Mabul Island

Pulau Mabul
One of the most interesting islands of Sabah Borneo is Mabul Island. Located about 30 minutes from the town of Semporna in the east coast of Sabah, this island is home to resorts, local Bajau's and also the Pelauk or Sea Gypsies.

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

What to do in Mabul Island

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 is a massive land and water village that dominates one side of the island.

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

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 boasts 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 of lodge. 

2. Stay at Seaventures Dive Rig

Seaventures Dive Rig Mabul Island
Seaventures Dive Rig off Mabul Island
The only one-of-a-kind unique diving rig in the world that uses an actual decommissioned oil rig as a resort cum diving centre and is anchored just outside of Mabul Island. From the island, it probably takes two minutes to get there too.

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.

If you are interested in getting a good package to Sea Ventures, please contact Explorer Lifestyle below for the best price which includes one free Sipadan dive in your package. 

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 a 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. 

4. See the Mabul Sea Gypsies

These nomadic sea gypsies known locally as the Pelauk or Sea Bajaus are a very unique group of people that live around the Semporna area, namely around popular islands especially Mabul. They can be seen living in their wooden boat houses which are very simple.

The beauty about these sea gypsies are how they live their lives in boats as everything they do revolves around the boat or sea. It is rumored or said that they 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 dug out 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 guest 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. If you have some snacks or junk food, that is fine that you give it to them.

Mabul Photography Tours
Mabul Island Photography
5. Mabul Photography

Over the 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 recommended that you bring sweets or snacks for the Sea Bajau kids of Mabul. Usually photography clubs and freelance groups organise trips for the simple sake of making money without care about the way of life here.

They know that their members are paying good money therefore they will go to all means to get their members the shots that is wanted. This is totally unacceptable and wrong.

6. Eating in Mabul

While you may be thinking 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 which 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 favourite food joints in Mabul.

Mabul Photography Tours

7. Booking a Photography Tour in Mabul

Only certain tour companies practices a professional photography trip which abide by the local standards so, choose your tours carefully.

Cost wise, it is cheaper to go with a freelance or 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 favourites is photographing the Pelauk on their everyday life and also the local Bajau kids that live on the island.

Waking 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. 

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.

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. There are no airports, jetties, cars or bikes on the island too.

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 hours.

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

Boats transferring you are usually 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.

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.

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 many other essential stuff can be found there.

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 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 pre paid 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 which cater to current smart phones.

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 are 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 on Malaysia.

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. 
Mabul Island Mabul Island Reviewed by Malaysia Asia on Thursday, August 14, 2014 Rating: 5

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