Scuba Diving in Mabul & Kapalai

Leaving Kota Kinabalu 

We spent two more nights in Kota Kinabalu after our Cultural Village experiences.  This was mostly just laying low and enjoying the space in our serviced apartment.  A spacious studio apartment with a kitchenette, king sized bed, a couch and coffee table, and a balcony looking at other apartments.  The Promenade Service Apartment was a fantastic little gem that we stayed in.  When you’re on the road for an extended period of time, it’s very nice to get away from small, boxy hotel rooms and into something with space.  

We did spend one of our final days here meeting up with a friend that Kristi met in Utila (this is #3 now).  She is currently living here and a very cool girl.  We all went to the Sabah Museum together which was quite dry but we were more occupied with catching up so multi tasking wasn’t so easy.  

We caught a taxi to the airport and had our smoothest security check yet to get on to our plane.  No line, no questions, no problem.  

Getting to Semporna

We arrived in Tawau… a little city that apparently has nothing to offer other than an airport. So now we need to get to Semporna, roughly a 90 minute drive.  We stop to ask security how to get to Semporna and they turn and gesture to a guy standing there.  He tells us 60RM and that’s a good deal.  We tell him we will be back.  I ask at the taxi stand, they tell me 95RM. Yikes.  Kristi went and asked information about a bus to Semporna.  You need to take a 20RM taxi to Tawau city in order to get a bus.  We go back to the private driver.  I try to get him down to 50RM, he doesn’t budge.  He knows.  For our money and time spent, this was by far our best option.  It was already 4:30pm so unless we wanted to spend all night to bus and save 10RM then this is the way to do it.   His vehicle was brand new and very nice, way nicer than a taxi.  

We decided to go to the Sipidan Inn because for about 25 seconds I connected to the internet at the airport and it was long enough for me to receive a Facebook message from the British couple we had met at Kinabalu Mountain Lodge and in the message they said that’s where they were staying.  We checked in to the hotel around 6:30pm and went for dinner.  First place we walk in to and we run into the Brits.  This is coming together nicely.  

The City of Semporna 

This city has every bit of potential to be beautiful, but it’s a shit hole.  Kids begging for ringgits, garbage everywhere, the smell of garbage that’s been cooking in 32 degree sun floats through the city with every gust of wind, it’s really quite sad.  There is one ATM in Semporna and it is always lined up outside the door.  There seems to be a huge poverty issue in a city that could have many more jobs.  You would think this would drive down the price of things but it doesn’t.  The locals know that any tourists they see are here to dive or snorkel and it’s not cheap.  So they know we have money and enthusiasts are going to pay whatever the price. The Sipidan Inn was charging 110 RM per night for a standard room.  We hummed and haaaa’d long enough that the guy offered us for 94 RM so we accepted.  Some rooms come with windows, some don’t. Ours didn’t.  The room itself was simple, clean, and had a safe.  However, the three locks on the door and the signs up saying to make sure it’s locked and anything of value should be in the safe makes me question how safe the city is.  I can’t help but feel like we are overpaying for mediocrity.  Probably a good thing we are just here for a couple days to scuba dive.  

Choosing a Dive Shop

So this ended up being way more difficult than I anticipated.  We walked from dive shop to dive shop at first just to get prices but as we spoke to front desk after front desk, it became more a search for someone with personality who can show us some passion.  The employees would literally just look at us with a blank stare and hand us a price sheet.  One lady even told us she didn’t have a price sheet but it’s on their website… because Semporna is a big WiFi hotspot… /sarcasm.  A lot of the places listed prices then had disclaimers at the bottom about all the extra costs that are not included, like the conservation fee and some even had an extra fee for equipment rental… I understand that the diving here is incredible but when I walk into  dive shop and am about to spend a lot of money, it would be nice to see some enthusiasm and appreciation from the staff.  So anyways, we found a package that we liked with Uncle Chang’s dive shop since they had the best price and we really liked the girl who was excited to tell us about the different islands and even drew up a crude map for us to understand.  We also liked that they offered day trips and that we didn’t have to spend an arm and a leg to stay on a dive resort for a couple days.  We booked one trip together that included one dive at Kapalai Island and one dive at Mabul Island.  Then Kristi booked a separate trip the following day that gave her three dives off of Sipidan Island.  I didn’t do this because it’s a more advanced dive and am not really comfortable with it yet. It would be a lot of money for me to spend to not be totally into.  The overall experience of picking a dive shop was hell when it came down to front desk staff.  These people are the first impression you get from a dive shop.  If they don’t appear to care about my business, what are the rest of their staff like?  I know there’s a difference between dive masters and desk people but you can’t help but keep that impression.  

Dive Day: Getting to Mabul 

We walk over to the dive shop boat launch about 5 minutes from our hotel.  As we wait, we can’t help but notice the garbage in the water.  There is tons of it and it is disgusting… another reason Semporna is a shitty place. Show some pride and clean your city up a bit.  All you would need is each dive shop to have a pool cleaner and they could scoop out the debris in the morning.  It would probably take 10 minutes.  


