A diving trip to Sipadan had been on the cards since I first got my Open Water cert. Upon my return from Thailand, my workmate Kit was stoked to find he had someone else to talk diving with. And I still remember his advice - "You've got to dive Sipadan". So two years on, a spare month after Nepal before heading home, South East Asia was on the way home, I hadn't dived in nearly a year. It all made sense - Sipadan, here I come!
I was sitting in my Penang hostel asking one of the staff about diving in Malaysia. “Our manager is a diver, she'll be in later”, I was told. A few hours later, I'm introduced to Miriam. Turns out she was not just a diver, she was a Dive Master with nearly 1000 dives! And she'd also worked as a Dive Master in Borneo and had first-hand experience of Sipadan. So later that night, beer in hand, we talked all things diving. I was told in no uncertain terms - “It'll be the best diving you've ever done!”. My year of travelling was all about amazing experiences, what could be more amazing than a dive site often rated the best in the world?
A few weeks later, I landed in Tawau, the nearest airport to Sipadan. After a night in the port town of Semporna, I wandered down to the Scuba Junkie office. Paperwork completed, it was time to leave. Less than an hour later we reached Mabul Island, my home for the next five days. No time to relax, I was off the boat and within 30 minutes I was on the dive boat, getting briefed and meeting my dive master for the day, a jovial local named Man, and my new dive buddy for the next few days, the very awesome Sophia from France. 5 minutes later we were at first site, Lobster Wall. Dive gear went on, last minute buddy checks done and it was time to go.
It had been 11 months since my last dive, I was confident I'd remember everything but still a little apprehensive. Turned there was nothing to worry about. Neutral buoyancy came immediately and I could start admiring the local underwater scenery. As it turned out, there were no lobsters to be found but plenty of other amazing marine life – several stingrays, a reclusive bamboo shark hiding under a small overhang, several moray eels and plenty of tiny but oh-so-cute nudibranchs.
The beauty of diving Mabul is that the local dive sites (with the exception of those at nearby Kapalai Island) are all no more than five minutes away by boat so between dives the boat heads back to Mabul and I could chill out. We were well looked after at Scuba Junkie's Mabul resort. Three buffet meals a day, tea and coffee 24/7, and a spacious and comfortable bar area to relax in upstairs, the perfect spot to discuss the days dives and get advice and info from divers far more experienced than me. Recommendations for dive sites came thick and fast - Flores, Komodo, Tubbataha and many more.
An hour later, we're off again. This time, the dive site is Seaventures. A oil rig converted into an offshore dive resort only a few hundred metres offshore, its support pylons make for a great artificial reef, attracting all manner of underwater critters. We descend to 15 metres and immediately encounter a lionfish – we also manage to find scorpionfish, crocodilefish and a spectacularly-coloured peacock mantis shrimp.
After the third dive I finally had time to properly relax. Diving is a lot more draining than it looks and I was exhausted. I'm not embarrassed to admit that by 8pm on the first night I was ready for bed.
Over the next few days, I dove a total of 9 times and had the chance to dive many great sights around Mabul and nearby Kapalai. A particular favourite was the unique House Reef off Kapalai Island, where a series of wooden house frames have been sunk to help regenerate a barren site, devastated by dynamite fishing in previous decades. They're now home to a wide variety of marine life, creating a feeling of diving in Spongebob's home of Sandy Bottom. Omnipresent morays, frogfish, striped catfish, and the strikingly-patterned flamboyant cuttlefish were all to be found, hovering around the wooden beams.
One of the more memorable moments over the first few days came when diving near the Seaventures rig. We encountered a large school of bigeye barracuda, hundreds strong. These aren't your typical fierce looking barracuda. Instead they're skinny, only around 40-50cm long and, as the name suggests, eyes far bigger than you'd expect for a fish their size. We'd encountered them twice and were later admiring a pufferfish when Man signalled me to turn around. And there they were again, this time hovering right behind me, staring at me with their giant eyes, seemingly more curious about me than I was about them!
Finally the big day arrived. Up at 5:45am, a light breakfast and down to the boat. 30 minutes later, we approached the tropical island of Sipadan. Palm trees, sandy beaches and water as clear as glass; it was everything I'd imagined. Most importantly, the narrow strip of light-coloured water was surrounded by deep blue, indicating a sudden drop in depth.
