SIPADAN, JUNE 1994

This was my first true pleasure dive trip since certification. Wow, what a way to start ! The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and on to Tawau was uneventful. We had a a van arranged by the dive resort operator to take us from the airport at Tawau to Sempoerna. The road was narrow, dusty and full of pot holes and light traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, cattle and an assortment of small animals. The van was small and cramped with a less than optimal air conditioning. The driver however was clearly familiar with the road and was driving at speeds even I, a regular speed demon, thought was crazy. It was a scorching day and I was getting sleepy and finally gave in, thinking, if I'm going to buy the farm, I don't want to know about it. Anyway, we arrived in one piece at Sempoerna and got onto the speed boat which was to take us to Sipadan. The water had all kinds of rubbish floating in it but was remarkably clear, clearer than anywhere I had seen on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Hmm, good sign I thought. The 2 and a half hour (I think, lost track of time) trip in the speed boat started out badly. The path out to sea between the coastal islands had coconut husks floating in the water stretching to the horizon. The boat could not pick a clear path through the mess and it was inevitable that something bad would happen and of course it did. The propeller of one of the outboard motors fouled up on something, overheated, emitted smoke and died. It took 30 mins (well it felt like that long) to clear but the motor kept dying. We had to continue on one engine for a long way and then disaster, the second motor overheated and smoked. Another long delay but we soon got underway again and were out of the coconut minefield after more than an hour in it. Once clear of the minefield the boat behaved well. Open sea however had its problems too ... large waves. Not big enough to cause problems, but picture this, a speedboat travelling in access of 30 knots (guesstimate :) ploughing into half metre high oncoming waves ! The next one and a half hours was an incessant pounding of butt on hard wooden seat, OUCH ! Three painful hours (yet another guesstimate) after leaving Sempoerna we arrived at Sipadan. We couldn't get out of the boat fast enough.

We stayed at the Pulau Sipadan Dive Centre, one of three resort operators on that tiny island (The other two are Borneo Divers and The Pulau Sipadan Resort). After dealing with administrative matters such as how we were going to pay, room assignments, and the locations of critical facilities like the TV room, lavatories and showers, we had lunch. It was a nice meal and was an indicator to the gastronomic wonders we were to get during our stay. Apparently someone had just caught a tuna ... a BIG tuna. Meals started to get a distinctly tuna biased menu, tuna shashimi, tuna shushi, tuna porridge, tuna steaks, tuna curry ... you get the idea :). The variation in preparation styles and the freshness of the tuna made it quite pleasant.

Sipadan is a sea mount with the tip just above sea level. It is small enough to walk across in 15 mins and an slow leisurely stroll around takes just over an hour. There is a narrow shelf up to 20-30 metres from the beach in some places before a vertical plunge down to 2000 ft. Basically diving in Sipadan is means wall diving apart from the guided tours of the cave known as the turtle tomb. Psychologically, I never got used to having no bottom and generally stayed within 10 ft of the wall :). During the entire trip there was a thermocline at 60ft and a constant drift around the island. Water clarity was good but not as good as my expectations and didn't worsen or improve during my stay despite some overnight rains. The weather was fine, dry during the day, bright but cloudy. The clouds were a major disappointment to me though, that meant that my chance to see truly dark nights and the wonders of the night sky free of light pollution were ruined.

The Diving at Sipadan

I did a total of 13 dives over the 4 days I was at Sipadan, all using the wheel to compute ND Limits :), no fancy dive computers here !

Day 1 : 8th June 1994
Dive 1 : Checkout Dive 15:05
A quick 43 min shore dive after lunch starting off the jetty right in front of the resort. We went as far as the Turtle Cavern Tomb and came back. First time ever, looking down and not seeing the bottom ! I wasn't scared but I was definitely uneasy about seeing the the wall disappear into the deep blue depths. Keeping close to the wall lent a (false) sense of security :). Visibility wasn't very good, about 40ft. My definition of visibility may differ from yours and the visibility may have actually been better than my 40ft estimate but not having any visual references made it difficult to judge. I didn't want to go further away from the wall to check ! We went as deep as 75ft but saw more life above 30 feet. Apart from small fish and corals, we saw tuna and white tip sharks, ghostly shapes out in open water. They must have been 60+ ft away, so I guess 60ft may be a better measure of the visibility but 20-30ft is what I wrote in my logbook. There were also a few lion fish hiding in crevices along the wall.

