Elusien's Trip Report

October 2010

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Water bungaloes
Water bungaloes

In October 2010 Neil and I flew to Borneo for a dive holiday. The dive trip was organised by Divecrew. There were 20 of us on this trip, 9 of us would be diving for 9 days, while the other 11 would break off early and go to the Orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok on Borneo.

Sipadan is situated off the east coast of Borneo. Although there used to be a resort on the Island the Malaysian government stopped this some years ago. So we were actually staying on Mabul island, a 20-minute or so journey away. Another resort is Kapalai, which is a set of water bungalows built on a sandbank that is only visible above water at low tide. There are two more islands close by where diving takes place, Siamil and Danawan. Diving off Sipadan is strictly regulated by permit and there are only so many permits per day.

We boarded a Malaysian Airlines 747 at terminal 4 Heathrow and after about 13 hours we arrived at the Satellite terminal in Kuala Lumpur International airport. We then dashed through immigration to get to the main terminal where our 737 was waiting to take us to Tawau in Sabbah province on the island of Borneo. After a 3-hour flight we landed at Tawau and took a 1-hour journey by minibus to Semporna, followed by a 40-minute or so journey by speedboat to Pulau Mabul. That last leg of the journey took longer than it should because the engines on the speedboat kept breaking down (fuel starvation). We were met at the jetty on Mabul by some of the staff from the Sipadan Mabul Resort and within 2 minutes we were sat down with a drink. (Tip: get your duty-free booze at Heathrow and ask them to seal it in a tamper-proof plastic bag, otherwise you won't be able to take it on the second flight)

The Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART)
Nudibranch 1
Nudibranch 1
Nudibranch 2
Nudibranch 2
Nudibranch 3
Nudibranch 3

SMART click on the logo below tripadvisor

Small Island.
Home to locals as well as divers.
Very friendly and helpful staff.
Great dive centre.

The resort is right on the beach (it would be difficult not to be, since the island is only 0.75km x 0.3km in size). Besides this resort, there is another one, and two villages, one for the Malaysian population and one for migrant workers from the Philipines. In total the local population numbers about 2,000. Just to the north of the island is what used to be an oil drilling platform, the "Seaventures", now a "backpacker" dive resort for those on limited budgets. See this article from the Wall Street Journal for more information. There are also a couple of "B&B"s for backpackers in the village next to SMART. The water around the island is very shallow, so much so that two narrow channels have been dredged from the jetty to enable the boats to gain access at low tide. The water is very clean and you can see the locals wading out each day to collect shellfish, such as scallops. We checked in and were each allocated a room. Neil and I were in a "semi-detached" chalet-style property, sharing a verandah with Mike and Elaine. The electrical sockets were 240V and took English-style (3 square pin) plugs. There were only 2 such sockets and one was taken up with a mosquito plug (provided by the resort). Had we thought about it we'd have taken an extension plug to make it easier to charge our camera batteries and the laptop.

There is a small bar at the end of the jetty, which is a nice place to congregate at the end of a day's diving to swap stories and show photos. There's a small swiming pool area and you can walk through the middle of the island to visit the Water Bungaloes part of the resort on the north-east part of the island. There is a shop here, as well as one in the resort itself. Elaine and I visited the water bungaloes for a relaxing massage. A can of coke/tonic/etc. in the resort costs about 8 MYR (~£1.50). A bottle of wine at dinner would cost upwards of 65 MYR (~£13) No-one had any tummy troubles during the holiday (though Roger was a bit "iffy" one day). The staff were very pleasant. All meals were a buffet affair and there was an "egg-lady" at breakfast, who would cook omelets, scrambled egg, or other preparations to order. The food was adequate, not brilliant, but after all we were there for the diving, not for cordon-bleu meals.

Dive Centre and Diving
Going down
Going down

Geology of Sipadan

Mabul is a coral reef on the continental shelf.
Sipadan is a reef built on a seamount.
The seamount rises steeply from the seabed 0.5km below.

