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EAST SABAH – DIVERS PARADISE

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Floating on the surface we had only just got in the water but we were already confronted by a major dilemma. We had a very important decision to make – do we head right to the swirling school of several thousand big-eye trevally or left to the herd of over one hundred huge humpheaded parrotfish? Left or right? Trevally or humpies? A very hard choice to make on the spur of the moment. We were diving off Sipadan and found this a common problem around East Sabah – too many subjects to photograph at once!

 

We headed left, and even though humpies are a common sight at Sipadan this school was just amazing. It took over two minutes for all these large fish to parade passed, allowing us to get some memorable photos. With the humpies gone we finned back against the current to photograph the trevally. It is always mesmerising to see so many large fish in one school, especially when you get in the middle of them. We felt like we were on a round-a-bout with the trevally spinning around us. We had to forget about photographing two giant trevally and several reef sharks that were cruising around the trevally, as our guides were waving for us to head the other way. So we let ourselves drift with the current for a ride to our destination – the famous Barracuda Point.

 

There is nothing more exhilarating that a fast paced drift dive zooming along a reef wall. And the reef walls at Sipadan are spectacular; dropping to 600m and coated in colourful sponges, soft corals and gorgonians. But we barely had time to look at the corals as we were too busy trying to photograph the sharks – a dozen white-tip reef sharks and grey reef sharks. The reefies were gliding effortlessly against the current, while we were finning hard to keep up and struggling to get close enough for photos. We managed to get a few images of the white-tips, but the grey reefies were just too shy.

 

Giving up on the sharks we had plenty of easier subjects to photograph all around us – a school of black snapper, more groups of humpies, sweetlips, triggerfish and countless turtles. Turtles are a feature of diving Sipadan, as both green and hawksbill turtles nest on the island year round and are found around the island in their hundreds. Every time we looked around we could see at least one turtle or more commonly a dozen, they were drifting along in the current beside us, floating above us, or resting on the bottom. We even found one fast asleep in a black coral tree – a very strange sight.

 

The parade of marine life continued as we got closer to the actual point; batfish, fusiliers, mackerel, snapper and more turtles and reef sharks. And then we saw the main attraction – a wall of several hundred chevron barracuda. A wall that stretched from 30m to almost the surface – what a sight! We swam into the middle of the school and watched them swirl around us, and even remembered to take a few images.

 

Drifting away from the barracuda we suddenly found ourselves being dragged off the wall and into deep blue water; time to head to the surface. Back on the dive boat we reflected on a brilliant dive, and also wanted to go back to the start for a repeat performance, but we had dozens of other great dive sites to explore around East Sabah.

 

The Malaysian State of Sabah spreads across the top of Borneo and is surrounded by three rich tropical seas; the South China Sea to the west, the Sulu Sea to the north and the Celebes Sea to the east, all of which contain wonderful dive sites. It would take many months to explore all the dive destinations off Sabah, so for our first trip to this region we focused on its most famous dive site – Sipadan. However, the best thing about diving Sipadan is that you get three other completely different dive destinations thrown into the package – Mabul, Kapalai and Siamil.

 

THE BIG RIG

Our base for nine days of brilliant diving was just as unique as the dive sites – the Seaventures Dive Rig, the most unusual dive resort in the world. This former oil rig accommodation platform has been converted into a very different dive resort, more like a giant liveaboard boat, and it is a fantastic base to stay on and dive from. The Dive Rig is located off Mabul and has been offering a very different dive experience since it was positioned off the island in 1998. The Rig accommodates fifty one divers in twenty five rooms, which are basic but comfortable, and operates four dive boats daily to the varied dive sites in the area.

 

The closest dive site to the rig lies directly below it, and it is one of the best ‘house reefs’ we have ever experienced. You start every dive under the Dive Rig in style, with a ride on a hydraulic lift right into the water. Below the rig the bottom is 18m deep and has reef, rubble, sand and numerous artificial reefs to explore. We were amazed at the variety and number of fish species under the rig; schools of stripy snapper, fusiliers, parrotfish, triggerfish, rock cod, lionfish, scorpionfish, batfish, angelfish, gropers, squirrelfish, sweetlips, moray eels, trevally, barracuda and the list could go on and on. But the rig is particularly famous for its critters – crocodilefish by the dozen, nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, ribbon eels, jawfish, leaf scorpionfish, ghost pipefish, cuttlefish, flatworms, anglerfish and even the odd stargazer at night.

