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The state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, is often promoted as an outdoorsman’s paradise. And Sabah’s Semporna Archipelago -- particularly the island of Sipadan – has been described by Jacques Cousteau as some of the best diving in the world.

The teardrop-shaped island is perched atop practically sheer sea walls that plunge some 2,000m to the bottom of the Celebes Sea. On the surface, Sipadan is a tropical break in the expansive vista of oceanic blue; underwater, the geographic waypoint acts as a feeding trough for thousands of marine life specimens, from soft banking sea turtles and schools of hammerhead sharks to water monitor lizards that bring to mind old dinosaur monster movies.

Unfortunately, you cannot just show up and plunge into the waters off Sipadan’s coast. A complicated system of permits and passes means dive outfits based in either the town of Semporna or on one of the archipelago’s other islands can only take a certain number of guests to Sipadan each day. It is also recommended that divers possess an advanced open water diving certification. All of this means that one of the most beautiful collections of islands in southeast Asia tends to attract skilled diving enthusiasts, often to the exclusion of other tourists.

However, there are areas of the Semporna Archipelago that are perfect for novice divers and even those who are not interested in diving at all. Mabul, which is popular with both chic luxury-resort divers and young backpackers, is world famous for its “muck-diving”, where explorers poke around at the fascinating marine life that settles into silty mud located not too far off shore. Beginner diving courses are offered across Mabul, as well as on the small island of Kapalai and through outfitters in the town of Semporna.

Every dive and tour operator also arranges snorkelling trips where you will have a good chance of spotting clouds of rainbow-coloured fish and graceful sea turtles. In fact, a snorkelling experience can often provide better access to the marine wildlife. First-time divers have to concentrate on technique and safety training that may preclude them from really watching the undersea world, and snorkelers may see just as much as shallow divers given the excellent visibility in the archipelago. In addition, snorkelling prices are typically less than half that of diving rates. Outfits like Scuba Junkie will even arrange snorkelling trips to fabled Sipadan.

While the Semporna islands are not large enough to be considered true “resort” islands, they do possess very small swathes of white sand and beautiful tropical sunsets. Mabul is populated by an interesting mix of Malay fishermen and Bajau sea gypsies, and it is always a pleasure to see the colourful boats of both ethnic groups return from a day on the surf. And the “floating” resort of Singamata, a hotel built on the shallow waters, is an immensely relaxing place where divers and non-divers alike can appreciate the beauty of one of Borneo’s best collection of off-shore islands.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Novice diving off Sabah’s coast’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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