Mornings on Mabul island are a definition for calm. No waves on the sea, no human made sounds in the chalets, just a light breeze slowly teasing the palm trees. On the opposite, I was anything but calm. This was The Day, when all my efforts, my 30+ emails seasoned with a good dose of persuasion skills will bring me to one of the world’s top diving sites: Sipadan. “An untouched piece of art”, as once called by Jacques Cousteau, the famous explorer and pioneer of sea conservation, now a Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. One slight detail worth mentioning: I’m not a diver, yet. I snorkel.
How did I find out about Sipadan? Googling. For the best places in the world to do diving. Sipadan was no 1 in many worth considering tops. Since I was going to Malaysia, I thought I could also fly to Sabah province, in Borneo, from Tawau drive to Semporna, take a boat for 45 min to Mabul…. which is 30 minutes away from the famous Sipadan. Simple, right? All I was missing was one diving permit for Sipadan, one of the 120 offered daily for divers only. It’s a highly protected area and this is due to help preserve it. And I got that one too. Dangers to be considered? Some nasty trigger fish that might bite a piece of you, literally, and the pirates from Abu Sayyaf, the terrorists group form southwestern Philippines, that pledged loyalty to ISIS and have kidnapped some tourists a few years ago around Sahah. Details… All I had in mind was that Sipadan was one of the few left places left on Earth right now with a very high bio diversity. While the Red Sea, which for me is a paradise, has around 1000 species of fish, around Sipadan are 3000…
At 7 o’clock everybody was out, getting ready. I left the room feeling quite proud of my gear: a new UV protection t-shirt, snorkelling glasses and tube, my new water sports camera, recently bought in Singapore and… that was all. I felt like running and hiding under the bed when I meet the other people in the group for that day, all Malaysians, all certificated divers: great wetsuits, professional masks, fins and dive boots, gloves, watches, dive lights, they had Everything… I don’t even know stores back home where I can find all that. That’s the difference between what Europe has to offer in the underwater world compared to SE Asia. Incomparable.
I stuff it down and had rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu for breakfast, which seemed the best option out of a very limited offer. The abundance of breakfast was my last concern at that point anyway. The diving instructors checked one more time the air tanks. Andrew and his cousin, my new Malaysian friends from the day before, and I were waiting now on the pontoon. Two kids came paddling in what seemed to be a small boat carved in a single piece of wood.
– I wanna take a photo, Andrew says. The youngest must have been 3 years old, the oldest maybe 5. I couldn’t stop thinking how any parent in Europe would freak out only thinking of letting a 3 years old in a boat, on a see. Here, for the Bajau Laut, the sea gypsies that live more on water then on land, is natural. They were begging for money. Then a woman came, in a boat so small it could barely hold her and her 1 year old son. Naked, with eyes like the sea and sun kissed skin, he already was belonging to the sea. She was selling clams and payed so little attention to the boy sitting in front of her in that very small boat. What a way of living…
We were heading to Sipadan, two diving instructors, (I presume one for me), about 8 divers, myself and the boat captain. Everybody was curious how come I wasn’t a diver and still going to Sipadan. I used the excuse that back home there is not much to see underwater. They understand but still I was still like the only kid in the yard who couldn’t ride the bike. Later in the day, as we became friends and they realised I can take a good joke, we even made fun on my situation…and my tones of bad luck that followed.
A bad day in paradise
After a short ride, the boat stopped. We’ve already reached the 1st diving site. Everybody was ready and in a few minutes they were all gone in the depths of the sea as if they were never there. So no dive instructor for me that day… I like being alone in the water, maybe not so much in a place with such a high biodiversity. I remembered I had signed at arrival a paper where all responsibility for the trip to Sipadan was on me only.
– Do you know how to swim? The captain teases me, seeing I was looking so indecisive, staring to that deep blue around the boat. I was still processing the information offered in a hurry by one of the dive instructors: some trigger fish nests there, some very strong currents over there. I couldn’t read the map he was seeing around, it all looked… just sea.
Minutes were passing. I realised what I was feeling was fear. After all it took to get there, the emails, the bookings, the flights, the money, I was now afraid to jump off the boat. I started to get angry for feeling so silly. I grabbed my snorkelling kit and the camera, checked if the water was deep enough and I wasn’t risking to hit some sharp coral and hearing the fast beats of my heart, I jumped in. Was probably the worst jump of my life, I took so much water.
