Sipadan diving island hammock bliss

Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
Trip End Jun 17, 2013

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What I did

Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Thursday, November 17, 2011

Being a world famous dive spot, Sipadan ('Border Island' in Malay) required an advance booking as well as a dive permit. It was recommended to me by my friend Kath, and after my positive experience of diving in the Gili Isles followed by a challenging yet exciting experience of diving in Komodo, I was really hoping to get the chance to dive here.  We organised it all whilst still in Indonesia and were thrilled when we received confirmation we could climb Mount Kinabalu and then dive Sipadan ten days later. It fitted in perfectly with our stay at my step-brother Harry's house in Kota Kinabalu.  

We travelled from KK to Semporna on a night bus, arrived in the dark early hours and were sleepily taken to Scuba Junkie Backpackers. A misunderstanding about dates meant that we weren't expected but they accommodated us at 5am, finding us bed sheets and pillows. With very little sleep we decided to rest in Semporna for a day before travelling to Mabul to begin diving.


We found Semporna itself a bit of a dive (pun - ha ha); a bit dirty and unexciting. Saying that, I had a lovely time there.  We wandered out to a stilt restaurant at the tourism centre and up to a small and almost empty rooftop swimming pool to lounge around and soak up the nice weather. I don't know exactly why but Sabah has the most extraordinary sunsets, possibly because it's so near the equator. We'd experienced amazing ones night after night in KK.  I mean really amazing. The whole sky would be red, pink, orange, blue, grey and gold.  We sat by the pool enjoying the sky as I took photos.




The next morning bright and early we got a speedboat to Mabul Island. Taking some photos along the way we were shocked by the amount of litter in the water. Semporna and the surrounding villages are mainly populated by the Bajau Laut ethnic community, otherwise known as Sea Gypsies.  They mostly live in sprawling stilt villages above the water or inside the traditional Lepa Lepa boats. They have lived entirely at sea for centuries, between the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Many have now been forced to settle on land but to them the sea is their home. It's everything to them. Literally everything: their house, their source of food, the place they wash, get rid of their rubbish, urinate, defecate. The problems with rubbish come with modern products, plastic bags and containers and a lack of education. The plastic doesn't decompose the way old fashioned waste would have done and so floats and bobs around, causing huge damage to the marine environment around them.  I felt really sad to see it.


We arrived at Mabul Beach Pier about an hour later and hired our dive equipment for the next few days. We had three dives booked in that day at sites around Mabul. After a light breakfast we were shown to our room. We'd booked a dorm room but at the last minute decided to treat ourselves (just a bit more!) and got a double bungalow to ourselves. It was beautiful; wooden and spacious with a clean, tiled bathroom, huge shower, pristine white sheets, as well as an outside porch with hammock. 'Ahh' we said, 'this is the life'!


We spent the day in Mabul diving at Lobster Wall, the Artificial Reef (my favourite) and Sting Ray City.  It was amazing being back under the water again...all in anticipation of our following day at Sipadan.

Amazingly, Sipadan is Malaysia's only volcanic island; formed over thousands of years as living corals grew on top of an extinct volcano. It's now closed off to over night stays and there's no accommodation available on the island.  It's small in diameter but plunges over 2,000 metres straight down to the sea floor.  Strong currents sweep past the island which means that a large amount of marine species gather to mate and to feed. We were told we could easily see twenty turtles on a single dive as well as sharks, big-eye trevally, bump-head parrot fish, jacks and barracuda.  We set off just after 6am, really REALLY excited. About ten of us in all we were split up into open water and advanced divers, Robin and I as buddies. Our friend Matt, an experienced diver took along an underwater dive camera which was brilliant. All the underwater photos shown here are courtesy of him - thanks Matt!  


