<This is taken from a diary I kept from the best dive trip of my life. It is very long, but I hope it will give you the impression of “being there”. I am told that it is not the same anymore, due to the huge increase in the number of resorts catering to the increasing number of divers.>
The beginning... 4 p.m., May 29th, 1996
I actually wasn't feeling much up to this trip - the flight was supposed to be at 11.30 tonight, and I had not started packing. Fortunately, I was able to tie up most loose ends at work and clear off at 4 p.m. There were 7 of us in all - Tony, Lucy, Christian, Sugu, Luc, Uwe and me. Uwe had specially flown in from Germany for this trip, the rest of us live in KL but had to juggle our schedules to fit in this long dive trip. To be honest, at this point I didn't care too much that we were about to experience one of the top ten dive sites on the face of the planet - the daunting trip and guilt about taking a whole week off to dive, leaving my team to struggle with yet another multiple-site software upgrade over the weekend conspired to dampen whatever enthusiasm I had.
11 p.m., May 29th 1996
Thanks to Tony and Luc having a frequent traveller privilege card, and the rest of us actually managing to pretend that we're all related (this was amazing, considering that Tony is Puerto Rican, Luc is Belgian, Lucy Chinese, Christian & Uwe German, Sugu Chinese-Indian and me Chinese-German) we all managed to sneak into the First Class Lounge to have supper and watch CNN. The flight leaves at 11.45 p.m. and I sleep through most of it.
2 a.m. May 30th 1996
Arrival at Kota Kinabalu (KK) - we have about 4 hours to kill, so find a place that's still open for business and quaff a couple of beers. Can't really get much of an impression of KK since not much is going on at this hour, but KK seems to be a nice, well spread out town of a reasonable size - and it feels exotic enough being in "Borneo", even though the roads, street signs, etc. are the same as anywhere else in Malaysia.
5 a.m. May 30th 1996
Play our trick again and get into the First Class lounge again for some shut-eye and breakfast. The onward flight to Tawau leaves at 6 in the morning - we are so far east compared to KL that it's already bright at 6 a.m., whereas in KL the sun rises about an hour later. Actually, there are direct flights to Tawau from KL, and also there are much better connections via KK than the tortuous one we are taking, but this way, our fare is half of what it would otherwise be (red-eye flight discount plus group discount for 3 or more people bring the KL-Tawau return fare down to RM 548 per person, instead of over RM 1000). Five minutes out of KK, I am rewarded by a stunning view of Mount Kinabalu rising out of the morning mist. We must be at about 10,000 feet because the peak is above us. It is much more imposing and impressive than I had imagined, and I am determined now to climb it in July.
7 a.m. May 30th 1996
We are now in a van on the road to Semporna. Right now I would have paid the extra RM 500 to fly at a reasonable hour direct to Tawau - so far have only managed about 2 hours sleep this night after being generally sleep deprived for the whole of 1996. This surely cannot be healthy... Arrive at Semporna about 9 in the morning - the road was too windy and the van too cramped to get much sleep, but now we are really close to Sipadan - just a short speedboat ride away. We are actually staying on Mabul island, at the Sipadan-Mabul resort, a 20 minute ride by speedboat from Sipadan.
11 a.m. May 30th 1996
A long walk on the jetty, looking down onto the wide, shallow reef - then, the first encounter with the resort and our divemaster, Sam. Sam is from Leeds, England and probably is in her early twenties. She has been working at the resort for about 2 months, and tells us a little about what we might expect to see over the next few days. The resort is much more luxurious than any of the other places I've been diving before (which is basically always islands off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia). There is air-conditioning, hot water and an enclosed room to store and dry all our dive gear. There are hammocks all over the place and beer is sold in 625 ml bottles - almost tempted to spend the afternoon in a hammock with some beer instead of going on an introductory dive. You may gather by now that I'm not a very hard-core diver - definitely, 3 dives a day is sufficient for me. I know of people who insist on going on 8 dives a day, and achieve 100 dives a couple of months after certification. I have been certified open water for two years and had logged only 30 dives before this trip.
