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An awesome dive off Sipidan

Sipidan Island, a patch of paradise

A palm covered gem in the Sulu Sea. Just a small speck stranded off the coast of North-East Borneo and we are speeding over the waves towards it. I have travelled for 2 days and crossed a fair chunk of the globe to get here. Expectation is intense. I can’t wipe the anticipatory grin from my face.

Beautiful as it is, with its miniature rainforest hemmed in by pristine white sand beaches, the surface is merely a place to decompress. All those who come, except perhaps the two soldiers “protecting” this bit of Malaysian soil, are itching to shove on the dive gear and plunge into the clear turquoise water that holds world renowned treasures.

“Bruce Willis Ruins All Films” later (Buoyancy Control Device – check – Weights – check – Restraints – check – Air – check – Fins etc. – check), we back-roll in. I am almost instantly distracted from the pleasant sensation of tepidly warm water by a grey shadow below. A grey reef shark, not seven meters away. My eyes track down the sharp slope and into the deep dark blue below. This is South Point, the only place round the island that, instead of a near vertical sea wall, initiates with a sliding shelf before it plunges to some 1,500 meters straight down. Fantastic stuff.

Combined with the thin, but essential veneer of a 500 meter no-catch zone, it is the solitary nature of this sea mount, rising sheer from the depths, that attracts so much aquatic nature. An arc of life before the comparable desert of the big blue stretches out to the East.

Turtle time on Sipidan

I have eight dives here over two days and am, quite simply, spoilt. Famed for its turtles, I encountered not one, a couple, ten, twenty, forty…. but over twice that number in my two days. Thirty on one dive alone! Giant green turtles popping out of the blue, above, below and nestled in small clefts in the sea wall. One so stoned – a variant of their vegetarian diet has a narcotic effect – that it hurtled straight into a dive buddy without a flinch. It is wonderful to see these prehistoric creatures paddle their way through the ocean with surprising grace.

Shark followed shark, followed turtle until I was almost blasé with such aquatic spoils. The strong currents around the island invite numerous reef sharks to lie on the rare patches of sand while they oxygenate from the water flowing over their gills. In some places there were five alongside each other, quite relaxed. Approaching very slowly we were able to float face to face a matter of inches away, their eyes sliding around to the angle of our approach. A marvel to look into these creatures’ eyes and share a moment.

On each other dive we descended in parallel to the steep, rugged and seemingly bottomless underwater cliffs. I spent, quite literally, hours gently floating aside these galleries of small beasties. Countless varieties of fish and invertebrates, including, of course, some sizeable nudibranchs (flamboyantly decorated sea slug). That is what is so amazing about this place. The show stopping big stuff comes from all angles, but the macro life (i.e. small stuff) still abounds.

Barracuda in shoal

It was ascending from a wall on one dive that I was treated with a Sipidan specialty. A large shoal of perhaps forty bumphead wrasse gliding right before my eyes. These are monstrous looking purple gold fish with, as the name suggests, large bumps on their forehead above sharp, bone coloured beaks which they use to chip away at the coral on which they live. It was quite an experience to hover around them as they manoeuvred onto the reef and munched with ravenous intent. This was in less than two meters of water in which you really feel their size, each a meter long and the rest.

Between each dive, we headed back to the island for some short lived R&R in the small enclave of inhabitation which cuts into the otherwise untouched rainforest. Nothing more than a covered terrace, WC, a couple of hungry monitor lizards and the rather unintimidating army quarters – a couple of hammocks and an enlarged shack with a fake machine gun out front. Admittedly the soldiers held what looked like real ones, but I doubt they could do much if local Philippine pirates come kidnapping as they did under ten years ago, coincidently while I was last in Borneo.

Soon we jump back in the boat with anticipation. One of the best dives is from right out the front of the jetty. Down along the imposing, knobbly wall on which cling expansive fan corals sifting for dinner. Further down to twenty meters and there it is, Turtle Tomb. A cavern which gnaws into the island and, reportedly, out the other side, through hundreds of meters of twisting, squeezing, pitch-black passages. Not for me on this trip! Its name derives from the turtle remains which litter the interior, remnants of their lost previous owners.

A Sipidan shark

From the entrance the cavern opens up into a chamber several meters in diameter. As your eyes adjust to the inky darkness small silvery fish can be made out. Fifteen meters in we turn around and behold the startlingly light cave entrance. Shoals of fish cut across this vibrant blue which overpowers your remaining field of vision. As we kick out a solitary barracuda grimaces. There were to be plenty more of them….

The signature dive at Sipidan is called Barracuda Point. Two guesses at what we found there. Forget the hundred strong shoal of jacks we plummeted into at the start of the dive. Pay some attention to the dozen sharks and numerous turtles we pass by. OK, I took a moment to peer into the unflinching, eerie eyes of a great barracuda and then float astern to a small shoal of large yellow striped barracuda. But what really wins, what really gets the juices flowing is an oft seen massive shoal of chevron barracuda. Smaller than their pre-mentioned cousins, well over a thousand of these beauties shoal into a giant, twisting tornado. They are usually seen just off a prominent stretch of rock jutting out into the ocean and, to my delight, they were playing ball on my first dive to the site. Approaching from underneath, I glided up into this fast circling, barrel of scales, fins and teeth. The blurry mass blotted out everything else. My regulator almost fell out I was smirking so much.

On each dive you are surrounded by more fabulous natural encounters than you can take in. A real highlight of life. Gliding along the exuberant corals on my final dive I was already jealous of my recent experiences. As if to jolt me back to the moment, a small hawksbill turtle glided by and I spent the final minutes of my time gently shepherding this serene sea dweller.

Back on the boat and speeding back to reality under a strong sun. Awesome.

More by this author on his blog.

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