Pulau Sipadan 1996

by David Lin

  • June 24
  • June 25
  • June 26
  • June 27
  • June 28

  • "I have seen other places like Sipadan...45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art." - Jacques Cousteau
    I had an opportunity to visit one of the most unique diving spots in the world - Pulau (Island) Sipadan in the Borneo part of Malaysia. Well, actually, the island is currently under dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia government. But as long as there is no confrontation similar to the situation of the Spratly island, I am happy just to be at this little paradise. Sipadan is a geological curiosity. It's the only oceanic island in Malaysia situated in the middle of the Celebes Sea 32 km from the nearest land mass. The island itself is about 16 hectares (40 acres) and resembles a huge mushroom that shot upward 600 meters (that's 2000 ft for us Americans!) from the bottom of the ocean floor.

    The island is famous for its awesome wall diving and the abundance of marine life. According to World Wildlife Fund, there is "no other spot on the surface of the planet has more marine life than this island." Similar to Singapore, there are lots of rules on the island. Here is a sample of the rules:

    But unlike Singapore, there is no harsh penalty associated with any of these. Besides, people who visit Sipadan are usually friendly, environmental conscious, laid-back and well-behaved individuals. Life is very simple in Sipadan. Eat, sleep and dive. Eat, sleep and dive. And the cycle goes on and on, at least that's the daily routine for visitors like me.

    After working almost non-stop in California for about a month, I decided it was time for a long overdue vacation. I knew I wanted to do some diving (It's against the rules to visit Southeast Asia without doing any diving 8-) So a friend of mine in Singapore was gracious enough to do some of the leg work in finding the suitable dive vacation package. Though I had a generous purse, time was the limiting factor. I decided against taking the Tioman and the Layang-Layang package mainly because I had my heart set on Sipadan. I also decided to take a PADI Advanced Open Water (AOW) SCUBA course. With hindsight, I probably would not have done it. The reason will become clear later on.

    During the time I was in Singapore, I stayed at this small cozy hotel in Chinatown. The place is located at Teck Lim Rd near Outram Park MRT station. For S$90 dollar a night, it's half way between the YMCA and the pricey Orchard Road hotels. Don't expect anything fancy here though. It's a converted shop house with clean but cramp quarters. The entire area around the hotel is being re-developed in to a business hotel strip as part of the Singapore's urban renewal project. This is a process I called "Singaporized" where every bits of history and artifacts are cannibalized, destroyed, or painted over to make way for a new, clean and efficient Singapore. There are three other hotels currently under "Singaporization" nearby. This area used to be one of the red light districts in Singapore. It has since been sanitized for the tourist trade. But the place next door was very suspicious with the red lamp out front.


    June 24 (Monday)

    S'pore - Senai - Kota Kinabalu - Tawau - Semporna - Sipadan

    Yes, it was a very long day. I couldn't get a direct flight from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu (KK) because of last minute booking. So I had to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to get to the Novtel Orchid Hotel to be transported to Johor Bahru in Malaysia. I have no idea why Malaysian Airline (MAS) would choose this hotel as their city terminal in Singapore. It's in the middle of nowhere with no public transportation access at all. Patrick of Mako Aquatic was nice enough to deliver the airline tickets directly to my hotel the night before. The check in time at the Orchid Hotel was an unearthly 6 o'clock. Then it was a long and excruciating bus ride from Singapore to JB, especially when everyone need to be awakened to go through both Singapore and Malaysian immigration and custom. I fell asleep the minute I got on the plane at Senai airport. By the time I woke up, we were ready to land.

    KK is the state capitol of Sabah. From the air, the town looks like a quiet vacation resort. It is sandwiched between crystal clear blue ocean and the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia - Mt. Kinabalu. East Malaysia is funny in the way that to travel from West Malaysia, everyone need a passport to enter. This means an extra chop on the passport. The airport is also a bit tricky. To get to my gate, I had to exit the terminal building and re-enter again. And being a Malay ignorant American, I had to enter on the wrong entrance. But since I had a two- hour lay over, I had plenty of time to get confused and lost. Supposedly area around KK is full of exciting outdoor activity destinations. These included white water rafting, mountain climbing, biking, etc. Hopefully I will get a chance to return someday to complete my dream of climbing Mt. Kinabalu.

