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Wednesday 7 Aug 2013
Sipadan, Malaysia

Sipadan: Diving Heaven

How quickly a statement like that gets challenged.  Today was the day that diving reached a whole new level: Sipadan.

Sipadan is an island off the coast of Sabah. The eruption of an underwater volcano left a pillar of lava standing on the ocean floor, the top of which became Sipadan.  Over the years it has become covered in coral and home to hundreds of species of marine life.  There is a beautiful shallow reef around the island, which drops away to well over 40m in an almost vertical drop-off.  This reef wall is full of nooks and crannies in which to find lobster, crabs and – my favourite – turtles!  Jacques Cousteau described Sipadan as one of the world’s best-preserved reef habitats and luckily the Malaysian government acted decisively to protect the area. There are now only 100 dive permits available each day, which includes those for the dive operators.

Na had given me her permit, but the secretary at Uncle Chang’s said it was too late to change the name, so I would have to go as Na.  Not a problem, except that it emerged they’d made a mistake when booking her permit.  With a name like Na My Ly, they’d assumed she was Chinese and registered her as such, despite her holding an American passport.  I would now have to become Chinese…

The registration process was quite simple – write name, sex and nationality in a book when we reached the island, then go and enjoy the amazing diving.  I wouldn’t need to actually show any ID.  So as long as nobody looked closely at what I wrote, it wouldn’t be an issue, but if I was caught out, then I might not be allowed back on the boat until the end of the day.  Uncle Chang’s would also get in trouble, but they were willing to risk it if I was.

All the way over, Dani and I rehearsed the least implausible explanations, such as my ‘husband’ being Chinese, but we got lucky when we reached the jetty.  The sign-in book was on a little shelf outside the window of the guard hut.  There was another boat full of divers signing in at the same time, some of whom were Chinese.  Our DM chatted to the guy through the side window, while I snuck in behind the other group and signed quickly before they had moved away.  Then I ran back to the boat before anyone looked at what had been written.  Hurrah! It worked!

Once away from the jetty, Dani and I high-fived each other and sang Bob Marley (“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright”) and Bruno Mars (“It’s a beautiful day, looking for something fun to do”) until we drove each other nuts.

Our first dive, South Point, was a reef wall where we actually went down to 38m.  Within a few breaths of dropping below the surface, I’d already seen three sharks and a turtle – what a great dive!  I was amazed by the variety and sheer volume of fish along the reef.  I spotted a huge spiny lobster in a little cave with his long antennae waving out at us.  On the break between dives, we went back to the island.  There used to be a few resorts here, but they were shut down by the government about 5 years ago.  Now there is a just a small army barrack, possibly a lingering result of the Philippine invasion earlier this year.  Today was the last day of Ramadan, which means three days of feasting.  The army guys had prepared loads of food and insisted we join them for coconut rice, chicken, curry and an assortment of sweet crispy snacks.  It reminded me a lot of being in Malaysia for the Muslim feast back in November 2009.

The second dive was at Barracuda Point, which will certainly stay in my all-time favourites list, no matter how many times I dive from now on.  I lost count of how many sharks there were: black tips, white tips and grey reefs.  We swam along next to the wall until we found our way blocked by the biggest school of fish I’ve ever seen.  They were shiny silver jacks, more like a cloud of mercury than a school of fish.  Swimming through them was a very strange experience because they part to swim around you, so it’s a bit like being encased in a silver bubble. I was already quite excited by this, but when I reach the other side, the jacks parted to reveal the edge of the reef with an enormous herd of bumphead parrotfish.  I counted at least 30 of them, all pointing in the same direction and just hanging there, hardly seeming to move at all.  I was lucky enough to see bumpheads in Gili waters and thought they were impressive then, but this herd was twice the size.  Just behind them was another surprise: a school of barracuda swimming lazily in a circle – not quite the tornado they can unleash, but still impressive.  As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a group of three huge turtles chilling out on the coral reef below.  I was so overwhelmed by all this that I had to force myself to close my eyes and slow my breathing down or I’d have blitzed through my tank in no time.  It was so exciting and so beautiful to see so much life in one place.  The only thing that soured the dive was that Santi’s camera had decided to reject the battery again, despite it being full, so I couldn’t take photos. 

Our third and final dive of the day was at Lobster Lair.  This was another wall dive, but this time it was full of little caves and ledges.  The majority of them were full of sleeping turtles, so I was in my element!  I had got the camera working again and was able to take some beautiful close-ups of them.  Nobody wanted to get out of the water after the safety stop. 

With such amazing diving here, I can see myself coming back again and again…


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