Posted by: James Shannon | April 5, 2011

Welcome To Snorkler’s/Diver’s Heaven: Semporna and Mabul Island

After four days in Kota Kinabalu, I was eager to get out of town and do what brought me here in the first place: snorkel in some of the most prolific coral reefs on Earth, off the coast of Semporna on Mabul Island. After pulling another all-nighter due to an inhumanly early start for a night hawk (and a traveler lacking an alarm clock, lol), I set off in a government bus for Eastern Sabah…

Rice plantations cover the mountainsides east of Mount Kinabalu … I wanted to climb the 2nd highest mountain in SE Asia, but it turns out that you have to jump through alot of hoops and fork over a ton of cash before you can even set foot on its limestone shoulders … next time Kinabalu, you WILL fall to my unrelenting feet, I promise you! 🙂

Arrival in Semporna … the graffiti testifies to the ethnic diversity of the area, with populations of Filipino, Malay, Borneoan and Chinese people, and Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity is practiced here…

Speaking of religion, here is the town mosque … I love’em, the architecture and the call to prayer make them so mystical and mysterious!

Morning markets are a great place to examine the culture and psyche of a community … Semporna’s was definitely a complex one, with the smell of freshly caught fish, meat juices flowing on the ground from butchered cuts of beef, eyeless beggars pleading for Ringgit…

After buying a ticket for Scuba Junkie’s snorkel/dive trip to Mabul island for the following morning, it was time to get some rest and dream of the untold beauty I was about to venture into…

Then morning came, and it was time to depart…

A Filipino water village juts out onto Semporna harbour … many of the Filipino residents here are in the country illegally, and have little disposable income besides.  So instead of settling on the land, they build over the water, where property rights are a grey area, to say the least.

Closeup of one of the houses … just hanging out

In spite of the poverty associated with water villages, some of them do better at wealth creation than others, as in other walks of life … nice pad.

Some men head out to tend to their nets, passing some double-wide trailers on stilts in the background

The stereotypical desert island we all grew up dreaming about … wouldn’t you like to leave it all behind, fish until you have enough to eat, and spend the rest of your time lounging in the sun and the tropical waters?

Just as we arrive at Mabul Island, the slate grey overcast sky … breaks up.  Just too perfect!

Sugary white sand, and aquamarine water that practically glows in bright sunshine … and within them, coral reefs and coral reef creatures that are works of art that blow away anything a human artist could create.  No underwater photos folks, as I didn’t think ahead on that one 😦 … a Google image search of “Mabul Island underwater” should give you an idea” 🙂

Alongside the resorts are the original inhabitants of this island, mostly Filipinos.  Some work for the resorts, but others just fish for sustenance and for profit.

No words required for this gasp-inducing picture…

As is par for the course in Borneo, the rainclouds moved in at 1pm and rain came down as we snorkeled at multiple sites around the island.  I actually got cold for the 1st time since Pai … the tropics are making me into a softie! 😛

Hope you enjoyed this journey into a natural treasure of Malaysia, and certainly the world.  I’d write more, but as I write this, I have to board a sleeper bus in less than 20 minutes, so I’ll cut it right here … toodles!



  1. Looks like an awesome place. I had never even heard of it. Keep having a sick time.

    • Been packing in the sick times lately in Nha Trang and Hoi An (ran into one of my travel mates from Thailand, he’s running Dive Bar now, crazy!), as I am hopping a plane back to Canada on the 12th 😦

      But I get to go back to the Rockies, so it isn’t all bad 🙂

  2. Wow, Wow and Wow again, James. It is too beautiful for words. And by the way, buy an alarm clock. That way you’ll get a lot more sleep. Love Mom ❤

    • I will turn Hanoi upside down looking for one, can’t miss my flight!

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