Diving With Scuba Junkie on Mabul Island
BORNEO, INDONESIA- It’s no secret that the waters off the coast of Semporna in Borneo are home to some of the most diverse underwater life anywhere in the world. If you want to dive Semporna or Sipadan Island you have a lot of options, but Scuba Junkie is widely regarded as the top company for any serious diver. Mostly run by British expats, the operation is one of those rare business gems: a first-world institution at third-world pricing, which makes for a scintillating experience for any divers.
If you’re diving with Scuba Junkie, you have a few options for where you can stay.
Dorms in Semporna. Scuba Junkie has accommodation that is right across the street from their main office, directly above the only western bar and restaurant in Semporna, and a 25-second walk from the dock where the boats leave in the morning. It’s a great place to stay if you want to save some money while diving—you have the supermarket down the street, and the restaurant downstairs serves fairly cheap food, albeit not as cheap as the Malaysian restaurants down the block. Unless you are really trying to save a buck, it’s worth it to get a private room with air-con—I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get home from a day diving, I’m completely knackered and just want my own space to lay down and relax!
Private room- 95 ringgit, or about $30 USD
Dorms- 25 ringgit, or about $10
Mabul Island. Scuba Junkie is also the only company with its own resort on Mabul Island. If you’re paying enough money to scuba dive for a few days, then odds are you’ll be willing to pony up the few extra ringgit to stay on the island. You’ll have access to all of the same dive sites, although it will be shorter boats ride in the morning to reach them. Staying on Mabul Island means it will take about an hour to get to Semporna as opposed to 2+ from the mainland! Mabul Island is a beautiful tropical island where you can relax on the beach and be in a peaceful environment with nature, surrounded by other divers. It is a SIGNIFICANT step up from staying in the town of Semporna. On Mabul Island, stay in the private room. It is spacious and air-conditioned, and a huge upgrade from the dorm room. If you can afford it, it’s a HUGE upgrade over the dorm. 195 ringgit, or about $65.
Going scuba diving in Semporna is one of those activities that you save your money for. It is expensive, there’s no getting around that. It is also cheaper than diving anywhere in the Western world. You can get your PADI Open Water certification for about half the price they’ll charge in Australia, and you’ll be in a much more scenic place when you do it. In terms of the accommodation, it’s also one of those places where paying just a little bit more for accommodation is going to go a long way towards increasing your comfort level during an outing that’s quite expensive by budget traveler standards. It’s worth it to spend a bit of money here and have a mind-blowing experience than to go for the budget options. Scuba diving is difficult to do with pennies; that’s just a fact.
Scuba Diving Off Semporna
Semporna is one of the top dive sites in the world, but know that it’s mostly known for its macro-life. Macro-life is not what you think it is—to me this conjured up images of whale sharks and over-sized dolphins swimming about right off the coast. But macro-life is actually the teeny-tiny creatures that dwell on the ocean floor and amongst various coral reefs, and apparently, there’s no better place to see it up close than the waters off the coast of Semporna. Personally, macro-life isn’t really my thing. I’m far more interested in seeing a turtle the size of a kitchen table than a shrimp the size of my fingernail, but macro-life is pretty rad to see nonetheless.
While Semporna is known for macro-life, it also has a ton of other things that are on the traditional diver’s bucket list. Depending on the specific dive site, it’s a popular destination for whale sharks, Hawksbill turtles, Manta Rays, hammerhead sharks, and any number of other large animals that you’d want to see underwater. I didn’t make it to Sipadan, but it’s the most coveted site in Semporna. You’ll pay for it and you’ll have to sign up a few days in advance, but by all accounts, it’s unbelievably worth it.
The Instructors and the Locals
The diving instructors are a mix of Western expats and local Malaysians, but all of them are well-versed in the dive sites and clearly professionals who actually care about the impact they have on the environment they are living and diving in. The local people on Mabul Island, the Baju, are nomadic peoples who live off of the fish they catch from the sea, the way their ancestors have for thousands of years. They have historically lived off materials such as banana fronds and coconuts, which are indigenous to the island, discarding them into the ocean and surrounding beaches. Yet with the creeping infringement of the developed world, the stateless islanders now use materials such as plastic and aluminum, and discard of the trash in the same way. It’s a sad sight to see what you picture as a pristine tropical island littered with the refuse of island peoples who don’t know any better. It’s a relief to know that the Scuba Junkie crew recognizes this and has numerous sustainability plans in place to clean up the beach and surrounding areas and ensure that the locals practice sustainable fishing practices.
It certainly gives you cause to pause and think when you see these Western twenty-somethings invade Mabul Island with their fancy-pants scuba diving resort built up on this quaint little island where the fishermen aren’t even technically residents of Malaysia. It makes you questions whether you even belong here in the first place, and while Scuba Junkie’s attitude certainly does not completely allay these doubts, they make you feel a lot better since you know they are also cognizant of these issues and are doing their best to rectify them when they can. Not many companies in Southeast Asia take the pains to care for the environment or the local people, and the fact that Scuba Junkie cares deeply about both was a big plus in my book
A Quick Note on Security
It’s not something that Moms want to hear, but the islands off the coast of Semporna are “disputed” territories and a target for certain Philippine terrorist groups that believe a portion of northeastern Borneo to be territory that belongs to them. Earlier this year, a small boat with some of the insurgents stormed Mabul Island and shot a police officer, taking another hostage. Since then, the Malaysian Army has built a small base on the island and has a visible presence. They can be seemed making armed patrols with large machine guns and there is a curfew in place (i.e. don’t go wandering on the beach late at night alone). While it’s an unnerving thought that something so awful happened in a place where you want to go scuba diving, I at no times felt unsafe and did not believe that the experience was at all compromised by the threat of another attack.