Tag Archives: wildlife

Swimming with turtles in Sipadan

6am

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…

Heading Sipadan

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.

Bajau Laut people in Mabul island, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo, sea gypsies, bajau laut, Asia

– 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.

Sipadan island, diving, scuba, Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, beautiful places, adventure

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.

Sipadan island, Borneo, Malaysia, Sabah province, diving, top diving places, scuba, snorkeling

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

 

 

Sri Lanka: safari & wildlife in Udawalawe

It was dark for hours already when we finally arrived in Udawalawe, home of 500 wild elephants living in this natural reserve park that covers 308 km2. A few of them I was hoping to meet during the safari, next morning.

As the car stopped, I jumped out and stretched my hands above my head, had a deep breath of that warm but fresh air. I felt the scent of field, of dry grass and dusty ground. We have left the lush greenery behind is, in Ella and here I was surprised to find a totally different landscape, of savanna, with less green and more yellow.

Our hosts from the B&B were waiting for us, Deesa, my driver during the trip in Sri Lanka and myself. Was such a warm welcome, as if I was visiting some long time friends. The lady of the house, her husband and their young boy were kind and friendly. The house looked lovely and had a nice garden around where they’ve showed me papaya and mango trees, with fruits hanging down, and many more other plants and flowers. They spoke little English but we found ways to communicate even without Deesa’s help. My room, also, was just perfect. We were the only guests of the property for that time so we were spoilt. I still can’t believe all this was less than 8 euro a night. But something else had brought me there, and was nor the house or the garden. Was the food, praised by many other previous guests who were calling the dinner there as the most authentic and fingers licking good they had in all Sri Lanka. So there I was!

And the most important thing for a starving foodie like I was, who saved her appetite for the best to come: dinner was ready: home cooked rice and curry. I kept hearing “rice and curry” from Deesa all day long and I thought was just that, rice cooked with some curry. I was hoping will be served with something else, though… So when the lady brought a large plate with simple hot rice, put it in the middle of the table, in the yard outside, and then started a come and go back series at the end of which the entire table was full of smaller plates with… everything: chicken, sauces, vegetables of all kind, all with curry, all yellow, I finally understood what the famous Sri Lankan curry and rice actually means: a feast!

The host didn’t forgot to bring me a spoon and a fork. But I was decided to have my amazing Sri Lankan dinner the Sri Lankan way: by hands. They all seemed happy to see me embracing the local customs. Deesa showed me how it’s done: he first used a big spoon to take some rice, puts it in the middle of its plate and then surrounds it with little portions from all the dishes on the table, ads sauces on the rice, then mixes it a bit with 3 fingers from one hand and with the same 3 fingers starts to eat from all at once. Eating with hands, indeed makes food taste better. For dessert we had pineapple, the best I had so far, sweet and with a delicious flavour. I also brought on the table rambutan and langsa, from Malaysia, and invited everyone to have as much as they wanted.

An interesting thing happened: while we were eating, our hosts joined us with their presence, standing nearby but without taking a seat at the same table, even after I invited them repeatedly. This was only for the guests and so a gesture of deep respect. We talked, laugh and I ate so much I couldn’t even move in the end.

It was a perfect dinner in a perfect company. At almost midnight they left, leaving the house to us only. Deesa and I were having a last Lion beer when I started hearing something outside, over the gate, not far from where we were. Something was moving in the dry vegetation, seemed like something big.

– Shhhh, hear that? I said

Deesa, who was in a very good mood at that moment, said was nothing, just my imagination. He continued his story about Singiyria and the king who build a kingdom there, up on that 200m high rock. Then again I heard it, even closer and louder.

– Do you hear it now? I interrupted him. See, it’s not my imagination. Maybe it’s a leopard, I joked. The noises continued until we heard some barking, like 4-5 dogs maybe but very aggressive.

– Ha, ha, it’s just dogs, you see… No lion, only Lion beer here, Deesa said.

We started laughing and the very next second we stopped suddenly and looked to one another with both surprise and uncertainty.

It sounded like a fight, a wild animal attacking, just a few meters outside the gate surrounding the yard where we were sitting. Roars followed by other noises, a clash and after, once again, those dogs barking. It lasted for maybe a couple of minutes during which non of us even blinked. We heard a few more barking noises and then suddenly it was silence.

– This was no dog, Deesa, I said, a bit worried. This was something wild. And pretty big!

– No, this was no dog, true.

– What was it then? I looked over my shoulder, checking the length of gate with my eyes. Is this gate safe enough?

– Don’t worry, it is safe here. Leopards sometimes come closer, they have started to eat dogs, that’s why.

I have no idea if that was indeed a leopard, I have never heard one before, in real life and either way not like this, attacking. But it was certainly a wild animal. After this episode, the silence that surrounded us was interrupted by nothing else but the joyful crickets. I went to bed soon after, around midnight.

