What To Do In Mabul Island?

Pulau Mabul

One of the most exciting islands of Sabah Borneo is no other than Mabul Island, and this article shares what are the things that you can do here. It is also based on my experiences visiting this island over the years.

Mabul is located about 30 minutes from the town of Semporna on the east coast of Sabah, and this fantastic island is home to a local village, resorts, diving guest houses, and very interesting sea gipsies.

While most scuba divers would already know this island as it is the main gateway to the world-famous Sipadan Islands, new tourists have found it a heaven for crystal clear waters and snorkelling.

What to do in Mabul Island

Mabul Island Sea Gypsies
Sea gipsy kids at Mabul Island.

There are several things to do in Mabul Island, depending on what the visitor wants to experience while holidaying here. 

The island houses various accommodations ranging from village homestays, backpacker lodges, dive resorts and luxury resorts, making this the ideal place for tourism.

Mabul Island is shared with the local Bajau people, where a massive land and water village dominates one side of the island.

The opposite side is home to several renowned dive resorts and a luxury resort. Walking from one end of the island to the other will take up to 15 minutes.

Diving at Mabul Island
Diving into the waters of Mabul Island.

1. Scuba Diving in Mabul

Undoubtedly, the main attraction here is scuba diving, as the reefs around the island boast incredible marine life and corals. Some claim it is one of the best in the region, too.

As a diver, I have been diving here with over 500 dives just around Mabul and Semporna, exploring the many popular dive sites like Paradise One and Two, Lobster Wall, Eel Garden, Stingray City, and even Seaventures.

However, the mother of all sites is still at Sipadan Island, about 20 minutes from Mabul, where world-class dive sites such as Barracuda Point, Drop Off Point and Coral Garden are must-dive spots for any diving enthusiast.

You may know that Barracuda Point is also rated one of the Top 10 Dive Sites in the World by Lonely Planet and many other dive magazines.

As for scuba diving gear, most resorts or guesthouses have good branded equipment. The dive operators commonly use brands like Cressi, Mares, and Scubapro.

Some dive centres also offer Nitrox and Tri-Mix; therefore, it is best to check first with the resort or lodge.

Tip: Be cautious of the freelance scuba divers, as many are travelling divers who usually spend a few months at some dive homestays. Always ask for their certification proof and check if the dive centre is certified. 

2. Stay at Seaventures Dive Rig

Seaventures Dive Rig Mabul Island
Seaventures Dive Rig off Mabul Island
The only unique scuba diving rig in the world that uses an actual decommissioned oil rig as a resort cum diving centre. This structure is also anchored just outside of Mabul Island.

From the main Mabul island, it probably takes two minutes by boat to get to the Seaventures dive rig, as seen in the photo above.

This dive rig is highly recommended only for scuba divers, not the ordinary holiday person. For an exceptional diving experience in Malaysia, I recommend this place, which offers special packages, including one Sipadan dive.

Tip: This is the world's unique scuba diving resort and experience. If you travel halfway across the world to come here, I recommend you stay at least two nights here. 

Mabul Island Snorkeling
The actual photo I took on one of my snorkelling trips to Mabul.

3. Snorkeling in Mabul

While the waters around the resorts and lodges are crystal clear, snorkelling around the guesthouse lodges is not recommended, which share the area with the local villages.

Ask your lodge operator why, and if they tell you anything about unlimited snorkelling, please do not fall for that. Snorkelling is done around the main dive sites, where boats take you out for your snorkelling.

Many locals come here just for the snorkelling, as you are almost guaranteed to spot turtles and thriving undersea life.

Tip: Avoid snorkelling outside your dive lodge, as sometimes you never know what may be floating next to you. Remember, you share the waters with the local water villages here.

Bajau Laut Sea Gypsy House
A local sea gipsy houseboat at Mabul Island.

4. See the Mabul Sea Gypsies

These nomadic sea gipsies are known locally as the Pelauk or Sea Bajaus, a unique group of people living around the Semporna area around famous islands, especially Mabul.

The sea gipsies can be easily seen living in their wooden boat houses, which are made by them and usually in small to medium-sized boats.

The beauty of these sea gipsies is how they live in boats, as everything they do revolves around the boat or sea.

A funny fact is that it is rumoured or said that the Mabul sea gipsies cannot be on land too long as they will get land-sick.

Mabul Sea People
Capturing the essence of the local Sea Bajaus of Mabul.

One of the attractions of the Pelauk is their children, who come around the lodges in their little dugout wooden boats or any makeshift floating item, and they are always looking for food or money.

When you live in the Mabul guesthouses, this is common with groups of these Pelauk kids seeking money from guests staying there.

They will put out their hands asking for food or money, and it is NOT recommended that you give them any money as it will disrupt their way of life.