2 p.m. May 30th 1996
Well, the diving won the toss against the hammock - curiosity got the better of me, especially after reports of manta rays being in the area. Our orientation dive was at Lobster Wall, on Mabul itself. Had slight problems with smarting eyes for the first 15 minutes of the dive. Here's a tip - don't apply sunblock to your face just before a dive - the combination of saltwater and sunblock stings the eyes. Anyway, due to this, and also some problems equalising after not diving for some months, I could not really appreciate the underwater scenery. Visibility was disappointing due to a storm a couple of days before, and the wall, although having nice corals, was not uncommon in the other places I had dived, such as Perhentian and Tioman islands. However, it was enough to get a feel for the water again, and whet the appetite for the days ahead. It was even enough to put us in the mood for a second orientation dive, at Froggie Lair, also at Mabul island. This dive was much better - maximum depth 50 feet, visibility still bad at about 20 feet, but we saw trumpet fish, a large squid (changing colour to camouflage itself, very impressive) and a crocodile fish. So that was it for the day. We were all pretty exhausted from the long journey over (it would have been faster to get to London on the non-stop flight from KL), and after dinner, it was straight to bed.
8 a.m., May 31st 1996
Ahhh - feel totally refreshed after 11 hours sleep and ready for some serious diving now. Today we will be going to Sipadan for the first time. Breakfast is plentiful, but I hate cold fried eggs and cold French toast. I stick mostly to coffee and fried noodles (still warm). Then it's time to gear up. All we have to do is prepare our gear in the morning at the gear shack. From then on, everything is taken care of - we never have to carry our tanks except underwater. This is the first dive trip I'm on which actually fulfils the promise made by my dive instructor that diving is not a form of exercise. At 9, we're sitting on the boat heading to Sipadan. We're diving at Barracuda Point, to 90 feet before coming up to about 30 feet, where there is a plateau. Sipadan is unique in Malaysia for being a true oceanic island, the reef drops off almost perpendicular for about 2000 feet from the aptly named drop-off, which is about 20 feet from the beach. Conditions are perfect for drift diving - as long as you stick close to the wall, you will not get lost! Anyway, this was my first time diving in such conditions, and it is fascinating. Visibility is much better than yesterday, rising to 50+ feet now, thanks to the calm weather. Equalising is not a problem anymore, and we go down along the wall smoothly to 90 feet. There are a lot of white-tip sharks around at this depth. Rising to 30 feet, Sam is tapping on her tank. Yes! - a large school of jacks circling about. As we watch the huge, swirling mass, inches from us, Sam taps again - her hands are all over the place, as if she's in trouble… then we see that all around us are huge bumphead parrotfish, as well as the jacks. There are at least 50 of the bumphead parrotfish, and they are BIG! Wow - this is it! It doesn't get better than this - or does it? We reluctantly ascend as we are low on air.
The resort we are staying at maintains a campsite on Sipadan island itself, and this is where we go for some refreshments after the dive. There is hot Maggi mee (a popular noodle snack) and coffee, which is fantastic after a dive. They really spoil us here. The campsite is very secluded, in the jungle and again there are hammocks to lie on and even a proper flushing toilet. Very well thought out. Again, being used to dive "resorts" without even the most basic of amenities, this place is incredible.
12 noon, May 31st 1996
Second dive of the day at South Point. This time we descend to 60 feet. On the way down, we see a huge turtle lying in a patch of coral - must be about 6 feet long after compensating for refraction. Then, 5 minutes into the dive frantic tapping from up ahead. I decided to lag a bit behind the group on this dive, and it was a good decision - I had time to look ahead and saw a manta ray whoosh by me about 20 feet away. It was not a particularly big manta, maybe 6 feet across, but I had never seen one on a dive before. Some of the group who were ahead of me missed it because it had passed by before they knew what to look for. Visibility was still improving, over 60 feet now, I think. I can't really judge, because I'm used to 20-30 feet vis, anything better is pretty darn good for me. Suffice to say, it was as good as any of those underwater videos would have you believe (which I didn't really believe until now). Anyway, we continue on, past some white-tip sharks and make our second big encounter of the dive - a huge school of barracuda! Did I say it could not get better? Sipadan today has met and exceeded all my expectations. We ascend - looking at all those big fish reminds my stomach that it's time for lunch.
Back to the campsite for lunch, and the standing joke is - "Did you see the school of whale sharks? What - you didn't? How could you miss it - paying too much attention to the little manta, were you?" The last two dives have now raised our expectations to stratospheric levels.