6am

I thought I was dreaming but after a few more seconds I realised that terrible noise coming from the door was real. First I thought it was Deesa, who went nuts to hit the door like that, as if he wanted to tear it apart. Then I heard something that sounded like some squawks. So this was not Deesa!

Are monkeys hitting the door like that? I thought. It can’t be! I was in a natural reserve, true, but still… I heard a rush outside and for a couple of seconds was quiet. But right before I started to feel relief and happy I’ll have a few more minutes of sleep, the noise transfered quickly to the window, which happily was shuttered.

And so the show started! Squawks and scratches and miaowing and yawing and the conclusion was only one to made: was a pack of crazy monkeys who decided that no human was there to sleep at 6am. The thought that I should never complain again about the birds at home, making too much noise in summer early mornings, just crossed my mind. I had an itch to see what exactly was outside but I was a chicken, I admit. I just thought I would be quite outnumbered…

When they finally decided to leave I went outside, checking the area first from the door. Was almost 7am and and the jeeps for the safari were going to arrive soon. Deesa was just up and the moment I see him in the yard, I started:

– You won’t believe this! A large group of monkeys woke me up, they scratched and hit the door and then the window…

He just sits there with that look. But anyway I continue my description of the noises.

– Monkeys here, noooo, they don’t come here. You must have dreamt.

I didn’t got the time to insist on the authenticity of the happening and I hear him:

– Where are my sandals? I left them….. here….. Was nobody but us here last night.

– Now you still believe that I was dreaming???

As he looks around the yard and sees his sandals among other shoes threw out everywhere, we both start laughing.

– Hmmm! Those monkeys… I hear him mumbling as he starts picking up his sandals from all over the place.

Our hosts were just entering the yard. We kept all the stories, from midnight and the one in the morning, for us. Breakfast was soon ready and it looked like an Instagram post: fresh made appa, some local curved crunchy pancakes made of rice flour and fruits and honey, so again I ended up being too full.

The safari 

The jeeps arrived, we jumped in and headed to the entrance of the park. It was a very early morning and the red ground smelled fresh and life giving.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

I knew I wasn’t in a zoo but I somehow had big expectations. After about 2 hours riding on very bumpy alleys in the reserve, all I got to see were a peacock, an eagle, a heard of buffaloes and 2-3 crocodiles. I wasn’t disappointed but I was dreaming of seeing the lake and the elephants bathing there….                                                                                                     It seems they had other plans for that morning…. like hiding in the bushes.

We still got to see a few of them, a large male, a young one and then another one in some bushes. They were all eating for as long as we were observing them and seem to have no problem with us around. In the end, by a lake, another lonely male was putting on his natural sunscreen: the mud.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

So my first ever safari was fantastic, no doubt. I did saw the elephants in the wild, happy and free and nothing compares with the pure happiness of seeing a wonderful “beast” like this in his natural habitat, in his home. Even if this means waiting for long minutes in the sun, in front of a large bush where something moves, waiting for it to come out so you can get a glimpse. Yes, us, humans, are intrusive, with our jeeps and cameras. We probably look so silly to the animals. But if in places like this they can be free and safe, it’s still an acceptable compromise.

Sri Lanka, safari in Udawalawe, beautiful places

After having a bite of this wonderful wildlife sanctuary in Udawalawe, we headed south, on the Indian Ocean coast, to Mirissa, Unawatuna and Galle. Few places in this world can bring the peace through beauty as these purely exotic beaches can. With high coconut trees with swings hanging down, stretching above the sand on long sandy beaches where high waves bring surfers on and on to the shore, il looks like wallpapers. Those we get to see while at work, closed in glass and steel offices and doing tasks we force ourselves to believe are “motivating”, those we lie ourselves that are just Photoshop. But they are so real, out there.

Sri Lanka, Mirssa beach, beautiful places

We then continued our way back to Colombo, driving by that wonderful lush vegetation, by the rubber trees plantations, by the banana trees full of green bananas, by lakes surrounded by coconut trees, covered in water lilies and lotus flowers, by the greenest rice paddies or huge trees turned black by hundreds of big black bats sleeping on their branches. In Galle I watched the stilt fishermen on the costs, keeping alive this ancient tradition, one of the so many in this country, called the tear of India.

Sri Lanka, beautiful places, beautiful destinations

In the end, Sri Lanka was more then I can ever say, it touched my heart in a special way, through beauty, warmth and that charming simplicity that few places still keep. And it became one of my favourite beautiful places, where I just can’t wait to go back, for more.

P.S. It’s been almost a year since my trip there and I still keep in touch with Deesa. Last time we talked, a few days ago, he said business is going bad now. The tragedy that took place there on Easter makes people avoiding Sri Lanka and this means no customers. He doesn’t complain, he just hopes for better times.

If I had the time and money, I would go right this second back to Sri Lanka and stay there for a month, at least. I dream to go back one day, soon.