Tip: If you have some snacks or junk food, it is fine that you give it to them. They will often come around selling freshly caught seafood for cheap prices, and it is OK to buy it from them.

Mabul Photography Tours
Mabul Island Photography.

5. Mabul Photography

Over recent years, many photography groups have been heading to Mabul to capture the island's beauty, mainly the Pelauk or Sea Gypsies.

Specialized tour operators offer special photographic packages here, while photography clubs around Malaysia and Southeast Asia do the same.

Since I started exploring Mabul in 2010, the numbers have grown tremendously and are alarming on photographers' methods to get the desired shots. This is a very bad practice!

I wrote about this a few years ago, and I will stress it again here for the would-be photographers - Please DO NOT give the children money so that you can get your picture-perfect shot.

It has always been strongly recommended that you bring sweets or snacks for the Sea Bajau kids of Mabul if you want to photograph them.

Usually, photography clubs and freelance groups organize trips for the simple sake of making money without caring about the way of life here.

They know their club members are paying good money; therefore, they will go to all means to get their members the desired shots. This is totally unacceptable, unethical and wrong in all ways.

Tip: Always practice good photography ethics by asking permission as you are in someone else's home. Never take things for granted.

Local village shop Mabul Island Sabah
A look at one of the very local village shops on Mabul Island.

6. Eating in Mabul

While you may be thinking about local village food - you are right! The experience of staying at the many lodges lets you have a full-on local food fiesta.

Most dive lodges engage local cooks; hence, you will try the local chicken, fish, and vegetables in various styles. It's pretty spicy too.

Another plus point is that many lodges offer all-day coffee, tea, biscuits, or bread and butter.

Sometimes, the local sea Bajaus will bring freshly caught seafood and sell it to you; in return, you can ask the lodge to cook it to your liking.

For the resorts, you will have that typical resort-style cuisine with a selection of local and international food.

Menus change daily at most resorts while the food quality is superior to the lodges. For honeymooners, there are special menus available too.

If you are walking around the island, there are no proper restaurants available, only small local places that serve noodles and rice.

Tip: A burger stall is located at the village's main junction, which sells some decent burgers. A shop opposite sells some ice-kacang dessert, which is best eaten there. This is one of my personal favourite food joints in Mabul.

Photo Tours Mabul Island
A scenic view of one of the water villages at Mabul Island.

7. Booking a Photography Tour in Mabul

Only certain tour companies practice a professional photography trip that abides by the local standards, so choose your tours carefully.

As for cost-wise, it will be cheaper to go with a freelancer or a photography club, but are you doing the right thing?

Moreover, it is better to go with a local professional who knows the people, culture, and ethics of dealing with the ethnic groups of Sabah.

One of my personal favourites is photographing the sea gipsies in their everyday lives and also the local Bajau kids that live on the island.

Walking around the local village will capture some exciting moments, too. Many locals are friendly here, but remember to always ask permission if you want to photograph them close up. 

Tip: Seek photography tours with a good reputation at Mabul, and also go for the Sabah photographers as they know the place well.

Pulau Kapalai, Sabah
Kapalai Island, Sabah.

8. Do a Wedding or Honeymoon in Mabul

There are three main luxury resorts around Mabul; two of them - Sipadan Water Village and Sipadan Mabul Resort or SMART are located on the island of Mabul.

A stand-alone island resort called Kapalai Island Resort sits on an island bank about 10 minutes from Mabul Island.

The three resorts mentioned above offer mid and high-end travellers a choice of luxury and romantic holidays.

They come fully equipped with everything one needs regardless of whether you are a diver, snorkeler or a honeymoon couple.

Prices are slightly higher than the lodges, too; therefore, depending on your budget, you can have a choice here. 

Some operators offer the best of both worlds, as you can book a romantic honeymoon vacation in Mabul or simply choose a short-budget getaway at any of the Mabul Guesthouses.

One must be cautious with the tour packages here as many who have heard of this beautiful island need to learn the full scenario of what is offered.

Tip: If you want to plan this, I recommend you plan well ahead and at least a minimum of six months to a year.

Pulau Mabul Sabah
An aerial photo of Mabul Island was taken a while ago. (Source: Unknown)

How do you go to Mabul Island?

Mabul sits outside of Semporna town on the east coast of Sabah Borneo. The only way to get to Mabul Island is via a boat service.

For your added knowledge, Mabul Island has no airports, jetties, cars or bikes, so make this place vehicle-free.

Usually, guests fly into Tawau airport and then take a taxi or van to Semporna town. The journey from the airport to Semporna jetty is about one and a half to two hours.

It takes another 30 to 40 minutes from the Semporna Jetty to reach Mabul Island, depending on the tide.

