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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

The infamous Pulau Sipadan

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 21 September 2006.

Malaysia, Country 22, Diary entry 21st-26th July 2006, Total distance in Peninsular Malaysia: 3442 KM, Total distance in Borneo, Malaysia: 2628 KM, Total distance in Malaysia: 6070 KM

With One Dollars’ driver keeping our hand baggage safely hidden (Camera Pelicase x2, laptop & rucksack – a mere 20kg a best), whilst we nervously edged closer to the check in desk, clasping the ‘extra 10kg weight limit for divers’ document printed off their website, check in for us is always like visiting the dentist… you know you have to go, but you don’t know how much it’s gonna hurt! We’d already been told that Air Asia were very strict on their weight limit and you all know by now that we don’t travel light. Leaving hand baggage with a friend has always been a winner for us… but pleeease can we squeeze it in – look I don’t have any hand baggage :) With the scales groaning, we were impressed to see it read only 50kg.. we had 10kg in hand, perhaps I could have packed that second pair of boxer shorts after all!

Temporary stand in replacement for Tinfish

The plane was late… synonymous with Air Asia (who apparently are ‘The official Low Fare airline for Manchester United’ although I’m not sure many of their game fixtures bring them this way!) and budget airlines the world over, so we relaxed in the new cattle shed come terminal where all budget airlines fly from. With time on our hands we lowered ourselves to grabbing a McD’s as that was all that looked ‘edible’, then got talking to a couple also flying to Sipadan. I had already been trying to organise our transfer from the airport to the resort for early the next morning as they don’t normally expect people to arrive the night before, (it would have made for a very long day to get the morning flight, followed by a midday 3hr transfer and then diving - all in the same day) but hadn’t as yet sorted out any accommodation for the night.. preferring to find cheap and cheerful when we arrived.

I'm not much of a footie fan, but do Man U actually play in Asia?

Christian kindly called up his tour company to ask if we could squeeze into the minibus with them and transfer to Semporna where the boats leave from, rather than Tawau, where the flights land and about 2hrs south. For us this would avoid very early O’clock, which seemed a good plan already. There was also a room free in the hotel they were staying in, but that wasn’t so cheerfully priced so we kindly thanked him and said we’d look on arrival. With free seating we all finally scrummed aboard the plane and settled in for the 3 hour flight.

A pair of sweetlips.. Some of the delights of Sipadan

On arrival in Sabah, Borneo even though an internal flight you still have to pass through immigration again as they have retained this procedure even though they are now part of Malaysia. In the baggage hall, all divers’ eyes were transfixed on the conveyor belt willing their bags to come out and hoping they weren’t left on the tarmac back at KL. A dive holiday with no dive kit is a bit of a problem! One, two, three bags… all present and correct – yippee! At this time we got talking to another couple of Brits who had only recently learnt to dive and were in the area so thought Sipadan here we come. They had about as much clue as to what they were doing as us, but managed to blag a lift too, so to a confused driver who was only expecting 2, 6 of us clambered into the minibus.

Early morning transfer by speedboat

Even more perplexed when only 2 got out at the hotel, we asked him to take us to Scuba Junkies backpacker hostel as Donkey had told us this was the place to be. And obviously it was too as there was no room at the inn. A ‘just over there direction’ took us on a roundabout walk to the Dragon Inn water village, with rooms to suit all budgets… the shared dorms looked just the ticket after confirming that all our bags could stay safe at the reception. Of course our ton of luggage was back at Scuba Junkies being guarded by Maz, but David kindly offered his services as pack mule after we’d managed to help them out with their transfer to Semporna. After a long journey and although late already a beer was top of the next to do list. So back to the Scuba Junkies bar for a cold one and no surprises we bumped into Donkey who had just returned from dinner with Corinne.

Maz struggles with her shrunk wetsuit!

With an 8am pick up arranged, we didn’t stay too long, preferring sleep. During the night it threw it down and wouldn’t I choose the only top bunk just below a tiny hole in the roof which dripped continually! Never mind tomorrow we’d be across the waves at our luxurious resort and diving Sipadan… infamous amongst divers. Bleary eyed we awoke thankful to have not stayed in Tawau and dragged ourselves out of bed to meet our boat transfer and were soon speeding across the waves in the morning sun eagerly anticipating some great diving. You can’t actually stay on Pulau Sipadan anymore in an attempt to help protect the ecosystem and divers are limited and require daily permits to control numbers. The picture perfect water village resorts are now clustered around either Mabul or Kapali. Ours was moored just off Mabul.

Ahh paradise - Oil Rig version!

