Following our stay in Brunei, we chose to spend a few days on the island of Labuan, the paradise duty free island (see previous article) to relax after the trek, and celebrate Anne-Marie’s birthday. We were in one of the few affordable accommodations on the island, Jack’s Guesthouse. Jack is an extremely generous host: we regularly received free meals and drinks. On one of the days we decided to go with other backpackers to the nearby island of Papau accompanied by Jack and his boat for an afternoon of fishing. Unfortunately the big fish were on holiday and apart from some small gobies, we had no fish cook on the beach barbecue. Yet, we had a great time.
In the evening we all went to a bar for a classic Malay party: karaoke. For more than five hours in a total frenzy, we sang all the classic rock and pop from 1980 to 2000! The two following days were spent in organizing the rest of our trip including train reservations in India.
Back in Kota Kinabalu, we took an overnight bus to reach Semporna, Sabah in the south of where we made plans to meet Valentine and Francois, our Belgian friends who arrived after 3 weeks spent in the Philippines, and would travel together for just under 10 days.
How fortunate for Thomas to speak in French and mess around for a few days. The bullshit and children’s games were quick to start!
First stage of the program, joining the island of Mabul on which we would spend three nights with 9 dives during three days, six around the islands of Mabul and Kapalai and three around the island of Sipadan, mythical diving, classified among the three best dive sites in the world. We chose to dive with the group Sipadan.com, one of the cheapest operators (1560RM package which is still a good 400EUR per person, all inclusive: accommodation in double room, three meals a day, dives and equipment). Diving in Sipadan is strictly limited to 120 divers a day and requires a permit that is strongly recommended to arrange several weeks in advance (or even months in high season). Most operators require two days of diving around Mabul / Kapalai to ensure a day of diving at Sipadan. The price reflects the exclusivity of the site: It costs about 25EUR for a dive around Mabul and Kapalai … 60EUR for a dive around Sipadan! At 1EUR per minute it is far from cheap!
But the place lives up to its reputation. More details to follow. Once there, we were greeted by the staff and divemasters / instructors. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed. We headed for the rooms, basic wish with a double bed, a fan above the bed and walls as thick as an iPad. Electricity is only available between 6pm and 6am, to recharge the batteries of cameras and run the fan at night.
The long house where we stay is called Mabul Backpackers and is located near the fishing village. There is a striking contrast between each side of the island; the bungalows in large Resorts at 300EUR per night such as SMART or Mabul Water Bungalows for the hordes of wealthy Americans, Russians and Singaporeans, and on the other side, the poverty premises in which children come every day outside the house, sitting on their boat, begging for food or money.
At a young age, they are often hired for a pittance by the various diving clubs to be part of the staff, either in cooking or on the boat or to prepare the material. The lucky ones complete different levels of diving to become a divemaster to accompany and guide tourists during dives.
No local divemasters for us, instead it will be a mix between an English, two Spanish and one French.
The first dive is around the island of Kapalai. The latter and Mabul are prized for the macro, ie small organisms such as fish, pygmy seahorses, crocodile fish, octopus, moray eels, nudibranchs, etc. … Some divers can sometimes go on an entire dive to focus on a plant that contains a tiny fish less than a centimeter long. These small organisms are not why we are here, it is rather to see the big sharks, turtles, napoleon fish, barracudas, etc. … In short, what has made the reputation of Sipadan.
Nevertheless, our dives on Mabul and Kapalai were very interesting, at dive sites Paradise I and Lobster Wall where we saw several large cuttlefish, lobsters, moray eels, sea snakes, turtles and of course many smaller organizations such as colorful nudibranchs and mantis shrimp or flamboyant cuttlefish.
But the main reason we came here of course is Sipadan. This is the kind of dive where we check five times to ensure we have not forgotten masks or flippers, or the camera! Our operators do not have a permit to Sipadan directly, instead we dive with the group Uncle Chang, departing at 8am in the morning. The island is located 45 minutes by boat from Mabul and is guarded by Malaysian military for several years because of Filipino pirates would hang around and once kidnapped a group of German tourists for ransom. Since then, it is forbidden to reside on the island except for a few hours between dives.
