Macro Diving At Mabul

I woke up with crippling stomach pains and a sphincter looser than Indonesian road rules. Holy fuck, what had I eaten to deserve this? I was meant to be doing four dives today and no way did I want to cancel any of them. I weighed up my options; I could maybe skip the first dive… or perhaps I could just dive anyway but not wear a wetsuit, y’know, just in case. It’s frowned upon to piss in a wetsuit, never mind unload the contents of your apparently diseased bowels into them… well we weren’t going far from Mabul Island, worse case scenario I can just advise Armen in no uncertain terms to not dive behind me and if it came to it I could abort the dive… yeah nah fuck it, I’m making bubbles. Potentially from both ends.

So every day fishermen will come into the guesthouses and flog stuff to people. These fuckers are some manner of massive shrimp that’ll slice your fingers if you touch them so they’re kept in plastic bottles.

I swallowed an anti-shit tablet kindly donated by an American chick called Betty and gave Armen the heads up on the current state of my digestive system. He laughed and said the fish would love it. Well that’s one plus side to having no control over your stomach, to be fair on the occasions I’ve gotten seasick at least I’ve had lots of pretty marine life to watch as they feasted on my regurgitated breakfast. So anyway, I was a bit concerned about diving the main event the day before diving around Mabul but I needn’t have worried, Mabul is just as wonderful in its own macro kind of way. Every dive I did today I saw something I’ve never seen before.

Dive one was at Lobster Wall which contains no lobsters because apparently they’ve all been eaten. Well done, humans. This dive is where I saw a crocodilefish, so called because they sorta kinda look like a crocodile with their flat heads and the fact that they just chill there in the sand basically being all camouflaged so their prey doesn’t see them. They’re really rather wonderful. Also it turns out that depth doesn’t make stomach cramps any less painful but it certainly makes them a whole lot less miserable when you’re studying rocks and coral, looking for macro life.

After spending the surface interval shitting liquid the colour of morning piss I swallowed another tablet and we headed off for the second dive. Dive two was at Seaventure, or rather underneath it. A while back it was thought that there might be oil under the seabed here so a company came in and built an exploration rig. When it became apparent there was exactly fuck all oil they flogged the rig to Seaventure who turned it into an expensive place to stay and dive. They don’t own the water underneath though, any peasant can dive there, so we did.

They’ve sunk loads of stuff directly underneath the rig, everything from tyres to a boat to what looked like a kids’ climbing frame. They’ve even dropped a toilet down there which Armen found hilarious given my gastric situation. At first glance I wasn’t impressed, it just looks messy, like fly tipping, but once you’re in there looking around the abundance of marine life is fucking incredible. The fish obviously love it so what do I know. I think this was my favourite dive of the day, everywhere I looked there was something interesting. Moray eels, sweet lips, lion fish, a big arse grouper, bat fish. Armen has a keen eye for nudibranches and pointed out several, I’ve never really seen them properly before.

This practically invisible little fucker isn’t actually little at all. It’s a stone fish and it’s pretty poisonous. I wouldn’t have seen it if it wasn’t pointed out to me and that, kids, is why you don’t touch shit underwater.

I knew they were a thing, they show up on a lot of diving Instagrams I follow, but I didn’t realise how beautiful and varied they could be. But I think the most badass thing on this dive was the stonefish. We saw a couple of them and I’ve seen them before but this guy, this was the closest I’ve ever been to one and, indeed, the closest I’d like to get thank you very much. It was just chilling there, being all invisible and still, looking exactly like a fucking rock. I wouldn’t have seen it if Armen hadn’t pointed it out, I doubt I’d have seen it without guidance even if I was looking directly at it. That fact that they’re really bastard venomous is more than a little bit terrifying.

Romain, one of the French guys I was at Sipadan with, joined us for the third dive at Stingray City which didn’t live up to its name. Romain caught a glimpse of one as it headed for cover, I just saw its tail, but to be fair there was so much other stuff to see I wasn’t going to have a cry about it. Not long after we’d descended we were surrounded by yellow fish, the name of which I forget. I don’t think it matters how many times I see schooling fish, I will never fail to be utterly awed by it. I think it’s one of the most incredible things, hundreds of individuals moving as one like that, I could watch them for hours.

Not long after that we saw cuttlefish and I’ve never seen of of these bad boys outside of an aquarium before. Fuck me, it was amazing! Marine life is just the best life! It swam away from us, flashing brown and white as it went before stopping dead and suddenly, effortlessly, turning the colour of the rocks around it. It was perfect. The camouflage was as good as the stonefish except it won’t annihilate your entire nervous system with a neurotoxin if you accidentally touch it. I think I prefer the cuttlefish. Then we saw what is apparently a rare nudibranch and I’ve never seen a bloke so excited about what is essentially a slug in drag before.

Banana nudibranch. I adore them. All of them. Nudibranches are my new favourite things in the world.

Armen found a banana nudibranch, a big yellow thing, and I think that was the turning point for me. That’s when I decided I wanted to see as many of these buggers as possible, as many different ones as I could find which is no mean feat given that I don’t even see them until they’re pointed out to me. I need more nudibranches in my life. Send nudis.

My last dive was with a Divemaster called Tahir and it was just a little 36 minute jaunt squeezed in before the boat left for Semporna. I wished I didn’t have to be on it. I could happily spend days here, diving and chilling and putting as much marine life in my eyeholes as possible. It was at a site called Paradise II where there were several small wrecks including a police boat and something that looked like a Borg cube. I didn’t get chance to study much, it wasn’t a relaxing dive, the first part was along the sandy bottom where I struggled to keep up with Tahir so I did what I usually do when I can’t keep up with a stronger diver; I stopped fucking trying. Bugger that, it might just be a short, shallow dive but I wanted to enjoy it.

We got to the wrecks and the current swept us around them at record speed which at least meant I could finally get level with Tahir without bursting a blood vessel. We saw loads of cool stuff including a puffer fish, and that’s when he found a spot face moray eel hiding inside a rock. He gave me his little metal pokey stick to steady myself so I could get a better look and guys, it’s the most beautiful thing that looks like it would rip your face off given half a chance I’ve ever seen. Not the mush, that’s a face only a mother could love and even then only after several tequilas, but the markings on it.

I saw so much cool stuff over the course of the four dives which wasn’t caught on camera because it was too small or too fast or too far away; a ribbontail stingray bolting out of Lobster Wall and into the blue, some manner of huge, and I mean huge fish that me and Romain caught a glimpse of before it disappeared, tiny clear shrimp that I’ve not a bastard clue how he spotted, a metric fuck tonne of my brand new obsession, nudibranches. I just can’t pick them up properly with my clumsy GoPro filming, certainly not without a red filter, their colours just aren’t done any manner of justice.

Thanks to Sipadan my bank account is currently curled up in a dark corner weeping into a bottle of (cheap) vodka and I regret nothing. I’d come back here given half a chance but I wouldn’t book a package. I’d think I’d just rock up and see where I could get a room, dive when I fancied it, rest when I didn’t. It’s not the cheapest place to be but you just have to remember where you are then the cost of it doesn’t matter any more. The boat whisked me and Betty back to Semporna where I necked another anti-shit tablet. There’s a time and a place to offload whatever it is that’s upsetting your stomach but a 10 hour overnight bus to Kota Kinabalu isn’t it.


Sipadan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Mabul Backpackers
Activity: Scuba diving with Sipadan Borneo.com
(Both outfits owned by Noble Inworld)

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