Thursday, December 25, 2014

Diving Into the Mystic Off Sipadan Island

IT'S LIKE BEING IN the eye of a tornado. Once I breach the twirling funnel of silver jackfish, hundreds whirl around me, darkening the reef below and leaving a blurring circle of opalescent ocean 5 meters above my head.

At Barracuda Point, off Sipadan Island, south of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, it should be the eponymous, sharp-toothed fish encircling me.

But, as yet, I see no sign of barracuda. Nor, while floating in the fathomless Celebes Sea on my earlier dive at South Point, did I see the hammerhead sharks I'd hoped to.

Yet, in more than 600 dives around the world, I've experienced few locations with such bountiful marine life and Technicolor-bright reefs as Sipadan.

The island is regularly listed among the world's top dive destinations and has long drawn scuba experts, including the likes of Jacques Cousteau. "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago," reported the much-quoted documentary maker in 1989, "but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art."

Located five degrees north of the equator and 34 kilometers south of Sabah, Sipadan feels remote, and its topography, rising 600 meters from the seabed, has helped preserve its underwater ecosystem. The prescience of earlier generations has also been crucial—the island was first declared a nature reserve in 1917.

In 2002, after decades disputing its ownership with Indonesia, Malaysia acquired sovereignty over Sipadan, and ordered resort operators to leave the island.

Five years ago, "Sipadan Island Park" was declared. Now divers stay on neighboring islands, like Mabul, and require permits to visit.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Diving Into the Mystic Off Sipadan Island