    When you travel as much as I do, sightseeing from the plane becomes an integral part of the trip. I will always try to get window seat whenever I can. I can never get tired of seeing the Grand Canyon every time I fly over it. Though it's inconvenient to get out to the aisle, most of the time the view is worth the hassle of asking other passengers to get up for you. Besides, it's a good way to start a conversation 8-) "May I get pass you?" "No" "Well, don't make me force my way through..." When flying from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, try to get a seat on the left window side of the plane (A-side). The reason is that on a clear day, you can see the majestic Mt. Kinabalu.

    Well, I didn't have such luck. The weather was bad so all I saw was lots of clouds instead of the mountain. The flight from KK to Tawau was uneventful. Rain forest and muddy rivers dominated the scenery. Looking down at the tributaries winding through the pristine luscious green forest, it was easy to imagine the countless specimens of fauna and flora down below. But as we get closer to Tawau, I can definitely see the deforestation that is taking place. It's hard to stop progress, especially when it's revenue generating. Japan is supposedly one of the main importers of forestry product from Malaysia. With Japan's strong economy and buying power, it's not hard to imagine the future for this place.

    Tawau was an obscure town until an airline crash put it on the map last year. A MAS aircraft slammed in to a village at the end of the runway during takeoff. During our landing, the person next to me was wondering if the runway is long enough. What a time to let the mind wonder. Maybe I am used to travel in the states where most major airports have multiple runways and taxiways. I was a bit alarmed when all the airports on this trip all have only one single runway. The plane takeoff, land and taxi all on the same runway (eeeks!). Our plane landed, made a U-turn, and taxied to the middle of the strip to make a turn at the terminal. I certainly hope the air traffic controller had the situation well under control.

    Upon the arrival at Tawau, I was welcomed by Tom from Pulau Sipadan Resort (PSR). Two counters were prominently located at the arrival area. One was Borneo Diver and the other is Pulau Sipadan Resort. The display was full of colorful brochure to entice the would be divers. Tom's job, which is quite simple, is to welcome the visitors and make sure they are comfortable after arrival. But this comforting feeling soon vaporized after he asked me to sign the waiver form. After he was dropped off at the local office in Tawau, it was a grueling 2 hour minivan ride to Semporna with a driver that doesn't understand English. He couldn't answer any question or make any conversation. And worst of all, it felt like he was going around in circle most of the time. There wasn't much scenery to look at. And since I was the only one going to the island that day, I felt like a prisoner in his minivan.

    When we arrived at the pier in Semporna, the people who first welcomed me were the street vendors selling souvenirs. They have this keen sense of smell that can pick out any tourists among the crowd. I was then formally welcomed by the PSR resort manager. After a brief introduction, we loaded the speedboat with supply and headed for my final destination, Pulau Sipadan. The boat trip took about 45 minutes. It was a funny feeling to head toward the open sea without seeing the destination. The island only appeared from the horizon half an hour into the trip. Piracies are rampant in this part of Malaysia. Most of the pirates came from the Philippine islands nearby where the Muslim guerrillas are still fighting a separatist war. They are well armed and extremely dangerous. I heard a few years back, some pirates firebombed the police station in Semporna and ransacked the town. They were eventually caught and executed. But I was assured that there is no such problem in Sipadan. First is because of tourist money generated by Sipadan. And second is because the Malaysian navy is stationed at nearby Mabul island. I also heard that the Sipadan island is ready to defend itself if needed.

