Underwater walls of coral, sharks & turtles galore
Trip Start Dec 18, 2011
18Trip End Feb 26, 2012
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Where I stayed
Borneo Global Sipadan backpackers
Billabong resort on Mabul
Was up early for my 8:30am bus to Semporna. Could definately feel my muscles aching from the walk. Wasnt to bad up and down the mountain but definately feeling stiff today. Thankfully though the knee is not feeling to tender.
Was offered a taxi (ne extra for the phone call) by the overnight receptionist at the host for 30RM. Given I knew the price was at most 20RM said no and wandered out onto the street to find a ride to the bus terminal. Ended up going in a completely different to the bus the day before but got to the right place where I was immediately overwelmed by touts trying to sell me a ticket on their buses. Thankfully already had my ticket from the day before so didnt have to deal with the hassle.
Found the bus to be nice enough even if the seat backs werent to comfy for sleeping. Had some nice views along the way. Lots of green and what looked like lots of jungle
Ended up having a short stop around lunch time before getting back on the bus where I fell asleep. About 1 hr later woke up to find that the bus had stopped and an alarm like sound was beeping off on the drivers console. Bus stopped for a bit the noise stopped but then started again as soon as the bus started to move. This went on for about 2 hrs before we managed to get going without the noise.
At this point was thinking I was going to get stuck waiting 5 hrs for the next bus from Kota Kinabalu but it seems I was in luck. The bus was having problems 5 or so hrs into the journey and so we we luckily not to far from Sandakan. As a result the 2pm bus from swung around to pick us up before heading to Semporna. This bus was a first class bus and you could definately feel that the seats were more comfortable.
Had expected to be in Semporna around 5-6pm but ended up arriving at 8pm. Was dark by now and since I had no map I had no idea where my hostel was
In the end he agreed to 5RM (should feel bad but he did start at 30RM) which was a good thing. During the day the walk would have been fine but at night I would of had fun trying to find a bed without a map. Given its popularity I dont think I would have found a bed in scuba junkie and the hostel I stayed at would of been hard to find if I hadnt been dropped off at the door.
Checked into the hostel which was pretty empty and then wandered back into town to find the dive shop so I would know where to go the following day. While here found a supermarket where I grabbed some supplies for the island as well as dinner before heading back to the hostel to call it a night.
Day 1 – Heading to island, diving Mabul's Paradise 1 Site
Was up early to check in at the office and get a boat out to Mabul island
After a 40min or so boat ride, arrived at the island which basically seemed to be surround by houses on stilts. Had sort of been expecting bungalows on the shoreline but I guess the weather here doesnt get to rough and houses on stilts wont get blown away very often. Seemed like a nice enough place with some friendly staff and dive masters. Also found that if I had wanted to dive Sipadan on my day of arrival it would have been possible.
Had been expecting to do three dives today but ended up doing only one. Seems that someone had forgotten to tells the guys I was diving that day and the first dive had been before I arrived while the second one had left without me.
While waiting for the boat to come back I grabbed some gear and since I had some time to kill I decided to walk around the island which is probably the smallest one I have visited so far
At one point found a bit of a jetty. Interesting walking on it since the last half of it only had a couple of planks next to each other to walk on. The rest of the jetty seemed to be missing. From up on the jetty could see down to the water and saw lots and lots of coral and a few fish. Seemed like the diving would be interesting given the view into the water that I had. Also had a nice view from the end of the jetty back to the island.
Lots of kids around the place and people being very friendly with lots of kids saying hello. All in all a nice island though I was thinking that its a bit to small for the number of people on it and more importantly, so small that it was pretty much explored within an hour of walking.
After the walk headed back for lunch and to wait for the dive boat to go out for the last dive. Once on the boat it was a short trip to the other side of the island to a site called Paradise 1
Continued diving along to find an eel with its head sticking through the sand and a large school of squid. On top of that I also saw a number of very large cuttle fish that were swimming around changing colour. Always find it interesting to watch the colour display put on by cuttlefish and octipi that you find.
The final interesting thing for me that we found was a frog fish. Very strange looking fish which unfortunately was just sitting there. Found out later from my divemaster that the reason they are called frog fish is because they jump around like frogs and when they eat they have a mouth thats the size of their body and a long tongue that flicks out to catch its food. Definately something that would be cool to watch.
After the dive it was still pretty early so decided to crash out in the room for a bit to pass the time and give my body a chance to recover from the Mt Kinabalu hike
Since I had covered pretty much all of the island on the last walk I decided that this time I would walk past the fence that fenced off one part of the island. Here I found myself wandering a nice resort area which also had a nice beach and view of the sunset. While here I did wander if anyone would ask me if I belonged but given I am white I was pretty sure people would just assume I was a guest.
