Mabul – paradise but for how much longer?

It’s been a dream of mine to travel through Borneo, and I am finally ticking this off my bucket list. My first proper stop was the small island of Mabul, located in the Celebes sea. There’s no doubt the waters in these parts are stunning, but for how much longer?

Getting to Mabul isn’t a fast process. One has to fly to Sabah (the Malaysian part of Borneo) and then endure a minibus ride for 100kms to a town called Semporna – effectively a shithole. What puts Semporna on the map is the port that shuttles you to Mabul. Apart from that, the 16 hours I spent there were 16 wasted hours of my life. The town smells, it’s polluted to the gills and there’s a serious problem with homeless children hounding you for cash wherever you go.

If you’re wanting to head to Mabul Island, have a look at the awesome website below that has valuable information on the different accommodation and dive schools available there: 

Mabul Island

I couldn’t wait to depart first thing the following morning.

Mabul is an interesting island. The important things to know are the following:

  • It’s tiny – you can walk around it in 30 minutes.
  • Its population is roughly 2,000 people, half of which are under the age of 14 (Durex should make an ad here).
  • The ‘economy’, so to speak, is entirely that relating to a fishing village and a snorkeling and diving hotspot.

Mabul is also the best example you’ll ever see of extreme poverty and extreme wealth coexisting. The island itself, where the local population lives (mainly immigrants from the Philippines) is dirt poor. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were walking through refugee camp. All the resorts and dive centres, however, are built on stilts out on the water and benefit from beautiful views and sea breezes. The variety of accommodation will amaze you, ranging from R300 a night to R3,000 a night.

What puts Mabul on the map is the incredible snorkeling and diving. It’s consistently ranked as having some of the best reefs in the world, and Sipadan, the jewel island in the diving crown, close to Mabul, is nothing short of spectacular if you’re prepared to pay the hefty diving permit fee.

I spent 4 days there snorkeling as much as possible and I was blown away. I’m new to snorkeling but I will be amazed if many places can beat this. The sheer variety of fish and coral is incredible! My biggest regret is not bringing my GoPro with. The days started at 8am with a morning snorkel, returning to the hotel for breakfast and thereafter, a late morning snorkel, returning for lunch, followed by an afternoon snorkel. You’re spoilt for choice as Kapalai island is very close to Mabul and also has pristine coral reefs.

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A local fisherman.

The snorkeling and diving makes it very easy to forget that the island of Mabul itself isn’t great. In fact, if you’re wanting an island getaway where you lie on the beach and only dive/snorkel when you feel the inclination, Mabul is definitely not the island for you. Swimming is challenging due to the coral and there’s very limited white sand to lie upon. The appeal really is only the diving and snorkeling.

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I stayed at Billabong Scuba and arranged all my snorkelling through them – they are a great outfit. This is the accommodation – the rooms are really basic but the setting is pretty cool. Price wise, one of the cheapest and better value outfits I could find.

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If you have money to burn, this is where you want to stay.

Sadly, however, the poverty has led to terrible living conditions on the island and the accumulation of pollution is frightfully concerning. Walking around the non-resorty parts of the island horrified me. It blows my mind that Malaysia is sitting on the crown jewel of marine life and yet the pollution happening here is continuing unabated. Although I was snorkeling a relatively decent distance away from the island itself, I saw a small amount of rubbish in the water everyday. But nothing prepared me for my final day – it was like snorkeling in a toilet.

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The shores of the fishing village. Not pretty.

This leads me to wonder how much longer Mabul will remain on the map as a hot dive spot? At this rate, not much longer, which is really sad. It doesn’t look like too much is being done about it either, which boggles my mind as it is very clear that Sabah relies on tourist money? Surely this behavior quite literally gives meaning to the expression of biting the hand that feeds you?

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How much longer can Mabul remain a diving and snorkelling paradise if this is getting washed into the ocean on a daily basis?

I’m the kind of guy that battles to put this sort of thing aside and enjoy myself regardless. It really irks me and that means I enjoy myself less. I’m certainly not the only person that feels this way – in fact, many tourists felt the same way. I just hope something gets done about it.

Ok, time to get off my soap box. I’m currently enroute to Kota Kinabalu and am hoping to climb Mount Kinabalu in the next few days. I need positive vibes!

Cheers

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