Mabul Island: A Traveler’s Handbook to Diving In Malaysian Borneo

Mabul Island: A Traveler’s Handbook to Diving In Malaysian Borneo

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If you’ve only just heard of Mabul Island, you’re in for a treat. This was easily the highlight of my travels in Malaysian Borneo. I spent 5 days on this enchanting island and wished I stayed longer. Between dives and walks around the village, I bargained with the local sea gypsies for their freshly caught seafood and observed the routines of the Suluk people.

I’m glad that for all the crowded Balis and Cancuns, there are still remote and off the beaten path places like Mabul Island waiting for those willing to make the journey.

This is my comprehensive guide on how to visit Mabul Island along with the best dive recommendations, travel logistics, where to stay, and all the little bits I learned along the way that made my time on the island unforgettable. Feel free to jump to any section that you’re interested in.

Getting To Mabul Island | Accommodations | Diving|  Best Dive Sites | Visiting The Village | Sipadan | Safety

A Short History of Mabul Island and Sipadan

Nestled in the Celebes Sea off the southeastern coast of Sabah, Mabul Island, is a spot of paradise that echoes the allure of the Maldives without all the commercialization and costly gatekeeping.

For the Bajau Laut people, also referred to as sea gypsies, Mabul Island was always a simple fishing village, and its abundant waters, the source for their livelihood. These people are master free divers and fishermen passing down their techniques through the generations.

Sea gypsy boathouse on Mabul Island

The island’s transformation from a quiet fishing outpost to a world-renowned diving destination is inextricably linked to its more famous neighbor, Sipadan Island.

When the legendary ocean explorer visited Sipadan in the late 80s, he said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now, we have found an untouched piece of art.”


The world listened and divers flocked to this underwater paradise. Within a few short years, the heavy footprint of tourism began to take its toll on the island and its reef.

In 1996, many shallow areas of the reef were destroyed by a tropical storm further compounding the problems the island was already facing with coral bleaching and waste runoff from the resorts and dive shops. In 2004, the Government of Malaysia ordered all the dive shops and resorts to remove their structures.

25 Minutes Away

The Government was serious and scrambling operators began relocated to Mabul Island, which was only a 25 minute boat ride away from Sipadan. Two decades on, there’s a handful of dive shops, guest houses, and even a luxury resort.

But somehow, the villagers carry on with their lives and routines, hardly missing a beat, despite the presence of international tourism.

But Mabul Island isn’t just a loophole to explore Sipadan. Divers soon realized what made this place so special for the sea gypsies. And they didn’t have to venture far from the edge of the island to find spectacular dive sites full of diverse macro sealife.

Children playing with fishing bottle on Mabul Island

Mabul Island has earned its reputation as a dive destination amongst underwater lovers like myself. Even still, the island itself is captivating for all the houses built on stilts above the sea. The sea gypsies live in these structures and most of the accommodations for guests are bungalows and lodges also lifted from the waters via long wooden stilts.

Getting To Mabul Island 

My journey to Mabul Island started with a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau, and then a 90-minute drive to the coastal town of Semporna. On landing, the slower pace of life and tropical backdrop in Sabah is a mirror opposite of the capital city’s faster and unrelenting urban hustle. The transition feels like stepping into another world – and this was just how I envisioned Borneo.

How To Get From Tawau Airport To Semporna

It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to travel the 85 km from Tawau airport to Semporna. Expect to pay around 150 MYR. There are shared transfer options and it’s best to arrange that with your accommodation. I paid around 50 MYR to get to Semporna in a van through my hotel.

Where To Stay In Semporna

I only needed a comfortable bed for my first night in Semporna since I was arriving late and leaving early. The Cube Bed Station hostel worked out perfectly.

On my return trip to Semporna, I stayed at Amazing Cafe. The room was simple, but it was clean, private and right in the center of town near the pier and the seafood market.

Boat Transfer From Semporna To Mabul Island

The first boats to Mabul leave in the morning – including the one I pre-arranged with Mabul Backpackers, my dive shop and accommodation for the next 4 days. You can organize a transfer on your own for around 100 MYR at the jetty in Semporna.

Gliding over the clear waters, we passed by smaller islands and the occasional lone houses in the middle of the ocean. The hour long journey to my destination ended up being more a scenic adventure than a mere transfer.

