SEMPORA, SABAH, Malaysian Borneo
Another diver backflipped off the side of the boat into the warm waters of the Sea of Celebes.
He disappeared underwater for a moment, resurfaced and gave the “OK” signal by touching the top of his head. It was his dive buddy’s turn to follow.
Located 35 kilometres off the southeast coast of Borneo and five degrees north of the equator, Sipadan Island is consistently rated among the top 10 dive sites in the world.
Formed when living corals grew on top of an extinct undersea volcano, the island rises 600 metres from the seabed, promising spectacular wall dives.
No development is allowed on Sipadan, so divers are ferried over. The 45-minute boat trip only adds to the anticipation, allowing plenty of time to speculate on the day ahead.
The centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world, more than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of corals have been classified here.
“Are we likely to see hammerheads this time of year?”
“When was the last time a whale shark was seen here?”
“All I want to see is an eagle ray. Just one eagle ray is all I’m asking.”
The likelihood of spotting these popular pelagic species attracts divers from around the world.
Tim from South Africa had just become a certified diver the previous week; Boris from Germany was working towards his 600th dive. A couple from England chatted with their American divemaster.
The first dive was Whitetip Alley, named for the numerous reef sharks. A strong current carried everyone along on a drift dive. The boat followed, the captain keeping an eye out for a diver’s red flag to surface. An hour later, up they came.
“What about that huge school of barracuda?”
“Was that a whitetip or a grey reef shark swimming below us?”
“I have never seen half that many tropicals in my entire life!”
The boat puttered over to the second dive, Hanging Gardens, while divers warmed themselves in the sun. An hour later it was time to put the wetsuits, buoyancy compensators, air tanks and flippers back on and — Splash!
Sipadan is a breeding ground for hawksbill and green sea turtles. Curious creatures, they will often swim towards you, and divers are asked to resist the temptation to reach out and touch them. It’s easy to lose count of how many turtles you see.
After lunch on the island, it was time for the final dive, Turtle Cave. The large underwater entrance attracts the turtles, but they become disoriented in the many tunnels and chambers.
Unable to reach the surface to breathe, they drown. Their skeletons have given the cave the nickname Turtle Tomb.
Almost like a grand finale, divers discovered one of the highlights of the day: hundreds of big-eye trevally swimming in a massive tornado-shaped column some twenty feet deep: around and around and around. It seemed as if you might be hypnotized — or pulled into the vortex — if you watched too long.
It’s hard to say, though — by the end of the day, the divers certainly seemed a bit dazed. If it wasn’t the trevally tornado, it must have been the never-ending spectacular underwater sights of Sipadan.
Catherine Millar is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.