    After arriving at Pulau Sipadan Resort (PSR), I received the standard free welcome drink typical at any Asian resort. There are currently 5 resorts on the island. Personally, I hope they don't have any plan for any dramatic expansion. These resorts are not fancy by any means. Each occupies a little corner of the island and most structures are made out of local building material. When I got there, there were a family from California, a group from Europe, a large group from HK, and a group from Japan. Japanese are probably the most avid divers in the world. I would not be surprised if they have the most certified SCUBA divers in the world. I see them at dive resorts everywhere and most of them kept meticulous dive logs. There was this one that I saw that had well written description accompanied by colorful hand-drawn pictures of marine life encountered during each dive. It put my logbook to shame.

    There is always this debate among divers on which is the better certification program, NAUI or PADI. Well, being a kiasu person, now I have both 8-) PSR only offered PADI. If I had a preference, I would have chosen NAUI. The resident instructor was Danny. Ken was the only dive master since the others were away on a course. Danny is an affable chap. He was surprised that I was taking a course, and he wasn't the only one. It seems that people go to Sipadan to get the maximum dive (or bottom) time and not waste any time on courses. Well, I am one of those weekend divers who like to squeeze in as much as I can during a vacation break. Besides, I was there for only 3 days while most people stay for weeks. Life is short, play hard 8-)

    I was fortunate to get this little grass hut next to the beach. It had a high ceiling fan and all the modern creature comfort. Bottled water, electrical outlets, mosquito incense, reading lamps all came standard. Though it was the most distant hut from the bathroom and shower complex, the scenery from the main window was simply breathtaking. First it was the unspoiled white sand beach and the calm blue ocean, then a spectacular view of the distant mountain peaks. Combined with the gray storm clouds with occasional lightening, it's hard to believe that such picturesque place actually exists on earth. The view was even better at night. It's a sad affair that starry nights have become a luxury in our lives. I remember going camping with my friends at Indian Lake, New York. There was this one night that the sky was so clear and full of stars that we ended up spending most of the night admiring the heaven. We even saw a few shooting stars. I envy those stargazers in the old day where they can view the constellations without any modern day pollution or obstruction. In preparation for the dives next day, I was given the AOW instruction book to read. But I fell asleep curling up next to the book as if it was my bolster, without turning one single page.


    June 25 (Tuesday)

    Sipadan

    After my last disastrous dive at Pulau Hantu in Singapore, I temporarily lost my interest in diving. The main cause was the grotesque black oily gunk that we encountered when we surfaced. It stained my trusted wet suit and equipment. And it never came off to this date, some souvenir item. I won't even bother to mention the low visibility and lack of marine life, plus those reckless boaters who didn't even recognize a dive flag, let alone how to react when they see one. But the very first dive at Sipadan quickly revived my interest. I can't believe I waited this long to dive again. The moral of the story is that never dive in Singapore, unless you are extremely desperate.

    Woke up early in the morning not knowing whether it was because of the jetlag or the pre-dive anxiety. After more than a year of SCUBA inactivity, I was a bit apprehensive about my first open ocean dive. It was reassuring to have a good capable instructor. After breakfast, I had my first class room lesson with Danny. He is a soft-spoken guy, a man with few words but always succinct to the point. The PADI AOW requires three core dives - navigation, deep and night dives. We did the deep dive first. The resort couldn't make the dive any simpler. One thing that PSR has over the other resorts on the island is that the divers don't have to carry the heavy 80 cubic feet tanks. Everything was taken care of by the people at the resort. Once I suited up, put on the BCD and the tanks, and off we go. Upon return, they took the BCD and the tanks from us. And everything would be ready on the next dive. That's what I call service, or lazy man's diving.

    The popular dive locations at Sipadan have very descriptive and distinctive names. Going counter-clockwise around the island from the resorts, the names are Drop Off, North Point, Hanging Garden, Lobster Lairs, Staghorn Crest, South Point, Turtle Patch, Midreef, Whitetip Avenue, Coral Gardens, and finally, Barracuda Point. The first dive was at the Drop off. In my opinion, it was not a very appropriate place for the first check out dive psychologically. The thought of "if I lose something here, it will probably end up 2000 feet at the bottom of the ocean" has a frightening consequence. But the dive was easier than I expected. We simply walked a few feet and the bottom dropped out under us. I heard so much about wall diving but never actually experienced it first hand. It was practically a wall of corals going straight down as far as I can see. As long as the diver has a good neutral buoyancy control, there is really nothing to worry about.

