N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
SABAH’S BIG RIG
A VERY DIFFERENT DIVE RESORT
by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
If you mention to any diver that you are diving an ‘oil rig’ they will automatically think of commercial divers working in cold, dark, dirty and dangerous conditions – not something you would really want to experience on a dive holiday. But we recently spent ten days on an oil rig and had a fantastic time diving under the rig and exploring the many dozens of dive sites that surround it.
You see this oil rig is located off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, and is situated in the middle of some of the best diving in the world – Mabul, Kapalai and the famous Sipadan. This converted rig is operated by Seaventures and accommodates fifty-one divers in twenty five rooms and is located 500m off Mabul Island.
Ten days on the Seaventures Dive Rig was barely enough time to sample all the wonderful dive sites in the area, to dive every site you would need to stay for at least a month. One of the best dives was directly under the rig itself.
Under the rig is a rocky bottom, 18m deep, covered in lovely corals, sponges and gorgonians and home to a wealth of marine life. On every dive we did here we saw crocodilefish, snapper, rock cod, gropers, parrotfish, jawfish, sweetlips, trevally, barracuda, lionfish and moray eels. But we also found critters like nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, ribbon eels, leaf scorpionfish and a painted anglerfish, and at night hermit crabs and a stargazer. Piles of tyres, pipes, old boats and other rubbish have been placed under the rig to accommodate all this abundant marine life.
While staying with Seaventures you have unlimited diving under the rig, but they also operate four dive boats to explore the other dive sites in the area. The nearby island of Mabul is famous for its muck diving sites. At Paradise One and Two we encountered snake eels, cowfish, cuttlefish, crocodilefish, nudibranchs, pipefish, shrimpfish, jawfish and one lonely thorny seahorse.
But it’s not all muck at Mabul; at Lobster Wall we drifted along a pretty wall that drops to 45m and saw pygmy seahorses, moray eels, turtles, blue spotted lagoon rays, abundant reef fish and a wide variety of nudibranchs. The highlight of this dive was watching a school of big-mouth mackerel feeding, their mouths open wide, they would swim up and down the wall repeatedly to scoop up food.
Our favourite dive off Mabul was at Eel Garden where we saw several leaf scorpionfish, turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish, octopus and lots of anemonefish. But the best was out on the sandy bottom at 20m where hundreds of garden eels were swaying in the current, mantis shrimps were darting about and a flying gurnard glided over the sand.
Kapalai is also famous for its muck diving, but we found that its dive sites had just as much big stuff as small. At Gurnard Ground we didn’t see any gurnards, but instead found hundreds of jawfish and shrimp gobies. At this site you can either explore the sand looking for critters or drift along a reef wall – where we found a giant anglerfish, moray eels, mantis shrimps, turtles, gropers and small schools of snapper.
Located right beside Gurnard Ground is Mandarin Valley, where the soft sandy bottom has been peppered with timber structures and several old boats to create an amazing artificial reef. This is a site where you need a wide angle lens as there are dozens of gropers, batfish, turtles, lionfish, schools of snapper and trevally and living inside one of the boats is an enormous moray eel. At both Kapalai and Mabul we experienced 10 to 20m visibility.
Of course the most famous dive site off Sabah is Sipadan, which is only a twenty minute boat ride from the Seaventures Dive Rig. The island and its surrounding reefs are fully protected and a permit system is in place to visit the island, with only 120 divers allowed each day. We had no problem getting permits (but book early to increase your chances) and visited this wonderful island three times.
The appeal of Sipadan is its wall diving, walls that drop to 600m, and the marine life that this oceanic island attracts. At Whitetip Avenue we got into the water early, 6.30am, to see the schools of humpheaded parrotfish patrolling the reef top. Sipadan is the best place in the world to see schools of these enormous parrotfish, and they certainly are an impressive sight. As we drifted along the wall at Whitetip Avenue we found lovely sponges, soft corals and gorgonians, a diverse range of reef fish, several white-tip reef sharks and numerous turtles. On every dive around Sipadan we saw at least a dozen turtles, and on a few dives over thirty. Green and hawksbill turtles nest on the island and are so use to divers that you can photograph them at your leisure.
We enjoyed all the wall dives we did at Sipadan, experiencing 30m visibility, and seeing so many turtles that we lost count. But there are two very special dive sites that are a must do – Turtle Tomb and Barracuda Point. The Turtle Tomb is a massive recess cut into the wall at 23m. We only ventured about 15m into this huge opening, but 60m into the cave it gets very narrow and silty and these darker recesses contain the bones of dozens of turtles. If you want to explore the cave ensure that you arrive with cave diver training and the appropriate equipment, as several divers have died in the cave. However, hanging around the mouth of the cave was exciting enough as a huge school of trevally were milling about here.
Barracuda Point is the signature dive of Sipadan, and one dive that you will want to do again and again. It is best dived when the current is running, making for a fast paced drift dive. We started our dive on the top of the wall with a massive school of big-eye trevally – several thousand of these fish circled us as our cameras worked over-time. Drifting along the wall we also encountered schools of black snapper, fusiliers, mackerel, turtles, white-tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, batfish, humpheaded parrotfish and finally the barracuda – several hundred swarming above the reef like a tornado. Sipadan is also famous for its schooling hammerheads, but these are only seen in February and March when the water is a little cooler than its normal 28°C to 30°C.
We enjoyed ten wonderful days on the Seaventures Dive Rig – experiencing the best of Borneo – great dives, great food and great company on this very unusual dive resort.
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