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After an incredibly arduous overland journey we finally arrived in the port town of Semporna in southern Malaysian Borneo. In desperate need of a proper shower and a clean bed, we headed directly for the SeaFest hotel at the end of the jetty and were far from disappointed. Costing just slightly less than the majority of the backpacker digs in town (around $32/night/room vs. around $24), the exceptional service, overwhelming cleanliness and gluttonous free breakfast buffet in the morning make the hotel a welcome choice after a weary journey through the Borneo interior. I would highly recommend the SeaFest to anyone staying in Semporna in search of some comfortable accommodation.
Known essentially as the jumping off point for diving the islands situated just offshore, as a port town as a whole Semporna still manages to provide a little of its own charm. The entire town pulses to the nonstop rhythm of outboard motors, as wooden pangas dominate the waters rushing either fish from the sea or divers out towards it. Entire villages and lodging complexes rest on wooden stilts completely out over the ocean in an apparent attempt to trick Mother Nature into more living space. A hulking gold-domed mosque holds down the center of town, as the usual daily bustle of the beleaguered local market scene plays itself out in its dank shadows. While an hour spent walking around town is an authentic experience, it is suffice to say, enough.
What everyone has come to this area for is not the town of Semporna, but to dive the massive walls and clear waters of the fabled islands lying offshore. While there are numerous dive sites in the area, the main diving scene centers around three islands about a 30 minute boat ride offshore, those being the sandspits of Kapalai, Mabul, and Sipadan. Site of the infamous kidnappings of 21 tourists and staff by Islamic Fundamentalist Group Abu Sayyaf in the year 2000, the island no longer houses any accommodation and is accessible solely as a diving location. Mabul, on the other hand, is home to a wide range of dive centers and a surprisingly large local populace. Looking at Kapalai, you would never know it was ever an island at all, as there remains only a hint of sand that hasn’t been reclaimed by the sea, leaving all of the resorts to exist in water-bungalow type fashion.
In order of which is the best for diving, nearly all will tell you it goes Sipadan, then Mabul, then Kapalai. Not everybody can dive Sipadan, however. World renowned for its massive wall and plethora of marine life, only a certain amount of permits are issued daily to dive Sipadan. Seizing on it’s popularity, dive shops will charge literally double the price to dive Sipadan as they will for Mabul or elsewhere. Being confined to a budget, as well as being spoiled in that we are able to dive in Maui for free whenever we want, we actually chose to skip Sipadan and simply do 2 dives in Mabul, and one in Kapalai.
Put simply, we were not disappointed. While the visibility was far from exceptional (only around 30 ft), the abundance and diversity of marine life was absolutely astonishing. Two foot long angelfish cruised through sunken dive boats as three foot long cuttlesfish gyrated and changed color over the reef. Reef fish sporting iridescent blues and greens not found in Hawai’i zigzagged their way between schools of jacks numbering potentially in the thousands. Allegedly the visibility improved greatly the following day, but even with subpar visibility it was blatantly apparent that this is someplace special. With 3 dives serving only as a teaser, if I ever were to find myself in the area it is definitely somewhere I would love to explore more fully.
While there are enough dive operators in the region to make the task of choosing one over the other a difficult matter, we finally settled upon Uncle Chang’s Mabul dive lodge simply because the price was unbeatable and it offered the chance to stay out on Mabul as opposed to commuting from town. While there are a number of dive centers located on Mabul and Kapalai, nearly all of them cater to those with a substantial amount of cash to drop on a dive holiday (packages starting around $300/night/person). That being said, they do look absolutely stunning. From what I was able to take in, the most legit resort all around looks to be Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART), as they offer all sorts of diving options and have an immaculate beach facility. Opting for Uncle Chang’s, we were able to get in roundtrip boat transport to the island, three dives with all equipment rental included, a private room over the water, and all meals included for only $90/person for nearly two full days. While we sacrificed the chocolate on the pillows found elsewhere, definitely more in my current price range.
Not being able to dive the second day since we were flying out that evening, we took a couple of hours to slowly explore and stroll the perimeter of the island of Mabul. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a Saturday or if it’s a regular occurrence, but there were a disproportionate number of children running everywhere. On an island that seemed it could hold a population no more than 500, there were at least 300 children. Set at the base of a central coconut grove, nearly the entire local population lives in simple wooden huts with corrugated tin roves raised over either the sand or the water. With no form of gardens or farming to speak of, it is obvious that life here literally revolves around the sea. Everywhere you look simple wooden boats are either being constructed, fixed, or hauled up onto the sand.
Even with the bounty that is the ocean at their doorstep however, it is also obvious that poverty runs deep here. Naked children scamper the litter-strewn shoreline scavenging for usable plastics or begging for money. Women hang soiled laundry out to dry from the evening’s torrential rains, as men make meager attempts to salvage nets that have seen their last fish. Meanwhile, this daily struggle to survive takes place within earshot of ultra-luxury bungalows that cater to the uber-rich. The have’s have never been closer to the have not’s, and it’s hard to turn a blind eye, as many seem to be able to do.
All in all it was a eye-opening stroll around a tiny island that was accompanied by a blazingly hot sun and a gentle ocean breeze. While the mainland of Borneo definitely had its challenges and tested our strength, the area as a whole largely redeemed itself with the aquatic adventureland and tropical serenity of these sandspits in the sea.