 

STUCK IN THE MUCK

The Seaventures Dive Rig is located only 500m off Mabul, an island that is famous for its muck diving. Mabul’s most famous critter site is Paradise One and this site didn’t disappoint. Some divers may find it very boring drifting over powdery sand, but this site captivated us with something new every few minutes. On the sand we found both marbled and black saddled snake eels with their heads just visible above the sand, dwarf lionfish, long-horn and thornback cowfish, cuttlefish, panther flounder, seastars, pipefish and numerous anemones that were home to panda anemonefish, cleaner shrimps and porcelain crabs. Old tyres and other objects litter the sand and are home to rock cod, moray eels, common lionfish and cardinalfish. We even came across one pile of tyres that had two green turtles bumping up and down on it, like it was a trampoline, a very funny sight; the turtles obviously enjoying a good belly scratch. More critters are also found in the shallow sea grass beds and under the jetties, including thorny seahorses, razorfish and schools of batfish.

 

Other wonderful muck diving sites off Mabul include Paradise Two, Froggies Lair and Crocodile Avenue. But off the eastern side of the island there are also pretty coral walls and coral gardens that house countless reef fish, turtles and many invertebrate species. At Lobster Wall we saw pygmy seahorses and some brilliant nudibranchs, while at Eel Garden there were leaf scorpionfish, garden eels, moray eels, stingrays, cuttlefish, octopus, mantis shrimps and even a bizarre flying gurnard.

 

MUCK AND MORE

A five minute boat ride from the Seaventures Dive Rig places you at another outstanding muck diving site called Kapalai. At Mid Reef we drifted along a very colourful reef wall in depths from five to 20m. Nudibranchs were a highlight of this site, dozens of species including several beautiful, but undescribed, royal hypselodoris. On this reef we also found turtles, octopus, garden eels and the most colourful anemone we have ever seen – a fluorescent pink that seem to glow!

 

Gurnard Ground is another wonderful muck diving site at Kapalai where you can either explore the reef wall or the sand and rubble. On the sand we found hundreds of jawfish, shrimp gobies with their partner shrimps, mantis shrimps, garden eels and pipefish. While on the reef were nudibranchs, boxfish, moray eels, turtles, batfish, dragonets and one spectacular giant anglerfish.

 

However, our favourite dive off Kapalai was Mandarin Valley where you really needed a wide angle lens for the slightly larger creatures that reside here. The sandy bottom at this site has been turned into a fish’s playground, with timber structures, old boats, tyres and other scrap littering the bottom. We dived this site with macro lens the first time and at the start of the dive this was a good choice for the demon stingers, nudibranchs and painted anglerfish. But once we got onto the artificial reef structures there were dozens of gropers resting on the sand, schools of batfish and trevally, turtles, large cuttlefish and numerous reef fish. The structures are decorated with lovely soft corals and a close look reveals nudibranchs and pipefish. The largest boat seemed to be the centre of activity with a dozen brown-spotted gropers residing here and schools of snapper swarming around. We entered the bridge to come face to face with an enormous moray eel, 2m long and as thick a man’s leg. Right next to this boat was the tallest timber structure, which had batfish and rabbitfish schooling in it. But we were most surprised to see a 2m long Queensland Groper hoovering at the top of the tower. The visibility around Mabul and Kapalai varies from six to 20m.

 

THE NEW FRONTIER

While the Seaventures Dive Rig crew dive Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai daily they are also exploring a new island called Siamil, which is a 45 minute boat ride from the rig. When we visited Siamil the dive guides had only been there a handful of times, and for some it was their first trip, so they were just as excited as us. With jungle covered slopes towering above us and insects buzzing, and probably puzzled monkeys watching on, we jumped into the water to explore this new site. Our first two dives were on a coral wall, just called the Coral Gardens at this stage. Here the wall drops from three to 30m and is covered in sponges, gorgonians and some very beautiful soft corals. As we drifted along the wall we found mantis shrimps, leaf scorpionfish, nudibranchs, painted anglerfish, boxfish, orang-utan crabs, stingrays and even an eagle ray. Anemones were everywhere, populated with at least five species of anemonefish, but the standout feature was the number of moray eels. White-eyed, spot-faced, yellow-edged and white-mouth morays were all common, but the best find was a rarely seen zebra moray.

