A novelty alternative to any dive resort
I was very happy to fulfill a long-held ambition to dive in one of the most celebrated dive areas in the world. I am talking about the South China Sea, and specifically the waters around Sabah, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
I started my adventure in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah and found myself at Jesselton Point jetty for a day of diving around Gaya Island, which is a short 20 minute boat ride from the city.
The first thing that struck me was the colour of the water … so green and clear as we made the short trip to our first dive site. The islands off Kota Kinabalu make for an excellent introduction into diving in Malaysia. They provide shelter from the open sea and you can really experience incredible diving in 5–15m of water. Consequently, this area is very popular with overseas divers of all levels and abilities.
My dive buddy for the days’ two dives was an Australian who had lived here for five years and knew the waters like the back of his hand. After the prerequisite safety briefings and equipment checks we were immersed in the warm (29°C) water and into a whole new world. This dive site was called ‘Coral Garden’ and it was aptly named.
The sheer variety and diversity of the coral was amazing as was the aquatic life living amongst it. It was difficult to know where to look, there was so much activity around and within a couple of minutes I saw my first turtle; feeding lazily on the sea floor, it was the first of many I would see on this trip. Multi-coloured nudibranch are common here as are several varieties of reef fish like Moorish idol, triggerfish, pufferfish, parrotfish and red and black anemonefish.
My first day’s diving in Malaysia left me weary but incredibly satisfied and I could now look forward with renewed enthusiasm to the next part of my journey, which would take me over to the diving mecca that is the west coast of Sabah.
When you think of diving in Sabah, invariably the island of Sipadan springs to mind. The legendary Jacques Cousteau rated it one of his all-time favourite dive spots. These days you cannot stay on the island itself but there are a multitude of great places to stay nearby, including Kapalai Resort, Mabul Island and Mataking Resort.
As a single diver determined to make the most of my short time away, I chose Seaventures Dive Rig. The Rig is unique in that it was formerly an accommodation platform for oil rigs and moved to its current location in 1997 as an eco-tourism venture. It is now a fully-functioning dive centre, complete with all the necessary dive gear, accommodation, bar and a restaurant. The Rig is situated approximately 40 minutes by ferry from the fishing village of Semponah and is around 300m off the shores of Mabul Island.
Directly under the Rig is the ‘House Reef’ and upon arrival I was taken on the first of my two orientation dives accompanied by one of the many local Dive Masters. I was immediately astonished by the variety of life there, including a couple of giant groper around 1.5m long as well as two enormous turtles slumbering on the reef. They were so relaxed they hardly stirred as we swam close by. During the course of the dive we saw schools of squid, trumpet fish, baby boxfish, several lionfish and numerous varieties of coloured nudibranch and starfish.
The Rig allows unlimited ‘House Reef’ dives during your stay, including night dives for those who are sufficiently qualified. As well as this, daily boat dives to nearby Mabul Island, Kapalai Resort and Sipadan Island are on offer at an additional cost.
My first evening on the Rig was great, the staff there are incredibly friendly and around 6pm everyone gravitates to the bar area to share stories of the day’s diving. One evening I sat listening to those who had been to Sipadan and I was surrounded by Swedish, Dutch and Australian divers all raving about their day.
Accommodation on the Rig takes the form of the original oil workers’ rooms. All are meticulously clean and have private facilities, air conditioning and wifi access. To my mind it is the ultimate ‘liveaboard’, with the added bonus of the stability to avoid any seasickness. Even in the stormiest weather you would not feel the Rig rocking.
The next day I was up at 5.30am for our 6am boat departure to Sipadan. Dive numbers on Sipadan are limited to 120 a day and the Rig has a daily allocation of 11 divers. Upon arrival at the island you must register with the local authorities before beginning your dives.
Our day at Sipadan, so highly anticipated, did not disappoint. In fact, it was one of the most incredible days of my life. We did three different dives, Coral Garden, Turtle Patch and Barracuda Point. All these are ‘wall dives’, as Sipadan is a volcanic island with a sheer drop-off for thousands of metres. The beauty of these dives was that the abundant sealife was evident at all depth ranges and so divers of all levels would see plenty of variety.
Within minutes of entering the crystal-clear water we were surrounded by a school of 40–50 large bumphead parrotfish – breath taking! This set the scene for the day and by the end of it I had seen several large reef sharks, thresher sharks, moray eels, turtles, incredible schools of jack fish, barracuda, trevally and so much more.
verywhere you looked there were beautiful corals, giant clams and hundreds of reef fish of every shape, size and colour. Every few minutes it seemed our Dive Masters were pointing out some new attraction that would have us all spellbound and the dives were over before you could ever begin to tire of it all.
That evening, reflecting on the day and talking to the other divers from all over the world, the consensus was that Sipadan and the surrounding area was world class, offering opportunities to see rare and endangered aquatic life in surprising numbers. By limiting access to this area to manageable numbers, this region of Sabah is still largely unspoilt and offers the diver an incredible opportunity for unrivalled experiences. My only concern now is having experienced this area, that other regions I travel to will suffer by comparison – not a bad problem to have.
Find more info on ‘The Rig’ here.