Trip Start Aug 03, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2008

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Sunday, April 20, 2008

The morning flight from Sandakan to Tawau was delayed and then cancelled. Rather than arriving in Tawau at 10 am it was necessary to fly to the other side of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu and then catch a second flight back to Tawau. Semporna is about an hour away from Tawau so instead of arriving late morning - it was 5 pm. This was a real shame since it was the last day of Semporna's annual festival which ended at about 5pm. During the day there had been cultural shows, dancing, and a colourful regatta. All that was left were the crowds of sea-gypsies from outlying stilt villages. Scuba Junkie runs a bar which has aquaria for windows. At night, while having dinner in the Scuba Junkie bar there were crowds of kids standing outside looking at both the fish in the aquarium and the tourists in the bar.
Semporna is a small non-descript fishing village in a large bay. Many of the locals used to be Sea Gypsies but now live in small wooden stilt houses built around the bay and on nearby islands. They still make their living by fishing. Semporna's other claim to fame is its proximity to some amazing diving locations such as Sipidan. Sipidan is so popular it is necessary to book ahead and due to the illness enforced change in arrival date, diving at Sipidan was no longer possible. Fortunately there are also several other great dive locations in the vicinity of Semporna, including the famous Mabul Island. The dive operations at Semporna are clustered along a street beside the harbour. Although there are lots of tourists in town, most hang out in the couple of bars and restaurants associated with the dive operations or backpacker hostels on this street. There are no other tourist-focussed cafes or restaurants. As a result, the rest of Semporna is still interesting to explore and the people are friendly and curious. Some English is spoken as it is the common language between the large Filipino community, the native Malays and the Indonesians.
The first days diving was at Sipuan Island, nicknamed "Sunburn Island" due to its relative lack of foliage. The Scuba Junkie dive boat roared across a relatively choppy harbour for about 45 minutes before stopping on the island's beach in front of a machine gun nest. It was necessary to hand over a list of passengers to the soldiers on the island, who are responsible for guarding the tourists from marauding Filipino Muslim separatists. Incidentally, this area is designated as "reconsider your need to travel" class, the next step down from "don't go at all" by the Aussie and NZ governments. After visiting the soldiers, we then moved to another part of the small island and suited up. A bunch of curious and darkly tanned children from the tiny village on the island came down to the beach to watch. The first dive was shallow and just off the beach, a second dive followed a sloping wall at one end of the island and the final dive was over a bed of sea urchins. There were hard and soft corals right up into the shallows, plenty of small fish and interesting "macro" life such as the dramatically coloured Mandarin Fish and the bizarre dancing Harlequin Sweetlips. We saw some large turtles, moray eels, lion fish and other dramatic sea life. The dive group returned to the dock at about 4pm feeling tired but content. That night there was a power blackout and the town was plunged into darkness. The only food was bbq and there was no aircon in the humid night.
The following day was dark and threatening. As the powerboat roared off to Mabul Island the storm broke. Ice cold, lashing rain blasted through the boat and we all got completely soaked and cold. It was a miserable trip that seemed to last an eternity. By time we arrived at Mabul the rain had eased back. The island was covered in structures: there was a village, wharves, stilt houses, a large expensive resort on stilts extending over the reef and, opposite the resort, an orange and blue oil-rig (converted into diving accommodation). Our first dive was offshore along a clear wall with turtles and wonderful marine life. The second dive was just off the fancy resort at a place named "artificial reef" due to the number of cages, pillars and other structures that had been placed there. The 3D structures gave great opportunities to spot cryptic species. A particular highlight was a bright yellow frogfish. The final dive was in a popular spot called Froggies and while fantastic due to the density of macro-life (nudibranchs, frogfish, orang-utan crabs etc) was also full of other divers. The attitude of some of these other divers was disappointing. In particular a group of Japanese were determined to get the best photos and were prodding wildlife with rods to get it into a better position. When our group had spotted a frogfish and were looking at it, one of the guys in the other group barged his way through us to get a close up. Nasty. But apart from that, the dive was rewarding. Our trip back to the mainland was in calm water and so we could enjoy the view of the many islands surrounding Semporna.
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