Scuba Diving in Mabul

posted in: Borneo, Nature, Sports | 0

After the mountain climb and the jungle trek, it was time to scuba dive. So, I made my way to Semporna in the Tawau district, where I was to take a boat to Mabul Island. Now, I will admit that I wasn’t really excited at that point. What?!! Yes, I know…

I was more anxious than anything. To top it off, aboard the boat were a diving master and another couple… You know the picture perfect type? Two tall blond confident and carefree European doctors with a ton of dives under their belts? Even the sea wind (which had turned my hair into one epic knot) just made them look more radiant. And the more radiant they looked, the more uncomfortable and insignificant I felt. The sillier I felt about my anxiety, the worst it got. By the end of the ride, I wasn’t even sure why I was there in the first place.

Now it took all my courage to decide to scuba-dive rather than snorkel. You see, it’s not that learning to scuba-dive is really hard. It’s just that I got my scuba-diving certification in South America and never really felt safe diving, because it never really felt like I knew what I was doing. Let’s say it wasn’t the most thorough training I’ve done. It never really mattered though, I didn’t need to be a 100% confident, I always had my master diver aunt with me. She prevented me making some pretty dum and possibly dangerous mistakes time and time again. This time, after talking with the dive master of my boat, I decided to go for a refresher dive. Best option to gain a bit more confidence before heading out to a fun dive.

Even if just a refresher, this was such a nice dive. We went in from the beach and didn’t go very deep. Despite all of this, I had my first encounter with a turtle. It was magical. This was my first of many turtle sightings, from green turtles to a baby hawksbill turtle.

  (Photo Credit: My friend Keith at Adrenalens)

After this dive, I decided to go for my PADI Advanced Open Water Certification, which would supersede my previous certification and make it easier for me to dive everywhere. I also hoped this would finally made me confident in the water.

I dove many times in the following days, three times a day. I learned to back roll off the boat and to do a negative entry (although it didn’t quite work for me and I failed to sink). I worked on my peak performance buoyancy (on which I had so little control) and my underwater navigation. I did a drift dive, a night dive and a deep dive. I experienced for the first time the effect of nitrogen narcosis. It was the weirdest thing. To feel instantaneously drunk… Then you go up a mere hour and your clarity is back!

In the end, I gained a lot more confidence.

Let me tell you, I saw so many incredible things, I couldn’t possibly name them all. Once, a turtle and I almost swam right into each other. Another one landed right in front of me to sleep during the night dive. With the amount of turtles here, it’s hard to imagine they are endangered.

The visibility was so great, it felt like I was swimming in a huge aquarium.  However, I couldn’t take pictures underwater with my camera, since I wasn’t equipped properly – I’m adding it to my list of things to get in the future – but for now I still want to give you a peek into the world I have seen. I’ve made a short list of my favorite encounters, you will find it at the end of the post. I encourage you to pick any of the following keywords and to search for pictures, they will surely give you a small glimpse into my underwater journey and allow you to perhaps discover some pretty cool fishes.

 (Photo Credit: My friend Keith at Adrenalens)

PADI has some nice Video of the Week playlists. Here is one. Some of those videos are informative, the Ghost Net (video 3) one made me shudder. As for the Egg Experiment (video 4), we did that during the course at 26 m of  depth. Was pretty cool. That’s when I realized I had nitrogen narcosis. I broke the egg when I was playing with it and tried to put it back together… Could be worst, supposedly some try to feed air to the fishes with their breather. I also really liked video combining skydiving and scuba diving (video 16). How awesome is that! Or the one showing an octopus hunting (video 13)! If you have time also check out the underwater rumba, the dolphin rescue and the nudibranch video (videos 17 to 19). That should give you a good taste of what it’s like down there, as good as you can get without actually experiencing it.

Or you can click here, to see a particular video that shows off some of the things I saw and that I feel represents well the dives I did.

Now, as to where I stayed. Being backpacking for quite a while, I was rather budget conscious. At first, I was hesitating about diving as it was out of the allowed budget. Then I decided to do the cool things I wanted to do, even if it meant going home early. Still, budget conscious, I had decided to go with a pretty inexpensive place. It’s one of my travel companion in Sandakan that made me change my mind about the first place I had picked. He was right, there are things such as safety that are not worth compromising on. So I ended up booking with this place, Scuba Junkie, that had an excellent reputation. I never regretted my choice.

I rented a bed in one of their dorm. The dorm was pretty comfortable and they had small lockers at the reception for your valuables. Showers were clean. The whole complex was pretty nice and comfortable. The main building has a common eating area on the first floor where you get your buffet meals. Second floor has a bar to relax at night after your dives. As for their diving equipment, everything was in good working order, no complaints there. The staff is friendly and there is a heck of a good atmosphere.

Also, and the biggest point for me, is their community involvement. First, they hire and train local people. They work in their kitchen and their reception. They drive the boats and some of them became dive master. Second, they have this turtle hatchery project. A turtle egg sells for about 2$ on the black market. The resort buys every single one of these eggs for 10$ per unit. Out-buying the eggs this way allows the resort to make sure that none of them end up on the black market. Once they are informed of a nest sighting, they go collect the eggs and put them in their hatchery. The turtles are then released when they hatch. In 2011, 1,000 turtles were released and in 2012, it was more than 2,000. Sadly, no turtle hatched during my stay. I would have loved to see it.

They have other projects like the beach cleaning initiative and the shark week. This is responsible tourism at its best.
Finally, you want to know the funniest thing of all? I saw my last name twice on the diving board. At first I thought it was a mistake. My name is not very common and I thought maybe I had been booked twice. Turns out that, no, there was another one with that same name and she was staying in my dorm. After talking with her, we figured that not only did we live in the same city, but we were related through our great grandfather. Fancy finding each other at a diving resort on the opposite side of the world!

The only hiccup came with my reservation in their accommodations on land. I got back to mainland the night before my flight out of Tawau. I had made a reservation for their dorm from the Mabul resort. When I got there, they had me for the wrong date. Now, Semporna doesn’t really feel like the place I want to wander around at night trying to find a place to sleep. I was lucky though, as one my new friends had rented a room to herself and allowed me to crash with her. Ouff.

Finally, as intentioned earlier here is a list of keywords to see some amazing fishes : Crocodile fish, reeftop pipefish, peacock mantis shrimp, marbled snake eel, spotfin lionfish, emperor angel fish, leaf scorpion fish (yellow and pink), giant grouper, broadclub cuttlefish, blue spotted ribbontail ray, parott fish, chocolate chip sea star, granulated sea star, black spotted pufferfish, snake eel, octopus, coral shrimp, pleurobranch, green turtle, hawksbill turtle, anemone hermit crab, clown trigger fish, spotted eagle ray, spotted box fish, harlequin sweetlip, frog fish, giant moray eel, school of jack fish.

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