 

We did our third dive at Siamil in the channel between it and the nearby island of Danawan. This site had a silty bottom and a good range of critters; such as nudibranchs, octopus, shrimps, cuttlefish, anglerfish and two large crocodilefish. All the dives we did at Siamil were great and we will be interested to see what surprises will be found as more of this area is explored.

 

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

While we enjoyed all the diving we did off Mabul, Kapalai and Siamil, the main attraction off East Sabah is still Sipadan. This wonderful island sits off the continental shelf and is surrounded by clear water (20 to 40m visibility) and sheer walls of coral that rise from 600m. Fully protected since 2004, which saw the removal of all the resorts on the island, Sipadan is now dived using a quoter system, with a maximum of 120 divers allowed to visit the island daily. We found no problem with this system, but others have, the best advice is too book early and stay at least a week to ensure that you can visit this special island more than once.

 

As mentioned in the introduction, Barracuda Point is the premier dive site at Sipadan, but anywhere you dive around the island you will have a fantastic dive. There are thirteen named sites around the island, and as drift diving is the main activity here you generally get to cover two of these sites on the one dive.

 

We dived White-tip Avenue early in the morning to see groups of humpheaded parrotfish leaving the shallows where they had spent the night. While we found South Point had some of the most impressive corals – huge volcano sponges, wide gorgonians and radiant soft corals. At the Coral Garden we had fun photographing all the white-tip reef sharks and turtles resting on the bottom, and even came across a group of humpies getting serviced by teams of cleaner wrasse.

 

Although famous for its ‘big stuff’, the reefs around Sipadan also support a wonderful range of smaller critters. We found a good variety of nudibranchs, pipefish, flatworms, sea whip gobies, squat lobsters in the featherstars, long-nose hawkfish in the black coral trees and also quite a few orang-utan crabs in the bubble corals.

 

Another must-do dive at Sipadan is the Drop-off. This site is directly under the jetty and is another brilliant wall dive, but the main feature here is the Turtle Tomb. This huge cave cuts into the wall and narrows into a maze of smaller tunnels that snake under the island. Only qualified cave divers can explore these darker tunnels, where the skeletons of turtles lie scattered on the bottom, but any diver can explore the cavernous cave mouth. It was a magic experience drifting to the back of the main cave, looking out into the deep blue and watching a school of trevally swirling around the cave mouth while turtles and reef sharks cruising by.

 

Sipadan is also famous for schooling hammerheads, but these are generally only seen in February and March when the water is a little cooler, but encounters are never guaranteed. But our dive guides told us at anytime of the year Sipadan can be visited by ocean wonderers like marlin, manta rays, sunfish and whale sharks.

 

Our nine days of diving East Sabah gave us a wonderful sample of the diving in this rich marine area and we know it will not be long before we return to explore more of this diver’s paradise.

 

TOPSIDE ATTRACTIONS

If you travel all the way to Sabah make sure you allow a few extra days to see some of the topside attractions, the best being around the town of Sandakan, on the north coast. This town is the easiest place to view some of Borneo’s unique wildlife, including orang-utans at the famous Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. Captive, orphaned and injured orang-utans are cared for here and released back into the wild, but return daily to the feeding station. Nearby at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary you can see semi-wild proboscis monkeys, leaf monkeys and hornbills. If you don’t mind bat guano (poo) and cockroaches then a visit to Gomantong Caves is a must do. This massive cave is home to two million bats, three million cockroaches and other bugs and also the nesting site of swallows, which produce the famous bird-nest soup nests. And finally you can also see an assortment of wildlife on a Kinabatangan River safari trip. These are done in the late afternoon, the best time to see proboscis monkeys, leaf monkeys, macaques, wild pigs, many bird species and even elephants and orang-utans if you are really lucky.

 

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