had just 1 day for diving at Sipadan. Yes, you can do it, I guess, but I really wish I could have stayed a week or more! The resort was quite empty when I arrived. There was a group of 6 Spaniards, 1 German, 3 English, 1 Japanese and 3 Thai divers. The experience levels varied from fairly new Open Water Divers up to Instructors. In general I did not think the diving to be very difficult. I’d say no more tricky that the Similan Islands in Thailand – some currents, some deep water (so watch your buoyancy), but only on 1 dive was the current enough to make us fly! Still, it’s very good that you have to do a check dive on arrival day. I had not used my gear for ages and found a couple of small leaks. There is a little workshop there in the dive station, so I was able to borrow a couple of spanners and fix things.
The Resort – Borneo Divers Mabul
This resort does not pretend to be fancy, but is shaking off the “backpackers” tag. The prices have risen over the last 2 years and the resort for me was a little haven of tranquility. When not diving, people tend to disappear to their rooms and turn on the aircon, but it’s nice to hang by the pool, or get a cup of tea at the beach bar or down endless mugs of juice in the restaurant. There’s also an aircon lounge with TV, DVD and free internet. The rooms maybe need a lick of paint here and there, but I found my room very comfortable, plenty of space for hanging gear and clothes and you’re no more than a minute’s walk from either the dive station or the restaurant. It’s not a big resort, only about 30 rooms which line either side of a grassy area between the main building and the beach.
The restaurant has plenty of seating space and has tea/coffee/juice/water available all day. The food is a little basic, but there was quite a variety. I enjoyed having fresh fish most meals, and there were some good local vegetables and curries too. All served buffet style, and plenty of it! I did not hear any complaints about the amounts, but a couple of people mentioned that the food was rather basic. Note that you can buy soft drinks, beer and wine. Soft drinks are cheap. Alcohol is not! The price should put you off diving with a hangover! During the evening meal we had live music..a little dodgy to say the least. A guy playing a synth and singing, sometimes joined by a girl. Choice of music mostly hits of the 70’s. I don’t think I can hear “Fernando” again in the same way.
There actually turned out to be more dives available than I realized. Currently, Borneo Divers does not offer unlimited shore dives, though as I said earlier they are planning a new jetty which would make this possible. Nevertheless you can easily do 4 dives a day, even 5 dives and I think that is certainly enough unless you are a diveaholic.
The normal schedule gives you 2 dives in the morning at Sipadan, followed by 1 afternoon dive at Mabul or Kapalai. In case the resort is busy, you may do Mabul in the morning and Sipadan dives in the afternoon. It IS possible, on request, if you are lucky, no guarantees, to make 3 dives at Sipadan in the morning. I did this on my 3rd day and it meant a 5:45 am start before the sun was up! This early start is to try and catch the huge school of bumphead parrotfish as they wake up. We were a bit slow and did not get away until 6:15 – we did see the school but they were already wide awake!
It is also possible to make a sunset dive free of charge – this is an unguided buddy dive and will be in front of the resort – great if you like macro and muck diving. You can also book extra night dives (extra cost) if there are 2 or more people interested. I’m not a huge night dive fan and I heard one girl saying the current was very strong during her night dive making it quite difficult. There is normally no diving on departure day, but if you are not flying that day you can get one morning dive at Mabul.
The diving was very well organized, the boats are fast and each boat takes a maximum of only 12 divers – no crowds here. Each boat has 2 divemasters. I must say the dive briefings were rather.. well, brief … but the DM’s were all friendly and did not swim off into the distance. Our Divemaster (Emily) was good at helping a couple of people with ear problems. She did not leave them to descend alone! I think if you are really into muck diving, you should either do a buddy dive or ask the DM to go extra slow. I found a couple of times that when I had my nose to the ground looking for small stuff that our DM had gone. For me (as an instructor) no big deal, and my buddy was happy to stick with me, but if you have less experience be sure to stay with the DM, and if the DM goes too fast for you, then say something.
In between dives at Sipadan you can land on the island in front of the marine base next to the old jetty. I jumped in for some snorkeling which has to be some of the best snorkeling in the world! In 15 minutes I saw turtles, batfish, a big school of jacks, Napoleon wrasse, razor shrimp fish and much more… You get some basic snacks and drinks during the surface interval. There is a rather smelly toilet facility behind the marine base. I snorkeled around the area where a barge had run aground last year. The damage was evident, but very limited and if I did not know it had happened I would not really have noticed. Certainly there was no damage to see during my dives at the Drop Off.
