Diving over the edge
Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
103Trip End Apr 05, 2006
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So at mid-morning on Monday 29 August, we took our last boat trip up the Kinabatangan river to the main road bridge and climbed aboard a 'bas mini' in the company of Canadians Stefan and Elizabeth, who were also heading for Semporna, the base from which to arrange diving at Sipadan. Five hot and bothered hours later (having changed to another crammed 'bas mini' in Lahad Datu) we arrived in Semporna, and immediately headed for Scuba Junkie dive shop, which had been recommended to us by the friendly folk at Uncle Tan
Semporna itself is an ugly, dirty town of run-down Sixties-style buildings laid out in grid formation beside the fishing harbour. But despite the depressing architecture and the filth in the streets, we found it quite charming ... it's one big street market with vendors selling everything from fruit to cosmetics; a constant, noisy bustle of normal people going about their daily business - a real working town, not a picture postcard place for tourists. During our three-night stay, the town was especially lively due to the annual Merdeka celebrations (Independence Day, 31 August). Folk from the surrounding rural areas poured into town in the backs of trucks and pick-ups, and the sports stadium swarmed with revellers enjoying live music and food stalls.
On Monday evening, after arranging our diving and checking into the hotel, we headed down to the harbour, where small outdoor restaurants serve a barbequed selection of the day's catch. In the end there were eight of us around the table - the Canadians, Jana and Pavel (a Czech couple we had also met at Uncle Tan) and two Italians, Elena and Emmanuelle
On Tuesday morning it was up early and down to Scuba Junkie by 8am for our day's diving. Six of us plus Jenny, our British divemaster, headed out in a small speedboat to Sibuan, one of the many islands scattered off the coast. Though Sipadan is the best known of these islands, the others also offer good diving. Our boat ride gave us a good look of the wide bay dotted with wooden shacks on stilts... quite and extraordinary sight, as they seem to rise out of the deep sea (in reality they are built on sandbanks). Jenny explained that these isolated shacks out in the ocean are the homes of the Bajo people, sea gypsies who hold no nationality, speak their own language and eke out a living from fishing.
We arrived at Sibuan after about an hour... a picture perfect little island of white sand and waving palm trees, surrounded by impossibly blue water. The island is inhabited by a few Bajo and a handful of soldiers (after the kidnapping incident of 2000, the military created a base on every island). We made two super dives on the reef surrounding the island, and took our breaks strolling on the white sand and swimming after turtles. Some highlights of the dives included pipefish (a sort of elongated sea horse), a cuttlefish and a pufferfish of giant proportions, and the elusive, colourful mandarin fish, which hides among the spines of sea urchins
The following day we hopped aboard Scuba Junkie's larger speedboat for the two-hour ride out to the famous Pulau Sipadan. Again another interesting journey which took us past stilt villages and scattered islands covered in lush forest. The wind was quite strong and there was a substantial swell, so quite a rough, bumpy ride! Eventually the island came into sight; we kitted up and tumbled off the boat as soon as we could. What we found beneath the surface simply blew us away...
What makes Pulau Sipadan so unique for diving is that it is not on the continental shelf, but rises straight from the sea bed in the open ocean. From the reef that surrounds it, one can dive off the vertical drop-off and peer down into the blue abyss. The 'wall' itself is home to the most amazing variety of underwater life, including green and hawksbill turtles and several shark species. Its open-ocean location means that Sipadan's waters are clystal clear. Earlier this year, all the hotels on the island were closed and torn down, supposedly for environmental reasons, though the kidnappings that took place there in 2000 must have been a factor too. According to our divemasters, the environmental benefits are noticeable - visibility has improved and grey reef sharks have returned. As the jewel in the crown of Borneo's dive tourism, the island is now a fiercely protected marine park.
Our first dive, at a site known as Baracuda Point, was breath-taking
During the the second dive, at a site called Mid Reef, we cruised along the wall again, using the gentle current to ferry us along like a 'travelator'. Again, the visibility was at least 20 metres, and we were surrounded by turtles gracefully 'flying' through the water. Looking up the coral wall, seeing the sunlight refracting and dancing on the shimmering forms of many thousands of colourful fish, I felt I had found paradise (I know that sounds melodramatic, but those of you who're into diving will know what I mean!!!).
At one point we spotted Mike, our divemaster, waving his arms about wildly, pointing downwards and putting his firsts to his temples. We looked down into the blue abyss and... bingo, there was a hammerhead shark! Apparently quite a rare and special thing to see. When we surfaced about 54 minutes later, the dive was declared particularly successful by one and all.
By now it was mid-afternoon, and we scooted across to nearby Pulau Mabul for the final dive of the day. The plan was to dive an artificial reef located beneath an offshore oil-rig-turned-dive-resort, but unfortunately the current was way too strong, as we discovered when we got down to 15 metres. So we aborted the dive and moved to an inshore reef... quite a disappointment after spectacular Sipadan, but rewarding thanks to our sighting of a large banded sea snake.
At around 6pm we arrived back in Semporna and cleaned our scuba gear with heavy hearts... we would have loved to have one more day of diving around Pulau Sipadan. But the time had come to leave the coast and head inland for our next challenge - climbing Mount Kinabalu. So on Wednesday evening we had a farewell dinner with our Czech diving buddies Jana and Pavel, and got to bed early - we had a long bus journey ahead of us the next day.