By Roger Grace
Modern air travel is so amazing. Here I sit in absolute comfort on a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200, the air minus 56 degrees C outside. I’m being served delicious food and wine, watching the earth roll by like a magic carpet, while travelling at just below the speed of sound as we chase the sun across the planet.
After a day enjoying some of the rich cultural experiences of Kuala Lumpur during my stopover – the spectacular Petronas Twin Towers, the classic Kings Palace built in the Colonial era, the magnificent Thean Hou Chinese Temple, the Royal Selangor Pewter factory, the new Conference Centre with its amazing aquarium, and night-time shopping in Chinatown – I prepare to fly next morning to Sabah in northern Borneo, the eastern sector of Malaysia.
Here is some of the finest diving in the world. The legendary Sipadan is off the east coast of Sabah. Dive resorts on the island were closed down by the Government three years ago because of potential damage to the fragile terrestrial environment. Dives are now run as boat trips from nearby Mabul and Kapalai resorts.
At Tawau airport we were met by a minibus driver for the one-hour trip through small towns and palm oil plantations to Semporna where we boarded a narrow 8-metre ferry which went like the clappers with 2 x 100 horse-power 4-stroke outboard engines, covering the 20 miles or so to Borneo Divers Mabul Resort in less than an hour.
Because we are only 3 degrees from the equator we are out of the hurricane belt and the seas are usually flat calm.
Mabul Resort is on a 20-hectare island with a Malaysian village, coconut palms and a beautiful coral-sand beach. The resort has been built in a traditional style, very comfortable with all the facilities you need for a perfect dive holiday. The food and hospitality is first class, with very friendly and helpful staff. They have a minimum of around 700 divers per month.
We met Harris, the resort manager and a diver of many years, had a briefing with one of the dive guides, and settled in to our comfortable air-conditioned cabin. Preparing my underwater camera that night, I struck a problem common to most tropical dive resorts – lovely mood lighting but inadequate to check O-rings for specks of grit or hairs which could cause a flood. I recommend you take an LED headlamp in your kit.
Our first dive was on House Reef straight in front of the resort. Described as a muck dive referring to the slightly silty nature of the corals and sediments here, the 10-15-metre deep reef is a macro-photographers paradise.
We dived mostly along the bottom edge of the reef where I could kneel on the sand without damaging anything while concentrating on pictures along the coral edge. Beautiful yellow and blue sea squirts were common, as well as several stunningly colourful nudibranchs. Our dive guide pointed tiny white fungus-coral pipefish amongst the outstretched tentacles of the coral.
Other fascinating macro subjects included seastars, featherstars, juvenile crocodilefish, Christmas tree worms, clown fish, and beautiful transparent shrimps. A great first dive in Malaysia, but I was looking forward to Sipadan for the afternoon dive.
We anchored near the reef edge only 100 metres from a postcard coral-sand beach fringing the jungle-covered island. The abrupt change from pale blue shallow reef to a deep rich blue marks the dropoff, where the reef plunges vertically for 600 metres! All marine life is protected to 500 metres offshore.
There was stunning coral up on the crest, but the dropoff was an amazing spectacle of sponges, large gorgonian fans, black coral trees, and bizarre invertebrate life on a series of ledges and overhangs which disappeared into the inky depths. A gentle current turned this into a drift dive along the reef wall, conveniently carrying us on an effortless sightseeing journey of discovery. Lots of colourful reef fish posed for my camera, and sleepy green turtles rested on ledges or perched in black coral trees, oblivious to divers quite close. They are probably simply bored with divers.
Our second afternoon dive was at Barracuda Point where another dive team had encountered a big school of swirling barracuda. Unfortunately they did not show for us, though the drift dive along the wall was spectacular, and time in the shallows at the end of the dive was rewarded by lovely shots of bat fish and other reef fish.
Next morning we transferred to Kapalai Resort, just ten minutes from Mabul. This resort is perched on stilts on a reef flat with no land at all! Wooden walkways over the white sand with patches of coral link the 40 or so chalets to the main dining hall and the dive centre. You can see a lot of fish and coral without getting your feet wet!
Sipadan was again the target for our first dive. This time we dropped into a small curved embayment in the reef front filled with thousands of bigeye trevally or jacks in a 20-metre shiny wall of silver bodies – a challenge to the photographer to avoid harsh reflections from the strobe. Four giant trevally a metre long zoomed around above the jacks. The drift dive along the wall revealed dozens of turtles, occasional sharks, and four large barracuda, together with zillions of other goodies on this pristine wall.
Back to Kapalai for lunch before our final scuba dive – another muck dive along a 15-metre reef edge close to the resort, but filled with amazing macro subjects and critters for the biologically-minded diver. Our eagle-eyed dive guide found a weird pipefish which looks exactly like a fragment of dead seagrass!
Back at the resort we snorkelled around and under the dive centre, where big schools of yellow snappers and rabbit fish congregate in the shade. Beautiful orange gorgonian fans grew on some of the piles, but also scratchy barnacles to be aware of. Strange seastars with black knobs on the back were common on the sand near a seagrass bed. A dozen spotted sweetlips were resident under the steps. A giant barracuda hung motionless under the jetty as a cleanerfish worked its way around the gills and mouth. Frustratingly I ran out of card space at the critical point for a photo!
My trip log has the following entry: Man, is this heaven or what? Here I sit on my completely private verandah over the sea, drinking a coffee and looking across a greasy-flat ocean to the setting sun. The only improvement would be to share this with a lovely lady. It has been my first and only day at Kapalai Resort. Unfortunately we have to leave early in the morning, but if I had another day or two I would get that elusive shot of the big barracuda with cleanerfish in its gills right under the jetty!
As the sunlight faded a flood light came on illuminating the shallow seagrass below my verandah. Fish began to accumulate in the light pool – a pufferfish, thousands of bait fish, two small stingrays and a batfish. Yes. This must be heaven.