    Our dive goal was 90 feet for 50 minutes for this deep dive. We went straight downward once we have gone over the "wall". On the way down, I simply ran out of brain power to process every thing that I saw. Information overload, there was no other way to describe it. If I could capture everything on this dive, it would probably take me a year just to process them. Large fish, small fish, corral, sponge, shrimp, turtle, everything was everywhere. It reminded me of the Star Wars and the ID4 dog fight sequences where everything was going every which way. No matter which way I turned, there was always something to see. Going down was a piece of cake. And because of the wall, it was really deceptive how deep we really were.

    We stopped at a ledge around 100 feet. We did a check of our depth gauge and I was surprised to find that we were differ by about 5 feet. There were two tasks that need to be performed on the deep dive for AOW. One was a demonstration of color fading due to the lack of sunlight. Danny picked out a fan coral which appeared to be dark gray. But when he shined the torch light on it, it suddenly became bright crimson red. This is one reason that people don't usually dive at this depth - there is no color perception. This reminded me the movie "Abyss" when the main character was trying to disarm the nuclear device. He needed to cut the red wire but couldn't distinguish the colors.

    The other task was the test for reaction time. Because of the pressure, which is around 4 atmospheres at 100 feet, some people get nitrogen narcosis. The symptoms are supposedly similar to intoxication. It's a feeling of high with slower reaction time. I heard that some people under this condition would do crazy things such as taking off their masks, or laughing uncontrollably. Danny told me this case where the student went straight for the bottom of the ocean and he had to pull him back by the legs. During the class room session, I was told to link 4 tubes together into a square while being timed. The same task was repeated underwater at the ledge. I don't want to brag but I believe that I actually accomplished the task in about same time as when I was above sea level.

    We worked our way slowly back up following the contour of the wall. At around 40 feet, we came across a chasm amidst the marine life. There were at least 2 signs posted saying "Do Not Enter." This is the entrance to the Turtle Cavern. Two Japanese divers died early this year attempting to explore this cavern. One died of air embolism when he surfaced too fast. The other person's body had to be retrieved from the cave. I have seen photo of the cave filled with turtle carcasses. Because the dark and twisty nature of this cave, even the turtles get lost and perish in it. I am not sure if PSR offer an official guided tour of the cave because they do not recommend anyone from entering the cave. I am sure there will always be some daring souls who want to venture into the unknown. Maybe one day I will come back and explore this mysterious Turtle Cavern.

    When I first dove, I was one of those "air buffaloes" who consumed large quantity of air. What made matters worse was that I was diving with a female buddy who tends to consume much less air. I always felt guilty when we surfaced and she always had at least 1500 pounds of pressure left. Now that I have more experience and I have upgraded the tank from 63 to 80 cubic feet, I hope I will fare better against my female counterpart 8-) On this dive, we logged 50 minutes at 115 ft. My Citizen watch, which is rated 100 meter water resist, survived with a few scratches, pretty impressive considering that it is only a windsurfing watch.

    After some snack and sleep, we were off to our next dive. There are typically 4 dives a day - two in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. The resort runs 3 boat dives a day. We had 2 boats on each trip since we had enough people to fill them. Then the guests can do unlimited number of shore dives. Without a diving buddy, it was difficult for me to take the advantage of it. But nevertheless, 4 dives a day seemed to be the optimum, at least for someone who was on vacation. During the class room session, we did a dry run (Is this where they got the word?) of the navigation course on the land. The course was basically a square with 20 steps on each side. I was given this awful compass. I think it was donated by some company on a trial basis. The Lubber line and the index marks are on the same swivel so it makes it very difficult to align with the imaginary straight line. The other reason that it is an awful compass is that I couldn't get a straight line at all without using a reference point.