After the walk headed back for dinner and after chatting with a few people ended decided on having an early night.
Day 2 - Day of Diving at Sipadan and Night Dive at Lobster Wall
First day of diving at Sipadan and unlike the day before we had an early start at 7:30am. Straight after breakfast. Found that the seas out to the island were pretty rough with the noat either bouncing, surfing or ploughing through the waves. Quite a fun if bumpy ride.
Once at the island had to sign in and learnt that while there are 120 permits for sipadan these permits are for both divers and snorklers. In addition each dive company/resort have a fixed number of permits. Didnt know this earlier but this implied that just cause you cant get a permit with one company doesnt mean you cant get one with another
After signing in it was straight to the first site which like most of the dives here was a wall. While I found that visibility wasnt great it was better than on Mabul. Maybe 10-13m. Nice big wall with it extending both above and below me. Ended up spending a bit of time swimming on my back looking up at 20m of coral covered wall above me.
While diving here lots of turtles could be found on the wall or swimming above, below or in the blue next to the wall. Also lots of reef (mostly white tip) sharks swimming past. Spent a fair bit of time looking up and down the wall during the first dive. Unfortunately also spent some time keeping an eye on my dive buddy since he was taking photos and not paying much attention to anything else.
Towards the end of the dive he also used his air up quicker then the rest of us and went up with the second dive master. Unfortunately they didnt bother to tell me what was going on and wasnt sure for a bit whether to hang back or follow the rest. Given he was with the dive mast I decided to follow the rest where I saw a few more turtles
Out of the water, back to shore and a short break before heading back into the water to the second site. Again another big wall with lots of sharks and turtles swimming around the place. Not much more to say than it was a nice dive.
After the second dive it was time for a longer break and we had lunch under a shelter with all the other dive groups here. Fair few people here and I spent lunch talking with Tegan from Queensland. Had wanted to wander the island after lunch but found out that this was not possible. Seems that this island is one of Maylasia's border islands and an army base is stationed here.
Also seems that years ago some pirates in the region kidnapped some tourists and took them captive for a number of years. While this hasnt happened in a long time and the Phillipine has quite strick control over the region these days its still a possible scenario. As such the military presence is present.
Instead of walking through the island ended up following the beach around. Saw a few turtles in the nearby water and a few turtle heads pop up above the surface
After lunch went for the final dive a Baracooda point. No baracuda and no wall. Rather a sandy bottom with lumps of coral and a bit of a current. Also visibility not as good as the other sites.
Nice thing about this spot are the sharks. Seems that due to the current the sharks can rest here on the bottom since this is one spot where they dont need to move in order to get water to run across their gills.
Saw quite a few sharks here and on a number of occasions two or three resting quite close to each other. Also saw a fair few turtles once again. Since this was the last dive we pretty much headed straight back to the resort after the dive with the seas not being quite as rough as they had been on the way out.
Since it was still pretty early in the day there was a lot of time to kill and after chatting a bit a few people went for a swim at the beach on the other side of the island
On my way back to the dive center found two local teams playing a game of basketball with lots of locals watching. Seemed to me to be a popular sport.
Back at the dive resort passed the time chatting to a couple of the dive masters until it got dark and then got ready for the night dive which was on lobster wall. After putting on our gear we jumped in the water and had a strong current for the first 10 minutes. Given it was dark, the visibility poor and my mask kept fogging up (making vis even worse) it got my heart pumping. Also meant you could look or see to much.
Thankfully after 10minutes the current eased up and I found out later that the current basically runs from the two sides of the wall to a point. Once the current eased up it was possible to look around for animals. Here the main things to be found were crabs as well as a couple of cuttlefish. Found the crabs to be interesting with all kinds of things sticking to their shells
Unfortuantely for me my masked kept fogging up and so had to keep filling and clearing it with water so that I could see. At one point had the dive master asking about air and getting all excited which translates into making other nervous. Given my mask was fogging and I wasnt sure what he was signing it make me nervous. Showed him my gauge and said 110bar (mask foggy) when I actually had 150. Like I said. An excited divemaster makes a nervous diver.
One interesting thing to note was the fact that we werent the only divers on the wall. A large group of chinese tourists were here as well. Could tell they were chinese by the fact that their lights were so big. One guy even had a light that lite a 2m x 2m segment of the wall as if it was daylight. While another had a light similar to the one I saw in Hawaii that was used to attract placton for the manta ray dive
Had an enjoyable night dive and was glad to find dinner waiting when we got back (was way past dinner time). Ate and chatted before calling it a night.
