Those among us who are not obsessed with diving might have never heard about Semporna. To be honest: there is nothing astonishing about this. Located at the far eastern stretch of Sabah, Semporna town is a hot, humid and stinky agglomeration of houses, hotels, shops, mosques, water villages and jetties. There are some pretty good seafood restaurant at the seafront, catering the sophisticated palates of frequent Chinese visitors. Beside this, there is no obvious reason to linger more than your onward travel plan requires.
That said, there must be an obvious reason why Semporna is still continuously overrun by tourists and why prices for lodging, tours & food can remain so ridicolously high, despite the place’s lack of attraktiveness. Passionate divers/snorkelers among us should now inmediately come up with the answer: Semporna town is nothing more and nothing less than the gateway to one of the richest and most famous diving spots in the world: Sipadan island.
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising 600 metres (2,000 ft) from the seabed. It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcano cone that took thousands of years to develop. Sipadan is located at the heart the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world: the Indo-pacific bassin. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem.
Frequently seen in the waters around Sipadan are: turtles (which mate and nest there), enormous schools of barracuda in tornado-like formations as well as manta rays, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks.
Sounds like an all too perfect place to head to, so where’s the catch? Well, one is that access to Sipadan National Park is restricted. About 120 permits are distributed per day, most among them to the diving schooles based in and around Semporna. The price for a one-day diving permit at Sipadan cost around 250 €, plus diving gear and transport – so not exactly a bargain for budget travelers.
And as we don’t know how to dive, anyways, we only made it to Mabul, a small island about an hour boat ride on the way from Semporna bay to Sipadan, admittedly one of the most constradictory places we’ve known on our trip, but at the same time one of the best diving & snorkeling grounds for small marine life. Combined with its geographical closeness to Sipadan, this might expain why hordes of European and Australian diving enthusiasts spend months working in diving schools clustered an island, so tiny that you can easily make the tour in less than one hour.
We stayed at a dive school on Mabul island for three days, spending nearly our whole time snorkeling or talking to fellow travelers about diving, among others a group of German interns from Continental in KL who were doing their open water certificate on a long weekend trip. To make it short: the area definitely deserved its fame, as even after having seen the marine parks and Apo Island in the Philippines, we were completely overwhelmed by the abundance of corals, colours, fished and turtles we could see even by just snorkeling aound the edges of the coral reefs.
But not everything is rosy in diving paradise Mabul, as right next to the holiday resorts and diving schools stuffing Mabul’s coastline lies one of the poorest and most miserable places in Malaysia: an illegal stilt village built by inmigrants from the Philippines.
No running water, electricity provided by private generators, no basic hygene, shallow waters around the beach full of garbage, no health provisions unless one of the hotel administrators would take pity on the villages inhabitants in cases of emergency, only rudimentary education in a small school attached to the mosque. The unpaved streets were full of children at any time of the day – Mabul village easily had the youngest mean age of all places we had visited, which gave a feeling both for lack of prevention and high mortality rates.
Trying to escape poverty, crime & guerilla fighting by separatists in Minandao & Sulu island in the Southern Philippines, inmigrants find themselves trapped on a bunch of sand with no future – and without peace. Both Mabul & Sipadan are located inside the area of the Celebes Sea area claimed by Filipino armed rebel groups. Recent years shown an increase abductions directly targeting tourists, mostly Chinese nationals.
The most famous case occured in 2000 in Sipadan island itself, when 21 people were kidnapped by the Filipino Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. The armed terrorists arrived by boat and forced 10 tourists and 11 resort workers at gun point to board the vessels and brought the victims to Jolo, an island located in the Southwestern Philippines in the Sulu Archipelago. Thank good, all victims were eventually released.
Numerous other kidnapping cases occured in the region, the most recent only one month before we arrived, when a Chinese tourist and a Filipino hotel worker were kidnapped from their resort of Semporna coast.
Luckily, we were not informed about than one when we decided to visit Mabul and even though military boat patrols and helicopters were circling around the island daily and while we celebrated a birthday at our diving school we were having a group of three policemen sitting in the corner of the terrace eating a piece of birthday cake – we didn’t feel unsafe at all.
Probably an ingenuous illusion, but at least it allowed us to enjoy each an every minute we spent at this very contrasting and contradictory place that is Semporna.