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A Diving Paradise

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald Travel on October 20, 2013

A part of the island cluster in Borneo, Mabul is a quaint fishing village, which is now gradually becoming a tourist hotspot because of the wide range of water sports, Sudha Madhavan writes…

As the flight skims over the ocean and the cluster of islands and then glides down, the ground below swells up to reveal a fine cross stitch pattern of verdant green upon a brown background. And I wonder what could form that immaculate design. Not wild vegetation definitely, that would be more like a carpet of unbridled abundance. This by all means is man-made, a plantation, probably.

Upon landing my first question to our man at the wheel (who is there to take us to Semporna jetty from where we take the motorboat to Mabul) is that. “Those are palm oil plantations, ma’am,” he enlightens. Apparently, one of the main cash crops of these areas, as I discover later the extensive areas given to these plantations.

Tawau welcomes you in a languorous manner with one eye open for the visitors who pass by, mostly divers, on their way to Mabul. To me, it seems in the manner of stifling a yawn, a sleepy little town in the Sabah province of Borneo. Borneo that is divided into two parts, the one that belongs to Indonesia and the other, a part of Malaysia, where Tawau is situated. It is at the southern tip of the head, around which a world of scuba diving destinations are located Mabul, Sipadan, Kapalai, Bum bum, Layang layang (interesting and rather musical to the ear)…all located in the Celebes Sea. The wealth of sea creatures and turtles and the varying formations of coral here are quite breathtaking.

Diving destination

Our destination targets are Mabul and Sipadan. Hardcore divers and snorkelers crowd here most of the year for the spotting of an amazing variety of sea creatures as well as to grab some stunning underwater photography. The community of divers, which is literally from all over the world(!), is bound by its common passion for diving, and the talk at the end of the day over dinner (and at all other times…) centres around diving experiences, various fishes, their names, colours, sizes and shapes, their habitats, the next dive destination, the highlights and so on and so forth.

To a non diver and (an apology of) a snorkeler like me with minimal snorkelling experience, it is an exhilarating and exciting world, albeit a novel one and filled with wonder. And one gets into it with gusto soon enough.

Those who are not into scuba diving can snorkel around and get to see a startling variety of underwater life. There is a world out there that we land bound creatures can merely imagine…and a peep into their world is a revelation that is mind blowing indeed. A parallel world that is as beautiful, as vast (if not vaster) as vital and as profound, with its own food chain; with creatures ranging from the miniscule to the gigantic in astounding shapes, colours and sizes. Creatures that left to themselves are supremely peaceful and harmless and an absolute thrill to watch. A parallel world that is as energetic, as active and as full of business as ours!

A scuba diver’s underwater experience is extremely interesting, enriching and as thrilling as is filled with responsibility towards this parallel world… a responsibility that she becomes keenly aware of and sensitive to with each diving experience.

With the help of Alison, my guide, a veritable encyclopaedia of information on underwater creatures, I am able to spot good numbers of pinnate batfish, the diagonal banded and harlequin sweetlips, the moorish idol, the emperor fish, yellow striped fusilier, the scissortail damsel fish, brown tang, juvenile catfish, razor fish, white snapper, the red tooth trigger fish…in ones and twos or when I get lucky, in groups (shoals)!

My spotting of the day is the green turtle, as it surfaces for air and then majestically flaps down. It is a view worthy of a photograph. I am also able to spot sea anemones, sevigne’s sea urchin, blue sea star, big eye porcupine fish off and on.

Least to say, the experience leaves me breathless. Pun intended.For a novice, one can at times confuse one with the other, especially those belonging to the same family (I am sure that outrages their individuality and they don’t like it at all). The best thing is to go there backed by some information as do the divers. It is a pleasure to spot the fishes you have read about and seen pictures of.

While diving or snorkelling, it is of vital importance to not damage the corals or touch the sea creatures either by accident or intent as this can over a period of time damage the coral reef and leave them in worse health for generations to come. It invests the diving community (which is growing by the day) to enjoy the thrill and leave these ocean treasures in good health and well being.

Sleepy town

Now, something about Mabul. The village of Mabul begins right behind the row of diving resorts, and a trickle of stilt houses begins as we pass by. One comes across small shops selling daily-use items – candy, cheese and fripperies…there is an eminently photogenic and wrinkled old lady selling noodles ready to eat who refuses to be photographed.

As we move further, we come across big colourful boats, almost ready and brightly painted in red and blue and green. They seem to be getting readied for racing, going by the names…‘Made 2 win’, ‘The Winner’ etc. Other than that, each home owns a boat as well (being a fishing community).

The scuba diving resorts, of which there are several, would, I think have added greatly to the employment of the locals and enhanced their standard of living. They belong mainly to the Bajau tribes, Muslim by religion, cheerful and friendly by nature.

On learning that we are Indians, they show great enthusiasm to learn about Shah Rukh Khan and his movies. The evening band at the resort sings the theme song of his movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai dedicated to us Indians, and we are delighted to clap along. The village literally overflows with under-12 population! We spotted the local Madarsah and wondered how it could hold the lot.

On our way back, we come across shops selling a myriad varieties of shells, corals, conches and chandeliers made of all things from the ocean. It is dark by the time we get back (we have covered the island by foot in half an hour), and the jetties and walkways are lit up in mellow yellow forming a pretty picture with their shimmering reflection on water and the silhouettes of boats anchored.

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