Day 2 : 9th June 1994
Dive 2 : Barracuda Point 08:37
One of numerous named locations around the island. This time the boat took us round and we dived off the boat. Strangely enough we didn't see any barracuda ! We did however see white tip sharks, jacks, batfish and of course Sipadan's famous turtles. Lion fish seem to be everywhere around the island too. Sipadan has a constant drift around the island and we just went along with it and the boat picked us up at a pre designated point. This was another short dive for me, 43 mins ... must be my fast breathing, still haven't gotten used to the idea of 2000 ft depths. Visibility was a bit better at about 30ft (for sake of consistency :).

Dive 3 : Stag Horn Crest 11:44
Yet another short (5 mins) boat trip. The drift was strong and there was a marked COLD thermocline at 60ft. This was THE most memorable dive of the trip. The dive started well when we encountered a HUGE school of moorish idols which we passed as the drift took us along the wall. Then out in the distance, close to the wall ahead some large shapes appeared. As we the drift took us closer, we started to make out some large, long fish, barracuda ! A huge school, circling in a huge whirlpool 30-40 ft off the wall at a depth of about 50 ft, completely filling my view. It seemed like there was barracuda everywhere. Completely in awe of the spectacle I didn't think of finning against the drift to keep in contact with them. Sadly as quickly as the drift took me into view, the drift took me away. Fortunately our trip organiser caught the entire sequence on video. With all the excitement and heavy breathing my air ran low after a mere 36 mins. Well, I did spend 5 mins at 80 ft. Oh yeah, we saw turtles too :). Although short, easily the best dive I've ever done so far !

Dive 4 : Hanging Gardens 15:39
All the dive sites at Sipadan are reachable by boat within 5 mins and this is no exception. The Hanging Gardens is aptly named, at around 40-60 feet the soft corals hang vertically off the rocky overhangs projecting off the wall, weird ! As usual there was a thermocline at 60ft and we stayed in the warm water above. I must be getting used to wall diving, 51 mins total bottom time ! Did I mention the turtles, sharks and lion fish ? :) They are kinda getting a bit common :).

Dive 5 : Shore dive off the front of the resort 17:30
I bought a few underwater disposable cameras along to try out. At about US$15 each, rated for 15 ft depths, they seemed like a good idea until I can afford a Nikonos :). In between our scheduled dives which were included in the trip cost, you can make an unlimited number of shore dives free, just grab a tank and go. So off we went and I brought one of the disposables along. I spent 30 mins using up the 24 exposures in a shallow dive on the shelf off the beach. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy and I didn't get the bright sunshine needed to make these cameras do well. The pictures were disappointing. I might get around to scanning and colour correcting them one day.

Dive 6 : Night Dive off the jetty 20:40
This was my one and only night dive at Sipadan, not because I didn't enjoy it, it was just that the next few days diving was totally exhausting us :). Anyway, armed with my dinky little torch (four 1.5 volt batteries) and another disposable camera, yeah, I'm nuts :). Anyway, there was this guy with the video camera and really bright strobes .... I was sticking to him like glue :). We went as deep as 30ft and the camera worked ! Worked meaning, it took a picture ... albeit black featureless pictures :). Lion Fish were in abundance, hiding between rocks and in cracks along the wall. There were also lots of turtles, resting on beds of coral ... they kindly tolerated the occasional torch beam in the face despite agitated warnings from the dive leader about turtles attacking torch wielding divers at night ! Some kind of red fish were plentiful too, dunno what they are called though. Following the guy with the strobe I attempted to take pictures with my disposable, "augmenting" the strobes with my torch :). Some pictures did actually come out ok ! Anyway, we left after an enjoyable 40 minute dive.

Day 3 : 10th June 1994
Dive 7 : Boat Dive at Mid Reef 08:43
This was the least memorable dive I made at Sipadan. Turtles are so common that seeing one isn't "special" any more :). Spent the entire dive swimming against the current but despite this I managed to make my air last 52 minutes ! I must be getting used to diving in a bottomless sea :).

Dive 8 : Boat Dive at Coral Gardens 11:45
Well, there was a great abundance of coral. I'm not a great fan of coral, big fish are what make my day :). We were diving at a point two opposing currents met, which created some strange effects, like the mixed up thermocline which instead of the normal 60ft depth was varied between 30-50 ft. The visibility wasn't great though because of the currents. My air lasted 50 mins this time .... getting good at this :).