3 p.m., May 31st 1996
After a good lunch, it's time for the 3rd and final dive of the day - and our destination is the Hanging Gardens of Sipadan. This is a particularly colourful part of the wall, with multicoloured corals hanging of the wall, hence the name of the dive-site. Due to the now excellent visibility and the sun shining strongly, the colours are even more vibrant. We see a couple of lion fish, several sleeping turtles, and a leopard shark swimming about 40 feet below us. Plenty of white-tip sharks around again - sharks and turtles would have been a rarity on the other dive-sites I've been to, but here they're pretty common.
It's been a fantastic day for diving, and we are back on Mabul at about 5 p.m., where pancakes (unfortunately not hot) await us for tea. We spend the evenings generally filling in our log-books, watching videos of our dives (Luc brought a video camera along), drinking beer and planning the next days diving. In general, it was surprising that on most of our dives, we did not encounter other divers around. This is good, since I had heard that Sipadan is being over-commercialised and destroyed by too many divers wanting to dive there. It was noticeable, however, that a lot of new resorts are coming up - Mabul, which did not have any resorts until recently, now has two, and a third is on the way.
June 1st 1996
We decided to have 1 dive at Sipadan, one at Mabul and one at Kapalai today. The first dive is at the turtle-tomb drop-off. One of the other divemasters, Gabi, wants to make a video of us dropping off the boat and drifting gracefully around the turtle tomb entrance... our chance to be big stars, so we decide to try to put on a real performance - pirouettes and can-can dancing in front of the cavern - not! It was not to be - first of all, we had to wait for some newcomers to gear up, so Gabi, who was waiting at 20 feet filming the boat from below, ended up, well... filming the boat! By the time we did our perfect reverse entry, she had stopped filming because the battery was dead. We didn't know this, though, because she kept pointing the camera at us, so we continued to show off like stupid twats around the front of the cavern. Ever since this Japanese guy died in the cavern after going there alone at night a couple of years back, the interior of the cavern is off-limits except to divers with a cave-diving specialty course. So we couldn't really do much except dive around the "Danger - no entrance beyond this point" sign. So didn't get to see any turtle skeletons or dead Japanese guy skeletons, but did notice the bubbles being trapped on the ceiling of the cave above us. It looks really weird, kind of like liquid metal. After getting a load of this, we go back outside and drift along upwards. There are, as usual, lots of turtles around, and the usual white-tip sharks. Funny how things can get common after a while - I guess it's like having champagne three times a day, after a couple of days plain water would be wonderful.
After Maggi Mee and coffee at the campsite, it's time for the Eels at Eel Garden - except that we lost our way and ended up at Ray Point instead. The sun has come out again, though, so it's a pleasant dive starting at 60 feet but ascending rapidly to 30 feet, where most of the corals are. Very colourful, and we see some of the smaller creatures like Mantis shrimp and Nudibranches. Also saw a stingray, which seems to be less common here than at other dive spots in Malaysia. I guess stingrays like to have a flat sandy bottom rather than a perpendicular wall.
After lunch, it's time for Kapalai (I wonder how many people in the world can claim to have dived at Kapalai?). Well, I guess I should say you 99.99999% of the diving population who have not dived Kapalai really don't know what you've been missing… but I'm too honest (the thought of hundreds of divers descending on Kapalai gives me a wicked grin though, you'll see why in a moment). Kapalai is a small pile of coral, maybe around 1000 square feet, surrounded by sand at about 40 feet under the surface. The current was pretty strong and 10 of us went on this dive. The attraction of Kapalai is that there are a lot of rare creatures such as ghost-pipefish, mantis shrimp and others which I can't remember amongst the corals. The problem is, they're all really tiny so you can imagine what it's like, 10 divers crowding around this piece of coral in a current, trying to see this minuscule creature. Anyway, after half an hour of struggling to stay in position and straining my eyes looking at fish which look like little pieces of seaweed, I'd had enough and ascended. I don't know about you, but I'm more into big fish, fast cars, state-of-the-art PC's… call me a philistine if you want, I don't care.
