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04.08.11

WEB EXCLUSIVE: The dive world's Holy Grail

Three spurts of cold water at irregular intervals. That was it. A single, defiant offering from a shower that oozed remoteness and little else. I revelled in it, really. After flying all the way to Borneo, taking an internal flight, a one-hour car drive with a cavalier taxi driver and a 40km white knuckle boat ride across the Celebes Sea through a storm, somehow it wouldn’t have seemed right to arrive at a luxurious retreat. I was on Mabul Island, ready to experience a different kind of creature comforts - the underwater kind. Finally I was going to dive Sipadan, the Holy Grail for scuba divers.

A tiny oceanic island off the east coast of Borneo’s Sabah in East Malaysia, Pulau Sipidan sits on top of a large sea mountain extending over 600m down to the ocean floor. The island itself is a true paradise covered in palm trees and fringed with white, deserted beaches. Just a stone’s throw from the sand, the pale waters over the sandy seabed change abruptly to a deep blue where the wall reef begins. Teeming with more seafans and black soft and hard corals than you could ever imagine, this vast wall reef plays host to fish of all colours of the rainbow.

Given its mid-ocean position, Sipadan is also frequented by many pelagics cruising along the reef walls - hundreds of schools of barracudas, manta rays, hammerhead and reef sharks and an army of both green and hawksbill turtles. With its 12 dive sites, it really is no wonder that the esteemed Jacques Cousteau declared Sipadan an ‘untouched piece of art’.

 

School of barracuda by Jason Isley of Scubazoo - www.scubazoo.com

 

Since 2000, the Malaysian government has imposed dive limits to preserve the eco-system, allowing permits for only 120 divers per day. If not booked in advance, these can be hard to obtain, however it does make the diving experience all the more special for those lucky few who make the cut.

Like most divers, I had come here in search of encounters with the big fish and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Out in the blue, while hovering on my back, I watched two enormous schools of barracudas loom into tornado-style formations, for what seemed an eternity. They were so large that the beaming day’s sunlight was completely blocked out. Tens of metre-long grey reef sharks swam lazily past me, gathering in groups of threes.

But above all, let’s be truthful, Sipadan’s main attraction is its turtles. Diving in various locations across the world I have seen some beautiful turtles, but never so many all at once. On one dive alone I counted more than 20 - a mixture of both green and hawksbill. Nestled amongst the coral or rubbing an itchy spot against a rock, they gracefully made their way at steady intervals to the surface for a breather. Turtles glide slowly and elegantly through the water; being able to swim alongside one, matching their pace without inspiring fear is truly magical. One hawksbill was happily chomping on some soft coral along the reef wall. Steadying myself in the current, I hovered nearby and watched as this docile reptile dined. Though seemingly unfazed by my presence, after a short while I chose to give him some privacy - after all, no one likes to be watched when they’re eating.

 

 

Hawksbill turtle by Jason Isley of Scubazoo - www.scubazoo.com

 

Sipadan’s sheer profusion and diversity of life astounded me. There truly is no where better to experience all that the ocean has to offer.

By Daniela Marchesi

Daniela stayed at Uncle Chang’s Backpackers Lodge www.ucsipadan.com and flew with Malaysia Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com to Tawau (via Kuala Lumpar and Kota Kinabalu)

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