South Point was our first dive and at 31m the deepest dive I'd ever done. I loved every minute of it. It was the first time I'd ever experienced (or maybe just truly appreciated) the vast feeling of space in the deep blue.  I was totally awed by it. There was just blue, blue and more blue around us. We set off with the vertical reef wall to the left of us and the big deep blue to the right. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, calmly swimming along, totally at peace with just the sound of our bubbles. An odd turtle or shark swimming by above or below us. We were under for fifty minutes but it felt like five.


Next was Baraccuda Point; an amazing dive site that certainly lived up to all it's hype. After a pretty hairy descent into a medium current and onto a shallow reef (with a bump or two of my tank that I really shouldn't admit to), we were surrounded by a giant shoal of jack fish. I loved the feeling of being totally surrounded by them. We followed our dive master to the right and started drifting with the current. Not before long we spotted a tornado-like formation of barracuda above us and we all quickly tried to find a rock to hold onto. My previous dives in Komodo had taught me that trying to find a rock to hold on to is in actual fact a key skill. A life saving skill as it turned out in Batu Bolong, Komodo, where we spent almost the whole dive literally clinging on for dear life! Our second Komodo dive at Makaser Reef showed me that finding a good rock to hold on to made a relaxing and rewarding experience of being able to hold yourself against the current as to be able to watch an enormous yet graceful Manta Ray glide past. I'd also learnt that if in doubt of finding my own good rock I could always grab on to Robin's and try and fight it out for space! We left the barracuda shoal behind us and continued the dive spotting countless lone reef sharks along the way. I'd seen a few white tips before in the Gili Isles and knew for certain that they have no interest in divers whatsoever. There's something immensely powerful about the way they move though and throughout the whole day I still felt my heartbeat quicken whenever one glided past me! 



After a rest and some lunch at the surface we descended into the blue once more, this time at Turtle Cave.  Named so because a turtle tomb lies beneath the column of the island; formed by an underwater limestone cave with a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that contain many skeletal remains of turtles that become lost and drown before finding the surface.  I've seen an amazing You Tube video of tech divers going in to the actual chamber with two tanks of air each, laying a system of ropes to help them back out again.  We just went a small way into the entrance cave. I immediately turned around as soon as it was too dark to see! Each dive that day was so different. I loved Turtle Cave because of the views of the reef walls all around us, the sense of light and dark.



Our last dive at Coral Garden was incredibly beautiful; an array of multi-coloured reef and fish. By this point in the day I think we all felt more at home under the water than at the surface and some silliness ensued, underwater acrobatics by Robin!  I found myself following around a little surgeon fish (Doreen from Finding Nemo) whilst singing 'keep on swimming' in my head. Something I think only my sisters will truly appreciate! 

It was an amazing day and the group of us travelled back to Mabul on cloud nine.



Back at Mabul Beach Resort we decided to stay another two nights. Unfortunately we couldn't afford any more diving (a shame as I desperately wanted to see an octopus) but we relaxed, enjoyed some swimming and snorkelling and a few late nights at the bar. We also walked around the island a little bit and it was on one of these walks that we first met 'Scabbers'. Robin will probably be rolling his eyes at this point but I couldn't write all about Mabul and not mention her.

Scabbers was an unfortunate soul with a terrible a skin condition; all her fur had fallen out leaving dark grey wrinkled skin covered in open sores. She had a tiny bit of fur left on her tail which made me realise that she wasn't a hairless breed but just very ill.  Robin and I came back from our walk one night and she was lying on our balcony mat wagging her tail at us. My heart broke a bit because I couldnt stroke her or even touch her. Instead we had to close our door quickly so that she couldn't come into our room.  When we came back out for dinner she'd gone but had left a pool of splattered blood behind.  I felt totally helpless and furious that anyone could let a dog suffer like this. At home, she would be put down immediately.  It was one of those times where I had to accept we were powerless to change a horrible situation. I've thought back to her and hope that she didn't have to suffer for long.

We left for Semporna the next day. Even my sadness about Scabbers couldn't take away the glow of an amazing few days in a beautiful place. Mainly though some diving that's fuelled a life long passion.
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