At about 5 p.m., the day's diving behind us, it's time to head back to Mabul and have a relaxing evening - not. Tonight we're on for more excitement, so we plan to go visit the sea-snake colony on Mabul itself. But first, we watch the highly anticipated video of our performance this morning which turned out to be 10 minutes of a boat floating on the surface… maybe can sell it as an art video titled "Waiting to Enter". Then, as consolation, Gabi shows us a video which she had made on an earlier dive a few weeks back - it is fantastic! It was the first time she had used a video camera underwater (she claims), but it was very professional. Even dubbed over with fitting Kitaro-like music. We also watch the video from our diving the previous day. Again, the battery died just before the jacks and bumphead-parrotfish appeared, so basically, we have no evidence of anything except turtles and white-tips.
The sea-snake colony is really fascinating - these creatures are supposed to be one of the most deadly in the world - apparently if you get bitten by one, you have about an hour to reflect on your life, then you're dead. Guaranteed. There is no known antidote. And there we were, some of us in sandals, one even barefoot, walking on the beach in the darkness with sea-snakes slithering around. They like living in the roots of palm trees, and they seem to be comfortable in the sea and on land. They are pretty thin, so there are only a few places where they can successfully bite a human - between the fingers, between the toes and on the ear lobes. Still, I wouldn't chance walking around barefoot.
June 2nd 1996
Yesterday, we decided we'd seen enough small fry for the time being, so we're back to 3 dives at Sipadan today, hoping to catch some whale sharks, hammerheads and manta rays. It's raining heavily this morning, so the visibility will probably be not that good. However, Tim (another of the young divemasters imported from the UK) says that this should increase our chances of seeing hammerheads as they tend to move to shallower water when it rains. I don't know if he's serious or taking the pi*s, but of course we don't see any hammerheads. However, visibility is better than expected despite the rain, 40 feet or more. We are diving at White-tip avenue, which funnily enough doesn't have any white-tips. I guess they all went for summer holidays to South Point. The barracudas also deserted Barracuda Point for South Point, so I guess there'll be some fights for the deckchairs there ( you'll probably only understand the last sentence if you're British or German or from anywhere where there are a lot of British and German tourists). Anyway, the turtles are making a strong showing here today, but there were also a lot of turtles near Turtle Tomb. Not a particularly remarkable dive - the first day at Sipadan two days ago is going to be hard to beat.
The rain has stopped by the time we ascend, and I buy a disposable camera during the surface interval. It's back to South Point for the second dive of the day - and immediately I can put my camera to good use. Schools of barracuda and jacks, and also lots of white-tip sharks and turtles. South Point is obviously the place to see and be seen in the underwater kingdom. The camera only works to a depth of about 12 feet, and winding the film only works when I'm less than 6 feet from the surface. So I'm like a yo-yo, down to 20 feet, snap! Up to 5 feet, wind, down to 20 feet, snap! Up to 5 feet, wind... my dive watch (Citizen Hyper-Aqualand, I think it's called) can only store the last 6 dive profiles, so this weird profile will be erased by the time we have our final dive here. At the beginning of the dive, we went down to 60 feet, where the plastic casing of the camera warped quite interestingly - still, it survived, which is not bad for a RM 48 (USD 20, GBP 12, DM 28, 2100 Yen) piece of equipment.
Lunch is at the campsite again - it really is very pleasant here, and the food is fantastic, especially when washed down with a glass of ice-cold beer. Sam gives me a lecture about drinking and diving, but I'm not going to throw that half-can worth of beer away. It's not even enough to get a cat pi*sed - probably the same effect as 5 minutes at 100 feet. But I guess Sam has had to rescue enough stupid people from trying to get themselves killed underwater.
Third dive of the day - Turtle Patch. We saw a big (8 feet) sleeping leopard shark. Lots of turtles again and... just after surfacing, there's a school of jacks and barracudas simultaneously. Not bad - but where are the whale sharks?!
I can't remember now which dive exactly it was on, but we had a little incident with a pretty aggressive trigger fish. It tried to attack Lucy, who jumped into my arms (quite a feat, considering this was underwater!), and 10 minutes later, when we had forgotten about it, it attacked Sugu and bit her on her ankle hard enough to draw blood. In contrast, the sharks were all very timid indeed. Steven Spielberg really did a disservice to sharks - I reckon he could have made a horror film starring trigger fish instead, which would be more true, and potentially just as scary. Like I found Omen pretty scary, even though it was about a 6 year old kid… Oh yeah - apparently the way to tell if a trigger fish is going to attack is that the trigger points upwards and the fish turns on it's side. And, the way to repel it is to give it a good "bubble bath".
