The islands around Semporna hold a treasure trove of riches below their jewel-toned seas, with the biggest drawcard being Sipadan, one of the world’s best dive sites and made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Sipadan and the other islands are not only limited to divers—it’s possible to snorkel here, too.
The islands teem with sea life beneath the clear waters, and some hold delights above ground too: Bohey Dulang in Tun Sakaran Marine Park offers jungle trekking with one of the best views in Sabah. Many of the islands are popular to visit on daytrips, but unfortunately in several of the shallower sites we saw a lot of coral damage from inexperienced snorkellers stepping on the reef. Many operators offer no briefing or information about reef protection, and are reluctant to stop ignorant clients from causing damage. If you see something, you should say something.
The archipelago is home to the often stateless Bajau Laut “sea gypsies” (you’ll notice the women wearing traditional yellow sun-protection made from rice, seaweed and spices). Some daytrips include a gawk around their stilted villages, often conducted in a dehumanising “human zoo” manner. We suggest avoiding these trips; at the very least ask if the operator supports the villages in any way or the NGOs that help the Bajau Laut.
Just one hour from Semporna or 20 minutes from Mabul, Sipadan is famed for its clear, clear waters and huge sea creatures: sharks, rays, barracudas and turtles. To visit Sipadan requires a permit (40 ringgit), and they are limited to 120 per day. To obtain one of the highly sought after permits, dive shops often require you to do at least one other dive with them. You are more likely to be rewarded one if you book early and avoid the peak seasons of July and August, however staying longer can also increase your chances. Several of the sites around Sipadan are for advanced divers only due to strong currents.
Mabul is a favoured divers village with shallow coral reefs that are ideal for snorkelling too. Sea turtles are abundant and the dive sites are renowned for their muck diving possibilities, with quirky creatures like pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs. Another popular spot for small things is nearby Kapalai, also home to a luxurious water village resort.
Almost due east of Semporna, a cluster of eight islands form the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. Included in the three and four island trips offered around Semporna are Mantabuan, Gaya, Bohey Dulang, and Sibuan. A permit to enter the park is 10.60 ringgit or 3.20 ringgit for Malaysians. Mantabuan offers very pretty coral gardens and is known for black coral (which is white, green and purple!). Gaya is the home of a Bajau Laut village, where we saw dozens of boats zoom past, pointing long lenses, and many kids responding by begging—not practices that should be encouraged. A 30-minute trek uphill (take water) at Bohey Dulang offers a spectacular view of the surrounding coral-fringed islands, the rim of an ancient volcano where the sea turns every imaginable shade of blue. Sibuan, a white-sand piece of paradise, accommodates a few Bajau huts, and kids offer coconuts for sale. Sadly we also saw a lot of damage to shallow corals here.
Even further east are the islands Pom Pom and Mataking. A well as a couple of resorts, Pom Pom hosts the British Tropical Research and Conservation Centre, a charity that works with locals on a reef regeneration project. You can volunteer with them for as little as a week and have access to unlimited diving around the island. Mataking is actually two small islands (Mataking Besar and Mataking Kecil) joined by a sandbar and popular as a honeymoon destination. Mataking’s underwater action is good, too, with a combo of large marine life and the tiny stuff as well. For novelty value, there’s an underwater post box, so bring some (waterproof) postcards.
Dozens of dive shops operate in the dirty dusty streets of Semporna, and several are on Mabul, most of which are associated with a hotel or guesthouse. Snorkel trips can be arranged with these shops or directly with boatmen at the harbour, often at last-minute discount rates to fill up the boats (however, be careful of unlicensed cowboys). Jetty fees are 10.60 ringgit, or 2.12 ringgit for Malaysians; this is often included in the day package, but not always. Snorkelling day-trips, excluding Sipadan, are priced around 120-280 ringgit, depending on distance, numbers on the boat and inclusions. Not all trips run every day, so if you’d like to visit a particular island with a particular company, plan ahead as they may only visit once or twice per week.
Diving trips run at around 300 ringgit for three dives. Sipadan diving is significantly more expensive and three dives start at 850 ringgit, however you are often required to book a package for several days, including dives at other sites. Dive course are offered everywhere, but you won’t be diving Sipadan as a beginner. PADI Open Water certification starts at 760 ringgit if you’ve completed the written section online.
Borneo Divers: 9th Floor, Menara Jubili, 53 Jalan Gaya, Kota Kinabalu (also resort on Mabul Island); T: (088) 222 226, (088) 221 340; F: (088) 221 550; www.borneodivers.info; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scuba Junkie: Block B Lot 36 Seafront New Township, Semporna; T: (0897) 85 372; www.scuba-junkie.com; email@example.com.
Sipadan Scuba: Holiday Dive Inn, Lot B7-B8 Seafront New Township, Semporna; T: (089) 919 148, (089) 919 128; F: (089) 768 531; sipadanscuba.com.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 16th October, 2016.