Diving in Mabul
Most people who come to dive the Sipadan area stay on nearby Mabul Island and their diving experience is a combination of Mabul's macro sites and critters, and Sipadan's walls and big fish action.
Pulau Mabul (as it is known locally) is a small sandy island with coconut trees, a local fishing village, and of course dive resorts. It is only 25 minutes or so boat ride from Sipadan Island itself. It has long lived in the shadow of its famous neighbour but is now emerging as a dive destination in its own right.
As critter-diving has increased in popularity many divers come here, not only for the big fish action of Sipadan, but for the incredible array of macro-life to be seen at Mabul Island. Sandy sea-beds, coral outcrops, small walls and artificial reefs and jetties, are all home to some of the seas most amazing little creatures.
It is often a good sign when underwater photographers are around and there are always a few diving at Mabul (often only here, and not at Sipadan!), so you can be sure there are a wealth of interesting sights lurking in every nook and cranny around the island.
Dive Site Descriptions
The Artificial Reef - Situated directly in front of SMART Resort on the south side of Mabul, the artificial reef is constructed from wooden frames, man-made structures in the shape of pyramids, crates and rockpiles. It attracts many different types of marine life. What looks at first sight to be only a bunch of boring old junk turns out to be a habitat for an astonishing array of creatures.
The most obvious are the large schools of juvenile barracuda and batfish patrolling along the reef and of course the incredible school of jacks which can wrap you in silver. The entire area can be somewhat of a maze as you wander from structure to structure. The sandy bottom houses ribbon eels and if you are lucky you may get to see a juvenile Harlequin sweetlips performing its strange jig. In some of the structures you might find juvenile Oriental sweetlips, colorful nudibranchs, frogfish and enormous groupers.
With its sandy bottom you have to be careful during the dive and frog kick gently so you won't stir up the silt and decrease the visibility. For divers who are into macro, the diving around Mabul and Kapalai are wonderland and this house reef is one of the best. It is so much fun and so easily accessed that you may want to dive this spot over and over again.
Crocodile Avenue - Opinion is divided on the quality of this site. For high adrenaline-junky divers, Mabul Island may seem a little sedate, but for macro-lovers it is a haven of discovery. As with many of the dive sites here, progress should be slow and deliberate with eyes scanning the floor and every feature on it for sightings that you will miss if you fin off looking straight ahead.
To dive here is to cover a gentle sandy slope peppered with little areas of activity. With a pair of sharp eyes you will find a seahorse or ten. Patches of weed and stringy areas often harbour at least 1 seahorse, clinging on with its prehensile tail.
Other joys which may escape the attention of inattentive divers include the eponymous crocodilefish lying in wait on the sandy floor, its large flat snout resting just above the ground. Your guide will also surely identify the occasional ghost pipefish riding delicately in the movement of the water. As you make your way along it may also be worth looking forward where you may see the long protruding bodies of garden eels shrinking back to safety as you and your fellow divers approach.
There can be no doubt that Mabul's crowning glory is the abundance of critters and small stuff, however occasionally the bigger things might put in a visit such as a passing eagle ray. If you are investigative by nature, diving here will be ideal for you. Equally popular as a night dive, nocturnal outings will yield excellent rewards with sightings including cuttlefish, nudibranchs and crabs all making their way into the beam of your flashlight.
Eel Garden - Scuba diving at Mabul offers rich rewards for patient divers, those who are willing to move slowly but surely in search in rare species hard to find at other dive destinations. At the sandy seabed which you can find at a depth of about 20 metres onwards, you'll spot loads of small lairs and tunnels. These are home to shy colourful gobies of various species, blue ribbon eels swaying around with gaping mouths and cleaning shrimp who might conduct a little dental work for you if you ask nicely.
As its name suggests, there are a large number of garden eels which rise out of the sandy seabed. From a distance they stand very tall swaying with the water and looking like a field of stalks. Within the small groups of coral, exploration will yield sightings of the rare lemon coloured moray, and frogfish in colours of blue, rose red and black.
As you work your way up, you'll come upon the reef at a depth of between 2 and 15 metres. Along with wrasse and damselfish, there is a very unusual creature, the gigantic mantis shrimp from the genus odontodactylus. This predatory crustacean literally jumps out of its lair (holes on the sandy seabed) to grab passing fish for dinner. The force that its front claws have on passing fish has been compared to a 22-calibre bullet. They are built to pierce tough marine exoskeletons and can cut through human flesh like a hot knife through butter so divers be warned, don't provoke them, you won't like them when they're angry.
Froggy Lair - As with many of the sites around Mabul Island a keen pair of eyes and deliberate approach are necessary here if you are not to emerge saying you saw nothing. Suspended particles in the water can make for what would normally be considered poor visibility. The point is this should not matter, as you won't be staring off in the distance looking for passing sharks, rather you should be seeking out delights closer to your mask. That explains why there are mixed reviews for this dive site.
On the one hand, the suspended particles, the seabed with stunted corals and rubbish fragments like old fishing nets and tyres which litter this site have led many a diver to categorise it as a poor one, with very little to offer the diver. On the other hand, diehard macro divers have come back raving about unusual finds.
Several frogfish are often spotted well camouflaged as they sit in wait ready for the fastest lethal strike in the natural world. The 2 more celebrated of these are blue in colour and about the size of a football (or if you insist a 'soccer' ball). Cowries can be seen both in the daytime as well as at night.