We split into two groups, 9 of us were allocated to boat 7 and 11 were allocated to boat 6. Neil and I were in boat 7 with Mike & Elaine, Jennie & Roger, Claire & Max and Emily. Our dive-master for the whole time was Yusri, who was absolutely brilliant. Neil and Roger formed a little club between themselves of divers who had had a mask come off on entry and have it retrieved by Yusri. Roger's mask was on the bottom at the platform dive site, while Neil's was on its way to the seabed 500 metres below him on the Dropoff dive site when eagle-eyed Yusri recovered it.

There was a whiteboard in the restaurant area on which you indicated whether you were using air or nitrox and whether or not you had a DIN fitting for your regulators. If you were using nitrox (Neil and I used it only for the dives on Sipadan) you'd analyse your tanks in the evening and the following day they'd be on the boat waiting for you. There was a set of boxes for each boat and you'd put your kit in there overnight. There was a large area for washing kit and hanging it out to dry, as well as showers. It was quite well organised. Everything was close to hand. We had only to walk about 60 feet from our chalet to analyse our nitrox tanks. The technical centre where they sorted out problems was only 50 yards from the chalet. Your kit was set-up for you in between dives and nothing was too much trouble.

Muck Diving

Named after the sediment on the seabed.
Visibility is often restricted.
Why do it?
Because it is a perfect habitat for strange &
exotic creatures e.g.
nudibranchs, mandarin fish, blue-ringed octopus,
flambouyant cuttlefish etc.

The diving around Mabul, Kapalai, Siamil and Danawan can all be classed as muck diving. While you do see some large fish and turtles, the opportunities for macro photography of small creatures like nudibranchs is enormous. Sipadan however is characterised by lovely coral reefs and large fish, sharks, shoals of barracudas and turtles. Siamil for example must have had fantastic coral formations in the past. But all of that has gone, destroyed by fishermen dynamiting the reef and poisoning it with cyanide to get the fish. Although it's now illegal you can still hear explosions underwater from time to time. It's easy to blame the fishermen, but this is a poor area of Malaysia and without alternate sources of income and educating the local population about conservation it is difficult to see how it will change. At least the presence of the army on Sipadan has prevented that from the same fate as Siamil, though there are areas of destroyed coral there too, caused by dynamiting in the past.

In general there were 3 dives each day. However, if you were going to Sipadan then this became 4 dives, with only 2 dives included in the package the following day. You could dive as often as you wished on the house reef. All of the dives on Mabul and Kapalai are close to the resort, so after each dive the boat would return to the resort, and you could spend your surface interval doing whatever you liked, such as grabbing a snack from the restaurant, reading on the verandah, or filling in your logbook, rather than bobbing up and down on the sea, such as at other resorts.

Yusri, his assistant and the boat skipper were all very helpful. There was no rushing about and no panic for everyone to get in the water. Entry was a backward roll off the boat and you got back onboard via the ladder, having previously handed up your camera, fins and weightbelt. Normally we would have breakfast from 7:30 onwards, then, about 08:15, walk the fifty metres to the equipment area to get into our wetsuits before getting onboard the boat. I say "normally", because if you were lucky enough to be going to Sipadan you had to be down at the boat by 5:30am! While diving on Sipadan is regulated by permit (120 per day in total), we did manage to dive there on 3 separate days, 12 dives in all.

If you read about Sipadan on the Internet you can't help, because of the scare stories, but wonder about the possibility of another terrorist incident like the one that occurred in April 2000, when a group of tourists were kidnapped. There is now a military presence on the island that is quite visible, being on the beach next to the dining area. I'm sure it's mainly there to reassure the tourists and they aren't expecting any more such trouble. Several of the young army guys with their guns were quite happy to have their photos taken with some of the girls during the "shore break" from diving. There haven't been any other such incidents here since that unfortunate one over 10 years ago. One thing you do have to watch out for on Sipadan is sand-flies. Neil got bitten to death by them. Thank goodness they don't appear to be a problem on Mabul.

