Though not a particularly appealing town, Semporna does have a lively waterfront market and a mosque attractively framed against the waters of the Celebes Sea. Most of Semporna’s visitors are en route to Pulau Sipadan, a small island 36km offshore that is regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.
I wandered through town passing by the bustling fish and fruit market before arriving at Scuba Junkie. This scuba company is the best known in the area and features a brand new budget hotel (which provides discounts for scuba divers), a bar and restaurant and of course a scuba shop. I quickly checked in, had a shower and dropped my things off at my room before running across the road to register for my scuba course. I filled out pages upon pages of legal documents signing my signature about a million times. I would be spending the next three days completing an intensive three days PADI scuba diving certification.
I spent that evening discovering the small little town (which one can do in about twenty minutes). I walked around the mosque, wandered through the smelly fish offensive jetty market and tried my best not to slip in Flounder guts. Two doors down from the Junkie Hotel is a small Muslim family run Malay-Indian restaurant. I ordered a plate of chicken curry with rice and relaxed into my seat as I watched the locals walk past. I walked back up to my hostel room and was introduced to a plethora of personalities. It seems like the entire world comes to this little town of Samporna. I instantly made friends with a handful of Brits, Scandinavians, French, Germans, Dutch, Australians and a hilarious gentlemen from Venezuela (who insisted that he was from Alberta).
The following morning I headed over to the scuba shop and introduced myself to the three other students who I would be “discovering scuba” with for the next three days: A couple from Stockholm and a lovely lady from London (who had been working in Hong Kong for the past year working in Finance). We were introduced to our charismatic Parisian instructor, Flo, who ushered us to the bar where we would be spending the rest of the afternoon wrapping our minds around the principles of buoyancy, nitrogen poisoning and shark attacks. Rachel and I both took the first day’s theory part of the course very seriously. I read the book meticulously as I didn’t want to have an accident under the water. I always figure it is best to stay informed rather than die a tragic sudden death 20 meters under the water.
The following morning we had our first practical day under the water. I met up with Rachel at the dive shop and we both looked entirely nervous. We grabbed all of our scuba gear and walked down to the boat dock where we fastened our lifejackets and soon blasted out of the harbour. The sky was a perfect blue and the sun bleated down on us. I had yet to leave the ugly town of Semporna so I was in total shock when we sped across the Celebes Sea. I quickly realized the surrounding islands may just be the most beautiful on earth.
After a one hour boat ride we arrived at the tiny island of Sibuan. This island can’t be any longer than 200 meters and a handful of indigenous people live here in small little houses resting on stilts which appear to float over the crystal clear indigo ocean water bellow. Everyone on the boat was in total shock at the stoic beauty of the place. The island reminded me of those little cartoons in the newspaper where some guy is sitting on a tiny island with three palm trees on it wondering how to survive. Places this beautiful, untouched and remote really do exist!
We would be spending the day getting accustomed to breathing under the water so our first two skills were to swim about two hundred meters along the shore and then float for ten minutes. The sun was absolutely blinding. I had to cover my eyes with my hands while floating simply to avoid losing my sense of sight. I thought to myself, “I am going to burn so badly today as I am swimming on the equator.” The water was perfectly clear and 30 degrees. Like swimming in a warm bath, totally relaxing and delightful.
We then hopped back onto the boat and awkwardly practiced the various steps of putting on our scuba gear. Once in the water we practiced breathing through our BCD (breathing control device) and soon found ourselves kneeling on the sandy ocean floor three meters under the glass ceiling above. I couldn’t help but watch the many fish which swam up to us and floating inches from our fingertips. I also freaked out a bit as I realized there were hundreds of jellyfish floating around my head.
We hopped out of the water and climbed onto the beach for a midday lunch of chicken potato curry, Malay fried noodles and bananas. After lunch we splashed back into the water and practiced all of our underwater skills once again but much deeper (shudder). We also practiced making our bodies perpendicular and horizontal simply by concentrating on inhaling and exhaling which I found rather fascinating. The power of the lungs!
Once finished our skills Flo felt we were ready to take our first dive. Unfortunately I think I got a bit nervous, descended too quickly and felt a lot of pain in my right congested ear. I couldn’t seem to pop/clear the ear of built up pressure so had to return to the surface by myself as the rest of the group swam across a city of coral. Once we were all back on the boat Flo in his thick Parisian accent simply said, “It’s no problem tomorrow you will succeed.” His positive, matter of fact way of assessing my skills was somewhat of a relief.
The following morning we all met at the dive shop, once again nervous for our last day of the course. We would be heading to famous Mabul Island for three dives. I was certain my ears were going to pop, burst and I’d be permanently deaf for the rest of my life. So I was a bit on edge as we pulled out of the harbour.
The island is a small oval in shape and surrounded by sandy beaches and perched on the northwest corner of a larger 200 hectare reef. The reef is on the edge of the continental shelf and the seabed surrounding the reef slopes out to 30 meters deep. Mabul is arguably one of the richest single destinations for exotic small marine life anywhere in the world. Flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, mimic octopus and bobtail squids are just a few of the numbers types of cephalopods to be found on Mabul’s reef. The sight of harlequin shrimp feeding on sea stars and boxer crabs waving their tiny anemone pompoms are just a small example of the endless species of crustaceans. Many types of gobies can be found including the spike-fin goby, black sail-fin goby and metallic shrimp goby. Frogfish are everywhere- giant, painted and clown frogfish are all regularly seen. Moray eels and snake eels of many types can be seen along with almost the whole scorpion fish family.
The boat slowed as we passed by hundreds of houses on stilts and I was sort of silent and contemplative as I held my camera in my hands trying to capture the beauty of the moment. I dove at Mabul four times that day in order to complete the necessary dives required to pass the PADI open water course. Thankfully I remained calm and was able to slowly inch down to 18 meters under the sea without putting to much pressure on my ears.
