Malaysia - Better Late Than Never

By Stephen Frink

This is an excerpt from a story published in Alert Diver Magazine, based on a trip to Malaysia by the magazine's publisher Stephen Frink, which was coordinated through Tourism Malaysia and Caradonna Adventures. Stephen explains that, through his long career as a dive journalist, Malaysia was one of the few destinations that he'd not experienced. "I finally checked that box with a trip to Mabul, Sipadan and Tioman Islands.” he writes. “With a destination as vast and diverse as Malaysia, the trip wasn't a comprehensive overview but rather a sampler revealing what I had been missing all these years.

My dive story began when I arrived at Semporna Jetty on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia; until then I had been on airplanes and in airports and hotels. The travel was not much different from going to the Philippines, Indonesia or any other distant and exotic dive destination, but the experiential divergence would soon begin.

Many of the dive operators on Mabul have small offices at Semporna for gathering their guests and provisions for the 45-minute speedboat ride to Mabul. Analogous to a bus station, Semporna is the terminal, and outboard-powered boats are the mini-Greyhound buses that take guests to Mabul and nearby Kapalai. On Mabul there are a couple of small villages and several resorts — some with over-water bungalows and some that are built back from the beach. There is even a dive resort built on a converted oil rig located just a short distance off the beach at Mabul.

The best time of the year to visit Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan is during the dry season from March through October. Even under optimal weather conditions the water clarity on Mabul and Kapalai will be worse than Sipadan, which makes sense when you realize Mabul is all about the muck-and-macro experience, but Sipadan is world-renowned for wide-angle seascapes and large schools of resident fish. Average visibility on Mabul is 20 to 30 feet; at Sipadan it is more than 100 feet on most days. It is remarkable how different the dive experiences are on these islands yet how well they complement each other.

My first dive off Mabul was to the House Reef directly in front of the Borneo Dives Mabul Resort. The reef slopes gradually from 15 to 80 feet. While the visibility that afternoon was only about 20 feet, the sheer abundance of small marine life was astonishing. Some weren't all that small, such as the green sea turtle resting on a shipwreck that had been intentionally sunk as a dive attraction. Given the water clarity and the limitations of my 100mm macro lens, I focused on small creatures and vignettes of anything larger. Some of my more memorable photos from that first dive include a large moray with its mouth agape while being cleaned by a goby, spawning starfish, sharpnose pufferfish and several species of frogfish. For one setup I was excited to see my dive guide point out a pair of frogfish side by side on the seafloor. I obediently shot several frames, but it wasn't until I reviewed my photos that night that I discovered there were actually three frogfish side by side.

In just about any direction I pointed my lens there was something of interest to shoot. I was grateful to have an excellent guide pointing out things to me, but I think that's standard for Mabul. A few years diving the same reefs day after day is invaluable when it comes to finding the bizarre and cryptic creatures of the muck. Many of the creatures are sedentary, and the guides know where to expect to find them. What they don't know from observation the day before they can deduce by knowing what creatures abide in each habitat.
Kapalai, which is close to Mabul, is little more than a spit of sand distinguished by a single resort built over the water. The resort has been creatively proactive with submerging structures around the island. Boats and purpose-built metal frames placed along the sandy plateau provide a habitat for marine life. Tiny frogfish, pipefish, leaf fish and harlequin ghost pipefish are among the usual suspects at the extraordinarily productive Mandarin City dive site.

Dozens of dive sites are along the sandy slope in front of the resorts on Mabul and Kapalai, but the one beneath the Seaventures Rig is noteworthy. Its large footprint casts considerable shade, so the local environment is different from the surrounding seafloor, and multiple other structures are scattered about. With rig pilings, shipwrecks and swim-through cages dotting the seafloor, the array of structures is like one giant fish-attracting device. I'm sure when they get good water clarity the wide-angle potential is awesome, but with visibility less than 30 feet, I was happy to plink around with my macro lens for batfish, flamboyant cuttlefish and coral grouper.

While the north side of the islands are mostly sandy, with artificial structures punctuating the seafloor to provide relief and habitat, along the south side there is more coral development and the creatures are more reef dwellers than muck dwellers. At sites such as Stingray City (named for blue-spotted stingray), turtles are quite common as well as crocodilefish, cuttlefish, lionfish and mantis shrimp. At Eel Garden on the far eastern edge of the reef line, you won't be at all surprised to find moray eels. Looking beyond the obvious will reveal a variety of nudibranchs and orangutan shrimp in bubble coral.

Sipadan has a fascinating history from its development as a dive destination, complete with resorts and dive centers, to its status today as a marine protected area. The small island rises from 2,000 feet of water, rimmed by powdery sand and cloaked with coral reefs in the shallows. Borneo Divers began taking divers to Sipadan in 1983, but it was the Jacques Cousteau movie Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle that touched off the wave of interest in diving. By 1990 there were five resorts on an island three-tenths of a mile long and a little over one-tenth of a mile wide. When visiting the island today it is obvious the development was unsustainable. Between diver pressure and outflow from septic tanks, the corals could not possibly survive in the long term. In 1992 the British Marine Conservation Society sounded an alarm over possible exploitation of the reef, and in 1997 the Malaysian government announced plans to restrict tourism.

The watershed moment for Sipadan development occurred on April 23, 2000, when pirates associated with Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 people (10 tourists and 11 resort workers) at gunpoint. Most were held for a year, with all being gradually ransomed off during that time. Malaysian armed forces begin patrolling the island in the aftermath, and by 2004 the government ordered all resort operations to remove their structures from the island. To enhance protection, the Malaysian government created the Sipadan Island Marine Park in 2005 and began requiring an entry permit to dive there. Only 120 visitors per day are allowed, and each of the dive resorts in Mabul and Kapalai have an allotment of permits they can use for their guests. Our resort had permits for only 14 divers per day to dive Sipadan; out of my three days there, I had only one opportunity to dive.

One day was better than none, and it was a great day of diving. We left quite early in the dark so we could be in the water when the large schools of humphead wrasse made their daily sojourn. Our first dive was at Barracuda Point, famous for a large congregation of chevron barracuda, but I got engaged with the humpheads from the moment I dropped in the water through the end of the dive and forgot to look seaward for the barracuda. This site was also good for seeing whitetip reef sharks resting in the sand and schools of anthias in pristine staghorn corals.

Our second dive was at Turtle Patch, and true to billing we encountered at least eight different green sea turtles. Staghorn Crest features not only immense fields of perfectly intact staghorn coral as the name suggests but also massive schools of bigeye trevally in congregations from the top of the reef to the surface, perhaps 25 feet high and as wide as the eye could see in 120-foot visibility. Sipadan has 12 distinct dive sites; having visited only three of them, I'm not an expert on what Sipadan has to offer, but this was the most productive single day of diving I had in Malaysia, especially as a wide-angle enthusiast. A muck aficionado could have said the same about many of the dives in Mabul.

You can read Stephen's full feature article online at the Alert Diver website. Current Caradonna packages and specials can be seen on our website and our agents are ready to answer any questions and provide expert assistance on trip planning. Just call 800-329-9989 or send a note to