Mabul Behind Closed Doors: More Than Just A Diving Point

What is Mabul’s biggest draw? I asked a friend who had been to the island a few years ago. “Oh, it’s simply one of the most beautiful islands in Sabah, perfect for snorkelling and diving,” she exclaimed. Sounds like a stereotypical answer you would get when asked about any island, doesn’t it? So what exactly sets Mabul apart from the rest?

Early morning awakening at Mabul.
Early morning sunrise at Mabul.

Big John Scuba Lodge

The sun was already up at 5.30 am. It’s no surprise that it rises earlier here, given that we were at the farther east of the country. We headed to the terminal jetty in Semporna in search of our boat to Mabul island. Finding the perfect lodge at the eleventh hour was not an easy task considering the popularity of the island. Fortunately, lady luck was on our side and Big John Scuba lodge was our top pick.

A blue roofed wooden stilt house began to loom as our boat headed towards the pier. Throughout the whole journey I was unaware that the owner, Big John himself was overseeing the safety of his passengers. His countenance was that of a modest man with no hint of pomposity. No one would have guessed that he was the man behind this new establishment.

After 45 minutes on a rocky boat, a blue-roofed wooden stilt house began to loom as the boat moored to the pier side in mabul.
After 45 minutes of bumpy boat ride, a blue-roofed wooden stilt house began to loom as the boat headed towards pier.

We hopped off the boat and climbed up the wooden staircase towards the main veranda. Although the room facilities were basic, there was no compromise in comfort. It is one of the few budget lodges with air-conditioning and comfortable rooms. Since water supply to the island is scarce, fresh water is only available from 6 pm to 7 pm. Throughout the rest of the day, sea water is pumped through the pipes.

When it comes to water activities, Big John provides 3 snorkeling/dives per day with other water sports such as kayaking as well as diving courses certified by PADI. This is the open deck where the equipments are kept.
When it comes to water activities, Big John provides three snorkelling/dives per day with other water sports such as kayaking as well as diving courses certified by PADI. This is the open deck where the equipment is kept.

Kapalai, Mabul

We began our first leg of snorkelling at Kapalai which is roughly 15 minutes away from the lodge. I looked below and there it was, the bountiful corals that had kept the waters alive with discernible colours and character. Suddenly I caught sight of my guide waving incessantly at us. The hard shell encasing its four flippers and bobbing head was a dead giveaway. We finally caught sight of a sea turtle! It swam towards the sea bed and rested for a few minutes before disappearing again into the deep waters.

The one and only Green sea turtle known to be endangered and protected in many countries.
The one and only Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) known to be endangered and protected in many countries.
The Green sea turtle seen resting on the sea bed.
The Green sea turtle seen resting on the sea bed.

Spending an hour diving in the cold waters was more than enough for me. At 4 pm, it was time to head back. I sat at the main veranda observing the locals over a cup of warm coffee and biscuits. And then my gaze shifted towards a pink kayak at the open deck. The waters were calm and I thought what could be more perfect than kayaking into the sunset. It felt good detaching from the world as I know it whilst taking in the view of this beautiful island.

Kayaking at Mabul.
Peaceful kayaking session right before sunset.

Of Cheerful Banters And Camaraderie

After dinner, I sat down with the staff of the lodge and surreptitiously  observed the camaraderie between them. I listened to the stories that were to become the foundation of this establishment with reverence and pondered about the simplicity of life. The more I delved into them, the more I began to realise the influence Big John had on his staff. In my ten years of travel, I had never seen such a humanistic interaction between employer and employees, and that eventually translated to the joy and smile on their faces despite their hardships.

There was no technology involved or any materialistic attachments, just pure human interaction as they huddled together, singing and playing the guitar whilst the crowd cheered on and danced on the open deck in Mabul.
There was no technology involved or any materialistic attachments, just pure human interaction as they huddled together, singing and playing the guitar whilst the crowd cheered on and danced on the open deck.
The staff members who shared a light moment together, skipping out in the sun before heading back to the grind.
The staff members who shared a light moment together, skipping out in the sun before heading back to the grind.

The Coral Triangle

The snorkelling on the second day wasn’t easy as the current was strong, but it was definitely worthwhile. Mabul, which sits in the coral triangle, is bordered by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Consequently, it has one of the densest marine biodiversity. It is famous for ‘muck diving’ where marine creatures such as seahorses and the blue ring octopi can be seen in the sandy sea bottom. By noon, we headed back for lunch and this time we skipped the last leg of snorkelling to explore the rest of the island.