    We did the navigation dive on the Drop Off. First thing was the measuring of the kick cycle. Good divers supposedly have a consistent kick cycle which can be used to measure distance. Well, I tried and failed miserably. I can't seem to be able to count and kick at the same time. I think both use the same part of my brain. And then I can't seem to develop a consistent kicking pattern. Combined with a bad compass and a slight current, my navigation dive had disaster written all over it.

    First was the straight line navigation. 20 kicks straight out and 20 kicks back in sounded simple enough. So I was staring both at my compass and my depth gauge. 20 kicks out, OK, or was that 21? Never mind, just turn around and go back. Let's see, twist the swivel on the compass and 20 more kicks, or was that 18? A few more kicks just to make sure. Then I looked around and the instructor was no where in sight! Not a good time to panic, I told myself. The wall was still there so I wasn't that far off. I then looked back. About 15 feet behind me and 5 feet above me, the instructor was on the ledge shaking his head. I swam back to him and he told me things that I had done wrong. And would you believe that's when I realized that underwater communication is nearly impossible? I was sure that he had good intentions and great suggestions. What I wasn't sure was what he was trying to communicate. Being a good student, I simply nod my head. What else could I have done?

    Then came the dreaded square navigation. How was I expected to navigate a square when I was not able to navigate in a straight line? I knew one thing for sure - I can't depend my life on that stupid compass. I used the only hope I had - visual cues. So I basically swam a square while peeking at the instructor and pretending to stare at the compass. I think he realized it and decided to show me how real navigation is done. So I followed him in the square route. One turn, so far so good. Second turn, thing was still OK. Third turn was a bit shaky. And when we finished, we were no where close to where we started! Of course, both of us chalked up the mistake to the quality of the compass and the strength of the current. He conveyed the thought by knocking on his compass a few times and shaking his head. I conveyed my thought by accidentally dropping the compass. I should have let it sank to the bottom of the ocean floor to save the next student victim from this ordeal. But I realized it too early when it was only 10 feet below me. In a state of panic, I dove after it, nearly bursting my eardrums in the process. That would have been the biggest regret I had on that trip.

    After two successive course dives, it was time for a leisure dive. I was scheduled to dive with the European group at the South Point after lunch. I was told that these Europeans were very impatient and was warned that I should be very punctual when it's time to dive. I guess after a week on the island, diving had become just like clockwork for them. This was my first boat dive at Sipadan. The location was on the opposite end of the island which meant a maximum gear-up to dive time of 10 minutes. The highlight of this dive was a "chain" of small blue tropical fish. Both ends of this chain extended into the distant darkness as far as the eyes can see. I attempted to break up the chain but they quickly merged back together. There seemed to be this unexplained force that bond these fish into an unbreakable link as it casually snaked through the reefs. I discovered that sometimes it's hard to notice things initially. What started out as a dark gray patch in the middle of the ocean turned out to be a large school of Jacks. Without a keen eye, it's easy to miss the subtle things underwater.

    After dinner, it was time to experience my first night dive. PSR limited the night dive group to a maximum of 10 people on a first come first serve basis. This is an agreement reached between the resorts. Because all the night dives here are shore dives done at the Drop Off, this ensures that the location won't be too crowded with divers. The equipment for the night dive is almost identical to the day dive. A strobe light was attached to my tank to avoid mid-water collision. I also think it was so that the instructor can retrieve the rental equipment in case I get lost. And of course, a torch light is essential if I want to see the mysterious sea creatures of night. It also comes in handy to see what type of unknown objects I bump into at night.

    One of the biggest problems of night diving was stepping on dangerous objects on the way out. The instructor told us about a person who stepped on a Lion fish while putting on the fins in water. Needless to say, the person was in pain for quite a long time. I have to admit that night diving wasn't as stressful as I first imagined. It could fun if the diver can just stay focused. The worst thing is to let the mind wonder. The human brain is full of wonderful imagination. But this was one of those few occasions that this is not desirable. It's a scary feeling knowing that something can emerge from the cold darkness of the sea and possibly engulf a diver in one giant swoop. If you think underwater alone will make you panic, wait until it's dark.