Boats transferring you are usually by the resort or guesthouse boats; when you book your package with the place where you are staying, they will arrange the boat transfer, where the price is included in your package.

Non-standard boat taxis will take you to Mabul if you need help to charter a boat. This can easily cost you RM300 to RM400 per boat.

Tip: It is best to book your flights well in advance so you can get some excellent rates like RM300-400 both ways and not on the weekend as it gets busy there.

Mabul Village
View of the local village on the island here.

What is on Mabul Island? 

As it is a small island, you can easily walk from one end to the other in under 15 minutes. The island is divided into two areas: the resort, guesthouse, and village.

There are no modern facilities or shops except for the local stalls found all around the village. There are souvenir shops at some of the resorts.

You will also not find any ATMs or pharmacies, Starbucks or 7-11's. Only local village makeshift shops and stalls sell drinks, snacks, and general sundries.

Some food and drink stalls are scattered around the island, too, but only if you want to try the local island food. Otherwise, you must get everything you need in Semporna before boarding your boat.

Tip: There is a decently huge Giant supermarket in Semporna town near the jetty where you can buy just about all you need. Soft drinks in 1.5-litre bottles, beer, junk food, noodles, biscuits, and chocolates. Toiletries, shampoo, body wash, and other essential stuff can also be found there.

Sunset at Mabul Island, Sabah
A sunset is seen at Mabul Island.

Phone, Data and Internet Service on Mabul

Local providers Celcom and Maxis are the best choice for data and voice reception, as the island has a telecommunication tower. Data lovers can get up to 4G, but usually, it is a 3G service.

The service may need to be suitable better for other providers like Digi or UMobile. There are no intended improvements, but some higher-end resorts have a business centre or computer terminal to check emails.

Tip: Purchase a Celcom or Maxis Internet Data prepaid sim card from Semporna town, activate it there and pre-load it with at least RM20-50 before going to the island.

This is tricky for micro sims as the shops there do not have a micro sim cutter, so it's better to do it at the Tawau Airport when you land, as a few mobile service kiosks cater to current smartphones.

Seahorse Sipadan Scuba Lodge Mabul Island
Seahorse Sipadan Scuba Lodge.

Booking a Mabul Island Package

For those interested in any Mabul Island scuba diving packages, you can contact any Kota Kinabalu, Sabah dive operator.

Mabul packages always come without air tickets; therefore, customers usually book their flights online and get the island packages.

Rooms at Mabul Island
Standard sea view rooms at Seahorse Lodge on Mabul.

Mabul Island packages come in 2 Days and 1 Night, 3 Days and 2 Nights for quick trips or the standard 4 Days and 3 Nights. For divers, the usual package is 5 Days and 4 Nights.

You can always extend your stay there by informing the resort of the guesthouse. There are also non-diver packages available for those wanting to see the beautiful island.

Tip: Be careful of cheap packages at Mabul as some of the dive lodges or dive homestays there are really run down, and rooms need attached bathrooms.

This means you must share the outdoor toilet with all the other guests. Hence, the dive packages offered by Explorer Lifestyle are all personally tried and tested by their team.

Pulau Mabul Lodge Seahorse Sipadan Scuba Lodge
The main deck has a Sipadan Island view.

Mabul Scuba Diving Packages

As Mabul is the top dive spot in Malaysia, many scuba divers head here to dive around Mabul or use the island as a gateway to dive at Sipadan Island.

There are many other islands you can dive around here, namely Mantabuan Island, Kapalai Island, Pom Pom Island, Mataking Island and Si Amil Island, just to name a few.

Note that each of those packages is priced differently. Occasionally, you can also pay a little extra if your group wants to dive at any other islands. You can also read my other diving articles in Malaysia for scuba divers.


Suppose you have always wanted to visit a unique island in Malaysia that offers pristine clear waters, vibrant undersea life, and an experience always too. In that case, remember, Mabul Island is a recommended place to visit.

Just avoid the peak season or rainy season, as it can dampen your mood, especially if you are the type that loves some peace and quiet during your vacation.

Finally, I hope this article on what to do in Mabul Island has come in handy for your trip here, and if you have questions, feel free to ask me in the comment form below.

Malaysia Asia

Blogging since 2007, but writing online since 1997. I belong to the 1st generation of worldwide bloggers, which is of course old-school. Since 2008, I created Malaysia Asia and this travel, flood, gadget and lifestyle blog has won numerous physical awards from tourism boards around Malaysia. (Not those online awards). After 12 years of blogging, I have semi-retired and now blog about things I like, do product reviews and enjoy life. My work has been featured in Lonely Planet, CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Wall Street Journal, and many other international publications. Find out more about me and thank you.

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