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What To Do In Mabul Island?

Pulau Mabul

One of the most interesting 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 personal experiences visiting this island over the years.

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

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 this place a heaven for crystal clear waters and snorkeling.

What to do in Mabul Island

Mabul Island Sea Gypsies
Sea gypsy kids at Mabul Island.
There are quite a number of things to do in Mabul Island, and it all depends on what the visitor wants to experience while holidaying here. 

The island houses various types of accommodations ranging from village homestays, backpacker lodges, dive resorts and also luxury resorts which make this the ideal place for tourism.

Mabul Island is shared with the local Bajau people where there are massive land and also water village that dominates one side of the island.

The opposite side is home to a number of renown dive resorts and also a luxury resort. Walking from one end of the island to the other will easily take you no more than 15 minutes.

Diving at Mabul Island
Diving into the waters of Mabul Island
1. Scuba Diving in Mabul

There is no doubt that the main attraction here is scuba diving as the reefs around the island boast of incredible marine life and corals. Some claim that one of the best in the region too.

As a diver myself, 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 which is 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 as one of the Top 10 Dive Sites in the World by Lonely Planet and many other dive magazines.

As for scuba diving gear, most of the resorts or guesthouses come complete with good branded gear. Brands like Cressi, Mares, and Scubapro are commonly used by the dive operators here.

Some of the dive centers 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 of them are traveling divers, who usually spend a few months at some of the dive homestays. Always ask for their certification proof and check if the dive center is certified. 

2. Stay at Seaventures Dive Rig

Seaventures Dive Rig Mabul Island
Seaventures Dive Rig off Mabul Island
The only one-of-a-kind unique scuba diving rig in the world that uses an actual decommissioned oil rig as a resort cum diving center. 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 you can see in the photo above.

This dive rig is highly recommended only for scuba divers and not the ordinary holiday person. For a very special diving experience in Malaysia, I would personally recommend this place which offers special packages that include one Sipadan dive.

Tip: This is the worlds most unique scuba diving resort and experience. If you are traveling halfway across the world to come here, I would recommend you stay at least two nights here. 

Mabul Island Snorkeling
Actual snorkeling photo I took on one of my snorkeling trip to Mabul
3. Snorkeling in Mabul

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

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

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

Tip: Avoid snorkeling just 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 gypsy houseboat at Mabul Island.
4. See the Mabul Sea Gypsies

These nomadic sea gypsies are known locally as the Pelauk or Sea Bajaus, which are a very unique group of people that live around the Semporna area, namely around popular islands especially Mabul.

The sea gypsies 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 about these sea gypsies is how they live their lives in boats as everything they do revolves around the boat or sea.

A funny fact is that it is rumored or said that the Mabul sea gypsies 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 are 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 a common occurrence 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, that is fine that you give it to them. Often, they will come around selling freshly caught seafood for cheap prices, and it is fie to buy it off them.

Mabul Photography Tours
Mabul Island Photography
5. Mabul Photography

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

Specialized tour operators offer special photographic packages here while photography clubs around Malaysia and Southeast Asia are also doing the same.

Since I started exploring Mabul in 2010, the numbers have grown tremendously and quite alarming on the methods that photographers use in order 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 take photographs of them.

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

They know that their club members are paying good money, therefore, they will go to all means to get their members the shots that are wanted. 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 of the dive lodges engage local cooks hence you will try the local chicken, fish, and vegetables in an assortment of styles. Not too spicy too.

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

Sometimes, the local sea Bajaus will bring freshly caught seafood and sell them 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 compared to the lodges. For honeymooners, there are special menu's 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: There is a burger stall located at the main junction of the village which sells some decent burgers. A shop opposite sells some ice-kacang dessert which is best eaten there. This is one of my personal favorite 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 which 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 actually 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 favorites is photographing the sea gypsies on their everyday life and also the local Bajau kids that live on the island.

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

Tip: Seek photography tours that have had 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

As 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 the mid and high-end travelers a choice of luxury and romantic holidays.

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

Prices are slightly on the higher side compared to 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 on Mabul or you can 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 do not know the full scenario of what is offered.

Tip: If you really want to plan this, I will 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 taken a while ago. (Source: Unknown)
How to go to Mabul Island?

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

For your added knowledge, there are no airports, jetties, cars or bikes on Mabul Island, making this place vehicle free.

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

From the Semporna Jetty, it takes another 30 to 40 minutes to reach Mabul Island, depending on the tide too.

Boats transferring you are usually by the resort or guesthouse boats, this means that 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.

There are no common boat taxis that will take you to Mabul unless you charter a boat on your own. 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 really good rates like RM300-400 both ways and also not on the weekend as it does get 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 area, and the guesthouse and village area.

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

You will also not find any ATM's or pharmacies, no Starbucks or 7-11's. Only local village make-shift shops and stalls that sell drinks, snacks, and some general sundries.

There are some food and drink stalls scattered around the island too, but only if you want to try the local island food. Otherwise, you need to get everything you need in Semporna before you board 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 by 1.5-liter 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 seem to be the best choice for data and voice reception as there is a telecommunication tower on the island. Data lovers can get up to 4G, but usually, it is a 3G service.

For other providers like Digi or UMobile, the service may not be good here. There are no internet cafes but some of the higher end resorts do have a business center or computer terminal to check emails and so on.

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.

For micro sims, this is tricky as the shops there do not have a micro sim cutter so better to do it at the Tawau Airport when you land as there are a few mobile service kiosks there that 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 dive operator in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

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

Rooms at Mabul Island
Standard sea view rooms at Seahorse lodge on Mabul
Mabul Island packages come in a variety of 2 Days and 1 Night, 3 Days and 2 Nights for quick trips or the common 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 guesthouse. There are also non-diver packages available for those wanting to see the beautiful island.

Tip: Be careful of extremely cheap packages at Mabul as some of the dive lodges or dive homestays there are really run down and rooms do not have attached bathrooms.

This means you need to 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 with 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 that 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. On occasion, you can also pay a little extra if your group wants to dive at any of the other islands. For scuba divers, you can also read my other diving articles in Malaysia.

Final Thoughts on Mabul Island

If you have always wanted to visit a unique island in Malaysia that offers pristine clear waters, a vibrant undersea life, and an experience never to forget, Mabul Island is one of the recommended places 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. 

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