(Day 223 to 228)
02.07.2010 - 07.07.2010 36 °C
Semporna – Diving the islands with the highlight being Sipadan
We took a 5 hour bus ride to get to Semporna, and the scenery that is dominant here like in southern Malaysia is the Palm Oil plantations which carpet the hills right out to the horizon. It is as common a sight as seeing Sugar Cane fields in Mauritius: Just everywhere! The difference here is that a lot of forest and jungle has been cut down for this far more lucrative and important tree. Which in the process leaves the endangered Orang-Utans with very little natural habitat and hinders their fight for survival even more… very sad.
We spent our first 2 nights in Semporna which, like Sandakan, has nothing at all to offer, and serves as a purely functional drop off for diving the nearby islands.
The next few days were spent on Mabul Island from where diving is more accessible and is the only place you can go to Sipadan from, if you dive with ‘Scuba Junkie’. I had planned to do a day’s snorkelling with Martin, which I did, and the other to lie on the beach and tan, which I didn’t do, as the weather was identical to cyclones back home!! No jokes. Biblical rain and wind that I feared would blow me away on my way to breakfast!
These few days really are Martin’s, and he must tell the tale, I have however had a lovely day snorkelling and thought I’d share too, before I pass the pen back.
Kapelai was, in my opinion the very best snorkelling I have ever done and I fear that most future trips will pale in comparison. As Martin and the rest of the divers made for the deeper seas, my snorkelling buddy (a Danish girl called Thilde) and I headed to the shallower regions. The first time I looked down I remember having a shock at just how many fish there were down there. A bit like being at the aquarium except you’re swimming with the fish instead of looking at them! To add to the quantity was the diversity, with so many fish I had never seen before which added to the excitement hugely. I was euphoric. Even the starfish looked different to the ones I knew! The last few minutes of this magical hour brought us our cherry-on-top moment: A big Green turtle, just sitting at the bottom of the ocean, chilling out! Now for the divers this isn’t a big deal as this side of the world teams with them but this was my very first under-water sighting and it was Grand!
Further snorkelling at a place called Eel Garden (off Mabul island) was less exciting as I think here was the place to be deep, so this time the divers had the upper hand.
We did however spot a Blue-spotted Sting Ray and a black and white Bandit Sea snake! The end of this day was less fun as I swam right into a nasty gang of jelly fish who viciously “attacked” me for disturbing them. Do you know the feeling of pins and needle when your foot goes to sleep?? Well, make that times 15, and you get a very stingy body and become a very speedy swimmer! I couldn’t get to the boat fast enough. Thank goodness our captain had vinegar which helped take the sting away in a mere 15min. It’s not immensely painful as such, but just tingles badly, and stays itchy and red for quite a few days, particularly bad at night!
I (Martin) decided to do 6 dives around the islands in the Celebes Sea, getting used to the currents and experiencing the wealth of marine life the seas here had to offer. The islands we covered were: Sibuan, Mabul, Kapelai and Sipadan. We saw literally 40 turtles in all my dives, some really huge impressive Green Turtles, like the ones seen on Turtle Island a few days before.
After these few dives I was ready to dive the world famous Sipadan Island not far from Mabul Island. We had to spend a few nights on the resort on Mabul, as Steph has already mentioned, which was very pleasant. A small island scattered with resorts built on stilts over the water, which again, offered remarkable coral formations and plenty of fish.
Sipadan though was to be the highlight. It took me a loooong time to get a permit and was relieved I booked in advance as many people just turn up and hope to get one without much luck. The morning of the dive we were supposed to meet at the jetty at 6.15 and leave at 6.30am. I overslept and woke up at 6.30 and luckily just made it onto the boat, on a dark rainy morning. No one was keen for diving so early in the morning when the seas were rough and the skies blocking out any form of light, but it was Sipadan and could not be missed.
This astonishing place was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. It’s located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem. And is at the very edge of the edge of the continental shelf and has steep coral walls that drop some 600 meters to the sea floor, strong currents and overwhelming amounts of life underwater. Sharks, Rays, Eels,Turtles, Hammerheads, Lionfish, huge schools of Barracudas, schools of Bumphead Parrotfish, more huge schools of Jack Fish, the list goes on and on. We did 4 dives through the day and I must say it’s the most amazing experience and dive I’ve ever done, and probably will ever do.
Highlights must be swimming away from the reef into the deep blue as we’d spotted 6 or 7 grey reef sharks all together about 28 meters deep, with nothing but deep blue water all around us. More strong points include swimming into huge schools of Jack fish and entering Turtle Tomb: A huge cave which lies underneath the column of the island, with a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that contain many skeletal remains of turtles (They become lost and drown before finding the surface.). And then the grand finale, seeing hundreds of Chevron Barracudas spiralling at Barracuda Point. An incredible day of diving that left us all breathless.