The best of two worldsPictures by ANDREW SIA & courtesy of Virtual Malaysia & The Reef Dive Resort
Pulau Mataking lies at the tip of a chain of aquamarine and white sand jewels off eastern Sabah. Here, the Reef Dive Resort stakes its claim as the newest chill-out scuba spot in the Celebes Sea.
Divers usually have to choose between the macro sights of Mabul and the oceanic delights of Sipadan, Sabah’s two most renowned sub-aqua destinations. But here at Mataking, they get the best of both worlds. The rich array of macro sights is backed up by deeper-sea creatures such as turtles, jacks and bumphead parrot fish – thanks to the 100m deep Alice Channel which runs all the way to Sipadan.
Or climb up the four-storey high wooden “King’s Watchtower” and partake of the island-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feel by soaking in the panoramic view of the surrounding islands – it feels like some little South Pacific getaway . . .
Despite the sensation of isolation, Mataking is only a 40-minute speed-boat ride away from Semporna, the main fishing port of south-east Sabah. From there, divers usually head south to get to Sipadan/Mabul but Mataking lies eastwards. Along the way, look out for the high hills of the Buhai Dulang group of islands, so majestically evocative of Fiji.
Mataking, being last in the chain of such exquisite Malaysian islands, lies close to the marine border. In fact, one can dimly glimpse the next Philippine island of Manok-Manok from its watchtower. This might raise some security concerns, especially in the wake of the latest kidnappings on the Sabah mainland near Lahad Datu. However, being on the frontlines has its advantages, as extra attention is usually paid to preserving national pride and sovereignty at the front door rather than the back.
“The base has been here for many years. That’s why there are no illegal immigrants here unlike some other islands. And on the neighbouring island of Pandanan, a naval base has been set up. They often send their ship over and dock at our jetty,” she said.
“When we bring our guests for turtle watching at night, sometimes these uniformed men will come along. Our staff offer them coffee and light snacks as they do their rounds. We appreciate their presence.”
Jeff Yee, the operations manager, added that there were also naval and helicopter patrols. “There is no problem with the normal Bajau sea gypsies. But suspicious looking boats will be searched for weapons.”
There are some 30 plus dive sites in and around Mataking and the surrounding islands of Pandanan and Timba-Timba. My first dive at Lobster Lair (12m deep) featured a plethora of sights: well-camouflaged crocodile fish on the seabed, banded pipe fish, scorpion fish, a squid squeezed into a crevice, bat fish, a tiny furry orang utan crab foxtrotting amidst a sea anemone’s tentacles . . .
We were supposed to go to Coral Garden for our second plunge but the currents were swift. Sediments were being kicked up and visibility would be poor, so a second visit was made to Lobster Lair instead.
This time, we spotted four nudibranchs (including one as large as a durian seed!), two cleaner shrimps, a stingray, a giant clam, a jawfish sticking its head out from its burrow and of course (arguably) the world’s grumpiest, grungiest and grouchiest creatures: two frog fish.
The next morning’s dive at D Wall (up to 30m) featured more frog fish. While yesterday’s creatures were lilac-tinged, D Wall offered black blobs instead. Were they inspired by guilingao Chinese herbal jelly? Well, we weren’t doing any tasting, thank you.
What did remind us of food though were several large tuna. It brought back memories of yesterday’s dinner highlight – tuna sashimi.
“That was from Semporna,” smiled Yee. “We buy a few large tuna and keep them in the freezer. When we have requests, we serve sashimi.”
Bumphead Point (maximum depth: 20m), like most of Mataking, had moderate visibility. The usual suspects – scorpion fish, nudibranchs and jawfish – were joined by a turtle, some lion fish and a blue ribbon eel.
However, it was also sad to see swathes of bombed-out corals. Fish bombing has been a problem in Sabah as people have sought quick gains without caring about the crucial role of coral reefs as nurseries which nourish marine life. But it was largely stopped two years ago when Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, who is very passionate about developing the state’s tourism, took his turn at the rotating Chief Ministership.
“Recently, someone was caught for fish bombing near here. Their boat was confiscated,” related Yee.