Water shack on stilts in the middle of ocean Sabah Borneo

Our approach into Mabul Island was something out of a travel show – A long row of shacks, balancing on stilts, stretched from the shoreline towards a vast endless stretch of blue ocean beyond. I couldn’t help but drop my jaw and shake my head in awe. How did I find myself here in a place like this – a place I knew nothing about only last week?

Where To Stay On Mabul Island

The accommodations on Mabul Island fall under two categories: luxury dive resorts and budget dive guesthouses. If you’re picturing the Maldives type of water bungalows, or after the famous oil rig diving hotel, you’ll want to look at the luxury dive resorts below.

If you’re there to dive and are less particular about where you sleep, look at the budget accommodations. Budget rooms can range from shared dorm rooms to air-conditioned rooms with a seaview.

TIP #1: Contact the hotel directly via email or WhatsApp to get rates and book. I usually use Agoda or Booking, but their rates seem to be just for the room, and higher than what you’d pay if you were booking a dive package.

TIP #2: Mabul Island is really a diver’s island. Ask for their current diving packages as those will offer the best deal for both diving and accommodations. 

Luxury Dive Resorts on Mabul Island

Sipadan Water Village. The dive resort has 20 renovated water chalets built on ironwood pilings. The whole resort is connected by a series of walkways. Diving packages include unlimited dives from the jetty at the resort’s house reef in addition to your 3 boat dives. All meals are included.

Sipadan Mabul Resort. This resort is the only hotel with its own private beach. The resort offers comfortable bungalows on land and over water bungalows as part of its sister resort, Mabul Water Bungalows. Diving packages include unlimited dives from the jetty at the resort’s house reef in addition to your 3 boat dives. All meals are included.

Drone view of Mabul Island water bungalows resort

Seaventures Dive Resort. You might have seen this oil rig turned diving resort on social media. It’s the world’s first and only dive rig. Step off the rig and walk right into the middle of the sea. If there’s ever a unique bucket list experience for divers, it’s this one.

Borneo Divers Mabul Resort. This dive resort offers beach chalet rooms surrounding a large pool. Stays include all meals. There are no water bungalows, but there is long jetty over the water leading to a lounge area and restaurant.

Budget Dive Lodges on Mabul Island

All of these dive lodges are built over water in the style of the housing structures of Mabul Island. In my opinion, they offer a more authentic stay than the resorts. They are also dive operators, so you usually stay with whoever you want to dive with.

Mabul Backpackers. This budget longhouse had the cheapest dive package I found in my research. You’ll need to reach out to them directly via WhatsApp to get a rate or book from their offices in Semporna. The restaurant is built on an open deck platform and there’s a long jetty over the water leading to a lounge area. All meals are included. I recommend the AC Seaview room. The dorm rooms are very basic.

Uncle Chang’s. One of the established dive operators on Mabul Island. Their cute individual houses on stilts are the first you’ll see as you approach Mabul Island.

Sphere Divers. Located next to Uncle Chang’s, Sphere Divers is a budget dive operator with reasonable packages.

Scuba Junkie. This international dive operation has offices in Kota Kinabalo as well as multiple locations in Indonesia. They are located next to Borneo Divers. Prices are a bit higher than the other budget dive lodges.

Best Time To Visit Mabul Island

Mabul is tropical island and enjoys relatively stable temperatures year-round, but the best time to visit is between March and October when the sea is calmest and visibility underwater is at its best. The monsoon season in Sabah is between November to April, with most of the rain between December and February.

Diving With Mabul Backpackers

During my stay on Mabul Island, I met a woman in her 70s who has been coming back to Mabul Island every year and staying for months at a time. Every few days, she’ll join in on one of the dives. I asked her about Sipadan and she echoed what I had read – Sipadan is not what it used to be.

Despite the high permit price and the impressive ball of jackfish and sharks you can expect to see on your dive, much of the reef is still damaged.

She added, “it’s still nice, but I like diving at Mabul.”

Aerial view of Mabul Backpackers

Muck Diving On Mabul Island

Over the next 4 days of diving, I understood why she kept returning. Mabul Island is known for their muck diving, defined as sites with sandy or silty bottoms. These sites are usually home to some beautiful and rare sea creatures and I saw my fair share of things I’d never see before with over 100 dives under my belt.

In one of my first dives I stayed with a hovering giant cuttlefish for 10 minutes, as it put on a color show and seemed completely undisturbed by our presence. I had a close encounter with a flamboyant cuttlefish, as it used two of its arms to “walk” along the sand bottom like they were legs. One of the highlights was following a playful octopus camouflaging and reappearing multiple times right before my eyes.