    But night diving is a whole different experience. You see more by seeing less. This is because the diver can only see the area lit by the torch light. By focusing on a smaller area, divers could actually concentrate better and see more detail. The torch lighting also made better viewing of the marine life by enhancing the color. It's always nice to dive with someone who knows the local water, especially in at night. The local divers always know where the indigenous interests and curiosities are. I saw shrimps and crabs on the coral branches where I would miss in the day time. The instructor also showed me the fish feeding by torch light. First he would like for a Lionfish among the corals. Then he shined the light on the small fish next to it. The Lionfish would see the fish and swallow it in one swift gulp. Repeat the process as needed until the diver's curiosity has been satisfied.

    We were also told to avoid shining the light into sea turtles' eyes while they were asleep. But they blended in with the environment so well that most of the time I didn't even realize they were there until they move. During the dive, I also saw a few florescent specks floating in the distant darkness. I am sure it was some kind of fish but it was still a bit spooky to say the least. Human have always being afraid of the darkness and the unknown. But to an optimist or other adventurous diver, they present unlimited opportunities and untold reward.

    Nothing beats a good snack after a good dive. The dining hall is the social area where the most people hang out between dives. There is a sun deck where people can catch some sun ray. Meals at PSR is surprising good considering most of it came from the mainland. The cooks are from Philippine. The HK group had a Sharp camcorder with waterproof camera housing and they would show their video between dives to break the monotony. It was funny to watch all kind of bizarre trick a diver can perform when he or she is in front of a camcorder. On that particular night, two of the Japanese divers celebrated their 20th and 50th dives. They somehow got a cake on to the island. We all shared their good fortune by gulping down the delicious cakes, miles away from the nearest Haagen-Dozs shop.


    June 26 (Wednesday)

    Sipadan

    When I first visited the Monterey aquarium in California 10 years ago, I was in awe by the sheer size of the sea water tank. As the new aquariums opened up across the country, the sea tanks simply got larger and larger. It seemed like all the aquariums were trying to outdo each other. Little did I realize at the time the biggest sea water tank in the world is the ocean itself. And the best way to view this tank is through SCUBA diving. There is this Malay saying "Frog under a coconut shell." Talk about being a little frog. Now that I have been one with the ocean. It's painful to look at the fish in a little tiny fish tank. The people who said fish tank has a calming effect on people obviously never SCUBA dived.

    The two elective AOW dives that the instructor recommended were Multi-level Dive and Underwater Naturalist. I think the reason is because they are the easiest. Pressure does funny thing to the human body. First came the diving table where the diver can conservatively estimate the bottom depth and time. Then there was the multi-level dive table, or the wheel, where the diver can push this limit a bit further. Then there is the ultimate diving computer where the diver can dive much more aggressively. But it's still better to double check the computer with the dive tables. You know what they say "to error is human. To really mess things up, you need a computer."

    For the multi-level dive, I picked 30, 20, and 12 meters. The dive took place at the Barracuda point and the final depth was 107 feet. On this dive, we saw a school of Barracuda. Similar to the Jacks, they swam in a circular fashion similar to a slow twisting tornado. I was very attempted to swim into the school. But after hearing story of Barracuda attack, I simply stayed at close range watching them swim peacefully among themselves. We also saw quite a few White tip sharks. I encountered a shark at one of my first open water dives in Malaysia. Though I didn't actually see the shark. But when I saw my buddy with her eyes wide open and making the "Jaws" motion with her hand, I knew instantly what she was trying to tell me. We slowly swam back to the boat while nervously looking around for the beast. We were laughed at after we surfaced because the instructor told us that people pay to see sharks, while we ran away the first chance we had. Well, this time it was different. First there were lots of fish around. This meant that there were a lot more easy small targets for the sharks to go after. Second, there were lots of people. Similar to the logic of encountering a bear, I just have to out-swim the next diver 8-) The sharks there weren't aggressive at all. They seem happy to see us there, hopefully for some reason other than food.