Throughout the day I dove at three dive sites: Froggies, Lobster Wall and Awas. These were my first official dives and had a huge impact on me as it was my introduction to the wild and wonderful metropolis under the water. I can’t exactly recall what I saw at each site but I soared over multi-coloured coral reef landscapes spotting a wide variety of aquatic life, such as: trumpet fish, clown fish, crocodile fish, pharaoh cuttlefish, nudi branch, trumpet fish, rabbit fish, striped surgeonfish, Moorish idol, emperor angelfish, white banded cleaner shrimp, sea turtles, sea urchins and various sea stars.
I once again felt as though I was caught up in a surreal moment where I had to stop myself in the water and slap myself as I was being surrounded by a whirling mass of nearly thousands of purple coloured fish. At many points I felt as thought I was in outer space as the scenery at the ocean floor is just as foreign to me as the moon would be.
Rachel and I both gave each other a high five in the water after we ascended from our final dive. We had passed our PADI course successfully! We spent the next hour buzzing across the sunset. I smiled as we flew past tiny communities of houses on stilts which are located in the middle of the ocean. At first sight they seem like optical illusions as one cannot believe that people live smack dab in the middle of the ocean. But as you look closer you notice that these houses are perched atop shallow sandbars in the middle of the Celebes Sea. I thought to myself, “who on earth would want to live in the middle of the ocean? The middle of nowhere!” Someone who clearly likes their peace and quiet, or who can’t afford the cost of real estate on land.
I returned to the hostel and my friend Tom from London took one look at me and hysterically laughed. I had apparently burned my face badly today and looked like a sun kissed strawberry I covered my face in aloe cream and headed to the Indian restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious beef roti with curry sauce. My ears continued to pop throughout the night which was an odd sensation but a necessary evil in order to enjoy life under the sea.
Everyone comes to Semporna to dive Sipadan Island. The rest of the surrounding islands are amazing but Sipadan’s offerings truly blow them out of the water. The island lies five degrees north of the equator and 35 kilometers south of Semporna, like many tropical islands it is thickly forested and surrounded by sandy beaches. Sipadan is an oceanic island and was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, which rises 600m from the seabed.
The geographic position of Sipadan puts it in the centre of the richest marine habitat in the world, the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin. More than 3000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this richest of ecosystems. Sipadan is well known for its unusually large number of green and hawksbill turtles which gather there to mate and nest. It is not unusual for divers to swim with 20-80 turtles on each dive.
The residential schooling barracuda and big-eye trevally, which often gather in thousands forming spectacular tornado-like formations, are one of the highlights on every diver’s wish-list. With the possibility of seeing pelagic species such as mantas, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks, each dive at Sipadan is a highly anticipated event.
It is not only the big fish that amaze divers coming to Sipadan, the macro life is equally mesmerizing. Garden eels, leaf scorpion fish, mantis shrimps, fire gobies and various pipefish are guaranteed at various dive sites. The diversity and abundance of marine life found at Sipadan gives it its reputation of being one of the ten best dive locations in the world.
I had booked my day at Sipadan weeks ago as the Islands Park authority only allows 120 divers a day in order to protect the pristine aquatic life around the island. I also rented an underwater camera from the scuba shop for the day and was excited to try out my photography skills in the deep blue for the first time. Once on the boat we were given a list of fake names on scraps of paper. You technically have to book a Sipadan permit three months before your dive. So, all of the dive shops in Semporna regularly buy up permits under false names and nationalities. We arrived at the tiny island, walked along the dock and into the Park Office to sign up as our fake personas.
We then hopped back onto the boat and puttered over to our first dive spot, Turtle Patch. The grandiose and awe inspiring wildlife at Sipadan instantly made an impression on me. At one meter bellow the waves I spotted a shark, two sea turtles and a large school of parrot fish. I could do nothing but stare, rotate 360 degrees and think, “Oh my God.” I found myself swimming above and bellow ten massive sea turtles at one point and once again had to pinch myself to prove this was all happening to me.
Our second dive was at Barracuda Point. I was now very comfortable with breathing under water and entertained myself by making Darth Vader noises through my oxygen mask. During the fifty minute dive I saw the typical thousands of fish varieties but notably swam past thirteen different sharks, and a vortex of over 10 000 barracuda. I just stared up at this mass of shiny fish which appeared like an organic hurricane under water and floated in disbelief.
We headed back to the island for a beach side lunch of pineapple curry chicken with noodles. We were joined by several other scuba companies and twenty or so Malaysian army personnel. The army has had a presence on Sipadan ever since Filipino pirates kidnapped over one hundred scuba tourists for ransom a few years ago. Nice to know we are being protected from Captain Hook as we are under the water. After our short terrestrial snack we headed back onto the boat for our last dive on the island.
Our third dive of the day was at the Hanging Garden dive site which is famous for its wall covered coral varieties. This particular site had a fairly strong current so all we had to do is flutter our fins to maintain our balance as the powerful stream pulled us along the many cities of coral. I took the time at this site to swim closely to the coral and inspect each and every variety for its various fish species which hovered above. I most enjoyed the tiny black and white striped fish which were no larger than a thimble. They would swim in and out of the coral arcades using them as a protective refuge from predators.
Throughout the day I avoided a sun burn by constantly lathering my face with white 60 SPF sunscreen. I apparently looked like a scuba diving geisha. At the end of our dive people were exhausted from the kiss of the sun and a great deal of sensory overload. I watched several Europeans huddling over their seats trying to light a cigarette as we sped back to Semporna. The sun set at my back, I took in the surrounding breathtaking view one last time as I waved at a crammed longboat full of smiling locals.
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