Beautiful islands, exotic marine life and poetic sunsets, Sabah´s offshore resorts


THERE must be a spell worked into the lyrics of that song. For a month, the words to Knee Deep by Zac Brown Band had been swimming around in my head, its singer teasing me with visions of a “champagne shore” and “a sweet sweet life living by the salty sea”.Trapped in the barbecue pit that was Kuala Lumpur in July, it all seemed a mere mirage.

And then, with the swoosh of the editor´s wand, Sipadan and its sister islands of Mabul and Kapalai – which rank among the premier diving regions in the world – were beckoning, by way of a Sabah Tourism media invite. I am to be whisked off by AirAsia to check out this blue ocean paradise for myself.

We land at Tawau, the closest airport, and are bundled into a minivan for a 30-minute ride to the jetty at Semporna town. The sun is still lording it in the skies but what a difference the sea breeze makes!

Board and lodging are a toss between Borneo Divers Mabul Resort and Seaventures Dive Resort. The latter, a converted oil rig, the only one of its kind in the world, is my immediate choice. It promises a unique stay in a carpet of sea. My only anxiety is: Will they make me climb up that scary metal structure to get to my room?

The speedboat is soon edging close to the bright orange rig and I sense immediately that I am going to enjoy the experience. An aerial lift comes sliding down and bags and all are soon on deck level. It isn´t the Hilton for sure, the spacious wooden deck with its utilitarian chairs, tables and curved bar has a “cowboy terrain” look about it… except, those men standing around suited up in black diving gear are no cowboys. Unless, you´d prefer to think of these underwater adventurers as cowboys of the deep.

One of the great things about the resort is that from anywhere on the rig, you get an unhindered view of the sea and the distant islands, even from the rooms, which have portholes for windows. I check into a twin.

There are also single supplements and several dorms. All rooms except the dorms come with attached washrooms and air-conditioning.

You can chill on the sun deck, the games room with its pool table and table tennis, the karaoke lounge or the main deck.

There is WiFi connectivity in all places.

The rooms are small but lounging in the room surely isn´t going to figure largely in anyone´s itinerary.

Dive masters, however, certainly are. The ones at Seaventures are certified, attentive and armed with a sly sense of humour. No one in our group has diving experience so our party sets out for snorkelling in the waters nearby.

As the master divers check our apparatus and guide us from the boat into the clear blue waters, it feels like a whole new mystical world has opened up, the sort they keep showing you on the National Geographic channel but you never actually think you´d experience. But here it is, for real.

Water adventures

The bottom of the Celebes sea at our location is busy with traffic but the kind you´d die for. It seems to be peak hour for the marine life… or is it always like this?

Shoals of fish swim beneath you, around you, some dart in and out of corals which are wrought in fantastic shapes. My diver guide, Mohd Taufiq, nudges me and points to a Hawksbill turtle. It is huge, but a study in grace as it dives into the coral and noses about. It brings home the importance of protecting these and other endangered species, so future generations too, can marvel at these spectacular sea creatures.

Since the Mabul-Sipadan-Kapalai area boasts some 75 per cent of marine biodiversity in the world, you´re likely to bump into a huge underwater community of weird and wonderful beings – barracuda, moray eel, manta ray, pygmy seahorse, boxfish, frogfish, jack, and much more.

We could have spent hours there, the underwater world is just so “alive” and beautiful.

The Mabul area is also one of the best macro diving sites anywhere.

Right under the rig itself, the waters are deep so diving, not snorkelling, is the only activity. There are house reefs underneath which a diver can explore and meander through, inhabited by many, many species of fish and crustaceans.

As for us, we are completely happywith our snorkelling stint and at sunset, head back to the rig. But the evening doesn´t tail off into a dozy end. The barbecue grill has been fired up and we tuck into a seafood feast – tuna, prawns, squid and peppers on satay sticks, lamb chops, chicken and various salads, fruit and pudding. Unsullied by an overdose of marinades, the naturally sweet flavours of fresh seafood come through perfectly. The kitchen crew has passed with flying colours.

As we eat, some of our friendly divers come on deck to do their next favourite thing – make music. Yes, Seaventures has an in-house band, made up of divers and kitchen staff.

Rock classics at twilight, great food on the table, deep blue sea and rust-coloured sky, cool sea breezes… there can´t be very many places anywhere in the world that can top this.

And if you peer over the railings on the rig, you can still catch sight of shoals of fish swimming beneath the surface. In fact, night dives from the rig are popular with guests.

Occasionally, Shamser Sidhu, resort manager of Seaventures Dive Resort, takes one too.

Floating Kapalai

Kapala is about 40 minutes from Semporna jetty.

It´s a 20-minute boat ride from Seaventures and Mabul island and 15 mins from Sipadan. Our speedboat lives up to its tag and our captain has us stepping down on the island in 10 minutes, a little drenched from the exhilarating ride. The “island” actually sits on the sandbanks of the Ligitan Reefs and what you have are some 45 gorgeously rustic chalets built on stilts.

The floating resort is a treat for the senses. The sea stretches on all sides into the horizon and, as you stroll down the boardwalks leading to the chalets, you see the sea swishing around the stilts, fish swimming past and fronds of potted plants waving in the breeze. It´s truly peaceful and soothing. The longest walkway leads to a wooden pergola at its tip. You can take the steps down into the white sandbar and wade in the shallow translucent sea or seat yourself right down in the cool waters and watch little white crabs and other macro life going about their business.

Tour packages with buffet lunch are offered for non-boarders. The restaurant offers in-house and alfresco dining.

Snorkelling and diving packages are also available. Diving is minutes away at Sipadan and Mabul.

Kapalai Resorts is a haunt for honeymooners because of its picture postcard setting – remote, beautiful and haunting. At times, the wind provides the music.

How to get there

Get to Tawau, Sabah, with AirAsia flights from Kuala Lumpur, thrice daily. Follow AirAsia´s latest updates and promotions via Facebook or Twitter.

Some travel sites (such as Borneo Travel Services Sdn Bhd) offer transport from Tawau airport to Semporna (van with driver or car for hire) and onward boat ride to resorts in the Sipadan-Mabul-Kapalai area, complementing the diver and non-diver packages.

Snorkelling packages includes masks, snorkel, pins and life jackets and diving packages are also offered with experienced and certified divers.

The writer´s trip to Sabah was courtesy of AirAsia and Sabah Tourism Board.