Thursday, May 09, 2013

Back for more of Sipadan


I’VE been diving in the waters of the world-famous Sipadan since the late 1990s but not in the past two years. In addition to my favourite diving destination of Tenggol Island in Terengganu, I try to vary my diving destinations to include Layang Layang off Sabah’s waters and Maldives in the intervening years.

Though I can dive at other world-class diving destinations, Sipadan — the diving jewel of Sabah — has a special spot in my heart for its amazing variety of diving experiences and sights. These range from colourful underwater walls frequented by marine animals such as reef sharks, oceanic sharks and turtles as well as huge schools of bumphead parrot fish, barracuda and jack. 

In addition, nearby Mabul island and surrounding dive sites offer abundant ghost pipefish, flamboyant cuttlefish and mandarin fish which are the favourite subjects of underwater photographers. The memory of capturing them on camera and swimming with them saw me booking a five-day diving excursion in Sipadan-Mabul.

SMALL IS BETTER

In the past, I stayed at either Sipadan Water Village or Kapalai, two leading dive resorts in the area. This time, however, I choose a homestay chalet called Billabong.

One key advantage of diving with small outfits like Billabong is its ability to guarantee the number of days one can dive. Since diving is regulated by Sabah State Park authorities (to minimise the impact on Sipadan’s fragile eco-system), permits are issued to dive resorts according to the size of their operations. Bigger resorts are given 13-14 permits while the smaller chalet-types get six or seven.

While resorts welcome more than 100 divers at one time, the chalets can only accommodate half or a third this number. So the chances of diving are bigger with the latter. I was guaranteed two diving days with Billabong.

ARRIVING IN MABUL

I fly to Tawau on Malaysia Airlines from KL International Airport. The flight is 2½ hours, followed by an hour’s drive from Tawau to Semporna.

I stay overnight at Seafest Hotel in Semporna before taking a 45-minute boat ride from Semporna to Mabul. 

I have arranged to check into Mabul on a weekday as I reckon weekends are peak periods. I am right. As my boat approaches, I see only a few guests lounging around and enjoying breakfast. 

At 11am, I am ready for my first dive at Lobster Wall, a mere five-minute boat ride away.

It is a good checkout dive for my underwater camera rig and scuba gears to get all of them adjusted for the next five days of diving.

Billabong senior dive guide Tony is assigned to help me photograph Mabul critters and Sipadan pelagics.

LOBSTER WALL

Although Lobster Wall is a wall dive, it has plenty of macro subjects, especially nudibranchs. I spot a few in groups of five or more. I seldom see such prolific presence of nudibranchs at other dive sites. 

Besides nudibranchs, there are also large numbers of crocodile fish, leaf fish and scorpionfish. All these are good at camouflage to blend in with the environment and fool prey into moving within striking range.

Time flies when I am enjoying the amazing variety of marine animals and reefscape at Lobster Wall. After 63 minutes, Tony swims over with a thumbs-up sign to signal the end of our first dive.

PARADISE 2

At lunch time, another boatload of divers check into Billabong.

My second dive is delayed to accommodate the new arrivals for their check-out dive. I don’t mind the wait because the next dive site — Paradise 2 — is one of the best sites to spot macro underwater subjects.

Again, I see lots of nudibranch. It is in fact aplenty at Paradise 2. I also spot a group of squids hovering mid-water, with an octopus hiding behind reef rubbles and plenty of camouflaged scorpionfish and crocodile fish.

After 58 minutes, we surface and call it a day.

As soon as I am back on the boat, I think of the next day’s diving. Images of large schools of jacks, barracuda, bumpheads, turtles and reef sharks start creeping into my mind.

EARLY START

Back at the homestay, I see a white board announcing that the next day’s dive boat will depart at 8.30am. I feel this is a wee bit late  as the chance to catch pelagics will be gone by the time we hit the waters. There will also be many others diving, so we may not have the best moments. Generally, pelagics go hunting in the early morning.

Many resort dive boats go out early too, which means that by the time we reach Sipadan, many divers are already ahead of us and some of the schools of fish may have moved into the deep blue.

Thankfully, my appeal for earlier departure is heeded. Though I only ask for a 7am departure, I am happy that it is moved forward to 6am.

As on other diving excursions, I have a sleepless night in anticipation of the next day’s dive. I wake up every hour and eventually I jump out of bed at 5am to check my underwater camera equipment as I need to change my camera lens and housing port to enable me to take wide-angle shots of pelagics and the amazing Sipadan reefscapes. It is important to get prepared since we will not be coming back to the homestay until after we are done with our third dive of the day.

I bring along another camera to take top-side pictures of the island. Since I have two days of Sipadan diving, I choose 14-24mm lens for first day and 16mm fisheye for the second day.

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