A diver's dream
My search took me to Mabul Island. As well as being known for its lovely stilt houses rising from the sea, it’s also one of the most famous and revered dive sites in the world, boasting coral sharks, innumerable sea turtles, and barracudas. Mabul’s reputation is built on the back of nearby Sipadan, a spectacular coral reef that grew on an extinct volcano, and features some of the richest biodiversity in the marine world alongside an awesome 600ft drop into a deep, dark abyss. Mabul itself has been sneaking up on the inside, and is increasingly recognised as one of the best “muck diving” sites, where you’ll find a host of more exotic and unusual organisms. But who cares? I’d come here to find the Bajau Laut and then sit around.
I arrived on Mabul at a very fortuitous time. My hotel, the Mabul Island Beach Resort – a rather luxurious budget beachfront accommodation run by the Scuba Junkie company – had been sheltering and protecting green turtle eggs in a hatchery for several months. That afternoon, the first of 111 baby green turtles hatched, and the rest of the eggs popped open as the light shortened. As dusk closed in and slowly turned to dark, tourists and locals gathered to watch as the baby turtles were carefully released on to the beach.
Instinct dragged the babies towards the sea and they vanished into the swell. Most will die within a year but those who survive can look forward to some 80 years of life.
The next day, I walked around the tiny Mabul Island in less than half an hour, doing my best not to stare with curiosity at the seaborne Bajau and the land-based Dusun, an ethnic group comprised primarily of Islamic Filipino refugees without Malaysian citizenship rights.
Despite what seemed to my western mind like a tourist attraction made in an evil capitalist dream, there’s little opportunity for foreigners to interact with the Bajau Laut. They are all at sea, and I was all at land. There are no cultural displays, no tacky dances for tourists, no dedicated museum: the Bajau Laut are simply a constant and intriguing presence.
Later, after some gentle persuasion from other hotel guests, my resolve never to dive again weakened. I signed up.
I only paid for one dive rather than bargain rate for three, and consoled myself that it would all be over soon. On the next tropically perfect day, I gingerly climbed aboard the boat with the other divers, surrounded by the Bajau Laut’s colourful boats, and was briefed as we headed out to sea. I strapped on the gear, took a deep breath, and rolled into the sea.
Descend slowly. Equalise your ears by holding your nose and blowing out as you descend. Focus on your breath. And very soon, I was diving 18m below the surface, at the edge of a coral shelf. Shortly after, the first curious giant sea turtle approached. Awestruck, I just about remembered to keep breathing.
Anyone who has ever learned meditation or yoga knows that their power lies largely in the ability to focus on the breath, a process which necessitates forgetting about all the banal and pointless thoughts that plague our daily lives.