– Are you ok, I heard the captain. I was still coughing, trying to get back my breath. I looked around calming my breath, prepared my mask and then I froze. My tube was nowhere. This was the last level of being stupid, I must have jumped without having it attached to the mask and it has sinked. I just imagined how my next hours will be, sitting in the boat, without a tube or holding my breath until I get dizzy. I approached the boat hopeless and ashamed for littering the place.
– I’m soo stupid, I think I lost my tube. I litter the place…. I’m so sorry, don’t know how it happened. The captain smiles and hands me a new tube saying not to worry so much.
And finally, I was underwater, enjoying what was left of the 30 minutes we had in that place. I was so stressed and kept looking for any tail of triggerfish. I did the stupid think of watching before some YouTube videos about attacks of this fish that looks as if he was born to bite, with a big funny head and big teeth. I knew from one of the instructors that if you see one, the one that attacks you is actually its partner, who’s already behind you. They only do this to protect their nest from human invasion. Having all these crossing your mind while in the water is no fun. About the promised paradise around, I was disappointed. E few small corals, very few fish, nothing spectacular or even getting closer to the Red Sea I was so impressed by in Eilat, Israel, the only place I saw it by that moment.
I was happy when I saw the sign to swim back to the boat. The others didn’t seem to be so impressed either so far. We had 3 more spots. Next was the world famous Barracuda Point, where, if lucky, you can find yourself in a tornado of Barracudas, thousands of them swimming in one immense vortex, like a whole living creatures that splits into pieces and then forms back again and again.
In the boat I had a huge surprise: one of the guys have found my tube. It was at the bottom of the sea, at 10m deep. I was incredibly happy. My day was getting better, too bad my bad luck was still with me and I was soon going to find out.
The Barracuda Point started to show what Sipadan was promising. We didn’t got to see the barracudas, unfortunately, but we were swimming in a sea of jacks. I have never seen in my life so many fish, of this seize, swimming all together. They act differently, they don’t move in circles as the barracudas, instead they form a massive silver structure that moves all together, in round shapes, constantly changing. It was amazing to just stay still and have them getting very close to me, then move and have that immense living structure change its shape in fantastic forms, different each time. I thought I saw for a moment a reef shark at the bottom but was just too much fish around to se well. Unbelievable!
This time I got back to the boat happy. I had my mask and tube, my camera, even took a few photos, very bad though.
We then headed straight to the island, on the only point you can access Sipadan. Walking on the island, though very small or using another point to stop the boat is strictly forbidden. A few species of turtles, among them the green turtle, now listed as endangered, lay eggs here so the whole place is like a sanctuary for them. As we approached, a deep green circle of trees surrounded by a white sand line broke the blue horizon. It was such a small island, formed on the top of a volcano by the corals grown there in millions and millions of years. Closer to the shore, it looks truly like a pristine paradise: white sand, huge trees, turquoise waters and a few meters away, the deep blue. It’s where the edge is and from that point below it goes deep 600m. I could also confirm what it is said about the currents around Sipadan, indeed they are so strong, you can’t stay still and every time I saw something and went out for a breath, the next second I was underwater again I was already moved by the currents in another place. When you try to swim is when you actually feel the force of the currents, holding you still.
We had photos on the island and lunch (once again rice noodles with soy sauce and tofu but I was too starved to care) and change impressions. Other groups were there too, on the small terrace made of wood where divers were allowed to stay on the island between 6am-4pm only. Outside these hours I was told you can get shut, the army boats only are patrolling to make sure the pirates don’t come closer again. Two women were sitting on two wooden sun beds, under a palm tree, didn’t seem too interested in what Sipadan had to offer.