June 3rd 1996
It's back to South Point again, since it seems to be popular with the fish. This time we drift along the "runway", which is an apt description - it's a flat narrow strip of sand and rock, kind of an underwater ledge between the reef and the deep bottom. Apparently the level of the sea was much lower at some point in the past, and the runway may have been a beach before. The runway is very popular as a resting place for the white-tips, which looks a lot like planes taxiing on an airport runway! We even see a grey reef shark this time, which makes a nice change.
Our second dive is to Lobster Lair - didn't see any lobsters, but there were some batfish and giant trevally hanging around towards the end of the dive. Turtles are so common here they're hardly worth mentioning, except when they do something unusual, like make love, or lay eggs.
Today's final dive is to Crocodile Alley, Mabul. This is a shallow dive (15 feet) in sandy bottom, so basically the dive profile is pretty boring. Mabul is a marked contrast to Sipadan because there is no sudden drop-off at Mabul. However, that is not to say that the diving is not good - again, we're looking for smaller, less obvious creatures here, which is alright after seeing lots and lots of turtles and sharks. On this dive we see several stonefish, small moray eels, lionfish, scorpionfish and a seahorse.
Luc goes off on a night dive alone with Gabi, ostensibly to get some good stuff on video. The rest of us have a fun time speculating on whether they have something on, especially when it takes them ages to get back. We've been teasing Luc for the last few days, especially since he was very keen to get a room all to himself (it's usually two to a room). Luc plays along with our jibes.
Later, we go to check out the nightlife on the island. Across on the other side there is a new 5 star resort which is very popular with the Japanese (only they can afford it). Anyway, we check out their bar and watch an episode of Japanese Gladiators, which is of course a Japanese version of American gladiators. Quite entertaining, and apparently one of the female gladiators was a guest at that resort recently. We are accompanied by Sam and Tim. It's interesting to hear what they think about their life - to many people they've got a dream job, diving to their hearts content at one of the best dive spots in the world, free food and lodging, moving on to another dive spot if they get fed up. But it can get boring fast, and it can get pretty lonely as well. I reckon I'm happy to go on dive holidays 2 or 3 times a year. Tim is unsuccessful in getting any of us to buy him a drink, despite some heavy hinting.
June 4th 1996
The last diving day, but we've had plenty. After yesterday afternoon's flat profile, we decide we're going to go for a real macho profile at Barracuda Point - 6 minutes at 130 feet, 20 minutes at 65 feet, 20 minutes at 30 feet, 5 minute safety stop at 15 feet. We go down really fast, hitting 130 feet in less than a minute, and I drop an extra 10 feet by the time I manage to "brake". We were hoping to see some of the bigger sharks at that depth, but no luck. We did see a large tuna and 4 great barracudas though. The barracudas were bigger than those in the school at South Point - according to a book I read older barracuda leave the school and go their own way.
The next dive is at the Hanging Gardens again, and we timed it (exactly noon) so that the sunlight bounces off the Hanging Corals. Very pretty.
Since today's our last day, I decide to go snorkelling for a while instead of straight to lunch. Sipadan is not just for divers, it's also a snorkeller's paradise. I snorkelled along the edge of the reef - 5 feet deep on the left side of my body, 2000 feet deep on the right side... quite a strange feeling! Just imagine standing on the edge of a 2000 foot vertical cliff. Saw lots of colourful corals and coralfish, and then I saw turtles. But this time, they were not just flapping around, they were actually making love! Well, two of them were - and three other turtles were watching (maybe waiting their turn, or maybe it's a spectator sport for turtles). So that just goes to show that sometimes snorkellers see just as much, if not more, than divers.
On the way back to the boat after lunch, one of us noticed turtle tracks in the sand. We followed them and there at the top of the beach, there was a turtle laying eggs! This was at 3 in the afternoon. One of the natives who had lived in the area for several years said that he had never seen this happen during the day before. Usually turtles lay their eggs at night to avoid the heat. So that was finally turtles doing interesting things worth mentioning (yeah, so we're spoilt rotten...).
