Friday, April 15, 2016

Swimming with turtles at Sipadan, Borneo

These aquatic beauties may not have the awe of sharks, but their grace and charisma makes for an unforgettable diving experience

At Sipadan, off the coast of Borneo, strong currents swept in from the Celebes Sea.

In the early morning light I drifted across the shallow reef plateau on the eastern tip of this tiny uninhabited island, surrounded by curious batfish and clouds of brilliant-yellow snappers.

Like most divers I had come here in search of big fish: the fast, open-water species such as jacks, barracuda and tuna.

Here, around this island surrounded by deep waters, the currents are always rich in plankton, nourishing the reef and its inhabitants, and everything that comes in from the open ocean to feed on them.

The current took me across the plateau at speed, allowing me to pass through a pack of whitetip reef sharks.

Out in the blue I could see six or seven of their bulkier cousins, grey reef sharks, staying aloof.

A giant Napoleon wrasse hung in mid-water, eyes as big as ping-pong balls, bulbous lips and shimmering green flesh catching the sunlight from above.

At the edge of the reef, where the deep blue abyss plunged into darkness, there was a shimmering ball of barracuda, great silver streaks that swirled together like an underwater tornado. 

Swimming beneath them, I looked up through the living vortex as if in a chimney.

Drifting over the lip of the plateau I descended out of the grip of the current, hugging the reef wall and catching my breath.

The hard corals are healthy here, bright swatches of colour in contrast to the limestone plateau swept clean by the racing tides.

I had read that turtles were common off Sipadan, but the excitement of the fast drift dive had filled my head with images of sleek silver hunters.

Absorbed in the wall, I stared hard at wispy gorgonians, hoping to catch sight of a sea horse.

Then, tucked into the reef wall, I spotted the unmistakable patterned disc of a turtle.

Not a metre from my face-mask I stared at its wrinkled neck and saw it blink one hooded, dark eye.

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