Friday, October 07, 2016

On Borneo, searching for creatures high and low

Birder, scuba diver — or both? The biodiverse destination offers the best of both worlds.

When I first began dating a birder, I noticed a trend. Many, it turned out, dated and married each other. After a while, this case of sexual selection began to make sense to me, as most birders require travel companions with an incredible amount of patience for staring into the tree canopy.

I have never been a birder, and I eventually came to grips with the fact that most outdoor activities — hiking, for example — would forever take second place to avian pursuits. For the arrangement to work, it became clear that traveling together would necessitate breaks between periods of birding. One of these breaks, Jessie and I discovered this summer, was jumping into the ocean wearing scuba gear.

Tropical birding and scuba diving both entail observation of colorful animals in the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems: the tropical rain forest on land, the coral reef in the sea. The means of observation, however, could not be more different.

The former requires hiking for hours in saunalike heat for brief glimpses of rare species. The latter, on the other hand, stresses weightlessness in warm, comfortable water, with schools of fish swimming around you. There are required breaks to avoid decompression sickness, and the less effort (and therefore oxygen) you use, the better recreational diver you are said to be.

Tropical birding provides a stark contrast again here: The better birder you are, the more willing (and sometimes even excited) you should be by the prospect of enduring physical misery, subjecting yourself to periods of heat, humiliation and exhaustion in pursuit of an elusive sighting.

For these different searches, few tropic hot spots provide the required marine and terrestrial combination. One of them — the Indonesian archipelago — is a paradise for such travel. We eventually settled on Sabah, a province in the Malaysian side of Borneo known for its national parks both on land and in the water.

The Danum Valley, one of Borneo’s most famous lowland rain forests, lies just a five- to six-hour drive from Semporna, a fishing town and dive mecca in the Coral Triangle that features many coral reefs, most notably the one at Sipadan Island. On the west coast of Sabah lies another pair of marine and terrestrial animal havens: Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park, home to one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a wide variety of endemic animal species.

The Kinabatangan River winds in between the two coasts, which planes can traverse in an hour. Given a few weeks, it’s possible to visit each site and obtain basic dive certification with some of the most affordable prices in the world. Travelers must only decide which world to visit first — the jungle or the ocean?

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