In all, I made 11 dives, 7 of which were at Sipadan. Visibility varied from well under 10m on the one dive we did at Kapalai, up to around 15-20m at Sipadan (average 15m).
Video Service by Treasure Images
In the resort at Borneo Divers you find Treasure Images who can make group or personalised videos. Every day I was there, some people took the chance for a personal video. The videos were shown after dinner in the dining room and I thought they were very good value for money. You’d pay around US$ 75 for a personal video for 2 people. They also have underwater cameras for rent and have computers available for burning CD’s of your photos (for a small fee).
Diving highlights – well, for me it was turtles. I love turtles and you don’t see huge numbers in Thailand. On the dives at Sipadan we saw 15-20 per dive. On one dive at Barracuda Point I had seen 8 before finishing my descent. Mostly they hang around in the shallows, so I found it very worthwhile to come up shallow and do a good 15-20 minutes on top of the reef. At some points I could count 5-6 turtles in my line of sight. Sometimes I swam right over them as they rested in the reef. Sometimes it was raining turtles as they swam up for air and came back down. You get the picture? Lots of turtles.
Sharks – quite a lot of these too, mostly white tips. My buddy took a video of one swimming almost between my legs at the Drop off as I gazed up at the huge school of Jacks. I did not see the shark until he showed me the video! Many of the sharks are down deeper, but Barracuda Point has a channel at around 13-18m where white tips like to rest. We saw some grey reef sharks too, and (it was caught on video by the guys from Treasure Images) one group saw a hammerhead.
In general I did not see that much in the deeper waters save for some sharks. If you like marine life and especially turtles, I’d recommend staying shallow on some dives. I can easily do dives where I never go deeper than 10 meters.
Other highlights – The huge school of Jacks at The Drop Off is amazing. I could have watched them all day. The barracudas at Barracuda Point – I saw this huge vortex briefly but the currents were not favourable – can be pretty strong there. We did Barracuda Point 3 times and saw the barracudas just that one brief time. On one dive the current fairy whipped us along and had a slight downward turn to it… My buddy and I were in front of the DM and (not being a local) I had no idea where to go! Just guessed and finned hard into the reef and a minute later the rest of the group appeared.
The bumphead parrotfish at the drop off. Wow! What a great early morning dive. A huge school cruising along the very top of the reef and so close to the divers, too. We saw them at the beginning and end of the dive.
Macro and Muck – Now, I will admit I am more a fan of open reefs, pretty fish and big things. If I go back to Mabul I will do a couple more local dives and keep my nose to the floor. I saw a couple of things I have never seen before – giant frogfish and leaf scorpionfish, but there was a Thai group diving there who were very into macro photography, and they found things like flamboyant cuttlefish, hairy octopus, blue ring octopus….I should have stuck with them! Oh, one other thing I saw – jawfish with eggs in their mouth, great! Other macro life I saw – ghost pipefish, razor shrimp fish, and loads of nudibranchs (they are pretty, but I don’t obsess about them!).
The diving has a really unique combination. Sipadan is very WOW. Even in December when the visibility was variable the marine life was great. I say again that the best of the life is in the shallows. Well, the same goes everywhere I guess. You might want to drop deep to look for sharks (the group that saw the hammerhead were at 35m), but if you like long, relaxing dives with turtles for company, stay shallow! And no, I did not get bored with the turtles. How can you? The local muck diving is good, though may not be for everyone. You do need a keen eye and need to keep searching the sand and looking in every little crack to find little gems.
It’s a tiny little island with several dive resorts squeezed in along with the local village and a sea gypsy village. It’s mostly rather pretty, though you will find garbage especially where the gypsies live. I took a walk around. A couple of local kids in the village were scared to see a 2 meter tall blond haired monster and ran away crying, which surprised me – surely they are used to it by now? The local village takes up half the island, and the SMART and Mabul Water Bungalows resorts take up another slice. Then as you keep walking you get to the Sipadan Water Village, the gypsy village and Borneo Divers. A few island photos below:
I was well looked after at Borneo Divers. Everything was smoothly run from the transfers to the diving. I started to feel very relaxed at the end of 4 days. I want to go back! The diving was great, and almost always is – now, we were lucky with the weather – you can tell by the photos. In the low season you can be unlucky and get 4 days of rain, but if the sun shines you can’t fail to have a good trip!