What makes Sipadan so special is that it is Malaysia's only oceanic island. Every other island in Malaysia is a shallow sandy island. Sipadan, however, rises hundreds of metres up from the sea floor, built up over millions of years by volcanic activity. Its extreme drop-offs, up to 2000 metres at one point, create some of the best wall diving in the world.
After landing briefly on Sipadan to register (since it is a marine park, diving permits are limited to 120 a day to reduce ecological impact. It's also a small military post – no major reason, just territorial claims from Indonesia and several cases years earlier of militant groups from the Philippines kidnapping diving groups for ransom! Perfectly safe now though), we were off to our first dive site of the day, South Point.
South Point is an outstanding example of a wall dive, where the rock wall of an island descends steeply to the bottom. As a result, you dive alongside the wall, making for excellent viewing of the untouched coral and anemones, as well as the myriad species of fish that live amongst them.
Up to this point in my diving career (27 dives over 2 years) I'd never seen a shark. OK, I'd seen smaller varieties, such as bamboo shark and a baby reef shark, but never anything bigger. I'd been promised that I'd see sharks at Sipadan, it was just a question of which species. The first to arrive were white-tip reef sharks. Although they were small (1.5-2 metres) and generally harmless to humans, it was still a special experience watching their streamlined bodies glide effortlessly by. As it turned out, the white-tips were the only sharks on display that day, with the black-tips, hammerheads and threshers staying away.
Next up was Barracuda Point, often rated as one of the top dive sites in the world. Barracuda Point is also a wall dive, although this time there were currents that also make it a drift dive, where you let the current take you, meaning near-effortless diving (until you want to stay stationary to observe something!). After following the wall for around 30 minutes, we ascended slightly to dive over the reef. A huge variety of marine species were on show for us - giant trevally, more white-tip reef sharks, hawksbill turtles and a curious green turtle that followed me for several minutes.
Moments before the end of the dive, a huge dark mass slowly approached. But this was no single creature – a huge school of jacks, at least a thousand strong, slowly moved past us. Unfortunately Barracuda point only shared a handful of its namesake barracuda but we still left the water smiling.
Our third dive was at Hanging Garden. Located on the southern side of Sipadan, the drop to the ocean floor below was a mind-boggling 2000 metres. As with most of the Sipadan dives, we followed a wall covered with coral and plants, with numerous turtles and fish coming in to feed. Halfway through the dive, our divemaster signalled us and we began to leave the island and swim into the blue. Within minutes, we lost all sense of direction, with the only indication of our bearings coming from the light above. Of course, our divemaster was experienced so we were in safe hands but still an eerie experience.
Strong ocean currents form a 'highway' of sorts past Sipadan. We'd been told that every dive there is different, there was no predicting what may arrive on the currents during a swim out into the blue, although we were hoping to replicate the previous day, where my Alaskan friends Leanne and Chris had spotted no less than 7 hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately the hammerheads were nowhere to be found today, only a handful of turtles but still a magical experience.
Last dive of the day was at Dropoff, formerly rated as the best shore dive (where you enter the water from the shore, as opposed to entering via boat) in the world but now that Sipadan is a marine reserve, shore dives are prohibited. Instead, you have the surreal situation of boarding the dive boat, gearing up and moving no more than thirty metres to the entry point!
This was a great dive to finish off with. We started with dropping down to, then entering, Turtle Cave. For safety reasons we could only go about 10 metres in but far enough to feel the dimensions of the cave and to have a great silhouette view of passing fish.
For the next 30 minutes we followed the wall, numerous turtles keeping us company, two small groups of yellow-tail barracuda and some amazing coral formations clinging to the wall. As we neared the end of the dive, we encountered a huge school of jacks. Admiring from a close distance, they came close, until I found myself surrounded, circled in slow motion by hundreds of inquisitive eyes. Not quite the famed barracuda tornado I'd heard so much about but amazing nonetheless, it was a surreal experience to be surrounded by a school so dense I could no longer see my fellow divers. I can honestly say I finished that dive with a huge grin on my face. It's experiences like these that make me more and more passionate about diving with every trip.
A quick note on the photos - many of them have a Dive+ watermark. I haven't stolen the photos, they're all mine. Dive+ is an app I use, one of its features is a photo editor to adjust the red balance of photos. One of the challenges of dive photography is light; the deeper you go, the more the colours change, hence the need to adjust.