Pulau Mabul, Malaysia
It will be a while before I get a chance to write this up properly, so working on the theory that anything is better than nothing, here’s some rough-and-ready notes and a few pictures. A fuller and shinier version with lots more photos will replace this someday when I get the chance.
Pulau Mabul (Mabul island) is a small island in the Tuk Sarakan National Park. It is about 15 km from the town of Semporna in the South-East of Sabah State, Eastern Malaysia.
Mabul is quite close to the famous diving island of Sipadan. It is mainly known as the place that you stay on when you want to dive Sipadan. There are numerous dive-resorts on Mabul.
There is also some interesting diving to be had around Mabul itself. Every article you read will tell you how the phrase “Muck-diving” was founded in Mabul. (‘Muck diving’ means looking up-close at small creatures in areas where the visibility or surrounding scenery is otherwise poor).
What nobody seems to mention is that there is some very nice reef on Mabul and it is within snorkelable depths.
The difficult part is how to snorkel on it safely without getting killed by all the speedboats zipping around on the surface.
I came to Mabul in June, mainly for the purpose of diving Sipadan. I dived there with both Billabong Scuba and Uncle Chang and stayed at their dive resorts on the East side of the island. I also dived and snorkelled around Mabul itself. Sometimes independently, sometimes off the resort’s boat. Uncle Chang’s resort lets its guests snorkel for free from their Mabul dive boats (while their divers are down).
The drop-off on the West Coast (G H I) is by far the best area I snorkelled. Unfortunately, it is also the most dangerous. It is fine if you have the protection of a dive boat, but if you are out there by yourself, there is a significant danger of being run over by a speedboat driver who won’t be expecting snorkelers there.
Independent snorkelling isn’t the done thing over this side. If you want to do it, take a big surface marker buoy with you. It’s a bit better at lower tides, when the speedboats can’t get over the reeftop and divert out over the deep water instead.
Access to the water is mainly via long ladders down from the resorts’ stilt-village locations. There is also a beach which has walk-in access at the Southern end, (near F on the map).
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There is a huge expanse of sandy shallows with lots of sea grass in Area ABCD. Ostensibly not too interesting, I did find some cool critters here including a wide range of small eels, some duelling hermit crabs and, once, a passing Eagle Ray.
As you go further out towards the drop-off, you start to get some coral. The best stuff is at 1-2 metres depth and is ~30 metres from the drop-off.
Generally, there aren’t too many mid-sized/bigger fish around and those that are, are pretty jumpy. There is an indigenous population and they use whatever fishing methods they can, including spearguns. One day at low water I saw a local guy who had waded out the 1km to the drop-off and had set-up a tripod on it with a speargun mounted on top. It looked like an underwater World War II machine-gun emplacement, with our man poised to mow-down any unsuspecting enemy fish.
But the fish aren’t unsuspecting. They have developed an instinct to flee as soon as a trigger is pressed. Unfortunately, this instinct also kicks-in when a camera-shutter button is pressed.
The East side has a designated snorkelling area which is marked off from boat traffic by buoys. It has easy access to the water from a gently sloping beach. This is where you are ‘supposed’ to snorkel on Mabul.
The snorkelling over this side is no as hot as the West side . If people tell you that there isn’t much snorkelling on Mabul – this is the part that they are talking about.
Actually, there is some really nice coral around here, but mostly the underwater visibility was appalling – less than 2 metres. All there was to do was take macro picture of the coral from a couple of inches away.
The area M N O is roped-off for snorkelers. It is probably not safe to go anywhere outside of this area as there is a lot of boat traffic going to and from the jetties. Here is the line of buoys at the edge, looking out towards the dive-resort based on one of those Ikea oil-rigs.
There are about 10 dive resorts on the island and most people stay on one of these as part of an all-inclusive dive-eat-sleep package for 2-3 days. At most of them, you can pay for extra days accommodation and/or diving. I guess that many will let you go out on the boat to snorkel while they are diving around Mabul.
There is a list of resorts at wikitravel here.
I guess you can buy dedicated snorkelling packages, too, but I haven’t looked into it. (You can get certainly get these for Sipadan trips).
When I was there (2012), there was a single ‘backpackers’ type place on Mabul. It was 40MYR for a dorm. (for comparison: the cheapest dive resort dorm was 80MYR, with most dive resort accommodation being double rooms starting at about 120MYR).
If you are going independent, you will have to take a dive-resort boat from Semporna to Mabul for about 100MYR each way. If you are on a package, transfers will be included in the price. In both cases, there is an extra jetty fee of 10MYR in Semporna.
For independents – there are a few local eateries on the island, selling basic food at mainland prices (about 5-10MYR for a simple rice-and-meat dish). Package-deal people will have all resort meals included in the price.
There is a wide dust-track running along the length of the island, near to the West coast.
You can use it to reach a scrappy beach on the South West corner of the island. There is easy access to the water here and there is a channel cut through the coral (F to E on the map). Give way to boats in the channel. Further North, you must use ladders from the resorts to get down to the water.
On the East side of the island, there access to the water from the one sloping beach, at the North end.
There are a couple of points where you can cut across from the West side track to the East side of the island, including the demarked snorkel area in the North East.
Some people mention that there are rats on Mabul. Yes, I saw one or two, usually scurrying around in the rafters of one of the stilt accommodations. It’s pretty unlikely that they are going to come down and bite you.
The couple of beaches are nothing special – you probably wouldn’t want to lay-out on them.
Some local fishermen paddle by the resorts in the mornings looking to sell last night’s catch to tourists. The resort’s kitchen will happily store these and cook them for you in the evening (for a small fee). Resorts encourage people to pay the fishermen in non-monetary items (usually sweet or savoury snacks). If you’re doing this, take the wrappers off first as the fisherman’s kids will just throw the plastic wrappers straight into the sea.
Local islanders are used to natural food with its wrappings that biodegrade naturally. They haven’t quite got used to plastics and the need to dispose of them differently. Some accounts of Mabul mention a plastics pollution problem, but I can’t say I saw much of it. If you do see a plastic bag in the sea, please grab it and take it with you as turtles think they are jellyfish and choke trying to eat them.
Overall, I loved the snorkelling on the West side of Mabul and I would say that if you can find someone selling a trip that will let you snorkel the West coast drop-off safely, then it is worth coming to Mabul for the snorkelling, (even if you aren’t going to Sipadan).
Written: Jul 2012 Last Updated: Jul 2012