Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sipidan Island and Its Environs

On the fifth, I caught an early flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, on the southeast side of Sabah, then got picked up by the dive outfit and driven to Semporna. We took a boat to the Seaventures dive rig. It’s an old oil platform repositioned just off the island of Mabul. I met a group of experienced divers who were coming out on the same boat. They’ve been helpful with my gear and giving me tips on what to do.

The first dive was under the rig. I had trouble clearing my left ear, then my mask kept fogging up, making me anxious and I nearly hyperventilated. When I was functional, I was able to see some sea urchins, crocodile fish, and a couple others I’ve probably forgotton by now. After all that excitement, I’d used my air up pretty quickly, in about thirty minutes, so I had to head back up early while the others stayed below. We did a twilight dive after, and that went much better. We went to one of Mabul’s beaches and did some muck diving. My ears were better and we didn’t go more than 10m under, so it was rather easy. The highlights were a sea turtle jammed in a crevice asleep and a huge cuttlefish. In addition, we saw lots of feather urchins, a small moray eel, and a nudybranch (sea slug).

The 6th was a busy day, up at 6:30, breakfast then off by 7:30. We headed out to Sipidan Island, one of the greatest dive spots in the world. But the waves were crazy big and it took forever to get out there. On the way, one of the guys yelped and the people in the back started laughing. He’d been struck by a squid that had evidently had enough of its life underwater and wanted a vacation. The first dive of the day was at South Point. It was the first time for me to dive and not actually be able to see the bottom. The reef drops down 600m to the ocean floor here. The first people in saw three sea turtles right off the bat. As we drifted with the current along the reef, we could see several black tip reef sharks prowling around. Some sea turtles were visible wedged in the rocks asleep, and the usual suspects – parrotfish, triggers, travelay, and about the biggest lone batfish I’ve ever seen – all put in an appearance. This was my first wall dive, drift dive, and dive below 18 meters. A lot of firsts, especially after such a long hiatus, but I pulled it off alright, managing my air well enough, though I still was the first one to run out and go up.

The coolest thing on this first dive was one I missed. I was drifting along towards the front of our group when all of a sudden I heard everybody tap-tapping with their little noisemaker sticks. Somebody had spotted a solitary hammerhead shark and immediately half the guys started off after it. Because it had gone past us, and I was forward and above everyone, I didn’t bother trying to go catch a glimpse. Oh well. Not to mention, when sharks are all by themselves, it’s usually because they’re trying to find something to eat.

In addition to the guys I met on the boat out, I also wound up diving that day with a guy from Michigan who was there with his daughter. They live in Singapore, and so have the good fortune to live within a few hours of some great diving, managing a weekend every couple of months. I wish I could do that. Because of this, the girl, about twelve, was like a fish, immediately jumping back in once she’d shed her dive gear on the dive boat. I wish I was that capable. Not to mention that because she’s tiny, she uses a fraction of the air that I and her father consume. It’s really sad.

After an hour snack break on Sipidan (spending the night there is forbidden, but lunch is ok), we headed back out and did one more dive, which was fun but not more memorable than that first dive. After, we headed back to the rig for lunch and did an afternoon dive off nearby Mabul.

Another first for me on this trip was a night dive. The father and daughter team invited me along to try it out. Diving under the rig can be daunting due to the occasionally strong current, not to mention it was at night. This dive was a comedy of errors, but at least everyone was competent enough to deal with them. The biggest mistake we made was not using the guideline to take ourselves down. I didn’t know enough to say so, and the other two were so used to not having one available that they didn’t think of it. So we were going down when the daughter had trouble clearing her ears, equalizing the pressure in the Eustachian tubes, which can be quite painful and even damaging to the ear drums. So after she managed to fix it, we headed down. Underwater looks really different at night, you can’t see anything outside the narrow beam of your torch, and everything in the beam is blurred by the persistent detritus.

So we headed down and started swimming along the rocks. We saw a few fish, but they didn’t like us lighting them up and giving away their positions to predators, so they’d usually dash out of the beam as soon as it reached them. I did see something I thought was a pipefish, but I could’ve been mistaken. Soon, I began wondering where we were, because we hadn’t run into the rig’s support columns. Evidently the father was thinking the same, as he signaled me to surface and we tried to take our bearings. Turns out that when the daughter was clearing her ears, we’d gotten turned around and had swum away from the rig. So we dove again to head back, when I started having problems clearing my ears at about 10m. And just as I got better, the father’s torch dies. So he grabs his backup, which promptly starts to fade. At that point we had to head back up and start the long swim on the surface back to the rig. My first night dive turned out to be a bit of a bust, but it was still interesting.

On the 7th, we got up and headed out again for a couple early dives, one of which was really cool. Called Hanging Gardens, because of the soft corals that hang down from the wall that leans away from the island as it goes up, it had several sea turtles and a ton of various fish. We even saw a big school of barracuda, but they weren't tornadoing.

After two dives and lunch, it was time to head back. I met two Singaporean cousins on the boat back and, since we had to wait until the next day to fly, we decided to have dinner. Tawau is a port city with nothing going for it besides its renown for having good seafood. So we found the best recommended seafood restaurant, a conglomeration of stalls just off the waterfront, and tucked in. The food was OK, but not much better than what I've had elsewhere. Maybe it's just that I don't know Chinese food that well. After dinner we sat in a gazebo by the night market eating a durian, listening to the melody of the diesel generator chugging away nearby.

The next day, we caught a taxi together to the airport, some 30km from the city proper. They checked in and had coffee with my while I waited for the counter to open up for me. But when I went up to check-in, the guy gave me a surprised look and said, "didn't you get the email?" Evidently not, so I hadn't been informed that there would be a seven-hour delay, meaning I wouldn't board until after midnight. Since there was nothing to do (the internet cafe consisted of two computers, and the girl said they were virus-ridden), I headed back to Tawau, which didn't have anything either, but at least it was cheaper. I mucked about in the internet cafe, caught some dinner, and still ended up going all the way back to the airport to sit around for 2 more hours. The flight back was at least mercifully short. I got back to the Step-Inn Lodge and promptly crashed out.

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