Diving and detaching: a curious experience on Mabul Island, Borneo

There’s a curious quality about travelling.

Time begins to suspend.

You arrive in a place, not entirely sure of what day it is. You stay for another, and forget when you first came. You know you’ll have to leave at some point, but have trouble visualising what will happen next.

Days begin to feel like weeks, and weeks like months.

Sometime you arrive in a place and, within what feels like moments, land in a life that feels normal. You have a schedule, you have places to be, you have a social circle, you have a romantic involvement, and – sometimes – you even get a pet.

During my time in Borneo, this suspension of time affected me the most on Mabul island. I had realised that my trip was taking me right next to Sipadan – one of the most famous dive sites in the world – so I finally took the plunge and signed up for a scuba certification course.
(honestly, that pun is not intended!!)

Maybe it was that we were on an island, or so far removed from a big city, or even in constant contact with the ocean, that all of us were lured into a state of severe time detachment. Something that had happened just one morning felt like it was a week ago, and friends you’d just made felt like people you’d known for ages.

The island of Mabul is tiny, populated by fisher-families, sea gypsies, and divers. One of those places with wooden houses, no paved roads, and bars that consist of simple shacks on the beach. The first night, we went to a birthday party for one of the divemasters, where we sat on the sand, sang along to the ubiquitous guitar, and played endless rounds of ‘Never Have I Ever’. There were only four of us foreigners, so they taught us phrases in Malay and pointed out the island drunk to avoid.

I lost my shoes that very first night, and spent the rest of my time on the island barefoot. It didn’t really matter.

Somehow the rickety wooden pathways over the water, which we miraculously managed to navigate every night without lights or completely sober states, never gave us splinters.

During the day, when we weren’t lounging on deck chairs or testing out riddles, we hit the water. And the most amazing things happened.

On my second dive, we saw upwards of 8 turtles. We saw neon frogfish, octopi, moray eels, massive groupers, poisonous stonefish, crocodilefish, and the most astonishing and arresting thing I’ve seen yet under the water – a massive cuttlefish, rising out of its den, and camouflaging as it passed in front of us.

When I finally had to leave Mabul, I felt like I was disconnecting from something important. It was strange to leave a place when I couldn’t fully remember when I’d arrived, and I wasn’t too sure where I was going after.

Of course, I did make it out. And I did go on to other adventures. But not without remembering that sense of detachment, and untethering.

Because that’s yet another way that travel makes you free.

Getting there:
Mabul Island is a diving hub and the easiest way to access Sipadan. The closest mainland town is Semporna, from which you can catch a number of boats out to Mabul. Mabul diveshops can organise pickup in Semporna for people staying with them.

Getting scuba certified on Mabul:
While you can’t get certified in Sipadan, if you do a PADI Open Water Course with any of the Mabul diveshops, they can organise a day of diving Sipadan after your course. I did my PADI Open Water Course with Billabong Scuba for 980 MYR, including room & board. Slightly greasy food and somewhat sketchy equipment aside, it’s by far the best deal on Mabul ;) Sipadan costs extra, but it’s worth every ringgit!

All underwater photos from my awesome instructor, Mark!

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10 Responses to Diving and detaching: a curious experience on Mabul Island, Borneo

  1. Shelley 21 July, 2012 at 14:12 #

    Yes, Never Have I Ever seems to be a staple with travelers! Hahaha. This is definitely a place I want to see at some point.

    • na-o-mi 22 July, 2012 at 16:08 #

      Everyone I met went CRAZY for that game when we introduced it…although barely any of the non-English speakers could get the phrase ‘Never-Have-I-Ever’ correct, ha! ;)

  2. Jill 21 July, 2012 at 14:29 #

    Those are such cute cats!

    • na-o-mi 22 July, 2012 at 16:08 #

      And they were EVERYWHERE! ;)

  3. Megan 22 July, 2012 at 10:59 #

    And this is exactly what I love about travelling, and what makes it so addictive. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve found that I can do these things – be completely untethered and so ‘in’ the present moment.

    I so want to visit this island!

    • na-o-mi 22 July, 2012 at 16:10 #

      I know – travelling is like a constant state of liminality, so I guess your brain just never bothers to figure out time!

      Also SO happy that you’re blogging again! ;)

  4. Oleah 23 July, 2012 at 07:53 #

    great pictures. love your blog.


  5. Ekua 25 July, 2012 at 15:08 #

    Looove this. Felt like I was right there with you. I’ve had this experience when everything falls into place somewhere new and each day is worth so much. And personally, I’ve found that it isn’t a fluke… quite a few of the people I’ve met during in experiences like this are still a big part of my life and the places continue to enrich my life even after I’ve left.

    • na-o-mi 2 August, 2012 at 22:29 #

      Isn’t it surreal? And you’re right – it’s best when you wind up getting long-term friendships out of them, too!! :)

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