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"The South Sea pearl is also known as the king of pearls. They are grown in clear seawater in countries such as Malaysia (Borneo), Indonesia, the Philippines and Northern Australia. Growing the South Sea pearl is an extremely delicate process, which is why they are so rare. It is one of the larger pearls, because it can grow to a size of 8 to 20 mm. The South Sea pearl is often white or silver."


Tabawan Island (Pulau Tabawan) is better known as Pearl Island. This is where the pearls are grown. The island is a new gem in the Coral Triangle zone of Darvel Bay. For many decades, Tabawan Island's pearl farm has protected the surrounding waters to keep thieves and intruders at bay. Recently they are giving divers permission to visit the island. A simple accommodation has even been built for the tourists: the Tabawan Eco Dive Lodge.
Tabawan's security is strict. There is a police base, equipped with radar, stations on the island. We even saw a patrol boat. Because no outsiders can get close, the corals are protected from destructive fishing methods, such as fish bombing and cyanide (poison) fishing. The size of the underwater world with its various corals is so great, making Tabawan one of the most impressive diving destinations in Sabah. This is really good news for the people of the nearby city of Kunak as they are trying to promote tourism in Kunak. Unfortunately, this has little appeal on the island.

A tour operator told me that the name "Tabawan" originated in Chinese and which means "so many bays". It's a pretty accurate description of Tabawan, as this large island off the coast of Kunak really does have many bays, with calm waters suitable for growing pearls. To get to Tabawan, you can book a diving trip at Sulawesi Sea Safari, a diving base in Semporna. By boat it takes about an hour to reach Tabawan Island from Semporna.
However, you can also depart from the port in Kunak and then the crossing will only take 20 minutes.

As Tabawan is located in the Darvel Bay and surrounded by many islands, the sea is quite calm and suitable for diving all year round, unlike other outlying islands, which have rough seas and easily suffer from bad weather.

The boat trip from Kunak is not rough and the sea was so calm that even the clouds reflected like a mirror on the water. The seawater is also very clean, another critical requirement for pearl farming. But the sea is dark blue in color and looks very deep, which seemed disturbing to me.

Along the way you will encounter dozens of ďbagangĒ. Bagang is a traditional of fishing, which is used by the local fishermen (mostly Bugis people) to catch the fish (mainly the small anchovies (Bilis)). They will lower the fishing net into the sea in the evening, use light to attract fish that gather over the net and then raise the net for the caught fish by morning. We also saw Bagangs in the sea at Pitas, they have the same method of fishing but it looks slightly different.

Soon we reached Tabawan Island and saw a pearl farm by the sea. The pearl farm is actually made up of some wooden frame structures that float in deeper water, and you can see pearl oyster cages hanging from this structure. The pearl farm is run by a Japanese company and they have an office on the island. We were told that they would move the pearl farm to another place, as this place is now less suitable for pearl farm. But don't worry, they can keep this farm as a nearby attraction.

Tabawan Eco Dive Lodge is the only accommodation on the island. Currently they are expanding, but a few lodges are ready to receive the tourists. The facilities are quite basic at the moment, but they already have a dive center on the island. They will also install air conditioning in some rooms. The lodge is good enough for a group of 10 to 20 divers. You can also book a day trip package, with 2 dives and lunch. This island has no other inhabitants, so the forest on the island is mostly intact and we even saw a wild boar hanging around the lodge.

After diving, we passed by the pearl farm office. The manager was a gentle Japanese and he told how a pearl oyster is grown and harvested. In fact, they insert a small round "seed" into the oysters to produce a large enough pearl after many years. This is a high risk business that needs years of intensive care and monitoring. The Japanese also showed us the specimens of two kinds of pearls, gold and white (actually creamy white). The white pearl is more valuable than the gold, which is about 10% cheaper. You can tell the color of the pearl in an oyster by the color of the shell, which is the same as the color of the pearl.

The round pearl is for jewelry making. The irregular shaped pearl is the raw material to make cosmetic powder to make the skin smoother. Wow, some pearls cost more than 2 months of my salary and I almost wanted to put them in my pocket if no one was looking. Haha, a little joke. The highest quality pearls are round, blemish-free and have a rich luster. However, these are exceptionally rare and can be so expensive that they match or exceed diamonds and other gemstones. The pearl is loved and valued as a symbol of purity and happiness all over the world.



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