The last leg of our adventures through Malaysian Borneo took us to an obscure little island called Mabul, just 15 km from the world famous Sipadan. Diving enthusiasts and scuba junkies know that Sipadan and the surrounding areas are one of the best spots for diving in the world, and what better place to learn to dive than in the crystalline waters of the Celebes Sea.
The gateway to the Mabul Island is through smell-like-garbage-can town of Semporna which I don't recommend you staying in unless you have to. Mabul island itself is tiny, divided roughly by a handful of diving resorts. We stayed at Mabul Beach Resort, owned and operated by Scuba Junkie, which sits on its own beach next to a small Bajau settlement (a group of stateless 'sea gypsies') and had a great chill-out vibe and large comfortable cabana.
The first three days on Mabul, we did our PADI Open Water course consisting of 1 day of classroom instruction on theory which was hard as I wanted to sit on the beach and enjoy the equatorial sun with a glass of cold Tiger; and two grueling days of skills in the open sea which included doing the required four open water dives to get certified. We had to learn to put our tanks on our back, do the required buddy check using the mnemonic - BWARF, breathing with the regulator, emergency signals, fin pivots, finding a neutral buoyancy, clearing the masks, and learning to equalise so we don't rapture our ears. All necessary skills, which were somewhat difficult to learn initially but you'll get the hang out it. The instructors at Scuba Junkie are very professional, patient, and great fun!
After getting our PADI certification, we opted for a day of fun dives around Mabul Island -- we went to 3 different dive spots and were underwater for at least 45 minutes per dive. Our time diving was dictated by Keenan as he blew through his oxygen tank twice as fast as I did, granted his lung capacity is twice the size of mine. Don't worry, we don't go by ourselves, we always go with a dive master who knows the location and will point out interesting sea creatures. And as newly-minted PADI Open Water Divers, we were assigned to our own Dive Master/Instructor for the day (an American from Washington). Unfortunately we don't have photos from our underwater adventures as we didn't have the proper camera equipment and it was too much to focus on both our diving technique whilst also photographing marine life.
I can tell you that the underwater is brilliant, amazing, fascinating, and awesome! Vibrant colours, clear waters with visibility up to 20m, lots of beautiful fish, and interesting corals. I didn't think I would enjoying diving this much, especially coming from someone who hates putting my head underwater and get all bothered with water up my nose. Once you get the hang of it, diving is easy. We saw gigantic sea turtles, eels, massive groupers, clown fish, eel stingray, and much much more. Diving is meant to be a relaxing 'sport' -- enjoy the scenery, breath regularly, and have fun! Our only regret is not making it out to Sipadan Island. Each day the government issues only 120 passes for Sipadan, which they divide between the various resorts. Hence you'll have to put yourself on a waiting list and it's quite expensive. Maybe next time?
We also spent New Years on Mabul Island. The resort staff put on a great evening including a staff talent show (who rocked out to Gangnam style), live music (some of the dive staff are really good singers!), dancing, and a final countdown to 2013. Our fellow scuba classmates from Sweden bought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne from the duty free shop enroute to Malaysia, and we toasted to 2013 before crawling into bed in the wee hours. This was probably the latest we stayed up during our entire trip. Being such an active holiday, we were usually up by 5am/6am and in bed by 10pm from exhaustion.
Keenan and I both agreed that learning to dive was by far the highlight of our time in Borneo. We look forward to more diving adventures in the future. Though we've been to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt before, we thinking of squeezing a dive trip to the Red Sea, and perhaps the Philippines in New Years 2014. Geez, it's only one month into 2013 and I'm already thinking twelve months ahead. But as we're up for UK permanent residency (i.e. UK green card) in October, we'll have to keep our eyes on the number of days we're outside the U.K. this year. Work trips, bank holiday and weekend trip are OK, but no major international trips until after October 2013.
Next up: five days in Hong Kong to meet my adorable baby niece and hang out in my favourite Asian city with my sister and brother in law!