Completely Different Level of Unbelievable

Trip Start Apr 22, 2008
Trip End Sep 01, 2008

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Friday, April 25, 2008

Every so often you wake up and have the feeling that the momentum is changing and things are about to take off.  Maybe not once a year, maybe not once in ten years, but there are times when all of the sudden something clicks and you know you are in for something completely out of the ordinary.  After a quick tour of Sandakan (one day!) and an overnight in Kota Kinabalu I was a bit anxious for something to floor me about Borneo.  Seeing orangutans in Semilok was fantastic, but the experience was brought down a notch by the 4 hour interlude leading up to their appearance.  Sandakan...what can I say about is most definitely one of the more disgusting cities I have ever seen.  As a launching point to much of the eco-adventures on eastern Sabah I was expecting it to have at least a bit of charm.  Well colour me confused.  It was used as a POW camp by the Japanese in World War II and the allied forces bombed the shit out of it while trying to regain control of Borneo.  It appeared that in the years that followed no one bothered to do much to clean it up. Open sewers, buildings that were falling apart and nothing really to see or do. Plus there was the non-stop rain that has followed me. 

All of that changed when I left Kota Kinabalu.  I was on the first flight of the day so I awoke before sunrise to get ready.  I was able to catch the sun as it came up over Mt Kinabalu, the largest mountain on the island, and with those first rays of sunshine a huge grin crept across my face.  I was headed to arguably the best scuba diving location in the world and the brilliant sun that this area is known for had returned.  It was a 30 minute flight to Tawau, 40 minute bus to Semporna and then an hour long boat to Mabul.  Only thing I missed out on was rail travel! Kind of felt like John Candy...only thinner and alive. Sorry for going there.  Was it worth it?  You have no idea.

Mabul is a small island that consists of three mini-resorts (each holding maybe 50 to 60 people) and a few traditional fishing villages.  There is a stark contrast between the modernity of the resorts and the extremely basic homes of the villagers.  Nevertheless all of the people living here seem healthy, extremely friendly and well fed.  Although there is true poverty in the villages, their basic needs are covered and they are living the way they have lived for quite some time: off of what the sea provides.  You can't help but wonder if their lives would be better without the influx of affluence at the resorts, but who can really say.

What happened on my dives is nothing I ever thought would happen while scuba diving.  Every dive seemed to be more amazing than the next.  There were hundreds of sea turtles....yes, I said hundreds, and they slept in so many nooks and crannies of the reef walls that you eventually stopped noticing they were there (confession: I kind of just lied about that statement. Other people on the dive made this claim while I remained transfixed).  Pygmy sea horses no bigger than your small finger nail, sea dragons, rays and countless sharks in nearly every direction.  The currents were perfect and carried you past all of these features with effortless ease.  It was as if you were floating perfectly still and the wall was moving on a conveyor belt in front of you.  All you needed to do was get your buoyancy right and then lean back and let the current do all of the work.  Could it get any better than this?  Yes.  Did I mention the water temperature was 30C/85F and the visibility was 15-20 metres? Did I also mention that the eleven people on our dive had the spots completely to ourselves?

Whats the big deal with 20m visibility? I was on the edge of the wall with the dive master well ahead of the rest of the group and he started smacking his tank with a piece of metal to get my attention.  He was frantically pointing into the open ocean and when I turned around I saw 12 hammerheads on the edge of a school of sharks.    The schools apparently have several hundred sharks and fortunately/unfortunately they moved into deeper water about 30 seconds after we spotted them.  Fortunately because I almost shit my pants being in open water with these huge sharks.  Unfortunately because they were gone before the rest of the group had a chance to see them.  A quick aside about the group: most of them own dive shop, are master instructors and have been diving at Sipadan for years.  Two have ever seen the elusive school of hammerheads.  As you would expect most of them wanted to kill me when the novice diver who was on his one and only day at Sipadan got to take in that epic sight.  Everyone was blissed out by the dives so any envy quickly faded away.
Then ahead of us the vanishing point of the water, which usually just becomes a dark impenetrable blue, appeared to be reflecting back at us.  What the hell was going on?  An entire wall of silver seemed to hang just in front of us.  As we approached you could see that it wasn't a single thing reflecting at all but thousands of schooling barracuda creating a vortex of fish (think Helen Hunt in twister only with barracuda instead of Bill Paxton).  It was two perfect days of diving that surpassed every possible expectation.  Fortunately the pro-divers were geared to the hilt and one of them caught a video of me with the tornado of barracuda!  What a way to cap off my time in Malaysia.  I can honestly say that it felt like a David Attenborough special.

I also need to give a thanks to Dave and his wife Caria (Big Wave Dave and Riptide respectively) for giving me the photos of the hammerheads and the barracuda.  They also handed over an awesome video of me going nuts with the barracuda that is too slow to load with the internet connection here.  I'm going to try to make an effort to make people aware of some of the charities that the people I meet along the way take part in.  Dave is a diver master from Wisconsin and he and his wife both served in the army and met while stationed in Hawaii nearly 25 years ago.  Each year they volunteer through the Wounded Warrior Program, a segment of Disabled Sports USA, where they take vets from the Iraq War and bring them to Bonaire to learn scuba.  It is an amazing program offering hope to those who have served and paid a sacrifice.  For more information or the opportunity to donate please go to
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