On just one of the dives, I saw more nudibranchs of different varieties than I’d see in the last 30 dives. Mantis shrimp, ghost pipefishs, and a baby seahorse were amongst the other great finds.

Room With A View

I arranged for a 4 day/3 night dive and stay package with Mabul Backpackers that included my own AC sea view room. The package included pick-up and 7 dives for 1100 MYR (early 2023), an exceptional deal at the time. I had to confirm multiple times if I was quoted the correct price, considering it also included breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as all my diving equipment.

The accommodation options at Mabul Backpackers ranged from super basic to comfortable. They offer dormitory beds for those on a tight budget, rooms with fans, and sea view rooms with air conditioning. I opted for the latter and it was well worth the upgrade. I loved having access to a private hot shower right after returning my dives and then escaping the heat with an afternoon AC nap.

Repetitive But Delicious Meals

Included with the stay were all three meals of the day, with a mix of rotating local dishes. While tasty, I did find the meals to be a bit repetitive by the 3rd day. Luckily, that morning arrived with a freshly caught tuna the chef turned into sashimi and grilled tuna steaks for dinner.

My Favorite Dive Sites Around Mabul Island

Over 7 dives with Mabul Backpackers, one of my minor complaints was that we returned to two sites twice. Had they not been the best dives of my stay, I would have been a bit annoyed. Here were my favorites.

Paradise 1: True to its name, this site was like a haven for small sea creatures to flourish without fear. This was where I encountered a near microscopic baby seahorse on an open sandy bottom. I have no idea how our divemaster was able to spot something that was no more than 2mm long and thin as a few strands of hair. Shortly after, he pointed out the flamboyant cuttlefish and the giant cuttlefish. This was easily one of the top 3 dive sites of my life.

Kapalai House Reef: There’s a Paradise 2 that was slightly disappointing, perhaps due to the poor visibility. Maybe it’s better during the calm sea months. Kapalai House Reef should own that name instead. Here, I encountered the octopus, mantis shrimp, ornate ghost pipefish, and the many nudibranchs.

On our second dive here, we saw two giant turtles resting on the artificial reef as well as some beautiful blue sea dragons.

I would definitely ask to dive these two sites. Lobster Wall had a few lobsters, but didn’t quite live up to its name. Perhaps it’s because all the lobsters have been caught by the sea gypsies. Speaking of which.

Fresh Seafood Every Evening

One of the great things about staying at Mabul Backpackers was that every afternoon, different boats would float by the open deck platform inviting us to look at their catch. Each boat would arrive with everything from freshly caught giant lobsters and conchs to abalone and even sea urchin – my favorite. Unlike shopping at the markets, everything was still alive and swimming in a makeshift fish tank.

We’d negotiate for what we wanted and the chef at Mabul Backpackers happily cooked it up for us for a small fee.

Visiting The Village

As much as I was there for the diving, the highlight of my time on Mabul Island was wandering around the village in the afternoons.

I was able to catch a glimpse of how the people lived. By western standards, the living conditions looked poor. Houses and shops were constructed simply with a combination of corrugated metal sheets and wooden planks. The doors and windows were basic, often just openings cut from the walls. It was visual reminder of the scarcity of resources in these remote parts of the world, but also the resourcefulness of the people in working with what they have.

A Slower Pace Of Life

The children ran around, splashed in the water, and occupied themselves with simple games.

Children playing in the water on Mabul Island

None had their faces glued to a mobile device.

My curiosity at a man grilling some skewer was met with a warm smile. I briefly stopped to observe a group of men building a boat, being mindful of my interruption. They didn’t seem to care or mind too much that I was there, so I tried not to bother them for too long.

For travelers, it’s understandable to be intrigued by something you don’t see everyday. But I always consider a reverse scenario: how would you feel if a group of tourists stopped in front of your house and just started snapping photos while you were washing your car? If you do want to take a photo, always ask first when you can.

We passed a group playing volleyball and another running a pick-up game on the tropical football pitch. Some played barefoot and others were fully kitted out, but the game was played with equal intensity by all.

The field was in the middle of a jungle clearing and it was not odd at all to see a giant monitor lizard just casually passing.