There are any number of species of nudibranchs in splashes of colour that are extraordinarily pretty as well as some fabulously ornate ghost pipefish. Perhaps the most sought after prize here at Froggy Lair and the one that dominates most pre-dive conversation is the holy grail of muck diving, the flamboyant cuttlefish. This little beauty, most often seen at night, is a gem making its way along the sandy bottom moving its ornate purplish, yellow body to the delight of all wide-eyed witnesses.
Lobster Wall - Lobster Wall near Mabul is a slope running down to about 20m depth. The dive site consists of a colourful reef covered with various species of nudibranchs, and several different types of pipefish. To begin the dive you will likely start off on top of the reef, working your way down gently along the sloping wall. The wall is full of holes and a network of tunnels behind the main wall of the reef. Lobsters can sometimes be spotted at the entrances to these small caverns.
Currents can be strong, in which case you can cruise along the reef in the direction of the current, keeping an eye out for large turtles, peacock mantis shrimps, and even a flamboyant cuttlefish. This is a very unusual type of cuttlefish being normally very small and with more purple and yellow coloration than the cuttlefish divers most commonly encounter. It is one of the favorite creatures among scuba divers to spot and photograph.
You are spoilt in this area by the numbers of nudibranchs and Lobster Wall is no exception. They are present here in impressive numbers and varieties. Continuing the dive, you will fin slowly along the reef, occasionally having turtles pass by or for a quick stop just to say hello.
There are many common anemones with their tentacles swaying in the current and playing home to the resident anemone clownfish. You can watch as the immature males will be swimming in and out of the anemone but staying close while the larger, sexually active pair brave it up and swim out, trying to scare you away.
Ray Point (a.k.a. Stingray City) - Accessed by boat from Mabul, you will roll into the water right above the reef and, having descended from the surface, gently wander down the slope.
Slowly cruising along the slope, you may stop to see the resident crocodile fish resting on the coral or on a patch of sand. This species always looks like it is simply relaxing, and seldom moves when divers are around. They appear to be happy to stay still and pose for a few photographs, even close ups, much closer than you would get to an actual crocodile!
On the bottom itself is a large sandy area peppered with small rocks and what looks like sticks pointing up from the sand. On closer inspection you will see that these are garden eels, and quite a lot of them.
Other interesting species for divers to spot at Ray Point include, unsurprisingly, blue spotted stingrays that are often hunting along the reef in search of food. They are a greenish brown colour with vivid blue spots and a white underbelly. It's a jungle out there if these rays are around and you are a shrimp, crab or small bony fish, since the ray might pin you down with its fins and squash you with the food-crushing plates it has on the inside of its mouth.
Other commonly sighted creatures likely to come into your view at this dive site include cuttlefish, boxfish and of course more of the ever-present parade of turtles.
Seaventure Platform - Is beauty only skin deep or is that just something that ugly people say? People see this converted oil rig and are aghast at the thought of diving beneath it. Ugly, big metal legs support what is now converted into accommodation but it looks like the last place you would think about diving beneath. Underwater however, is a very different story.
The site is only a stone's throw from the north coast of the island of Mabul (well, if you are particularly good stonethrower) and is sheltered by the structure of the platform. This means that surface conditions are almost always flat calm and there is also little current. This means you can relax and take your time to explore.
Among the piles of metal rods on a dive site that varies in depth between 12 and around 17 metres, you will find a whole batch of frogfish in varying hues of red, yellow and black. Cruising around this post-apocalyptic landscape, the joy of discovery can be intense as you spot huge moray eels, ghostpipefish and nudibranchs galore where you thought there was nothing. The amazing thing is that what looks like a desolate wasteland is in fact home to a flourishing marine island community.
Every diver who visits this site seems to come back with their own tales of things they have found and the site of everyone poking around makes it look like some bizarre industrial archeological site! Delights in the debris. Rarities in the rubble. Joy in the junk. Certainly unique and unquestionably rewarding for critter fans - a special, idiosyncratic site and one that will stay with you for a long time.
How to Dive Mabul Island
Staying in a resort on Mabul means that on days when you are not diving Sipadan, you can concentrate on all the local sites around the island where the critters abound.
There are several resorts on the island that should have something for everyone, from a budget resort to stilted bungalow luxury. See our Malaysia resorts section for more details. Special local rates apply at many of these resorts for Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates living in those countries with work permits.
There is also 1 liveaboard in the area which stays overnight at Mabul Island and from which you can dive many of the local sites.
You can dive in Mabul year round with the best conditions occurring outside the rainy season which normally occurs between December and March. However the weather and diving conditions are often very good at this time too.
Visibility is not amazing here even at the best of times, which is the dry season from March to September. However, since diving here is mostly about the macro life, the visibility doesn't have to be that great. The seas around Mabul Island remain calm most of the time although now and then surface waves will be present. Water temperatures also vary very little, usually hovering at between 27 and 29°C.
There is no best time to visit to see certain creatures as all the macro life seems to be present all year round, as does the enormous resident school of jacks at the island. So they will be all there when you get here, you just have to find them!
This is a very popular destination and some periods are so popular that you really should book long in advance. These periods include March to August, Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year. If you wish to travel at these times please let us know as soon as possible.
Good for: Small animals, underwater photography and beginner divers
Not so good for: Visibility and non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - 20m
Visibility: 5 - 15m
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 27 - 29°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: 12
Distance: 12 km (25 minutes) north from Sipadan and 5 km west of Kapalai
Access: Mabul dive resorts
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 14 days