As we left the mainland behind us the profile of Pulau Mabul and paradise could be seen on the horizon inching closer, however our home for the next few days stood out in stark contrast to the scene of natural beauty unfolding before us. Towering above the waves and standing some 100ft tall was our Oil Rig..! Yes that’s right an old decommissioned Oil Rig had been towed round to this paradise setting lowered it’s 6 steel legs and was there to stay, the most unique dive resort I’ve ever stayed at! As the boat drew alongside we stared amazed as a platform was lowered down to the water for us all to climb aboard and we were then winched up to the deck, to be greeted with a orange cocktail drink…we’d arrived in paradise… well at least our version of paradise for travellers on a shoe string!

The lift comes down to greet us

Formalities complete and shown our cabin, the first dive was a check out dive under the rig itself. Our guide Mando briefed us and we were soon back on the lift in full dive kit being lowered back down to the water. It couldn’t have been easier.. you just jump off and sink! Even though there wasn’t much of a reef, the legs of the rig have attracted shoals of fish which seem fearless of the divers. Even though Mando frantically banged his tank to get our attention, we swam around at our own pace, watching the aptly named crocodile fish, the weird bump head parrot fish and colourful moray eels. Mando kept reappearing frantically trying to show us something else.

Aptly named crocodile fish The beautiful minute piggy seahorse

One such find was a fascinating Piggy Seahorse smaller than the nail on my little finger, although we were somewhat alarmed at the method taken to locate this beautiful creature. They live on sea fans and take on the exact colour and texture of the sea fan so blend almost completely. Even after you’ve seen it, if you take your eyes away for a moment, it takes all your concentration to find it again. As divers, one is always taught to look don’t touch as this can severely damage the delicate underwater life that as divers we flock to marvel at. Even the slightest touch of a coral can lead to its demise as you inadvertently remove the mucus that protects it from infection. When Mando then set about poking and shaking the fan coral with his metal pointer to try to find the seahorse by dislodging it, we were appalled and tried to stop him.. but he didn’t understand. They are so used to showing the divers what they want to see and this is a BIG find, I guess somehow it relates to diver (ie customer) satisfaction and with it the possibility of tips! We were very disappointed. Where ever I’ve seen these metal ‘pointers’ in use to harass the marine life for the benefit of performing a show to the on looking divers, there’s one place I’d love to shove it which will get them blowing a few more bubbles than they were anticipating!

The exotic looking dragon fruit

After a fine feed and a huge plate of fresh fruit including the odd looking dragon fruit (although it’s looks are all it has going for it, you end up with a mouthful of tasteless mush and hard gravel like seeds) we were briefed on the next dive, just across from the rig and the Mabul resort ‘house reef’, Froggie Layer. It was in fact an artificial reef made of wooden frames not too dissimilar to the stilted huts on the waters edge of the resort itself. Although visibility wasn’t great, we were blown away by the fish life since we were literally just a stones throw from the shore. Schools of thousands of Jack fish circled the wooden structures, an enormous giant grouper nearly 5ft sheltered amongst the timbers and we saw some more firsts… frog fish! Looking more like a sponge, these curious fish lie in ambush dangling their lures just above their mouths enticing the small fish to swim this way. They aren’t the prettiest fish in the ocean, I’d go so far as to say they are hideous, but at the same time strangely enticing! They come in all colours and sizes and we saw a giant frog fish and a smaller painted frog fish which was bright orange.. a sponge with a mouth!

A sponge with a mouth

Resting between dives with the whole rig pretty much to ourselves, the lift went down again to pick up the afternoon arrivals. A couple were greeted with the orange cocktails, which the lady took in an apparent state of confusion, staring with bewilderment around her new surroundings. Maz waved but no response. We were whisked off for our final dive leaving the couple to settle in and adjust to their new paradise resort. Again over at Mabul for the not so imaginatively named Rocky Reef, this was a macro dive looking for all things small and colourful. Although we normally do our best to avoid a guide which is almost always unfortunately a requirement when diving overseas, on this occasion it was invaluable as neither Maz nor me has the patients to hunt out the little critters much preferring a school of dolphins to can-can by, or sharks to gnash their teeth as they eye us menacingly! Mando managed to point out a range of beasties small and pretty, the highlight for me being a brilliantly multi-coloured, green, blue & orange mandarin fish.

The muli-coloured mandarin fish

Showered and changed for dinner we met Sue and Neil on the helicopter pad, our fine open air restaurant. She’d recovered a little from the shock of finding herself on an Oil Rig. Their travel agent had told them that they’d be staying on the reef, which of course conjured up images of the delightful water village to our right, I asked if perhaps she’d misheard, expecting to hear reef but actually being told rig. Look at it this way, we get to stay in a reasonably priced dive resort and experience the same diving as everyone else and the view from our window is a beautiful island with an ornate stilted water village tip toeing out over the turquoise water, where as they’ve all paid a kings ransom and the view from their window is a great big ugly rusting Oil Rig! Every cloud hey!