An Evening Wedding

The sun began to set behind the palms when we reached the walkways leading to the luxury water bungalows. It was a little strange to move across this invisible line separating two worlds. On side, we saw the ramshackle houses like the rest in the village.

Sunset over shacks on Mabul Island

And on the other side, perfectly groom chalets surrounded by lush plants, evenly spaced apart over the water.

On our walk back, the smell and sight of fresh fish and meats being grilled reminded us that it was time for dinner.

On our last evening, we were invited to a local wedding. An occasion like this brings together the entire island community. Stalls were set up to sell food and people angled for a good spot to view the main stage where the bride and groom sat. It reminded me more of a small outdoor festival than a wedding.

My favorite part was that anyone could sign up to provide entertainment, and they were rewarded with tips from the audience. Too bad I wasn’t brave enough to go sing “My Heart Will Go On.”

Wedding stage on Mabul Island

Is Sipadan Worth Diving?

The allure of Sipadan is undeniable, with its legendary drop-offs, schools of barracuda, and frequent turtle sightings. It’s world famous. However, my research seemed to paint a different picture of a once-renowned site that has been suffered over the years and has yet to fully recovered. Still a lot of divers won’t pass up a chance to see it for themselves.

Permits are to dive Sipadan are not guaranteed requiring advanced booking and longer stays. Dives to Sipadan will be costlier due to the permit fees that are required.

Dive Sipadan

Sipadan is renowned globally for its rich marine biodiversity. The island’s almost mythical reputation is built on its dramatic underwater landscapes and the sheer volume and variety of marine life. For many, diving Sipadan is a bucket-list experience, something to be savored and remembered for a lifetime. The chance to swim amidst swirling ball of barracuda or watch dozens of sea turtles glide by can be compelling.

The logistics of diving Sipadan, however, include obtaining a limited-entry permit—required by the Malaysian government to protect the site from overtourism and its associated environmental impacts. These permits are not only expensive but also need to be booked well in advance, adding a layer of planning complexity.

Skip Sipadan

On the other hand, the diverse marine life around Mabul Island itself is a good enough argument to stay local, especially considering the lower cost of diving here compared to the expensive permits required for Sipadan. Mabul’s dive sites are famed for their macros, like the flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, and myriad of nudibranchs that I saw.

For the veteran diver, who has experienced other world-class dive sites, what you see at Sipadan may not be anything new or unique enough to justify the barriers required to dive the island’s sites. Many of the species and sights at Sipadan can also be experienced in other parts of the world, without the hassle.

Maybe it was a value thing, but it would have cost me almost the same price as my all-inclusive dive and stay package just for 2 dives at Sipadan. It was a tough decision, but ultimately, I opted to skip Sipadan.

Should YOU Dive Sipadan?

If you’re contemplating whether to dive Sipadan while visiting Mabul, consider what you most value in your diving adventures. If the idea of ticking this place off your diving bucket list excites you, and the cost isn’t a deterrent, then Sipadan is worth the investment. Especially, if you’re already come all this way to Mabul Island.

However, if you are more interested in macro sea creatures and not worrying about securing a permit, I think staying around the Mabul Island sites is just as equally rewarding.

Should You Be Worried About Pirates?

Maybe it was best that I didn’t know about the whole pirates and kidnapping thing before planning a trip here. But like many horror stories, tragedies and cautionary tales you read about, reality is not as scary as words can make them.

Despite historical incidents over security in the region due to past pirate attacks and kidnappings of resort guests, my experience on Mabul was marked by a profound sense of safety and tranquility. My hosts reassured me that it was quite safe. That the waters are heavily monitored by the coast guards protecting the water only added to my peace of mind.

In truth, the thought of pirates didn’t even cross my mind during my time here, except when we joked about them bringing over cheaper alcohol from the Philippines.

Last Thoughts and Advice For Mabul Island

I think Mabul Island is more than just a destination, It’s a tranquil escape from the faster pace of urban life, where you can experience first hand how a sea people live their lives deeply connected with their ocean surrounding. It’s that rare place where tourism is present, but still seemingly coexists well with its local hosts.

So pack your bags, prep your dive gear, and sort your flight to Tawau. Mabul Island is an adventure into the gem of Borneo’s underwater world. You’ll have a great time under and above water.

If you’re looking for more travel inspirations, scroll through some of the 450+ experiences on my bucket list. Maybe you’ll find your next adventure on there.

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Updated on May 29, 2024


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