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Mabul Behind Closed Doors

Figure 1 Early morning awakening at Mabul

What is Mabul's biggest draw? I asked a friend who had been to the island a few years ago.

"Oh it's simply one of the most beautiful islands in Sabah, perfect for snorkeling and diving", she exclaimed.

It was a rather stereotypical answer one would get when asked about any island around the world, so what exactly sets it apart from the rest?

The sun was up at 5.30am and as planned, we headed to the terminal jetty in Semporna in search of our boat to Mabul island. Finding the perfect lodge at the 11th hour was not an easy task considering the popularity of the island especially amongst Chinese tourists, so we were considered lucky to have found Big John Scuba by recommendation of a friend.

Figure 2 After 45 minutes on a rocky boat, a blue roofed wooden stilt house began to loom as the boat moored to the pier side.

We hopped off the boat and climbed up the wooden staircase towards the main verandah. Although the room facilities are rather basic, it was built with the comfort of the visitors in mind. Since water supply to the island is scarce, another rule of thumb is that fresh water is only operable from 6 to 7pm with sea water running through the pipes the rest of the day, which is luxury enough as other budget lodges don't even provide fresh water.

Figure 3 When it comes to water activities, Big John provides 3 snorkeling/dives per day with other water sports such as kayaking as well as diving courses certified by PADI. This is the open deck where the equipments are kept.

We began our first leg of snorkeling at Kapalai which is roughly about 15 minutes away from the lodge. I looked below and there it was, the bountiful corals that had kept the waters alive with discernible color, shape and character, balancing each other to achieve that tender balance in the marine world. We finally caught sight of a sea turtle and it swam towards the sea bed and rested for a few minutes before disappearing again into the deep waters out of sight.

Figure 4 The one and only Mabul sea turtle.

Figure 5 Sea turtle seen resting at the sea bed.

Figure 6 Peaceful Kayaking session right before sunset.

After dinner, I sat down with the staffs of the lodge and surreptitiously observed the camaraderie between them. I listened to the stories that was to become the foundation of this establishment with reverence and pondered about the simplicity of life. The more I delved in, the more I began to realize the influence Big John had on his staffs. In my 10 years of travel, I had never seen such a humanistic interaction between employer and employee and that eventually translated to the joy and smile on their faces despite their hardships.

Figure 7 There was no technology involved or any materialistic attachments, just pure human interaction as they huddled together, singing and playing the guitar whilst the crowd cheered on and danced on the open deck

The snorkel on the second day wasn't easy as the current was strong but it was definitely worthwhile. Mabul, which sits in the coral triangle, is bordered by Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, and has one of the most dense marine biodiversity. It is famous for 'muck diving' where marine creatures such as seahorses and the blue ring octopus can be seen in the sandy sea bottom. By noon, we headed back for lunch and this time we skipped the last leg of snorkeling to explore the rest of the island.

Figure 8 Spotted a blue star fish!

About 50 meters from the lodge, we stumbled upon a school built by Big John himself to help educate the impoverished children on the island. It was a small, simple wooden house built amongst the cluttered homes of Mabul and functioning with basic facilities and mainly driven by donation and volunteer work. They accept no form of monetary aids but are highly appreciative of scholastic support.

Figure 9 The confined classroom that has to fit over 50 children but in spite of that they are ever grateful with smiles on their faces.

There was an air of simplicity as the locals carried out their daily chores without much haste and even took a moment to smile and greet us strangers. It was a typical village life tucked away from the luxurious view point of the island and it became a stark reminder as to the discrepancies of the 2 opposing worlds.

Figure 10 The face of the island unbeknownst to many

Figure 11 The air of simplicity that defines Mabul.

Figure 12 The children were out and about under the sun, using simple tools and turning it into a game

Figure 13 A local boy seen fishing within the gaps of the stilt houses.

It took only 45 minutes to circumnavigate the whole island and before we knew it, we were back to our comfort zone. I seated myself close to the balustrade of the wooden verandah watching the evening sunset and the throng of seafarers maneuvering their rickety boats towards us in hopes of making some income from their catch of the day. These sea gypsies live most of their lives on water and in contrast to most of us, get land sick when they are away from the waters. What may seem to be an appalling lifestyle, is actually a norm for these sea nomads.

Figure 14 The staff members who shared a light moment together, skipping out in the sun before heading back to the grind.

Figure 15 The wandering sea gypsies.

Figure 16 The catch of the day!

Figure 17 Door step delivery of the purchase.

"How was your stay so far?"

My thoughts soon broke and I turned around to see Big John himself standing next to me.

Our conversation soon took shape, going back to his earlier days as a young boy to his heydays as a successful entrepreneur. His is a story of rags to riches as I listened in complete awe how a young boy with almost no wealth, eventually built a passion driven business through sweat and toil. It was through him that I learnt the irony of the situation whereby most of the island's inhabitants are without identity and are neither recognized by both the Malaysian and Philippines national registry, yet they make up almost 99% of the island's population.

Figure 31 The citizenless Bajau Laut child paddling a rickety boat as a routine.

On my final night on this island, I was fortunate to see both sea turtles and an otter appearing at the same time. One can truly appreciate the effort of this fledgling establishment to contribute towards the conservation of Mabul's sea turtles by giving RM10 for every egg retrieved. The eggs will then be kept in a nursery until it has hatched. The dwindling numbers of sea turtle due to rise in tourism prompted such initiatives by several lodges around Mabul to safeguard them.

Figure 32 Stary, stary night at Big John Scuba.

Figure 33 Sometimes if you are lucky enough, you might be able to spot this beauty from afar.

Someone once said the art of telling a story is never to be underestimated and in capturing a story, you eventually find yourself in the most unlikely of places. Like many of my travels, I came in thinking I knew all there is about my destination but when I left, it is always with such humbling gratitude and respect. When I pulled myself away from the chaos of my daily life and looked at what was around me, I began to understand the essence of my travels. Although it is the destination that we chase after, it is eventually the people who you meet that will define your adventures, be it good or bad. True, Mabul is a place of naturalistic beauty but in my eyes, it is superseded by the smiles and heart of its people behind closed doors.