The view from our window

The early diver catches the action… so alarm set for 6.30 we reported for duty on the drilling platform, coffee and toast in hand. Unfortunately we were working to local time and when there was little action come 7am, I started nudging. Eventually we were all on the lift and being lowered to the speed boat which would take us the 30mins ride to Sipadan. With just myself and Maz onboard (plus guide of course) we were delighted to see that we were first to arrive, although hot on our heels were the other boats converging on the island from all the other resorts and the mainland. First dive Barracuda Point, the premier dive spot. Sipadan is in fact the tip of an underwater mountain which rises 600m from the seabed. What makes it such a unique site, is that literally within a mere 25m of the beach the sides plummet on a near vertical cliff all the way down to the inky depths below. As it is the only such feature for miles around it absolutely teams with fish life and is simply magnificent.

The lift makes diving easy Doing down..!

We’ve been around the dive block a few times and some might say we’re getting harder and harder to please, also given our affinity for wrecks it shouldn’t be taken lightly when I say my first impression when I hit the water was… wow.. mind blowing..! I’m not sure if it was the thousands of jack shoaling near the surface, or the 2 turtles on the ledge or the grey reef shark cruising below, all within the first turn of the head, but the place definitely earns it’s ‘top ten’ reputation! Unlike Mabul and Kapali, this is the range of the BIG stuff and with the darkness beckoning below, teasing you to sink deeper down the wall as you hang with absolutely nothingness below, you could simply reach out and touch the cliff!

One of the many white tip sharks

Every now and then you’d catch a big grey reef shark sneaking up behind you. White tip sharks were in abundance and enjoyed resting on the flatter parts, normally in groups of half a dozen or more. They didn’t like having their picture taken though and as much as I tried to creep up on them they’d always disperse with a flick of their tails just as I was about close enough. It was noticeable when the masses had caught us up and diver soup had entered the water as all the bigger fish went deeper. I’m glad numbers are limited now as it must have been mad before. Unfortunately we didn’t see the tornado of barracuda which favour this spot and give the site its name, but we’d had more than a good enough dive and were elated.

Pulau Sipadan You are now only allowed on this beach for lunch Just by the jetty the cliff plumets vertically to 600m

After a surface interval on the island with sarnies and fresh fruit we were back in the water diving White Tip Avenue. I think they got the name wrong & should have called it Turtle Avenue! I can’t remember how many turtles we saw, we stopped pointing them out unless they were swimming in pairs! It was funny to find them resting on the ledges, having a snooze. You could get very close to them and rest side by side as they watched you watching them! Some were hung out, draped in the branches of these bushes that sprouted from the cliff side, just chilling and watching the world swim by. They looked very amusing. There were hawks bill turtles and the much larger green turtles and as we ascended from the dive there were 4 swimming around us. Awesome!

Peek-a-boo Formations swimming

Back to the rig for lunch. It may have been a big chunk of metal perched on the edge of Mabul, however that’s not to say that the food wasn’t fantastic and we risked needing to add extra weights to our belts as our waist lines increased. We’ll diet in the next country – honest! We joined the others for our final dive of the day, Gurnard Ground over at Kapali, which was a return to the little critters. They had also sunk an old wooden fishing hull, so I couldn’t avoid a lap around that too. Nice dive and some pretty fishies, but give me Pulau Sipadan any day.

Relaxing on the heli-pad Plenty of time to relax on our Rig

With the current flowing, a night dive under the reef was out, so we relaxed on the heli pad for dinner and chatted with Neil and Sue instead. We were off to Sipadan again tomorrow and after hearing our stories we all agreed that an early start was necessary. However tomorrow we had a Malaysian family of snorkelers joining us and they didn’t seem too enthusiastic about an early morning, after all they were on holiday. After a bit of explaining and cajoling by the staff they eventually agreed. Furthermore we’d also been able to bend the arm of the Seaventure staff and allow us to spend all day on Sipadan and do 3 dives there instead of the normal 2, then one back at the ranch. The plan was set, so early to bed.

The drilling platform - come lounge! Partners in crime - Neil & Sue

Of course the staff needed a bit more training in the art of leaving on time and we congratulated ourselves that we made it away by 7.30am. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t behaving and a nice sea had stirred up in the channel between Mabul and Sipadan. The cox’n was concerned that the children were okay, however they seemed to be loving the rollercoaster ride with real water effects! First dive again was Barracuda Point and although the stars of the show were still absent we nevertheless enjoyed a superb dive. The lure to go deep was overwhelming and I sunk below Maz into the abyss to get closer to the bigger sharkies. I restricted myself to 40m (a shade below the ‘rules’) but what I wouldn’t give to have my old faithful KISS rebreather and a good trimix, what a fantastic dive location this would be…. Down to 70m odd and spend time looking for the ever fabled hammerheads, then slowly ascend throughout the dive decompressing as you float further along the wall and enjoying a totally different dive in the shallows, right up until you eventually break the surface. Next time, maybe.