Sipadan is one of the best diving in the world. This is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising to 600 meters above the sea floor and down to 2000 meters! The site formed where for several thousand years, successive layers of coral were deposited in the chimney of a dormant volcano. It is located in the Celebes Sea in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been listed in this ecosystem. Popularized by Captain Jacques Cousteau who said these words: “I saw a few places like Sipadan, 45 years ago but not anymore. We really found a piece of art ”
Visibility is exceptional, reaching up to 60m in some dives. As this is a protected area, its fauna and flora are magnificent and of unparalleled variety.
During the first dive at South Point, we could not believe our eyes. The color and transparency of the water was unbelievable. Directly after donning the mask and putting our heads under water, we were surrounded by several sharks, turtles, barracudas, napoleons and numerous quantities of other fish of all kinds.
We took a few minutes to compose ourselves, and turn on the camera, and descended to 30 meters. Visibility is always excellent but what impresses most is the huge wall that seems to go to infinity in the blue and the darkest black.
After the first dive, we return to the boat and return to the island in order to have a snack (tea + biscuits). The water is azure blue, and we took the opportunity to take some pictures.
The second dive was spent just as much as the first. With sharks and turtles, we stopped counting.
After taking our lunch break on the island, we head for the third and final dive at the most mythical site, Barracuda Point. Francois and Thomas beg our local divemasters, Marc and Pisang to do their best to find the barracuda. Indeed, they move as a tornado in the hundreds (even thousands) but you need a lot of luck to see them.Standing at the bow of the boat, Pisang watched the movements in the water.Several long minutes go by, all fingers are crossed. Suddenly he shouted: “Go, go, go.” immediately Francois and Thomas are in the water.
The barracuda tornado is 3 meters away, swarming like a huge. Two minutes later, the school of fish has gone. We turn to realize it was only the two of us. The other divers entered the water too late. Fortunately, ten minutes later we encounter the barracudas again and everyone can enjoy. At one point, we are almost in the middle of the tornado, it is really impressive because they are all between 1 m and 1.5 m and it is mesmerizing to see hundreds of fish eyes on you.
Sipadan is truly worthy of its reputation, it is very expensive, but it’s worth it. If it rained the day before, the visibility is strongly affected and can be frustrating. We’re all happy to have dived the site but would probably not dive again due to the exorbitant price. The requirement to take an all-inclusive package is annoying. Ok, Sipidan is worth it’s price but for the other elements (yucky food, ultra basic housing, electricity only from 18h to midnight and exaggerated pricing at the bar) need some work.
Operators like Sipadan.com only fill their pockets on the backs of tourists and staff. From what we’ve seen, the quality / price of services offered by Uncle Chang or Scuba Junkie to name a few seemed well above what is offered by Sipadan.com for a price + / – identical . We obviously do not expect five star but when there is no bread or coffee in the morning for breakfast and guests are diving on an empty stomach because the owner prefers to wait for the ferry to arrive 10:00 with supplies, rather than go buy a loaf to EUR1 in the village, we have the right to be unhappy.Similarly we ate cheap, chewy, frozen chicken every night while the local fishermen sell crabs and other fish less 2EUR every day.
Fortunately the sunset every night boosted our morale. Same for the bottle of Bordeaux produced by Francois and Valentine which we opened to celebrate our dive at Sipadan! A treat, even in plastic glasses! We ended the evening with a few glasses of dark rum, which made Thomas and Francois act like idiots.
On the last day, we took a walk around the island to check out the palaces housing rich, honeymooners and professional divers. Undoubtably first class but it is a bit shocking to see the village next door whose average family income is 750RM/month (less than 200EUR)!
We left the island by boat at 4PM. Back to Semporna where we spend the night before taking the bus to Sepilok the next morning to join Uncle Tan camp for three days and two nights in the jungle in search of protected species.