    The last AOW dive was the Underwater Naturalist. For this dive, I was taken to the Coral Garden by the instructor. Before the dive, the instructor made a list of marine life that we would be looking for. This was a shallow dive and I was really surprised by how many different types of Fire corals were out there. These were poisonous corals and could easily inflict a burning sensation to unsuspecting divers. The group of divers from HK sometimes returned with injuries sustained by the Fire corals. I was told that it was mainly because of lack of buoyancy control. The other reason is because lack of skin protection. A pair of gloves always give me the peace of mind in case I develop the urge to touch something.

    I was again overwhelmed by the abundance of marine life. But this time at least I was able to name some of them. There were lots of Trigger fish and Clown fish. It was amazing to see the Anemonefish mingle with the Anemone without getting affected by the its poisonous tentacles. There were plenty of Lion fish, Parrotfish and Puffers. I also saw some Stringray and Moray eel. And last but not least, the sea turtle, both Green and Hawksbill. They are probably the most graceful creatures in these waters. We heard story that some divers would ride on these poor animals while they try desperately to get away. I also heard some dive operation would capture turtles so pictures can be taken with the divers. Why some people want to make these turtles suffer is beyond me.

    One disappointment at Sipadan was that fish bombing is still practiced around the region. Though it's illegal, there is no enforcement of such contemptible act. Many reefs around Sipadan have been destroyed by dynamites. The damage was particularly severe in the shallow part of the island. We could hear constant booming sound while underwater. Sound can travel quite a distance underwater. Though we can feel the bombing, all of them were coming from miles away. Dynamites are supposedly easy to obtain in Southern Philippines and bombing is a cheap and convenient way to fish for the locals.

    We went to the North Point for a leisure dive after lunch. Through carelessness, I ripped the octopus hose while back rolling into the water. The minute I hit the water, the air gushed out from the hose. After this incident, I would definitely check for any loose hoses next time. Needless to say, I had to skip the dive. The group that went into the water was looking for sharks. They saw a Leopard shark on that particular dive. They also saw some Hammerheads on a previous dive. Sharks prefer deeper water with strong current. The ocean currents merge at the three points around the island and those are the places with the most shark sightings. That is also the reason that we do not go left at the Drop Off. The current there is stronger enough to carry a diver out to sea.

    While I was waiting, I was snorkeling around the place and it just wasn't the same. Hovering above the reefs, it was so far and yet so close. To be up close and personal with the fish is such an unbeatable feeling. I did find out that these dive boats do not anchor. They waited around until the divers have surface. After about 40 minutes, people start to pop up everywhere. The other dive operation had divers surfacing all over the place. The boat had to zigzag back and forth to pick up their divers.

    Between the breaks, I took brief stroll around the island. It took me 20 minutes to walk once around the island. There wasn't that much to see. Turtle nest clearly were marked with numbers everywhere. Lots of drift wood scattered on the beach. The only structure, other than the resorts, was a small lighthouse at the opposite of the island. Walking at night around Sipadan is prohibited. The main reason is not to distract the turtle from laying their eggs on the beach. One unexpected thing in Sipadan is the lack of waves. Though it is considered part of the Celebes Sea, the ocean is nice and calm. It seems to be naturally protected from the pounding surf of the vast ocean.

