How can you plan more dive trips
when you've already seen the best spot on earth?
When we arrived in Semporna, the gateway city to some of the most spectacular diving on the planet, we were bummed. The town is unremarkable, the people not so friendly, the streets grimy, and there's a general air of uneasiness and distrust that makes you feel like you're constantly on a battlefield. Semporna is easily the worst place I've ever been; it's boring and inhospitable. Still, it's a necessary evil to pick up the ferries taking you out to the islands.
This area of the world has definitely felt their share of hardship, which may have colored my experience here. A few years ago, Semporna's proximity to the southern Filipino border and their influx of wealthy Chinese tourists caused a huge uptick in kidnappings and killings from Filipino pirates. The last reported incident was in December 2016, so the crisis is far from over, but it's much safer here than it was a few years ago. The government has stepped up its defense especially at sea and the locals here are starting to feel like the worst is behind them. Still, governments advise against travel here and our insurance would not cover us in case something happened. By the way, I was ignorant to all of this right until Dain told me as we were getting off the bus. I made sure we were in the hostel by sundown!
But I don't want to waste any more time talking about Semporna. Let's get to the good stuff- the beautiful islands and the even more beautiful worlds right off of their shores. In the Sulu Sea off the eastern coast of Borneo, Mabul is the biggest island with the most resorts and is accessible by an hour-long ferry. We were lucky enough to come on this trip for two reasons. One: we secured two passes to dive Sipaden Island, one of the best dive sites in the world. There are only 120 permits issued per day in order to protect the fragile ecosystem and prevent overcrowding. Each resort only gets 6 each, so you have to pick a resort based on their pass availability. I reached out to so many places until we finally heard back from two places. Here's reason number two why we were lucky: most resorts will try to scam you into expensive packages, saying that it's the only way you can have a permit. Not all resorts require you stay multiple days, although you'll probably want to, and there are lots of great budget options if you search hard enough. Dain and I stayed at Billabong and our ferry, lodging, meals, dive equipment, and park fees were all included and at a fourth of the price of the rest of the lodges. Big score!!
There's not much to do on Mabul- it's all resorts, and besides one lady selling cans of bad Chinese beer out of a cooler, there are no bars in this Muslim community. It's a place to relax, dive repeat. You can spot occasional sea turtles from the deck and come afternoon, buy some fresh seafood from the sea gypsies. The gypsies are aqueous nomads: no passports, no address, no electricity. They live on their little boats off the shore and mainly fish to pass the time. I get too seasick to live such a life.
We only had a few minutes to get settled upon arrival before we went off on our first dive. The first day we dove off of Kapalai Island nearby with a man-made reef and later on saw some wrecks off of Mabul. On these dives I was captivated by how massive the fish are here. There really must be something in the water because it seemed like everything was at least twice the size of what it should be! Big groupers sniffed around us and rolled on their backs in the sand like giant house cats looking for a belly rub. There were lionfish, pufferfish, featherfish, clownfish in anemones, and so many more that I wish I could identify. On our way out, we passed a green eel that was easily two feet in diameter smiling at us. I had no idea eels could grow so large! It was a screaming, teeming cacophony of color.
The next day was the big one: Sipadan. The six of us checked our dive equipment, loaded into the speed boat, and took off to the island. As soon as you get close, you'll see the island is very tiny and uninhabited. There are only a couple of boats around and you'd otherwise never know what a big deal this place is. There's a halo of bright, clear turquoise orbiting Sipadan that made me giddy with excitement. I had a good feeling about today.
The first two dives around the island, South Point and Turtle Cove, were great dives. They were both along a wall where on one side there's a wall of coral and on the other, a vast expanse of blue. There's not much to see on the wall, we're mainly looking for macro life swimming out in the sea. We saw a few turtles, some small sharks, and Dain and I are sure we saw a spotted dolphin in the distance. Overall, they were fantastic dives, but I was looking to be wowed. To have my fins knocked off me. Well, they saved the best for last: Barracuda Point.
Barracuda Point is what you think of when you think of Scuba diving. There are schools of thousands of fish swirling around you, dozens of reef, white-tip, and black-tip sharks wherever you turn. Turtles are in abundance, some five or six feet in diameter. Massive bump-headed parrot fish lumber about in the shallows. There's always something competing for your attention, and it feels like the dive is over way too quickly. I wish we had better footage to show, but our gopro camera doesn't work that deep! All we'll have are our cherished memories, and the hope that we'll have a chance to come back and dive here again.