The Weird and Wonderful Magic of Mabul
A world away from Sipadan’s mind-blowing wide-angle opportunities is nearby Pulau Mabul, a muck mecca where the critters will give your macro lens a serious workout, as Cat McCann explains
Pulau Mabul, a small island off the east coast of Sabah, is known for its proximity to one of the most iconic diving destinations in the world – Pulau Sipadan. Sipadan needs no introduction. Divers flock to this island all year round, drawn by opportunities to see big schools of barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, bigeye trevally, sharks and countless turtles – sometimes all at one site like Barracuda Point – as well as spectacular coral gardens and jaw–dropping 600-metre walls. There’s also the chance of seeing something out of the ordinary, such as schooling hammerheads, whale sharks, mantas, the list goes on.
You get the idea. Epic, big scale, wide–angle–lens kind of diving.
Pulau Mabul, on the other hand, is just as spectacular. You just need a different type of lens.
Mabul is the island of choice for many muck diving and macro diving enthusiasts who travel there all year round for the chance of seeing one of those rare, elusive animals that are the stuff of legends. Animals that are not quite what they seem and are not visibly apparent at first glance – and small. Usually for macro and muck divers – the smaller the better.
Mabul does have beautiful reefs and a great diversity of dive sites such as wall dives, sloping coral reefs and artificial sites. However, it is famous for muck diving. In fact, many people argue that the phrase “muck diving” was first coined on Pulau Mabul. Typically, muck dive sites are flat or slope gradually, and depths range from six to 20-plus metres (nitrox is fantastic for these dive sites).
The phrase is used to describe dive sites such as Scuba Junkie’s house reef, Awas. Sandy bottomed sites, sometimes with rubble and sea grass or Halimeda cover, where the objective is to find small, well-hidden animals – creatures disguised as something else, invisible to all but the most experienced eyes.
Take ghost pipefish, for example. Robust and slender, ghost pipefish resemble a piece of dead seagrass, not just in appearance but also in their movement, making them very difficult to discern. The difference between these two species is the
size of the caudal peduncle (the joint between the tail and the body). There’s also a species of ghost pipefish that mimics Halimeda algae (halimeda ghost pipefish) and another that mimics seagrass covered in algal hairs, the roughsnout ghost pipefish. The confounding camouflage of these fantastically confusing species protects them from predators and prevents their prey from spotting them. (There’s also another species of ghost pipefish – the velvet ghost pipefish – that is found on reefs, not sandy bottoms, as it mimics a sponge found on reefs. That too has been sighted on Mabul but that is another story.)
Finding any of these animals prompts an underwater high-five, followed by several minutes of fiddling with the camera settings to make sure that the camera picks them out from their near–identical background.
Many macro divers prefer finding cephalopods, as not only is there the high–five when they are spotted, but you also get to spend the next five to 10 minutes spellbound, as you hover above them, mersmerised by their intriguing behaviour.
Flamboyant cuttlefish, for example, do not behave like their minute, shy,
“spot–me–if–you–can” cousins such as the Papuan and stumpy-spined cuttlefish. For starters, they do not swim but rather strut around the seabed. They do not hide or try to camouflage in the sand (although they can), but pulse pink, purple, black and yellow – entrancing divers. This striking display acts as a warning to potential predators (a strategy also employed by the blue-ringed octopus) and recently it was discovered that they have the ability to back up their threat with a highly toxic poison in their tissue which is in a class of toxins completely new to science.
Another survival strategy employed by cephalopods is camouflage, where they blend perfectly into their surroundings and seemingly disappear in plain sight. The master of this approach is the mimic octopus, which is thought to be able to mimic up to 15 other marine life species. The coconut octopus, on the other hand, leaves nothing to chance.
Even though they have the same colour-changing and texture-changing abilities as their relatives, they choose to carry a safe haven around with them in the form of two halves of a shell or coconut. This makes them the only known invertebrate to use tools to achieve an objective – hiding from potential predators or the underwater paparazzi.
Good buoyancy is an essential skill for muck divers. You might not have to worry about damaging fragile corals but that errant fin kick could waft up sand and sediment and completely obscure the very thing you are desperately trying to find in the first place. No resting fins on the sand either. As mentioned above, muck critters are masters of camouflage, so you could easily land on top of one! Make sure your equipment is streamlined and tucked in, and be careful of using flash photography as it can have a detrimental effect on many animals such as seahorses.
Sea fans are incredibly delicate structures which contain an even more delicate creature: pygmy seahorses. So if you spot sea fans on relatively undisturbed sites, there’s a great chance they are hosting pygmy seahorses.
Although Mabul is a popular destination, there are still some areas divers rarely dive in, including the submerged reef off the back of the island and the deep channel on the front. There, you can spend 10 minutes or more staring at one of the gigantic fans until your eyes water, or until you spot the pygmy – whichever comes first.
The submerged reef off the back of Mabul offers divers something completely different to the other dive sites in the area – a huge plateau covered in a dense soft coral forest which almost resembles scrubland or heath moors on land. The plateau’s edge is a 20–metre vertical wall with schooling snappers and fusiliers as well as huge gorgonian sea fans. Divers always comment that they’ve never been to dive sites quite like them before. With the unique topography comes unique animals, including Rhinopias, the holy grail of macro diving. These weird-looking scorpionfish are absolutely stunning and mimic their surrounding so perfectly that you blink and they disappear. Painted and clown frogfish are commonly found on these sites, too. Add to that a wide array of shrimps – harlequin shrimps, longnose shrimps and tiger shrimps – as well as nudibranchs and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a great dive.
An incredible variety of nudis are actually found on all of Mabul’s dive sites. One site, the aptly named Nudi Nook, is well known for the sheer variety of nudibranchs found there. They range from desirable flabellinas that steal their prey’s defenses to protect themselves to solar-powered phyllodesmiums that steal their prey’s photosynthesising zooxanthellae to use as their own.
Mabul also has the distinction of being where the puzzling Melibe
colemani nudibranch was first spotted. Often described as “looking like a string of snot”, it has become the pinnacle for nudibranch enthusiasts as not only is it hard to spot, but it is also incredibly difficult to photograph.
So there you have it. Mabul isn’t Sipadan’s less attractive little sister; it’s another facet of the incredible biodiversity found in the region. It’s this mix of big stuff and small stuff, steep sloping walls and muck dives, megafauna and macrofauna that has divers returning year after year, debating which lens to pack. But if you ask me, you should just pack both lenses and throw away those shoes because chances are, you won’t be doing much walking in Mabul.
Many macro divers prefer finding cephalopods, as not only is there the high-five when they are spotted,but you also get to spend the next five to 10 minutes spellbound, as you hover above them, mersmerised by their intriguing behaviour
Mabul Island’s muck treasures include the weedy scorpionfish, frogfish, and various species of octopusTino HermannIMAGES: