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Diving. Sipadan.

by becca on March 30, 2010

There were five sea turtles in view when Nate grabbed my fin frantically to show me that there was another just grazing my head, its belly skimming over my floating wisps of hair. The fish were so colorful and plentiful we didn’t know where to look as we descended to 35 meters down a 600-meter wall in hopes of seeing hammerhead sharks. The site is Sipadan, a diving mecca just off the coast of Malaysian Borneo that is commonly listed as one of the world’s Top 10 Dive Sites. And though the hammerheads never showed, we saw hawksbill and green turtles; loads of black tip, white tip and gray reef sharks; huge napoleon wrasse and humphead parrotfish; thick, swarming schools of trevally; batfish; the elaborate clown triggerfish and beautiful red-toothed triggerfish; all kinds of boxfish (my favorite); and the highlight of one dive: an eagle ray “flying” effortlessly through the blue water.

We spent three days and two nights on the nearby island of Mabul at Uncle Chang’s, a dive outfitter that also provided budget room and board (or maybe the other way around) in a wooden lodge that sits above the water off the coast of the small island. Here we had a modest private room with a sunset view over the Celebes Sea, three (edible) meals a day and a large common area comprised of a sun deck and a dining area.

Day one began as we arrived at Uncle Chang’s and got fitted with some of the worst dive equipment I’ve ever seen, but I guess that’s what happens when you go with the budget option and we’re still here to tell the story. We then set out with a group of three other divers who we got along with quite well: Lucas, Sylvia and Yerk from Germany. We did two dives around Mabul and one at Kapalai, another island in the region. The sites around Mabul are known for the world’s best “muck-diving” — that is, searching for the macro marine life — and the area definitely lived up to its reputation. Throughout the dive we would hear the divemaster tap on his tank for our attention to show us something, and as soon as we finished looking we would hear the tink tink tink of the other DM with another great little creature. Among them: cuttlefish, octopus, nudi branches, peacock mantis shrimp, frogfish (in three different colors), crocodile fish, turtles and tons of colorful, tropical fish.

That night, after the boys finished a night dive where they saw massive sleeping sea turtles (Nate insists that we could both have fit into its shell), we returned to Uncle Chang’s to find a band playing and a party just getting started. We had just missed dinner, so they made a fresh batch of food for us and Uncle Chang himself started filling our table with cans of coke and bottles of Filipino rum. A good time was had by all and let’s just say that day two was not so eventful, though we managed to go snorkeling once.

On day three we took a 30-minute boat ride out to Sipadan where we checked in and headed to the dive site. In 2000 there was a kidnapping/hostage situation in Sipadan and for security purposes (often masked as conservation), there is no accommodation on the island, the number of divers per day is restricted, divers must arrange permits and sign in upon arrival, and a military boat and personnel are constantly present — but once you’re underwater, none of this matters. There are so many fish we felt like we were swimming in an aquarium and each day after diving we could be found flipping through the resident fish book at Uncle Chang’s to identify and learn about what we had found. Our final dive at Sipadan, Barracuda Point, was relatively shallow so we brought Nate’s camera along. Between this dive and some photos taken while snorkeling Mabul, we have a few pictures of the wealth of life we saw down there.

Since Nate and I began diving six months ago, we’ve heard all about Sipadan and Mabul in diving circles throughout Southeast Asia. Traveling here felt almost like a pilgrimage and having set the bar so high, it will be hard to find diving that compares.

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