We shared a taxi with Theo and Kat back to Sandakan. After jungle living we all decided to treat ourselves to a couple of nights at Swiss Hotel, a decent bed, rain shower and sea view was exactly what the doctor ordered!
There's not much to report from our time in Sandakan, I still wasn't feeling 100% so it was good to just relax and sort out the next part of our trip. We met up with Kat and Theo in the evenings for dinner on the seafront which was fun and interesting to find out more about their travels in India. We weren't the only ones though dining by the seafront and were joined by a huge rat that snuck up on Theo and was sitting right by his leg! The local cats weren't much use but then again the rat seemed the same size and probably would put up a fight. We had decided to make our way to Mabul Island to do some diving with Scuba Junkie, a dive company we had found out about from Steve when we were in Thailand. We said bye to Kat and Theo who were heading to Turtle Island and got an early night as our bus was leaving first thing.
As the taxi pulled into the bus depot there were touts everywhere shouting out destinations trying to get people on their buses. One guy even opened the door of the taxi to talk to Dan before we had even stopped! Our taxi driver had it under control and moved through them all to the bus we were after, okay so he got paid a bit of commission from the bus guys but it was win win for everyone.
It was about 4 hours to the coastal town of Semporna and other than two check points where the police came on the bus to check everyone's ID and passports it was a simple journey. Semporna itself is a bit of a dump, even though we arrived around lunchtime hardly anything was open and there was quite a bit of rubbish floating in the sea. We were defiantly glad we would only have one night here before heading over to Mabul Island the next morning. Later in the afternoon Dan found out that there had been shooting of policemen in Lahad Datu which was one of the towns we had passed through on the bus. Maybe that's why there had been police checking IDs as I'm sure one was at Lahad Datu. We didn't think much more of it at the time but this would become a big talking point during our time on the island...
Mabul Island is part of the Semporna Archipelago which is famous for its diving particularly for the dive sites around Sipadan, which are some of the best in the world. Being new to diving we did not realise until too late that to dive the Sipadan sites you have to book way in advance to receive a permit. Not deterred we had heard that diving around Mabul and Kapalai islands was also good and still being newbies we are still amazed by anything and everything! We were ready at the dive shop at 8am to get the boat to the island and bumped into the American couple Adam and Mandi who we had met at the bottom of Kinabalu. They were also coming to the island and local staff found Mandis name very funny as it means 'shower' in Malaysian.
Arriving on the island we were definitely pleased that we had chosen to base ourselves here rather than in Semporna with white beaches, red hibiscus flowers and clear blue sea. I guess the only 'eyesore' was the Bajau Bajau sea gypsy village near the jetty and the rubbish around there but the kids were really cute, making plastic bags into kites and flying them up and down the beach. We found out that there was a bit of a rift between the sea gypsies and the local people that lived on the other side of the island and that kids often fought one another.
Settled in and sorted with wetsuits and fins etc... we were back on the boat being introduced to Marion who would be our dive master for the day. Our first dive site was called Sting Ray city and was a wall dive. The current was really strong and we ended up being swept all the way to the next dive site along called Lobster wall. It was fun just drifting in the current but as we were moving quite fast it was harder to spot life on the wall and also harder to keep track of where we all were. I seemed to drift faster than others which made staying behind Marion a bit of a struggle at times. We did see a turtle within minutes of descending though which was cool and turtles would become common diving companions whilst we were here.
Our second dive of the day was at Artificial Reef where man made structures and old boats have been sunk attracting marine life. We saw loads on this dive including a giant grouper fish that was as big as me (by far the largest fish we ve seen yet), chevron barracuda, a massive school of big eye trevally that literally was like a wall of fish (Dan missed it as he was looking at a turtle). It was fun to look in all the structures trying to find things.
After lunch our final dive was at Eel garden which definitely lived up to its name as we saw three different types, Napoleons snake eel, Ribbon eel and white eyed moray eel. We also saw 3 more turtles and also a big pharaoh cuttlefish which changed colour to red when we got too close, amazing! I was also excited to see my first lion fish too.
We definitely would need to hire an underwater camera for the next day as we were seeing loads of stuff!
Scuba Junkie resort was definitely the place to be as we bumped into Jennie and Jessica from Uncle Tans, who had been on the island doing some snorkelling although Jennie was keen to try scuba too. It was great to have some familiar faces around.
There were more and more murmurings about what was happening on the mainland and it turns out that what we thought was a small incident was actually more serious. We found out that 100 rebel fighters from the Philippine Island of Sulu had landed on Sabah in February claiming the land belonged to them and on the day we travelled through Lahad Datu this had escalated to a gunfight with several fatalities and the problem was spreading to Semporna! This was why most of the town was shut when we arrived and probably the reason for the ID checks too. It was a bit concerning but as we were on the island and nothing had been announced thought all would be ok.
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Today our dive master was an Italian called Alice with a very firm handshake! Armed with our underwater camera we headed to our first site which was off Kapalai Island called Black Ray Channel.
Within a few minutes we saw our first stingray but it was moving too fast through the water to get a photo. We saw some more turtles and cuttlefish and Nemos relatives.
Can you spot the crocodile fish?
Leah a girl diving with us was amazed by the juvenile catfish feeding all together on the seabed.
Generally the dive sight was quite quiet and towards top the end of the dive we found out why... Dynamite fishing! As we did our safety stop before surfacing everywhere we looked below us we could see dead fish! It was really sad to see and we found out that majority of the fish that are killed by dynamite don't rise up to the surface so it is such a waste and indiscriminate. It explained also why the stingray had been so scared and speeding out of the area.