Dive 9 : Boat Dive at Turtle Patch 15:45
Me and my disposable camera again :). This time I kept at 30ft or less to get good light for photos. Unfortunately it was cloudy and visibility wasn't good. The usual turtles were around, but this time we saw a shark (a white tip I believe). The shark was a welcome change because by now almost all my photos had turtles !

Day 4 : 11th June 1994
Dive 10 : Boat Dive at South Point 08:46
Yet another dive to take pictures. This time I got bolder, I took the disposable down to 60ft and hit the limit of the camera .... it can take a picture but cannot advance the film. Looks like 40ft is the operational limit of the camera ... not bad for something that is rated for 15ft ! Anyway, large sea life was plentiful, a huge school of jacks, the ubiquitous turtles, quite a few white tip sharks and even a moray eel ! Most of the sharks were small, less than 4 ft long and many were lying motionless on the coral reef shelf ... hmm, I always though sharks needed to keep in motion to breathe. Anyway, white tips are shy things that swim away at my approach. A curious scene was of two little fish chasing each other in a small circle about 4 inches diameter. Occasionally they would stop and instantly reverse directions and continue despite our proximity (about 5ft).

Dive 11 : Boat Dive starting at White Tip Avenue and ending at Mid Reef 11:46
Yet more turtles .... but we saw a really HUGE one with a big fat tail as thick as my thigh ! Also swimming at 60ft just above the thermocline I saw a pretty big leopard shark below at about 80ft ... biggest darned shark of any kind I've ever seen, looked like a 6 footer. Visibility was much improved due to the rain the previous night.

Dive 12 : Shore dive and cave dive into Turtle Cavern 16:00
Apart from my encounter with the giant school of barracudas, this was probably my most exciting dive. However, this was not the cavern Sipadan is more famous for which needs greater expertise and specialised equipment for cave diving to enter. Anyway, we entered the water in front of the resort and descended to 60ft to a brightly lit sandy shelf at the cave entrance. The water was warm up to then and suddenly freezing water at the entrance. The cave entrance was huge (you could almost drive a bus through it) and visible in daylight from almost anywhere in the cavern. Apart from the red fish I saw in the night dive there wasn't any large sea life in the cavern. Large long dead creatures were present though, we saw a dolphin, marlin and turtle skeleton. Water in the cavern was crystal clear, without having any suspended particles. The floor of the cavern was a very fine silt which billowed up like smoke when disturbed. We also went into a smaller chamber (I can't remember which skeleton was in here, the dolphin one I think). Another interesting phenomenon was the effect of our air bubbles running along the cavern ceiling, very much like crystal clear water flowing over rocks in a stream, except it was upside down ! Apparently the air didn't remain trapped long and eventually found its way out through the cavern roof.

Anyway, we still had air left and decided to look around outside the cavern. I dropped my touch trying to stick it in my BCD side pocket .... thank God for the sandy shelf at the cavern mouth .... I would really spoil my trip if I had to go down to 2000ft to retrieve it :). We encountered an octopus and a moray eel in the crevices outside the cavern. The dive leader videoed a sequence of the octopus changing colours dramatically when approached.

There is a scary story accompanying this dive. Apparently the during previous week a Japanese diver had died in the cavern. From what I have heard, this was what happened. There was a routine visit by a group of divers just like we had just done. This guy though wasn't satisfied and went back ... ALONE ! ... at NIGHT ! In daylight the cavern entrance cannot be missed, however, at night it is practically invisible. The guy went in and couldn't find his way out. They found his body the next day. That probably explains why the cavern entrance was so cold !

Dive 13 : Off the Jetty 17:30
My last dive at Sipadan :(. We stayed on the narrow shelf around the jetty. Pretty interesting dive which proves you don't need to go deep to see good things. Apart from 2-3 different species of lionfish, more turtles, a moray eel, a tiny little, inch long stonefish (I call it a stonefish because it looks like a stone and not because I have positively identified it as a stonefish ! :). Most interesting to me were the many spawning sargeant majors. Depth was about 5ft and I could see the tiny little purple eggs on the surface of rocks and these little fish standing guard over them.

Epilogue
I was truly sad to leave Sipadan and vowed to come back soon. The boat ride back was uneventful expect for someone sighting dolphins and I couldn't see any ! We had a pretty good and reasonably priced seafood dinner at Kota Kinabalu before our flight back to KL. All in all, the best dive trip I have ever been on ... and the only resort I have been to where you get hot water showers !