Eat, Sleep, Dive

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Billabong Scuba Mabul Island

Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Thursday, March 10, 2011

We had a very early start on Tuesday morning to catch our flight to Borneo. It meant waking before 4am, and getting to KL Sentral station to catch a bus by 4.30am. Unfortunately, as we left the hostel KL was swamped with another thunderstorm. Thankfully, we were able to flag down a passing taxi without too much difficulty, but in the rain the taxi driver wasn't getting out to help me load the bags into the car.

Despite worrying a little about the early start, getting to the airport on time, and our weight issues – we weren’t sure what to expect from Air Asia - everything went very smoothly. In fact, we didn’t see anyone being given any problems about the number, or weight, of their hand luggage by the ground staff. Seeing what other passengers were carrying on, we certainly thought that we could have got away with having more carry-on items, but for our first experience with Air Asia we weren’t going to take any risks.

We arrived in Tawau, grabbed our bags, and found our transfer without any problems. And then it was off to Semporna. My immediate reaction to Borneo was that it looked much that same as Peninsular Malaysia, with massive palm tree plantations in all directions, but with much less traffic. Along the drive to Semporna there really wasn’t much else to see other than palm trees – which was good, because I was tired after the early start, and managed to nod off for a few minutes.

Semporna was as the guide book described – a necessary stopping point for those heading to the islands to dive. Nothing to see or do here, and not a pretty town at all – probably best described as being functional at best. After a few minutes to do the paperwork – including signing our lives away if anything happened to us – it was onto the water taxi for the transfer to Mabul Island. I have to say that I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Borneo, but I was quite surprised to see so many shacks perched over the water’s edge. It looked more like what I would expect in other parts of South East Asia – I never realised that the locals here live and survive much the same way as say the Thai or Vietnamese would.

We arrived at Mabul Island, greeted by a similar scene to the one we had left behind in Semporna – rickety-looking over water shacks surrounded by a surprisingly dirty lagoon. Before we had even landed, I was beginning to wonder what I was getting myself in to over the next two days, but when we finally docked, the Billabong Scuba base looked okay. And as soon as we got off the boat and dropped our bags down, lunch was ready and waiting for us – things were starting to look better and better.

As there is no power on the island between 7am and 6pm every day, there’s not a lot to do unless you’re diving or snorkelling. So we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, and trying to stay cool in the muggy heat – a cold shower helped for a few minutes, but no electricity means no fans and no a/c so we were soon feeling the sticky heat again.

Wednesday was spent diving at Pulau Kapalai and Pulau Mabul, as all divers are required to do at least one 'check dive’ before any of the operators will let you near the pristine Sipadan reefs – it’s a bit of a scam given that everyone is a qualified diver, but its designed to have people stay longer, bring in more business for the sometimes struggling dive companies, and to stop people from coming in for just one or two days to dive Sipadan, so in that way its understandable and worthwhile. For our first two dives, it was just Kerry and I, and our dive guide – a dive off Pulau Kapalai, including a wooden boat ‘wreck’ and a series of sunken huts, boxes and towers creating somewhat of an artificial reef, and a dive at Pulau Mabul to another artificial reef of sunken boxes and towers. Given the artificial nature of the reefs and surroundings there were surprisingly large and varied fish populations at both sites, including a number that I’d never seen, or even heard of, before. At one point we even rose up amongst an enormous shoal of Jack Trevelay that had been swirling around above us – a very cool perspective to be inside this circling mass of fish.

For the final dive of the day we had two new guests join us, and some of the dive guides came along for an ‘adventure dive’ – meaning they didn’t have to work. This was quite useful as they were able to find a number of things that we wouldn’t necessarily have seen with just our guide. This time we dove on an amazing natural coral reef wall, which as we went along became a big drift dive, as the current got stronger and stronger – very cool. There was lots to see up and down – tropical fish, barrel sponges, and lots of different coral outcrops. We saw eight massive turtles – easily the biggest I’ve seen – a couple of cuttlefish, a number of different moray eels, trumpetfish, pipefish, razorfish, and a blue-spotted ray, just to name a few. It was an excellent day’s diving ahead of the main show at Sipadan – something we were both looking forward to.

Thursday we dove at Pulau Sipadan, one of the world’s premier diving destinations - famous for its unspoilt coral reef walls and large number of pelagic species. The limited number of dive permits per day, and our short timeframe, meant that this was going to be our only day diving at Sipadan – three dives. Surprisingly, while the visibility was good, it wasn’t quite as good as we had experienced the day before at Kapalai and Mabul. We started our diving along the massive coral wall, and in the coral garden, at Mid-Reef – the scale of the coral growth here is absolutely amazing - before diving at Barracuda Point, and finishing the day after lunch at Drop-Off. Again lots of large turtles, reef sharks, and all manner of tropical fish to be seen everywhere, in all directions – the scale of marine life here is unbelievable! Check out the photos and see what you think!

After finishing our diving we transferred back to the Billabong Scuba base on Mabul Island, where we only had a few mins to pack our gear before we had to leave to head back to Semporna. Fortunately we had just enough time to copy the photos that some of the other girls had taken – after our previous misadventures with a hired underwater camera in Roatan, we decided we wouldn’t take a camera with us, so we could just look around and enjoy the dive. In the end, having someone else take the photos meant that we had the best of both worlds – being able to relax and enjoy the dive, and some good photos to remember it with.

After an overnight stay in Semporna, our next stop is Sepilok to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

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