Our final dive (sob!) is at our favourite place, South Point (4th dive here). This was a nice relaxing drift dive to end the trip - we didn't see anything spectacular, but we just drifted along at 35 feet for an hour. Up on the boat and wave goodbye to Sipadan - but wait! There is a farewell present for us - halfway between Sipadan and Mabul, we sight a HUGE school of dolphins. At first we see about 10 of them breaking the surface about 50 feet away. Then we look further and the whole ocean seems to be full of dolphins - there are at least a hundred of them. Unfortunately they refuse to come anywhere near the boat - 30 feet is about the closest we got. Some of us jump in with mask and fins, but they disappear the moment we go near. Apparently they're hunted here, so can't blame them for not being as friendly as Flipper. Anyway, we spend about half an hour following them and sighting them always 50 feet or further. It was the most incredible sight (even better than whale watching near Boston a few years back), because this was unexpected.
June 5th 1996
It's been raining most of the night and all morning. So it looks like we're leaving at the right time, I think 17 dives is enough to last a few months. Anyway, I've got to get my gear fixed - my regulator is leaking slowly and my BCD purge button fell off. Gee, and I bought this stuff less than a year ago! Our boat leaves at 1 p.m. and it stops raining just on time - don't fancy getting hit by stinging rain at 40 knots on the speedboat. We've got the real macho speedboat today - 2 X 200 Horsepower engines, urh urh urh! (That's my Tim Allen impression by the way). This baby can do some serious knots, no question! Don't know how fast it really is, but it took us 45 minutes from Mabul to Semporna, and at no time was the throttle at full power. The sea was dead calm after the rain, and we managed to skim along very nicely.
At Semporna we see a pretty disgusting sight. Just happened to look down into the water at the jetty, and there at the bottom are the severed heads of 4 sharks. What they do is catch the sharks, chop all the fins off (sharks fin soup is a delicacy in most of Asia), and throw what they don't want back in the water.
Well I was going to end the travelogue here, but don't really want to end what was really a great trip on this sad note, so I'll continue to torture you for a while more...
We take the van back to Tawau - an uneventful ride through oil palm plantations. At Tawau we catch the flight to Kota Kinabalu, where we will stay until 5 the next morning. This gives us plenty of time to check out the town. After a week of eating mostly rice and seafood, delicious as it was, we discover a sudden craving for McDonald's. Well, actually I would have preferred a steakhouse, but the less cultured (hah!) amongst us won the day. Although I would not normally waste any breath talking about McDonald's, I feel I have to relate our experience at the Kota Kinabalu branch. I usually try to avoid McDonald's because they prepare everything an hour before peak time so that they can handle the crowds (well in KL they do this anyway). I thought they're supposed to have this rule where anything unsold after 10 minutes must be thrown away? Well, I've definitely queued up at McD's for over ten minutes and seen the same burger standing there waiting to be sold to some unfortunate sucker. Anyway, at Kota Kinabalu, they made everything fresh for us, and whatever they couldn't give us straightaway, they personally delivered to our table. Now that's service!
After stuffing our faces at McD's, it was time to check out the bright lights of KK. As it happened, we were staying in the centre of the red light district (which is also the centre of town). So we didn't have to go far for entertainment. We were told that the places to go are Shenanigans and Crazy, but we were a bit underdressed for the stewardesses. So we ended up at Rocky's instead. Rocky's is a pretty big place, and has a cosy interior, with musical instruments and posters of rock groups hanging on the walls (in the style of Hard Rock, but a little more natural). We were the first customers at 10 p.m., but within half an hour, the dance floor was filling up - exclusively with young (16-22ish) girls. Looks like this is a numero uno pick-up joint! Anyway, we ogle for about an hour before heading back to the hotel. On the way back, we encounter several hookers working the strip. Is this really Malaysia? Actually, we are as close to Hong Kong as we are to Kuala Lumpur, so the atmosphere here is very different. And, all this is actually very normal here, so it doesn't feel seedy or anything. It's nice that two places in the same country can be so different.
With that, our trip is really over. Just an early morning flight back to KL, time to unpack, and it's back to work. But I'll be back - in July - for another dose of Borneo. Mt.Kinabalu, here I come!
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