Our second dive was back off Mabul Island a D Wall (not sure have the name right). This was one of my favourite dives, the wall was massive and there was so much to see including our first giant moray eel!
Me and a turtle dude!
These pics are of the same pharaoh cuttlefish and it was amazing to see it change colours with bright blue spots as it swam away and then effortlessly change to great camouflage colours to hide behind some coral.
At the end of the dive as we ascended up the wall there was a coral garden with hundreds of fish a great place for a safety stop, and we saw a another stingray hiding in the rocks.
Our final dive was at a site called Awas which Marion had recommended as her favourite dive site as she loves 'muck diving', despite the name meaning Danger, and we had been told there was a possibility of seeing a sea horse so we were very excited.
I spotted a sea snake!
We also saw the biggest turtles in the world! Well that's what I think they must be, had no idea they got this big!
Some turtle dudes where chilling out on top of a wreck.
We saw loads more cool stuff like the colourful mandarin fish and weird frog fish but the battery had run out. Shouldn't have mucked around perfecting my Bruce Forsyth pose.
When we got back from diving Theo and Kat had arrived on Mabul Island too. Most of team proboscis monkey were reunited and it was fun to catch up on their time at turtle island.
In the evening we laid on the beach to look at the stars, with hardly any light pollution the sky was amazing. I got a fright when I saw two big black eyes coming out of the dark heading straight towards my head. I shouldn't have worried though as it was a friendly dog who wanted a cuddle and would become our guard dog sleeping outside our bungalow at night.
We decided to take a break from diving and just have a relaxing chill out day. Dan did some snorkelling around the jetty in the morning but we mainly chilled out on the beach, where we were joined by a very friendly ginger cat who thought the best place to sit was on your book as you were trying to read. She hopped back and forth between our sun loungers when she wasn't getting enough attention from one of us and when the dog from the night before tried to join us too she was very clear on who was boss! She didn't want to share us!
More people were talking and asking about the situation on the mainland. With Internet connection that rarely worked it was hard to get the latest updates and so everyone was trying to find out the latest. We heard that people were leaving Semporna and most of the places there were shut, petrol was running low and there were concerns that supplies might not get through to the island. We had met another Brit called Katie, who interestingly had been working in Laos for a charity to prevent human trafficking and was in Mabul to dive before heading back to UK, she had managed to get on the FOC website which advised getting out of the area and no non essential travel between Semporna, Lahad Datu towards Sandakan. We would need to reconsider how we were going to get back to Kota Kinabalu as we had planned to get the night bus from Semporna but it would travel through all these places.
We decided that when we left we would head southwards to Tawau and just fly to KK instead, it would cost us more money but we didn't want to risk it.
Day 4...Our final day diving for now...
Marion was to be our dive master again and Katie would also be diving with us too. We started the morning off Kapalai Island at Kapalai house reef site. It was here that we saw the biggest giant moray eel, nicknamed Elvis. He was huge and this is about as big as they get and definitely was not going to mess with him!
Not sure what this is...but it's cool!
Our second dive was a bit of a different one underneath a converted oil rig called Seaventures. Lots of marine life gather underneath the rig as well as lots of rubbish and other junk.
This was also home to another giant grouper and we could see its huge silhouette looming above us as it cruised around the supporting poles of the rig.
There were lots of fish with great camouflage like crocodile fish and reef scorpionfish.
Marion got very excited when she spotted a hairy squat lobster. It was tiny and no idea how she saw it!
Dan had his own close encounter with a trigger fish, this time it was the smaller Red tooth trigger fish (which is actually blue) but it was just as feisty chasing him around and gave him a good nip on the knee.
We also saw loads of lion fish which are awesome.
For our final dive we headed back to the Awas site as Katie had not dived there yet. We didn't mind though as it meant we could say bye to the seahorse. Which we did although somehow I only managed to take photos is seaweed...totally missed it!!
The highlight of this dive was some teenage mutant ninja turtle action! That's right a turtle fight! As we watched one chilling out on the top of a sunken boat, another huge turtle dive bombed right over our heads to make it known that this was his patch, although he totally misjudged it and got himself stuck head first in a net on the boat. We thought we might have to intervene to release him so he wouldn't drown but all it took was a nip from the other turtle and he quickly found reverse and the battle commenced! With a few nips and shoves it was over and they decided to share the space although one ended up below deck.
We d chosen not to dive on our last day so we would be able to fly in the evening and we would also be able to spend the day chilling on the beach before our boat back to Semporna in the afternoon. This didn't quite happen as I got sick along with at least 3 other people that were also staying at the resort. Not the best way to end our stay on Mabul!
As it got closer to leaving the island we were a bit nervous about going back to the mainland as we had heard that people had been moving their families out of the area and that Semporna was practically a ghost town. We d also seen some low flying aircraft during the day and heard that air strikes had happened. These worries were forgotten for a bit as we got completely soaked on the way back to mainland on the small boat we were in. Back in Semporna we stuck together with Katie and after buying our scuba junkie t shirts at the dive shop we were on our way.
We overheard a conversation that they only had enough petrol left for two boats and needed to work out how to get more. The problems were resulting in a shortage which we saw by the huge queues at the petrol station, although our taxi driver decided to go in through the exit to get to a pump and jump the queue. It was all a bit hectic but we got to Tawau airport with no problems and after saying goodbye to Katie who was starting her mission back to the UK we were in the air heading back to Kota Kinabalu.
We only spent a night in KK before catching another flight to Mulu in Sarawak. When we finally saw a newspaper these were the headlines we saw...
We were definitely glad we were out of the problem area and hope it all gets resolved soon.
Safe travels everyone.