Anyways, it was looking like an ugly day.  We pulled out of the dock and did a 1 minute drive to the big jetty where everyone has to pay a conservation fee (obviously not funding the water here).  We’re on the water no more than 5 minutes and it starts raining.  It’s also very foggy. The boat driver confidently races off into the open water, while every horizontal rain drop hits us like a being shot by a pellet gun.  We didn’t even think to pack our rain jackets.  We did our best to take our minds off of it by chatting with a guy on our boat.  It’s working… kind of.  Then our boat slows down.  I get excited at first but think there’s no way it’s been 45 minutes, this is too good to be true.  I was right.  We were lost.  Our driver turned too soon and we were cruising through a stilt village in the middle of the ocean that we found out later was also a seaweed farm.  Luckily, it didn’t take long to spot another boat and get back on path. As we pulled up to Mabul, we realized that it was also mostly just stilt accommodation in the water.  Most of the island was under water and we were not allowed to explore from where we were.   It was still raining anyways so for today, it was no big deal. 


Dive #1: Kapalai Resort 

We hop on a boat with roughly 10 people and what looks like 4 dive masters, I cringe at the thought of how big this group is.   Luckily for us there were only 5 of us diving.  They still split us up into 2 groups which meant Kristi and I were solo with our own dive master and the other group was an Italian couple and the guy from Paris we were speaking to on the boat.  I told Kristi I arranged this romantic couples dive just for us. Kapalai resort is interesting because the entire island was under water when we arrived there and it’s just a resort on stilts in the middle of nowhere.  Though you can just dive right off the dock here, which would be pretty awesome.  The reef is artificial as they have dropped a bunch of stuff in the water to attract wildlife.  At first I was disappointed we were at an artificial reef until we got down there.   The natural coral and things that grow and live on the random scaffolding is unreal.  A few highlights of this dive included cuttlefish, a huge green turtle, Kristi’s first ever frog fish which is really cool to see and a giant Moray eel who is stuck in his hole.  What happens is they find somewhere they like with a good food supply and start eating, if the food continues to arrive then they have no reason to leave so they eat and grow until they get stuck in their hole.  I don’t know how big this guys hole is but he looked like he could be bigger than me.  Pretty great first dive overall.  Back on the boat it was still raining.  Luckily for us it didn’t effect our visibility while we were under.  

Dive #2: Paradise 1 – Mabul    

After a very mediocre lunch back at the “resort”  we got back on the boat and ready for our 2nd dive.  It looked like it was starting to clear up which s nice because it had been rather cold and miserable out since we left this morning.  A 2 minute boat ride had us at our dive site: Paradise 1.  As we jumped in the water, our dive master immediately had an issue with his gauge as it broke open and the air from his tank was leaking out of it.  Looks like we are joining the other dive master and other two people on this dive.  Part way into the dive, one of the guys kept floating up too high.  The dive master would ask if he was okay, he would signal back that he was okay.  Then would come down and float back up.  After 5-10 minutes of this he decided to shoot up to the top which is incredibly dangerous.  Not sure what was going on, the dive master had to wait to try and get his attention.  Then the guy decided he was going to come back down… also a huge nono.  His dive was over.  Unfortunately for us, after this incident, our dive master was clearly distracted about the guy up above us, rather than seeing everything hiding amongst us.  However we did manage to see a bunch of huge turtles just hanging out without a care in the world.  When I say huge, I mean that these guys were bigger than I am.  We also got to see crocodile fish, box fish, a couple lionfish and more moray eels.  At the end, I was very satisfied with how things went.  We had a really nice day of mediocre food and fantastic diving.  I understand why people love it here so much.  

No Luck in August

So we have already been through Kristi’s ordeal at the start of August when she had Dengue fever.  Today another unfortunate thing happened.  The dive master in charge of the snorkelers offered to take some pictures on our camera.  I made sure everything was locked up and sealed and briefly explained how to take pictures.  When we came back from our dive, the guy gave me the camera and said it wouldn’t turn on so he didn’t take any pictures.  I looked at it and it was clear that there was water inside the camera.  We put it in a bag of rice to dry, when that didn’t work we took it to some guys in Sandakan to fix it but nobody here deals with cameras anymore, just cell phones.  So the guys opened it up, dried it all up and put it back together but it still won’t work.  So we had to buy a new camera pretty quickly.  There is one store in all of Sandakan that sells cameras and it was hell to find.  Locals looked at us like “why don’t you just use your cellphone?” It was just incredibly frustrating to buy a camera that was supposed to be waterproof, crush proof, freeze proof and basically indestructible only to have it shit the bed three months into the trip.  Either way, we have a new camera that is not waterproof or any kind of proof for now.  Hopefully it takes good pictures.  We will look to get it fixed once we arrive in Thailand.  Hopefully they can fix it as I don’t know how long this new camera will last.  

Regardless we are staying positive.  Kristi had three amazing dives in Sipidan with our friends Tim and Megan.  She got to see some big sharks and dive much deeper than had she been with me since my certification only allows me to go 18m and hers is 30m.  We took a bus from Semporna to Sandakan and we plan to do some jungle tours and go visit the Orang Utans in Sepilok.   Everything is going to go smoothly and we will have more amazing experiences.  

To wrap things up I will share a few of the photos of Kristi and Tim’s diving in Sipidan. All photo credit to Tim and his GoPro Hero3:



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