Not very far away from Malaysia’s renowned dive spot Sipadan Island is Mabul, another dive sanctuary that gives its visitors a different experience from the huge pelagics, reef sharks, turtles and schools of barracuda that one can see in Sipadan.
In Mabul, which is just a twenty minute boat ride from Sipadan, the sea creatures are small and unusual — perfect for macro diving. It is actually believed that muck diving was invented in Mabul, where the seafloor is sandy and filled with rubble — in contrast to Sipadan’s combination of hard reefs and soft corals.
Of course, a closer look at the muck will show vibrant marine life beyond one’s imagination. There’s a reason why Mabul is known around the world to be among the best single dive spots for small, exotic sea creatures.
Mabul thrives with countless species of crustaceans: mantis shrimp, harlequin shrimp, hair squat lobsters, porcelain crabs, boxer crabs, and spider crabs to name a few.
You can also see cephalopods including different kinds of octopus from the vivid blue-ringed to the eye-catching mimic; the strange-looking cuttlefish,and the delightful bobtail squid, as well as all kinds of gobies.
Frogfish also populate Mabul, with daily appearances from painted, giant, and clown frogfish. And that’s not even the half of it. More sea critters such as dwarf lion fish, crocodile fish, leaf scorpion fish, devil scorpion fish, stonefish, flying gurnards, and stargazers.
Mabul is also pipefish heaven — with mushroom coral pipefish, harlequin ghost pipefish, and many-banded pipefish commonly seen there. Adorable seahorses and pygmy seahorses can also be seen in Mabul.
A Mabul side trip for at least a day is highly recommended, because of the contrast of the marine life there to Sipadan’s. Underwater photographers in particular should dive in Mabul, where they are sure to find rare and weird-looking creatures that most divers don’t even see regularly.
Where to Stay Mabul
Resorts in Mabul allow you to get the best of both Sipadan’s and Mabul’s dive sites. Choosing accommodation on the island will give you access to the local dive sites near Mabul where all the interesting marine life is to be found.
There is a place to stay in Mabul for every budget. You can find affordable basic resorts if you want to save money, or treat yourself to luxurious bungalow on stilts over the water. Our section on Malaysia resorts will have all the details. Singaporeans and Malaysians can enjoy special discounted rates at many of the resorts on the island. Expats with valid work permits who live in Malaysia and Singapore can also avail of the discounts.
One also has the option of going on a liveaboard that goes around the area, with one night spent in Mabul, giving tourists access to a lot of the local dive spots.
When to dive in Mabul
Diving in Mabul can be done all year round, and conditions are still good during the rainy season, which happens from December to March. Of course, it is still best to go when it is not the rainy season.
Even during the dry season, which takes place between March and September, the visibility in Mabul is not so great, though it hardly affects the beauty of the macro life that Mabul is known for. Waters are calm, with the occasional surface waves sometimes occurring. Water temperature is also quite consistent, varying from 27 to 29 degrees celsius.
The marine life in Mabul can be seen there all throughout the year, so any time of year is a great time to go. The small sea critters and the giant schools of fish will be there for anyone to find no matter what month they choose to visit.
Mabul’s peak season when most tourists arrive are from March through August, and the holiday season from Christmas to New Year, and even up to Chinese New Year. Those who plan to travel during these times are advised to book and plan way beforehand.
Frequently Asked Questions on diving in Malaysia
Now that Sipadan is closed to visitors, where is an ideal place to stay for those who want to dive there?
Neighbouring Mabul island and the Kapalai sandbar make for great bases for those who want to dive in Sipadan. Resorts there are pleasant, well-known and are only between 20 or 25 minutes away. A liveaboard goes around the area and docks in Mabul’s shallower areas for a night. At the moment, staying on the mainland isn’t ideal, since the closest point, Semporna, is still over an hour away.
What activities can one do in Sabah aside from diving?
There is much to see and do in Malaysia and particularly Sabah other than just diving. Of course, Borneo’s top destinations Mabul, Layang Layang, and Sipadan are known as dive spots and don’t really offer much for those who don’t dive. In Sabah, however, there is a whole host of activities to enjoy. Mountain trails, jungle treks, river rafting, mountain biking, golf, beaches and beach activities are just some of the things non-divers can try in Sabah. One can also interact with exotic wildlife in the rainforests of Sabah, and have close encounters with animals such as orangutans, snakes, proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, elephants, macaques, and hornbills to name a few.
Where else can we dive in Borneo other than Sipadan?
Amazing diving destinations abound in Borneo, with Sabah being known to be among the top places in the world to go for an extended dive holiday. In addition to Sipadan, divers can experience the underwater beauty of places such as Layang Layang or Mataking. This along with a visit to the wildlife at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, or the Kinabatangan river, makes Sbah an ideal location for divers who want to stay for weeks at a time.
Frequently Asked Questions about Malaysia
What is the weather like?
Malaysia has tropical weather throughout the year, with warm temperatures that can go as low as 21 degrees celsius or as high as 32 degrees celsius and 80 percent humidity yearlong. Its annual rainfall that measures between 2,000 mm and 2,500 mm. Visitors are advised to slather on the sunscreen and wear loose clothing in light fabrics to enjoy the climate in the tropics.
How is the rainy season?
Being a tropical country, Malaysia has two seasons: wet and dry. The eastern coast of Sabah, which includes Pulau Sipadan, is great for diving anytime of the year, even between November and March when it’s rainy. Typhoons that pass through the region or near it will bring about stronger rains, though it is still okay to dive.
On the opposite coast — the west — January through May will bring about the dry season, while the wet season runs from June to the end of the year.
On the western side of Peninsular Malaysia, dry months run from November all the way through March, and the southwest monsoon brings about the wet season, which begins in April and lasts until October. In the eastern part of Peninsular Malaysia April through October brings about the dry season, and the northeast monsoon makes it rain from November up to March.
Do I need to be an expert to dive in Sipadan?
While diving conditions are not particularly difficult in Sipadan and its surrounding areas and can be done by divers of any level, steep drop-offs in Sipadan require some control in buoyancy, and dive operators do not do courses for open water divers there.
Those who want to get their certification in Borneo can head to Kota Kinabalu to take their PADI course in open water diving to learn all the basics such as dealing with equipment and controlling buoyancy in preparation for diving in Sipadan and Mabul.
How do I get to Sarawak and Sabah from mainland Malaysia?
Malaysia’s geography is made up of the Peninsula, and the island of Borneo, which is divided in two states: Sarawak, and Sabah. Traveling between the Peninsula and Borneo can be done by plane. Several airlines including Air Asia and flag carrier Malaysia Airlines fly regularly from Kuala Lumpur to destinations in Sarawak or Sabah.
Is Sipadan safe for tourists?
While several incidents have occurred in this area in Sabah, most happened on the mainland, away from Sipadan and its tourists. The government of Malaysia has prioritized the safety of tourists to sustain tourism. The incidents that took place in Sipadan resorts have promoted the government to beef up and strengthen security, both the local security within the islands, as well as the costal security that secures the Malaysia-Philippines sea border. There may be some risk involved when visiting Sipadan, as in any other foreign place, but thousands of divers continue to visit the spot, which still has some of the best diving in the region.
Scuba Diving in Mabul?
Check out our Mabul dive guide and start planning your next dive trip!