Day 3 - One Dive at Mabul
Had expected an early start but ended up not diving until 11am since the boat from Semporna was late. Rather than diving spent the marning chatting with Tegan and a german guy who was diving with us that day. Tegan was doing a discovery dive so waiting around just turned excitement into nervousness.
Once the boat arrived found that the Finnish divemaster who had gone into town the night before was coming diving but not the people who were staying for a few days of diving. They had decided instead to give themselves time to settle in before heading out for a dive.
Once kitted up headed out to another site on Mabul island where a number of manmade under water structures could be found. These were either teepee shaped or grid box shaped. While vis had not been great the last time I dived Mabul, it was even worse today. Seems the rain and stormy weather we had had a couple of nights before hadnt done much for vis.
In the end the only really interesting thing I saw were some large schools of jack fish within and around the structures. At one point we visited one structure within which a large grouper, the size of a man, was suppose to live. Unfortunately for me it had decided to spend the day away from home. Back at the surface found Tegan had enjoyed her dive and we headed back to the dive resort.
Had originally planned to dive a few more times today but decided that given the vis I would give it a miss
All in all a pretty quite day after only a single dive around noon.
One interesting thing I did learn today was about the toilet. Seems there is at least on important reason for the stilt houses. That is the toilet waste needs to go somewhere and if your over the ocean it drops straight into the sea. Learnt that the fish eat the waste which also explains the large school of bait fish I saw swimming around on the first day near the jetty.
Day 4 - Day of Diving at Sipadan
After breakfast headed out to Sipadan once again. Sea nowhere near as rough as the previous time I headed out to the island but after an initial drizzle of rain it turned into a down pour. For the dive today I had decided to get a camera so I could take some underwater photos. Given the weather it would have been better if I had taken the camera on the first dive since the lack of light (due to cloud and rain) was definately going to end up giving me some pretty blue photos
After registering headed out to Turtle patch for the first dive. Vis was a bit better than the last time I was here and once again a fair few turtles and sharks were around as well as a new wall to swim along. Managed to get a few nice photos with the best one being of a couple of nudibank. Unfortuantely with the camera I had no control of the flash and could only put it in auto select or disabled mode. I could not force it to be on. As a result it was pretty hard to get a photo with colour that wasnt swamped by the colour blue due to the lack of red light.
Found that having the camera itself was both good and bad. Good in that it let me capture some nice images and bad in that it distracted me from just enjoying the dive. Was spending more time trying to get a good photo than just diving and looking around trying to see what was to be seen.
Found that not having the camera on all the time (to save battery) caused me to miss some nice shots since the turtle or shark was passing by before it powered on. Also the need to switch between video and photo wasted extra time needed for taking a shot. Would definately be better to leave the camera on (and have spare batteries) and to have one camera for photo and one for video
Another fact I also found out later was that a few seconds of video really isnt enough. Need at least 10 seconds to make it feel like a shot rather than just a flash back.
During this dive I was diving with a german guy who was fine and another young couple who werent. They were so excited they basically didnt pay attention to anyone or their depth. Found that they were going a lot deeper then the dive master who had asked people not to go deeper than her, wandering away from the wall and just rushing around excited.
They even ignored when the dive master was banging on her tank for all to hear. In the end they ran out of air before the rest of us but fortunately were taken up by the other dive master. Thankfully they were also taken on there remaining dives by the local divemaster.
After the first dive we had a short break on land and then headed to the Hanging Garden. This was a nice wall dive and as the name suggested parts of the wall seemed to hang over the others
Once again saw a fair few turtles and the odd white tip reef shark. Ended up with a couple of nice photos when a couple of turtles swam overhead as I was swimming along on my back and looking up. Also found a few turtles sleeping within cavities in the wall and another nudibanch to take a photo of.
Unfortunately at the start of the dive the chinese guys we were diving with seemed not to have the idea of giving other divers space and the dive was a bit congested. Had to go up above or below them in order to avoid any crashes. Also only had 185 Bar at the start of the dive so didnt have a lot of air to spare. Unlike the first dive at Sipidan where I had lots of air and other divers with good air consumption, this time it was the opposite.
One interesting thing I did find while taking the photos was that one of the time the flash did go off it change the colour of the things I saw. For example, while taking a photo of a sponge/coral vase the red color of it became a lot more vivid
By the end of the dive we started going up to shallower water and found a lot more interesting coral and small fish here. Even managed to get a nice video of some clown fish (nemo) swimming around in the anenome located in the middle of a yellow coral.
