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

Asian Diver (English) - - Contents - By Cat McCann

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.

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Ghost pipefish, ABOVE: Long­nose shrimp IM­AGES: Tino Her­mann

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

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT:

Mabul Is­land’s muck trea­sures in­clude the weedy scor­pi­onfish, frog­fish, and var­i­ous species of oc­to­pusTino Her­mannIM­AGES:

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