I had the privilege of diving Mabul and Sipadan in 2014, only 10 years after the official change from polluted island to marine protected area, and the results are promising. While it certainly still has its rough spots, it is obvious that corals have rebounded, fish have returned, and macro life is thriving. The difference in the reefs from a decade ago to now is probably drastic considering they were once broken and battered by algae, and they are now healthy, vibrant, and teeming with marine life.
The 40-minute boat ride from Semporna to Mabul grew increasingly more picturesque as the boat drew nearer to the island. The water got clearer and bluer, until it became difficult to distinguish the cloudless afternoon sky from the water’s surface. We soon arrived at one of several long docks that stuck out like spokes from the island, raised up on stilts over the turquoise waters surrounding Mabul. The rest of the day was spent sorting and assembling camera and dive gear for the next day, while enjoying the view of the idyllic seascape I would soon be exploring under the azure waves.
Crinoid squat lobsters, at most an inch long, spend their entire lives within the safety of this feathery echinoderm/Photo by Alex Rose
Five days of diving were ahead of me; three around Mabul and Kapalai, and two on the reefs of Sipadan, and I could not have been more excited to get in the water. While all three islands are known for top notch diving, it was Sipadan’s restored reefs with their tumultuous environmental history that I wanted to see most of all, but I would have to wait a couple days to experience the underwater wonders this island ecosystem had to offer.
A pair of pink skunk clownfish (Amphiprion perideraion) nestled into their cozy anemone. Photo by Alex Rose
During these initial two days with Borneo Divers, the oldest resort on Mabul and the first establishment to offer Sipadan diving excursions in the 1980s, there were countless macro photo opportunities to be had. Upon entering the water, it is immediately obvious that this is not the place for wide-angle photography. With its ample muck diving and biodiverse reef rubble zones, it is the kind of diving that makes it easy to get lost for hours in the minutia of exploring every crack and crevice in search of the next subject. There is even an artificial reef along the eastern side of the island with sunken dive boats, pyramids, and crates that has attracted impressive amounts of marine life. Crinoid squat lobsters, pipefish, nudibranchs, bobtail squids, leaf scorpion fish, mantis shrimp, and clownfish, were just a few of the many lovely creatures to commonly grace Mabul’s sloping, sandy seascapes.
This nudibranch (Nembrotha lineolata) is laying a spiral of eggs on a tunicate. Photo by Alex Rose
After a couple days of having my camera buried in the substrate looking for the strange and minute, Sipadan quickly yanked my head out of the sand and up into the blue. I am not sure what Sipadan looked like underwater a decade ago, but in 2014, it was magnificent. Sipadan’s expanses of tabletop acroporas and huge schools of pelagics were a sharp contrast to Mabul’s reef rubble and macro life. These vastly different dive locations complement each other well, and provide the yin to the other’s yang in this cluster of Malaysian islands.
The island of Sipadan is quite beautiful from the topside perspective as well. White sand, lush green foliage, and the bluest of water, make this island look like a postcard advertisement for paradise. Despite being battered by tropical storms, mistreated by humans, choked by pollution, and threatened by climate change, it is apparent that the last ten years of aggressive conservation and resource management have quickly begun to return Sipadan to its original grandeur.
Sipadan’s reefs are not just about quantity, of which there is plenty to be seen, but are just as much about quality. There are not just fields of hard corals, there are perfect fields of hard corals. Huge heads of plating acroporas in varying hues look like giant steps down the reef, providing shelter at every level for countless thousands of reef fish and easily as many invertebrates. Friendly sea turtles can be seen heartily munching on sponges in the safety of these coral gardens, while a massive tornado of barracuda is becoming visible in the distance. I won’t even begin to estimate how many fish made up this particular school, but suffice it to say that they had no trouble completely blocking out the sun with their incredible biomass.
This tiny pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) is small enough to fit on an average thumbnail, and is perfectly camouflaged to live only on a specific species of gorgonian . Photo by Alex Rose
Each time I look at the photos I took on that dive, it reminds me of the seemingly endless bounty our oceans are capable of producing when we protect it. Being in the presence of this unfathomable amount of life composed of an uncountable number of units that all move together in harmony almost as a single organism, is an ethereal experience never to be forgotten. As an awe-inspired participant in this daily movement of marine creatures, I cannot help but think how important it is for the human race to stop viewing our world ocean as an infinite supermarket, and start seeing it as an invaluable sanctuary.
Tabletop acroporas are a common site on Sipadan’s reefs. Photo by Alex Rose
As amazing and surreal as the barracuda tornado was, the one sight that surprised me even more was the presence of a school of at least 50 adult bumphead parrotfish in extremely shallow water that posed for photos for almost half an hour. These amazing animals have been fished into peril in many of Malaysia’s neighboring countries, but due to the protection of Sipadan Island and the waters around it, this place has become a safe haven for large numbers of these big, docile herbivores. Of all the beautiful sea creatures I saw in Mabul and Sipadan, I would return there just to see these fish again. They were both aloof yet responsive, and were one of my favorite photography subjects in many years.
A school of friendly bumphead parrotfish posing for photos. Photo by Alex Rose
From the people to the land to the sea, visiting this part of the world is an adventure I am extremely glad to have had. It is encouraging to see firsthand the efficacy of marine protected areas and the ability of strong governance to restore a declining habitat. With this knowledge, we must continue advocating for the protection of key marine areas all over the world. When using this area as an example, it is also critical to remember that while Sipadan is thriving, the places around it that have had to bear the brunt of Sipadan’s tourist draw may be suffering environmentally under this burden. We cannot forsake one place just to save another, and conservation efforts must be supported all over this region in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem both above and below the water line.
A tornado of barracuda surrounding a diver. Photo by Alex Rose
If you visit Sipadan, you will not be disappointed. The corals will invite you in, the barracudas will gently hug you, and the bumpheads will make you wish you could grow gills and just move in with them. Education and conservation saved Sipadan, and it is our job to promote that message so that aquatic ecosystems the world over have the same chance at life.
Alex Rose holds a B.S. in biology and a M.S. in aquatic biology, and she has a wide variety of experience in the biological sciences, including bioacoustics research, exhibit construction, science writing, teaching, public presentation, and aquatic animal husbandry and breeding. Alex is a professional violinist, photographer, PADI divemaster and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s marine habits through diving, writing, education and research. Visit her website at alexroserenaissance.com. You can also read more on the Sustainable Reefkeeping page.