Monday, November 28, 2016

The Hike Life: Scuba Diving in Sipadan, Malaysian Borneo

Getting to Sabah from Langkawi is a process, but one that ran very smoothly. Malaysia is probably one of, if not the most competent countries I’ve been to in terms of transport. Let’s face it, spending a full day travelling is its own unique misery but when it goes smoothly and you’re on your way to paradise, it’s a lot easier.

My itinerary was Melbourne > KL > Langkawi > KL > Tawau > Mabul > Tawau > KL > Melbourne and I didn’t have a single delay, not a single “surprise” fare, and everyone turned up when they said they would. No bookings were lost, nobody tried to charge me for “extras” like storing my bag (unlike in India where literally everyone tried to charge you extra for everything).

As an aside, I did not get harassed as a women alone once the whole time I was in Malaysia. In Langkawi, everyone who worked on the beach was friendly and respectful. I didn’t get followed, groped, or gawked at once. I never once felt unsafe, which is more than I can say for walking to my car after dinner in Brunswick on a Friday night. The local men will talk to you and flirt, but it’s usually so you’ll hire a jetski or visit their friend’s restaurant, none of them made any moves on me and it was really nice to get to know some of them – so often when travelling alone you have your guard up the whole time. KL airport is a bit hectic, and I’d recommend covering up there, but otherwise it was smooth sailing.

To dive Sipadan you need to stay on one of the nearby islands – we chose Mabul, and stayed with Borneo Divers. They had solid reviews and are a well established and respected resort and training centre. There are cheaper options, but for my first time diving I didn’t want to compromise on safety. The resort itself is clean and comfortable. The rooms are air conditioned and the food was fantastic, but make sure you get to the buffet early because once that food is gone, it aint coming back. Once that dinner gong rings it’s like watching seagulls after your chips.

The whole island runs on generators, which you can hear running at night, and the power and wifi can be patchy. This didn’t bother me but I can imagine it would some. The showers are salt water and the open style that you see all over Asia so the whole bathroom gets a soaking. In short, don’t expect Noosa style luxury and you’ll be grand. The bar opens at 5 and the staff started to anticipate our arrival, which was both comforting and embarrassing.

My training started as soon as I got there (around lunchtime) and by the end of the first day we were in the pool to practice.

Breathing underwater is something else. It’s unnatural, and scary, and it tests your self control. My natural reaction was to bolt for the surface, but slowly it became easier, and by day two we were training off the jetty in real life conditions. It helped that the water was incredibly warm and clear. On the third day, we were out on the boat for our first boat dive and to have our skills tested. I saw my first turtle, which got me all emotional, and at one stage we were attacked by a very angry, large, and territorial fish who decided to chase and bite my dive master Steven, who fended it off admirably.

The next day was more muck diving around Mabul, more assessments, and then an early night before Sipadan the next day!

Before I go on, I should point out that Sipadan isn’t really a beginner dive spot. There are some pretty strong currents and very deep drop offs. Visibility can be bad after rain. I talked it through with my Dive Master and he gave me his blessing to go with an experienced group, but there were other beginners there who got told they weren’t allowed, and that they were only allowed to snorkel.

And to be honest, when we got dropped in for the first dive at South Point, I was pretty terrified. The current was strong, and there were sharks everywhere. It took all my newly learnt skill to breath properly, adjust my buoyancy, and just settle into the rhythm. Our dive masters were very calm and patient, and it helped I had Rebecca by my side as she was experienced and kept eye contact with me when I was feeling nervous. She also took these photos of me, which I am very grateful for.