Blue star fish, Mabul.
Spotted a blue star fish also known as Blue Sea Star (Linckia laevigata).

Mabul On Foot

About 50 metres from the lodge, we stumbled upon a school built by Big John himself to help educate the impoverished children on the island. It is a small, simple wooden house built amongst the cluttered homes of Mabul. Surprisingly, it only functions with basic facilities and runs completely on volunteer work. They accept no form of financial aid, and are highly appreciative of scholastic support.

The confined classroom that has to accomodate over 50 children. In spite of that, they are ever grateful with smiles on their faces.
The rather small classroom that has to accommodate over 50 children. In spite of that, they are ever grateful with smiles on their faces. 

We met a volunteer teacher from Taiwan who helps educate the children in English and Mandarin. The aim is to give them an opportunity in the field of tourism, which is their main source of income. As a guest, it was amazing to see the raptures of joy on their faces as they share their day to day stories with us.

There was an air of simplicity as the locals carried out their daily chores without much haste. They even took a moment to smile and greet us strangers. The scene was that of a typical village life tucked away from the luxurious vantage points of the island. Indeed, a stark reminder of the disparities of two opposing worlds.

The face of the island unbeknownst to many, Mabul.
The face of the island unbeknownst to many.
The air of simplicity that defines Mabul.
The air of simplicity that defines Mabul.
A local boy seen fishing within the gaps of the stilt houses in Mabul.
A local boy seen fishing on the wooden walkway between the stilt houses.

Big John Speaks!

It took only 45 minutes to circumnavigate the whole island and before we knew it, we were back to our comfort zone. I seated myself close to the balustrade of the wooden veranda, watching the evening sunset and throngs of sea gypsies manoeuvring their rickety boats towards us in hopes of making some income from their catch of the day. These sea gypsies live most of their lives on water and, in contrast to most of us, get land sick when they are away from the waters. What may seem to be an appalling lifestyle, is actually a norm for these sea nomads.

The wandering sea gypsies of Mabul
The wandering sea gypsies (Bajau Laut) are known for their nomadic and gypsy-like lifestyle.
Catch of the day
The catch of the day such as fresh sea crabs, mussels and even lobsters!
Door step delivery of the catch of the day
Door step delivery of the purchase.

“How was your stay so far?” My thoughts soon broke and I turned around to see Big John himself standing next to me.

Our conversation went back to his earlier days as a young boy to his heydays as a successful entrepreneur. His is a story of rags to riches; a young boy with almost no wealth who eventually built a passion-driven business through sweat and toil. It was through him that I learnt the irony of a confounding situation. Most of the island’s inhabitants are without identity. They are neither recognised by the Malaysian nor Philippine national registry, yet they make up almost 99% of the island’s population!

The citizenless Bajau Laut child paddling a rickety boat as a routine in Mabul.
The stateless Bajau Laut child paddling a rickety boat.

A Turtle Sanctuary In Mabul

On my final night, I was fortunate to see both sea turtles and a sea otter at the same time. One can truly appreciate the effort of this fledgling establishment in the conservation of Mabul’s sea turtles. Owing to growing tourism, the number of sea turtles has been dwindling, and this prompted several lodges around Mabul to take initiatives such as keeping retrieved eggs in a nursery until they have hatched, to safeguard them.

sea turtle in Mabul
Sometimes if you are lucky enough, you might be able to spot this beauty from afar.
Starry, starry night at Big John Scuba, Mabul.
Starry, starry night at Big John Scuba.

Final Thoughts On Mabul

Like many of my travels, I came thinking I knew all there is to know about my destination. But when I left, it is always with such humbling gratitude and respect. Although it is the destination that we chase after, it is eventually the people whom you meet that will define your adventures, be it good or bad. True, Mabul is a place of naturalistic beauty but in my eyes, it is superseded by the smiles and heart of its people behind closed doors.

Mabul stilt homes.
Mabul through my lens.

Special credits to Sabah Tourism, and Hellosabahmy for their effort in boosting the beautiful travel destinations in Sabah. Visit Sabah Tourism FB or their official website for more information on hiking Mount Kinabalu and other places of interests in Sabah. Also, visit Hellosabahmy FB for more information about cultural events and travel destinations in Sabah.

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Jeevitha KUMAR

About Jeevitha KUMAR

Hiker, mountain climber, diver, globe trotter, and all-round adventurer, she is probably one of a handful of medical doctors who has left her footprints (almost) all over the world.

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