Maz goes off exploring - her own playground

The next two dives of the day were back at Barracuda Point and Coral Garden respectively. The second was trying to find a little shelter from the persistent weather and the third to find a bit better visibility. Although we’d assumed that the rain was the cause of the visibility, we were informed that it’s fairly typical for the area. We had been expecting gin clear waters, but more realistically it was 10 to 15m. The deeper you went you sunk beneath the thermocline, which resulted in cooler although clearer water, to the warmer, relatively murky water of the shallows. Near the surface however, as the wall in parts breached the surface at low water, the brilliant sunlight clearly lit up the scene and one could watch the daily colourful life of the reef going about its business almost as if you were watching the scenes from finding Nemo. The guys that wrote that really studied the reef well and mask off to the guys for their realism.

Back to work - the internet cabin

Back on rig we caught up with email in the email cabin… it was either that or the karaoke lounge. As the next day was the last for us all, we readily agreed we wanted to do 3 more dives at Sipadan. Being the transfer day, the staff weren’t so sure, but we happily re-arranged the transfer schedule to suit – boy these guys will be glad when we’ve gone! The wind had died from yesterday and we made our best leave time yet.. 7.10am. Rumour had it that the barracuda were back, so you guessed it Barracuda Point to kick off. Apparently Mando had been tipped off as to where they were, so assuming we’d be dropped off nearby, we were a little bemused when he proceeded to swim into the current for a good 10 to 15mins which I can tell you is hard going. If sense would have prevailed, we’d have been dropped in up stream, but no, these guys have set points as to where to drop you off for Barracuda Point and there was no thought involved.

Our gust of barracuda

We don’t do currents.. unless we’re drifting with them, so after prolonged hard work, we waved goodbye, turned and floated back down stream. Sods law, just after we left them, the tornado arrived - @rse! We did however have our own fly by of a gust of about 100 barracuda, a zephyr of which tailed us eyeingly for the rest of the dive. These were big fellows as well, a good 4ft with big beady eyes and needle sharp teeth. These weren’t the problem however as Maz was making herself a pretty good target for the trigger fish. These little devils are just over a foot long with about 6ft of attitude, diamond shaped with the weapon room containing an arsenal of four jagged teeth which they normally use to crunch through coral and rock when they’re not practicing on divers. During nesting season they get immensely territorial and very aggressive, so woe betided anyone who strays their way… as Maz found herself during repetitively. One took a lovely chunk out of the side of Maz’s fin, but she was lucky, we’ve since heard stories of someone having the top of their ear bitten off! It’s so common for the masses to be terrified of sharks the monsters of the deep, but in reality every diver knows these just stay out of the way (mostly) and it’s the little aggressive buggers a fraction of your size that will have a go!

Trig - Maz's arch adversary

During our break on the island a couple of helicopters swooped in and disgorged their group of VIP’s. Transpired they were doing a bit for TV about ‘how safe is Sipadan’ after the high profile kidnappings which occurred back in 2000 when 20 hostages were snatched by a Filipino terrorist group and held for 5 months. The area is now definitely visibly guarded and we felt quite safe… so long as no one attacked! They even joined us on our boat to film us jumping into the water… film stars again!

On camera again

Our final two dives at Sipadan, Stag Horn Crest and Hanging Garden were just as pleasurable with more turtles, sharks, trigger fish, turtles, Maz swimming fast pursued by a trigger fish, more turtles and more multi colour fish of all shapes and sizes getting along just dandy. Although we missed the Tornado all the more reason to come back for. :) Back at the rig, we washed and packed all our kit away and prepared for our departure after one last feed. I can still picture the silhouette of our Oil Rig standing proudly, long after the dainty water villages had merged into oblivion with the horizon.

Our paradise disappears into the distance Divekit drying in our hotel room

Land ahoy! With a pit stop for ice-cream satisfied (of recent we should have got sponsorship from Cornetto!) we watched the countryside whisk by as we headed back to Tawau. With our onward flight not until the next morning we treated ourselves to a comfortable but basic hotel then walked the streets looking for somewhere tasty for dinner. With various suggestions of time needed for a taxi to the airport, we played safe and booked for the average scenario. Being only 15mins out of town you’d be amazed that someone suggested 45mins!! They’d rather have a wild guess than just say, sorry I don’t know. We needn’t have worried, budget flight = delay. We finally waved our farewells to Neil and Sue who were heading back to their teaching jobs in Vietnam and boarded our flight to Kota Kinabulu aka KK to be re-united with Tinfish.

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