Semporna, Malaysia: A semporn-ucopia of sea life!
We caught the bus to Semporna from the Sepilok junction at 8AM (RM40/$12.90, 5 hours). We were a little worried it would be full, but when we climbed on the bus a mere six fellow passengers greeted us. As our bus steamed past the Sukau junction, we were a little dismayed that Sukau hadn’t worked out exactly the way we had planned. Not to worry though, we planned on booking with another B&B in Sukau as soon as we got to Semporna.
We got off the bus, a comfortable five-hour ride, and headed to our hotel of choice: Mabul Inn. Accommodation was a tricky decision in Semporna, so we opted for a slightly pricier hotel on the mainland in an attempt to avoid racking up our rat count for Malaysia. Many people opt to stay on the island of Mabul where you can book full-board-and-lodging diving or snorkelling trips. However, we had heard some horror stories about the cheaper places on the islands, so our plan was to stay on the mainland and book a snorkelling day trip out to the islands from there.
Unfortunately, Mabul Inn was full. Our second choice was Sipadan Inn (RM85/$27.50 double room with AC, TV, private bathroom). We settled in and headed out for a spot of lunch before our hunt for the cheapest snorkelling tour in town. Prices were, on average, RM150/$48.50 per person per day. None of them sounded too appealing though. Most people are in Semporna to do a dive tour, so they pack the snorkelers in with the divers. Not ideal. Areas that are good for diving are not necessarily so for snorkelling. On our way out from a tour office, a local boatman named Jainan approached us and told us that he had a boat, and if we were looking for a tour, he could help us out. He said he could take us to Mabul or Sibuan for the day with snorkelling equipment and maybe a bit of sea fishing thrown in. This sounded like a pretty good deal. It would be RM250/$80.80 for our own private boat for the day with all equipment provided. We arranged to meet Jainan at 8AM the next morning.
Hiring a local: A private boat to Sibuan Island
Jainan was there as promised. This is always a bit of a nail-biting moment as you hope that the local guy you hired doesn’t get a better offer and pull a no-show. We gave him RM150/$48.50 so he could get gasoline and his son went to get the permit for Sibuan. While we waited, we watched Final Destination 5. Pretty soon we were on the boat, and after a few solid tugs on the engine’s pull cord, we sped away from the dock out to the open sea with the wind in our faces. Suddenly, the engine conked out and the boat made a 90-degree turn. Jainan forced the engine back to life. We continued this way, speeding off and then suddenly stalling, all the way to Sibuan.
We came ashore on a sandbar that stretched out from the island into the perfect turquoise water. As our feet touched land again, Jainan warned us that the “sea gypsies” would rob us and we should pay him now. The “sea gypsies”, as the local Malaysians refer them to, are an indigenous ethnic group, who live a nomadic seafaring lifestyle, known formally as the Bajau. Not knowing who to trust more, we agreed that we would pay him the rest of his money as soon as we were safely back on the mainland. We walked the length of the island and settled in a shady spot and snorkelled. The Bajau kept making the rounds, asking the tourists for money. The children would plonk themselves down facing you, hold out their hands, and wait for money. A small naked boy and his friend sat next to me and started singing. It was the worst singing I’ve ever heard. I was sure they had learned that when they sat by someone and sang loudly and badly enough, they would be paid to go away. Jainan came striding down the beach, stick in hand, and chased them away; narrowly avoiding hitting the naked one. It was the first of many unorthodox moves made by Jainan that day. Later, he lit a fire on the island (a protected national park) just to “burn stuff”, and then almost ran me down in his speed boat while I was face down, blissfully unaware, in the cordoned off snorkelling area.
The snorkelling was great off of Sibuan — once we had found the perfect spot off the sandbar. It was far better than any we had done so far in the Philippines or Kota Kinabalu. The sea life was much more varied, the corals were beautiful, and the water was clean. There were tons of blue sea stars, huge sea urchins, and I even saw a nudibranch and a puffer fish!
After the island, we made a diversion to try our hand at fishing for jackfish. Unfortunately, the fish weren’t biting that day.
We managed to make a reservation with a home stay in Sukau, so we are headed to the Kinabatangan River for a night in the rainforest.