After the dive we found that it had started to pour down again. Since it was lunch time we headed to shore for lunch and after a short break headed to baracuda point. Once again no baracuda and not lucky enough to find the large school of jack fish that had been there the day before. Was lucky enough to have all the other divers go with the other dive master and only the german guy and myself diving with Susanna.
No walls here but once again quite a few sharks, though not as many as last time, sitting on the ocean floor in the current. Managed to get some nice photos here (even without the sun) and a video with one one tip reef shark swimming towards me and then away. Also managed to find four sharks all sitting close to one another at one location.
While looking at some sharks the dive master indicated she was heading in one direction but my dive buddy was entralled in a shark and didnt pay attention
From this point on we ended up heading into shallower water where quite a few turtles were sitting around on the ocean floor. Once again got some nice photos but unfortunately non with with flash so the colours in all the photos is a bit off (ie blue). Also came across an interesting puffer fish, moray eel and napolean wrauss as well as lots of small fish and interesting coral in the shallower waters.
After finishing the dive the boat headed back to the dive center. While the rain had stopped it was still pretty cold sitting in the boat with all that wind.
Was back pretty early since we had had an early start and minimised wait times between dives due to the bad weather. Not much to do so spent the rest of the afternoon on the laptop or sleeping. At dinner time headed out for some food and spent the evening chatting with the three dive masters I had been diving with.
Day 5 - One Dive at Kapilila and Return to Semporna
Final day on the island and still had the last of my three Mabul dives to do. This dive was scheduled for a 9am start though we were once again waiting for a boat from Semporna As a result wasnt sure if we were going to be heading out later or not
Initially we waited a while since the boat was late then just as we were going to give up and head out the boat arrived. As a result it was another 30min before we left. Found it interesting how as the chinese group that had been on the island for the last few days left, another group came to replace them. It is chinese new year after all.
Had one extra diver to join us. Had requested to dive at Kapilila the day before and so we headed out to this island. Nice to head out here since it was the only other island in the small group of islands around Sipadan. Kapilila was even smaller than the other two islands and except for one small hill of sand all I could see were houses (resorts) on stilts. Lots and lots of these. Was told by the dive master that at high tide you dont even see small hill of sand.
Had had lots of air in the tank and ended up with a long dive with plenty of time to explore.
Once in the water found that the vis was not great but better than it had been at Mabul. Also had a small wall here with lots of holes to explore
At the start of the dive I also managed to spot a crocodile fish and another one was spotted near the end of the dive. Definately looks like a cool fish and also resembles its namesake in many ways. Other things that were spotted were lots of fish, one big cuttlefish and some interestimg corals. Definately a nice place to dive when vis is bad since there are lots of places to go searching for interesting marine life.
After getting out of the water it was back to Mabul. Unlike the trip out, the trip back had very rough seas. Decided to stand on deck, without holding on, as we bounced along. Did though have to grab a railing a couple of times when the boat decided to heave ho a one, two, three.
Once at Mabul found that the tide was way out (maybe part of reason for rough seas) and we had to try a number of times to find a chnnel deep enough to get us to the resort dock
Eventually managed to get to the entrace of the resort where we got out andwalked to the steps up and out of the water. Here found that the water was a good 1.5m to 2m below the level I had come to expect it. The dive boat was certainly a lot lower the the tank pumping station so the guys were going to have fun getting the tanks up to the platform.
After the dive didnt have a lot to do and just vegged out for a bit. Since a new dive master had rocked up for work that morning I ended up asking one of the dive masters about staff turnover. Seems that most of the guys there had been there less than a month a besides the local master who had been there for a long time most people only hung around for 2-4 months.
Around 4:3-pm it was time to get the boat back to Semporna so said bye to people. Jumped on the boat and after a side trip to drop some locals off at an island I got dropped off at Semporna. Had planned to spend the night at the Scuba Junkie dorm (closer to bus station) but it was full so headed to the same place I had been originally
Once again ended up in the room with the same girl who had been there the last time I was there and once again she complained about a person (maybe men) in her dorm. Unlike the last time I wasnt moved to another dorm. Guess some people just shouldnt be staying in dorms.
At this point wandered into town to grab some dinner and once again off to the supermarket to get some supplies for the river trip. Had also planned to see if I could find the bus station but found it was pouring when I got out of the supermarket so just headed back to the hostel. Played on the laptop for a bit after getting back before calling it a night.