At Bumphead Point baby fish seek shelter amidst the isolated clumps of growing staghorn coral. As tourism becomes ever more important to Sabah’s economy, its corals look safe for the future.
“This is part of our conservation efforts. Interested guests can participate in making and deploying these reef balls. Apart from having fun, we hope that this activity will create more environmental awareness among the younger generation,” said Sie.
Besides conserving the island’s vegetation, all food and water is shipped in from Semporna.
”We don’t catch our fish locally. That’s for our guests to see!” said Yee.
The resort is careful not to extract any fresh groundwater from the island – so as not to disrupt the ecological balance. Washing and detergents are kept to a minimum at the resort; towels and bedlinens are sent to the mainland for washing. All garbage is also shipped out and game fishing is strictly disallowed.
Great night diving
Despite the absence of extensive reefs (except at the Coral Garden divesite), Mataking is still blessed with a rich array of sights. This was clear during our amazing night dive at Sweetlips Rock where we saw a bright red crab, a peacock mantis shrimp, a one metre-long crocodile fish, at least half a dozen nudibranchs, a turtle, a moray eel and a hermit crab with algae and sand on its shell.
As we were in shallow waters (5-10m), we could afford to indulge in a long hour-plus dive. Besides the cast of characters above, there were also three lion fish, several vertically-poised razor fish, cleaner shrimps, banded pipe fish, squids in mid-water with running follicles and a large puffer fish.
By our second nocturnal plunge there, we were getting bored of lion, crocodile and scorpion fish already. This time we feasted (our eyes only!) on a basketball-sized octopus, two turtles, a leaf fish which looked like a piece of rotten algae, a ghost pipe fish resembling a brown leaf and the Holy Grail of macro diving – the mating dance of a pair of exquisite mandarin fish!
So, if you get to do only one night dive in Mataking – beg and plead Bruno Paut, the resident dive instructor, if you must – but make sure it’s at Sweetlips Rock!
Our other night dive site was at the House Reef just off the jetty. The current was strong and, as visibility plummeted, we began to knock into each other amidst the sediment storm. Then we were literally “rained” upon by rainbow runners. These little fish were attracted to our underwater torches and began to pelt us non-stop.
“Take that! And this!” they seemed to say, “For turning our cousins into salted fish!”
One morning, we checked out Eel Garden. Visibility was excellent and a two metre wide mambo ray was gliding through the deep Alice Channel far below. The other highlights included: large sea fans, orange-fringed bat fish, long-nosed hawk fish, lots of jacks and, best of all, an octopus with long dangling tentacles.
The Turtle Playground yielded lobsters, trigger fish and sweetlips while Pulau Pandanan, a 15 minute boatride away, offered a school of bumpheads, an octopus, a one-metre long grouper and a wondrous eagle ray.
On another morning, the currents eventually subsided and we managed to dive at Coral Garden (25m). Besides the two large bumpheads, some turtles and more black frog fish, this site, as its name implies, had the greatest abundance of corals. I left the scientific names behind and treated myself to a buffet spread of sea cauliflowers, marine murukku and underwater ixora flowers.
The resort offers three boat dives a day, unlimited house reef diving and one-day trips to Sipadan as well.
Back on land, follow the staff on a night walk in search of huge coconut crabs or Green and Hawksbill turtles laying their eggs. The usual amenities such as ping pong, volleyball, kite flying and board games are also available.
According to Sie, visits can be done to nearby fish and seaweed farms. Special arrangements for honeymooners or group telematches are also possible. A Balinese-style outdoor Jacuzzi will be ready by November.
The accommodation features lavish traditional architecture with all creature comforts – air-conditioning, hot water showers, king-sized beds. The windy restaurant is blessed with superb food (check out the succulent rib-eye steaks) as well as splendid seaviews.
You can re-enact (sort of) Moses’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea by strolling across the 1km sandbar that connects Mataking with the nearby islet of Mataking Kecil. The water appears to split at low tide but please get back before the sea rises again – unless you want to play Pharoah.
All in all, Mataking does indeed have its regal eye on plush yet eco-friendly resort living as well as fabulous scuba sights. Truly, being in the middle of nowhere can’t get any better.