Thursday, June 18, 2015

Borneo - Sipadan and Sandakan


Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is owned by three different countries. The Indonesian part is called Kalimantan, the Malaysian parts are called Sabah and Sarawak and on the north-west coast lies the small country of Brunei. The places we wanted to visit were in Sabah, and we popped over to Brunei to have a look – cos, you know, why not?

We both wanted to dive off the coast of Sipadan, a tiny island in Sabah; I was desperate to try and find a wild orangutan and Pete wanted to climb mt Kinabalu, a beautiful mountain that he climbed last time he was here. I wasn’t so keen on the mountain as we’ve already climbed a few and the heat and humidity makes it difficult to imagine doing anything too strenuous. We decided to go diving first and then go see the mountain to see if it sparked my enthusiasm. Thank god we did.

Sipidan is as far east of Malaysia as you can get. The next island is in the Philippines. It’s technically a dangerous place, one that our government website warns not to go to. Tourist kidnappings are not unheard of and terrorist attacks do happen, so the island and all the others surrounding it have permanent military presence.  You also cannot stay on Sipidan – the one luxury hotel that was built there is now abandoned. It is however, often cited as the best diving site in the world, and we are just too close to not check it out. After doing a lot of research we decided to go, but take precautions, and we could always leave if we didn’t feel safe.

We booked our diving and hotel and airport transfer with one (well researched and reputable) company, so we were not getting into potentially dodgy taxis or wandering around looking for accommodation. Instead of staying in Mabul, the fancy tourist island, we stayed on the mainland in a dirty and smelly fishing town called Semporna. Apart from diving, the main attraction seemed to be us, as white people are rare and exotic creatures here. The people were very friendly however, and we never felt unsafe.

We did two days of diving here and it was truly world class. I will add some pictures when we have found an internet cafe with good enough WiFi. The sites we did:

Martha kit island – great visibility, at least 25m. A nice wreck at 27m with a good swim-through followed by a swim following the coral wall. Plenty of sea life – normal coral fish for the area, but lots of them and we saw a baby shark that had squeezed itself into a tiny hole (pic to follow). At the end we saw the biggest barracuda we have ever seen. The locals call him Charlie.

Garden of Eden – I have never see so many turtles in my life. They were everywhere. At least thirty in one dive. Hawksbills and greens and some were gigantic – as big as a person. The smaller ones were a bit flighty when we got close but the larger ones had seen it all before and weren’t bothered. Our guide let us scratch one on the shell with a piece of rock – he loved it and wouldn’t let us stop.

Drift dive (unnamed site) – ripping current, so we relaxed and enjoyed the ride. A few turtles this time. We fed one some seaweed which he munched on happily.

South point, Sipidan – an incredible collection of sharks, over 40 in total. A mix of white tips, black tips, greys and a few nurses. Incredibly we saw a school, a family, of white tips with a couple of adults and lots of babies, all travelling together. In 20 years of diving Pete has never seen this before. They are normally solitary, even from birth. Beautiful to see. Visibility was as good as it gets, maybe 40m. A ten out of ten dive for sure.

Barracuda point, Sipidan (twice) – a huge school of jacks which were great to swim through. Lots of large schools of reef fish but the famously huge barracuda school, which Pete remembers from 8 years ago has broken up into much smaller shoals and we only saw a group of about 6. Lots of sharks and turtles again, including a pair having a fight (the female was not interested in the male’s intentions but he was being extremely persistent.)

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