A SMALL island off the Celebes Sea south east of Sabah in Malaysia, Mabul Island is popular for its unique underwater marine life, making it one of the best destinations in Asia for diving and snorkeling.
Surrounded by sandy beaches and perched on a 200-hectare reef, this oval-shaped island offers plenty of engaging things to do whether you are an underwater enthusiast, a beach bum, or both.
Explore muck dive sites
Many divers who want to catch sight of small exotic underwater creatures come to Mabul for “muck diving”. For the uninitiated, muck dives are like treasure hunts under the sea which involve slowly and patiently exploring the sandy bottom of the seabed to uncover unusual marine life.
In fact, because Mabul has one of the widest arrays of small, strange and splendid sea creatures, some say the term muck diving was actually invented here.
From odd-looking cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus and bobtail squids to hairy squat lobsters, clown frogfish and pygmy seahorses, it’s a paradise for muck divers and underwater photographers.
Recommended dive sites include Froggie’s Lair, reputed to have some of the rarest sea critters around; Eel Garden for sightings of garden eels; and Seaventure if you are looking for a night dive.
Visit the Tun Sakaran Marine Park
Established in 2004 as the seventh gazetted area under Sabah Parks to protect the coral reefs found in this destination, this marine park spreads across 350km2 and has one of the most diverse marine ecosystems.
If you’re a diver, you would enjoy the park’s excellent snorkeling and dive spots, but you can also drop by the seaweed farming center and the Tun Sakaran Marine Research Unit in Bohey Dulang Island to observe giant clam spawning.
The park is also surrounded by lush green surroundings which makes it a perfect spot for light hiking, rest and relaxation and even bird-watching when you want a break from the beaches.
Mingle with the sea nomad settlement
Within the Marine Park, you can also experience the seafaring life of Borneo’s sea gypsies or the Bajau Laut settlers who live in stilt houses built over the Celebes Sea.
If you happen to be here at the end of April, don’t forget to catch the Regatta Lepa Water Festival which showcases the customs and traditions of the Bajau Laut community.
It’s quite a lively fanfare as there is a floating parade of colorful lepa boats along with lepa boat racing, tug-of-war, fireworks and even a beauty pageant.
Go on an island-hopping tour
Just a boat ride away from Mabul is Sipadan Island as well as Kapalai Island – both popular for their dive sites.
In 2004, the government has moved resorts and commercial centers away to Mabul to protect and preserve the marine ecosystem in Sipadan. Thus there aren’t any hotels or eateries available here today – most come here for diving and snorkeling only.
However, even if you are not into diving, Sipadan should still be part of your island hopping itinerary because of its beautiful white sandy beaches.
A complete walk around this small island only takes about 25 minutes – which gives you plenty of time for selfies or scenic photography.
Kapalai on the other hand is actually a big sandbar situated on the Ligitan Reef. It’s another wonderful destination for diving but many also come to this island for its exclusive water bungalow resorts.
One for the honeymooners
While it may appear that Mabul’s attraction is all about its sea-related marvels, Mabul is also a favorite among newlyweds.
You can find many luxurious resorts along the beachfront that exclusively caters to those who are looking to have an island wedding or honeymoon.
Couples can choose from floating bungalows, water chalets and intimate beach cottages for their romantic getaways. Sipadan Water Village, Mabul Water Bungalows and Seaventures Dive Rig are some of the luxury resorts to consider.