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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Diving Sipadan, A Traveller's Tale

To begin with, Sipadan is everything you've ever heard about (if you've heard about it) and perhaps more. Incredible corals, magnificent macro life, fascinating micro life, beautiful "desert islands" and quite a few wonderful locals.

Semporna Mosque
The first word of warning, however.  The Sipadan site itself is not open to unlimited divers.  There are a limited number of permits each day that are divided up between the different dive operations on Mabul or Semporna.  Therefore, to ensure you are able to dive Sipadan, it is sometimes necessary to book two weeks in advance.  Usually, you will also need to pay a deposit to ensure your permit is reserved.  The other sites are incredible--but Sipadan is really is something very special.  There is a reason that it is arguably the best place in the world to dive.  Also, because of the multiple dive sites around Sipadan (that really do vary incredibly), I highly recommend ensuring that you book at least two days of diving at Sipadan.  Most packages have you diving at other island sites, which are also wonderful, but Sipadan is at least in the top five diving spots in the world and is not to be missed.  You can see a map of diving spots below.

In terms of pricing, a three day diving package, two at other islands and one at Sipadan, generally run about 900 Ringgit Malaysian .  Four days is closer to 1400RM.  That does not include accommodation.  Cheap accommodation can be found at the Dragon Inn with dormrooms starting around 15RM-20RM and private rooms beginning at 66RM and upwards to over 250RM.  The Sipadan Inn, which had a tie-up with the dive operator I dove with, begins at 84RM per room, but it had bedbugs.  I am highly allergic to them, with huge whelps forming, but after catching and killing a few the first night I did not have a problem with them again.  Another option is the Seafest Hotel, with rooms from about 100RM to 200RM per night. 

I flew into Tawau from Kota Kinabalu and made the two hour trip through mostly palm plantations to the one horse town of Semporna, a town on the map because of the proliferation of dive operations there. It did have a beautiful mosque, though, and stilt villages stretching out into the waters. It wasn't much of a town, really, and outside a couple of bars and a few local restaurants, there was little to see or to do.  I arranged pick-up from the airport myself, but likely could have traveled into Tawau and managed to find cheaper transportation.  I chose Sipadan Scuba among the many as it is one of the most established and credentialed, although at times I was a little frustrated with how blase they could be, and once we had to turn around and return after already being out nearly 30 minutes because the crew had forgotten some vital equipment, adding over an hour to our voyage out to the dive sites--sometimes over an hour or more off-shore.

I was going with a reputable group for 9 dives over three days allowing 24 hours between my last dive and flying to prevent decompression illness. Each day, we'd leave by boat going about an hour off shore, sometimes longer, to our first dive site where we'd do our deepest dive of the day.  

My deepest dive was 35m or about 115 feet. That was off the coral wall of Sipadan, but I also dived at two other island sites, Sibuan and Mantabuan.   Sipadan now has a military outpost after Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic separatist group, abducted a number of foreign tourists.  Based in the Philippines in Bangsamoro (Jolo, Basilan and Zamboanga) where  various Muslim groups have been engaged in an insurgency for an independent province in the country, Abu Sayyaf are known as among the most brazen.  On May 3, 2000, Abu Sayyaf guerillas took 21 hostages, including 11 foreign tourists, and later that same year on September 10 they raided the island of Pandanan near Sipadan and seized three more Malaysian hostages.  The area is now heavily patrolled by Malaysian military boats, and all resorts on Sipadan have been removed.  Divers often disembark on the island for lunch as rest between dives.  

On my first dive I immediately saw five green turtles, the largest probably 5 feet long from tip of the head to the bottom of its back fins. At 90 feet below water I was at one point surrounded by no less than five whitetip reef sharks, the largest probably over six feet. I saw three types of moray eels, frog fish, stone fish, clown tiggerfish, great barracuda in huge circular schools, and a variety of others species that seemed uncountable in their numbers and forms. 

Some of the islands were inhabited. The life is a hard one even surrounded by paradise and the few inhabitants on islands, some only a ten minute walk to circumnavigate, eek out an existence, catching enough fish to trade for rice and petrol and living in flimsy palm-woven shacks. 
After my forth night I hitched a ride with a local guy and headed back to the airport in Tawau from which I flew back to Kota Kinabalu for another night before catching another flight back to KL. To find my ride, I merely walked towards the "KFC" and was immediately approached by several men asking if I needed transportation. In fact, I never even made it to the bus station which is near the KFC, which I also did not make it, too.  It was an incredible trip with diving that I'll never forget, and I'm already making my plans to return to dive Sipadan again.


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