    I was with the group of the HK divers for the leisure night dive. We had a group of 8 divers compare to 2 I had on the previous night. All I can say is that it was not a pleasant experience. Because everyone wanted to stay around the diver master, we ended up getting too close and constantly kicking each other. And there were so much air bubbles from the divers that the visibility was greatly impaired. But I did pick up a trick in mask clearing. Fogging of the mask always present a challenge to divers. The problem is even more pronounced during night dives because of the colder temperature and narrowing scope of vision. I always wondered why some advanced divers have water in their mask. It appeared that the water can be used to slush around the mask to clear the fog. I wonder if a similar mask clearing technique can be developed for snow skiing 8-)


    June 27 (Thursday)

    Sipadan - Semporna - Tawau

    Woke up to the sound of rain splashing on the roof. I was glad that the nut is constructed in a way that water can't seep through. The policy at PSR is that there is no boat diving when it rains because the boat cannot see the bubbles from the drift divers. However shore divers are still allowed in the rain. But it didn't matter because the rain stopped right before we were prepared to dive. The Europeans didn't go saying that after 50 dives everything looks the same. I was in no position to argue since I only had 7 dives so far. And I didn't even cover half of the sites on the island.

    The morning dive was at the North point. It wasn't an exciting dive. Maybe the rain scared most of the fishes away. But it was a good time to practice my neutral buoyancy, especially during the decompression stop. A sign of a good diver is to be able to hover in mid-water effortlessly. And a great way to show off is to hold the body in the lotus position and let the breathing alone controls the vertical movement. Beginners have a tendency to bounce up and down in the water because of lack of control. I have to say that I was proud to do some show off after less than 20 dives.

    My last dive at Sipadan was definitely an interesting dive. It was an underwater wedding held at Barracuda point at 60 feet. The HK group got the agreement from the DM to hold a wedding ceremony underwater. A couple from the group just recently got married. The other people went through all the trouble to prepare a waterproof marriage certificate so they can present it to the couple underwater. I was a bit disappointed since I wanted to see more of Sipadan on my last dive. But even on this remote island, majority rules. We practiced on land first and the proceeding seemed simple enough. After we arrived at the site. Ken, the DM, tried to find an appropriate sight. But through mis- communication, all of us headed for the bottom before Ken came back up.

    We drifted together in a group for a while. And luckily we came upon a clear spot that was destroyed by fish bombing. We first had the group picture and video with the bride and the groom coming down the imaginary aisle. A group of diver went by and you should have seen their faces. They must be thinking that this group have gotten nitrogen narcosis. We then took turn having individual picture with the bride and groom. Because of the constant movement, the sediments were kicked up from the ocean floor partly obscure the visibility. By the time we finished, it was time to surface. I found out later that the HK group work for the government where they can borrow the dive equipment for free. The leader of the group is a PADI instructor that certified everyone in the group. They promised to send me an underwater photo of the wedding but I am not holding my breath, which is extremely bad when you are diving.

    After a hurried packing job and a quick lunch, I left the island on the speed boat at 1 o'clock sharp. I felt sad, and a bit guilty, about leaving the island only after 3 days. The European group logged more than 50 dives each at this place, while I only logged 9 dives. I stayed at the Maco Polo hotel in Tawau for the night. I would love to stay one more night at Sipadan but diving and flying on the same date is highly discouraged. I had dinner at the Singapore's Chicken Rice place next to the hotel. After walking around the town, I drifted asleep upon returning to the hotel room.


    June 28 (Friday)

    Tawau - Kota Kinabalu - Senai - S'pore

    Found out that for a measly RM$792, I could have flown to Sipadan directly from Tawau in a helicopter and save at least 6 hours of round- trip travel. Maybe when I win the lottery some day, I will come back here and dive in style. After a long two-legged flight back to West Malaysia, it was another long excruciating bus ride from Senai to Singapore. Trying to take the MRT back to town from the new Woodlands station, but decided against it after finding out that it was not within walking distance from the causeway. Finally arrived at the Chinatown hotel around 7 o'clock after a long struggle in the unfriendly Singapore transportation environment.

    Overall, it was a very memorable diving trip. But before my next dive, I want to:

    1. Learn more about different varieties of marine life,
    2. Pick up some underwater photography basics,
    3. And get a dive computer and a BC.

    If any of you out there is interested in diving together one of these days, do drop me a mail. Palau or Manado sound mighty tempting at this point. Happy diving!