An island odyssey in Sabah: Diving deep into Malaysia's heart

The Bajau Laut people mostly live in Semporna in Sabah. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMY

In the tapestry of life’s adventures and flavours, there exists a rhythm that resonates with those who embrace the unknown. My journey, a tale of discovery and wonder, began in the modest town of Tawau in Sabah, a gem often overshadowed by its more renowned counterparts.

From Tawau, we journeyed to Semporna and it was here, in this locale, that I stumbled upon the gateway to an uncharted paradise. It unveiled the splendour of Malaysia’s underwater treasure, Sipadan Island, and the mesmerising culture of the Bajau Laut community.

This transition from the monotonous corporate life to a remarkable adventure was fuelled by a profound craving for the extraordinary. The untouched waters of Sipadan weren’t just a diver’s utopia but a reflection of Malaysia’s astonishing diversity – a place where clarity transcended the mere purity of water, becoming a state of mind that touched the soul.

Diving into the deep blue of Sipadan, I encountered a realm of majesty and challenges. Known for its daunting wall dives, Sipadan stretched my abilities as a seasoned PADI rescue diver. The ocean floor, a mirage, plunged into the abyss. The vibrant coral walls, teeming with life, mirrored the dynamic hustle of a Malaysian marketplace.

Though I missed the sight of the famed whale sharks, hammerheads and mantas, the experience was still spellbinding. Schools of trevally, jacks, and barracuda swam in enchanting formations, creating a living mosaic of colours and shapes that mirrored Malaysia’s cultural richness. The coral gardens were a canvas for these marine creatures to narrate their iridescent stories, a reflection of the nation’s diverse cultural heritage.

Only 250 permits are issued per day for divers and tourists to Sipadan Island, and you can only get these permits from a handful of local resorts and tour agencies.Only 250 permits are issued per day for divers and tourists to Sipadan Island, and you can only get these permits from a handful of local resorts and tour agencies.

Every dive site unfolded as a distinct chapter in an underwater epic, written in coral and inhabited by a cast of fascinating characters. Barracuda Point was an underwater theatre where barracudas executed their famous vortex formation. The mysterious allure of Turtle Tomb, with its submerged caves sheltering the remains of ancient sea turtles, was unforgettable.

Sipadan’s status as a biodiversity hotspot was more than just a claim – it was a vivid reality. The island’s waters, a sanctuary for sea turtles like the hawksbill and green turtles, offered a rare window into their enchanting existence.

The journey extended beyond the aquatic marvels to Mabul Island, where you will find the enigmatic Bajau Laut people, who are also known as the “sea gypsies”. These nomadic seafarers have a history rooted in the Austronesian people. They speak Malay and Bajau, part of the Malayo-Polynesian language family, rich in nautical lexicon, reflecting their intrinsic bond with the sea.

Their incredible free-diving skills, plunging to impressive depths with rudimentary gear like wooden goggles and spears, epitomised their deep connection with the ocean, comparable to the fluidity of Malaysian martial arts.

Some Bajau Laut people are also known as the Palauh, and some earn their living by selling seafood from their boats.Some Bajau Laut people are also known as the Palauh, and some earn their living by selling seafood from their boats.

Living modestly, the Bajau Laut adhere to sustainable fishing practices, embodying Malaysia’s dedication to environmental preservation. My unexpected visit to Mabul evolved into a profound exploration of their lifestyle. Engaging with them went beyond mere trading; it was a rich cultural interchange, showcasing their tenacity and adaptability in a world dictated by the sea.

This excursion transcended diving and cultural encounters, it became a culinary journey, reflecting the vast array of Malaysian flavours. Armed with the freshest lobsters, shrimp, squid and red snappers, onboard our live aboard dive vessel I prepared a frutti di mare pasta, a recipe taught by Diego, my chef at Natalina, an Italian eatery in Kuala Lumpur.

Sharing this dish with my companions from Semporna was a celebration of tastes and cultures, a microcosm of Malaysia’s culinary diversity.

In summary, this Malaysian escapade was more than a break from the corporate world, it was a venture into a realm where nature, culture, and cuisine intertwine effortlessly. It reinforced the notion that Malaysia, with its rich diversity, is a land of infinite adventures, proudly displaying its natural beauty, mysterious cultures, and exquisite flavours.

All I had on me to capture the essence of the moment was my iPhone. But, you know what? I was pleasantly surprised with the results. These compact marvels are a testament to how far technology has come, each iteration more impressive than the last. Snapping shots of daily life and the vibrant hues of the local fare, I found myself almost not missing my trusty Nikon setup.

It’s not just about the gear, it’s about the story you’re telling, the fleeting moments you’re capturing. And in that respect, my iPhone was more than up to the task.

Each image, a testament to the beauty and uniqueness of this part of the world, filled me with an immense sense of pride and love for the captured moments.

Echoing the late Anthony Bourdain’s words, “I think food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.” In Malaysia, these elements blend in a symphony of experiences, leaving a lasting imprint on the heart.

This country is not just a place to observe but to immerse oneself in the stories, the flavours, and the magic of a land that proudly celebrates its diversity and beauty.

The forest on Sipadan is thriving with giant trees and lots of tropical birds.The forest on Sipadan is thriving with giant trees and lots of tropical birds.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Abbi Kanthasamy blends his expertise as an entrepreneur with his passion for photography and travel.

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semporna , tawau , sipadan , mabul , bizcations , sabah , islands , diving , tourism


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