After an hour on the island, we left for the Turtle Tomb Cave spot, where the divers were going inside a dark cave, to see nothing but rocks, sand and a few turtles skeletons, that if you ask me. They were excited but caves and mostly underwater caves are not my thing. So I enjoyed the surface around the island, the corals, the small colourful fish that live in the reefs and finally… the turtles. I did saw one which was huge, a green one, maybe larger then 1m, eating algae. Then another one… I saw parrotfish, porcupine fish, needlefish, angelfish, butterflyfish. I was literally in a tank of fish. It was perfect. At one point, being so fascinated by the fish and corals, I realised I was getting too close to the island, in very shallow water, probably dragged there by the currents. I panicked and tried to get out as quick as possible. The worst you can do when surrounded by sharp corals, I am sorry I had to lear this by myself. I started to swim fast and I felt a sharp pain at one foot. I must have touched a coral and got myself with a nice scratch, painful but not so bad. My concern was actually the coral and that it was ok, I don’t think I did any damage to it by the seise of my wound. These beauties of the oceans and seas grow 1cm in a year. So breaking one can be as ruining a few years of its growing.
I was now in deeper waters, safe when I looked around for the boat. It was no where around. I started having all those creepy scenarios where they forgot me there and I will be stranded on the island, surrounded by terrorists pirates, fighting strange insects and God knows what else. For sure my imagination didn’t helped me much that day. I was all alone, no boat closer then maybe 200m. Then, looking for solutions, I thought I might ask some other boat to take me to Mabul, if they don’t come back for me. I was so relief when I finally saw our captain. He saw me acting so worried and thought something happened. The whole group was in the boat and I started to swim very fast to them. And somehow this is how it happened again. I lost the tube for the second time. I had it for a few years and it has never fall off the mask belt. Well that day it did twice. I felt so miserable when I realised, in the boat, I lost it again. I was littering that beautiful pristine place with another piece of our plastic.
The last time we went on the island for a stop I was too upset to eat anything or to talk. My food has bleeding and hurting, I had a sore throat from the cold I brought with me from Sri Lanka, that got even worse after using the tube to breathe for so long, I wasn’t used with my new camera, bought especially for this trip, and I barely managed to take any videos, my phone battery was off and the photos I got so far were very bad… Could I get more bad luck in one day, a very long awaited day, with so high expectations?
We went back on the boat and left for one last dive. The captain gave me again his tube, one of the instructors fixed it on the mask belt with a piece of plastic to make sure I won’t lose this one too. I decided to fight my bad luck that day so I used my teeth to untangle the white rope I had around my wrist, the one that Deesa gave me in Sri Lanka. He got it from a monk in a Buddhist temple, during a special ceremony performed for him. That was the only thing I could use. I managed to take it off my wrist and used it to tie all together the mask and the tube. I then hold by breath, jumped in the water, swim around without all the nonsense fears before, observe all the breathtaking beauty that Sipadan had to offer. I followed a green turtle until the edge of the reef and further, as the steep wall was ending, leaving nothing but dark deep blue above me. I had no camera with me and I just lived the moment, without thinking about triggerfish, pirates or taking a good shot. And maybe this is what was meant to happen. I had to get through all those episodes of bad luck, have my food injured, for one lesson: some moments we meet in life are meant to be just lived and then kept in the heart.
When I got back again to the boat, I saw the tube was floating around me, hold only by the white piece of rope I had from Sri Lanka. I would have lost that one too…
How was Sipadan?
In the end, in spite of a crazy day, Sipadan stays unique among my beautiful places. Maybe I expected more at first because I didn’t know then what to expect, my only previous underwater experience was in Eilat, in Israel. I didn’t know what to look for or what amazing looks like in this fabulous new world for me, that is is hidden in the seas and oceans. Sipadan happened last year on September the 1st, after that I had a few more episodes, in Indonesia, in the Red Sea again, in Egypt, then Thailand and last month in Kenya. So now I have just a little more to compare with and I can say my first impression didn’t do much justice to Sipadan. I never saw in any other places after so many fish and so different in a small area as I saw in Sipadan, never met again a school that big of jackfish, nor huge green turtles. Maybe it was meant to bring back the memories of Sipadan now, a year later, after living more and seeing more. And maybe, as Andrew did, I will go back one day to the island for a dive and see what I couldn’t see from the surface. Maybe I’ll get in the middle of a barracuda vortex, thinking I must be dreaming.
PS I hope someone found my lost tube and got it out of the sea. This guilt still hurts
Next: Good bye Malaysia and hello Bali