When you arrive at Sipadan you have to sign in and then you do your first dive. You then come back to the island and have breakfast in a large open-sided hall. After that you do your second dive and come back for "elevenses". Thankfully there are good toilet facilities on the island. After the third dive you come back for lunch before having a final dive and then back to Mabul. There are some fantastic dives on Sipadan. After 12 dives you could become a bit blasé about all the turtles, sharks, and shoals of barracudas, but they never cease to amaze. One dive we were pootling around on the Turtle Patch dive site when all of a sudden Yusri banged on his tank to get our attention, he then went finning like a madman into the blue. We followed him, not knowing what he had spotted, when all of a sudden we came across a shoal of at least 1,000 barracudas circling in a vortex-like structure. It was absolutely amazing!

A couple of times we decided to dive on the house reef. After the last dive on the boat we would tell Yusri that this is what we planned to do and the skipper would steer the boat to the steps at the water bungaloes and offload our BCD, weights and fins. Then later on that afternoon we would mosey on over to the water bungaloes (about 10 minutes from our rooms across the causeway) and set up our kit on one of the tanks stored there for such occasions. We'd then walk down the steps and into the water. Several structures of wood and rope have been positioned on the seabed to attract growths, nudibranchs and fish and you can see some large shoals of fish such as Jacks or Trevallies weaving in and out of these. At one point Neil vanished from sight as he was completely surrounded by a swirling mass of such fish.

The house reef and sites nearby, such as Paradise 1 and 2, are where you do the night dives. I did two night dives while we were there and I must say that the second one was the best night dive I have ever done. I never thought that the "night pier" dive on Bonaire could ever be bettered, but this one was better. The colours that night were fantastic and the variety of creatures was out of this world.

Kuala Lumpur
Weedy Pipefish
Weedy Pipefish

Petronas Towers

World's tallest buildings 1998-2004.
Height: 88 floors, 452 metres.
World's deepest foundations: 120 metres.
The Skybridge at floors 41 & 42 connects the two towers.
Skybridge: 58m long, 170m above ground level, 750tons weight.
Visitors need a ticket for the Skybridge (1,700 allocated per day).
Tower One is occupied wholly by Petronas oil & gas company.

Well all good things must come to an end and so it was with diving in this fantastic part of the Celebes Sea. We all boarded the speedboat for the return journey to Semporna, Tawau and Kuala Lumpur. Again the speedboat had fuel injection problems, and though we were all hoping for a complete breakdown, so we could stay on the island, regular pressure on the foot pump to the engine did the trick. Yusri and the other staff at the resort turned up at the jetty to wave us off and we were all sad to leave.

We arrived late in Kuala Lumpur and it was raining. It took about an hour to get from the airport and just as we were exiting the freeway we could see a ghostly image of the Petronas Towers, lit up through the mist. The next day some of us took the hop-on-hop-off bus trip through the city. We stopped off at chintown and the central market, before alighting at the stop for the Orchid Garden, Butterfly Park and Bird Park. The Orchid Garden had, as you may have guessed, hundreds of different types of orchid, though October may not be the best time of year to see a lot of them. The Butterfly Park was great. There were hundreds of them, some as big as your hand and beautifully coloured. Unfortunately it started to rain so we decided to cut the journey short and get a taxi back to the hotel, rather than wait for the HoHo bus. Kuala Lumpur was OK, but I'd have much preferred an extra day's diving at Sipadan-Mabul.

Frogfish fancy
Frogfish fancy
Frogfish red
Frogfish red

This was yet another great holiday. It took a long time to get to the resort (we figured that a trip to Australia would only have taken about 6 more hours) but it was well worth it. The diving was stupendous. Never before had we seen such variety and numbers. If you didn't get to see at least a couple of dozen turtles and a similar number of sharks when diving Sipidan you felt short-changed. The resort was very good, though a little dated in some respects but the informality of the room arrangement meant that we were not crowded together and each had their own space. The arrangement of coming back to the resort after every dive was great and this meant that while we were tired at the end of the day, we had managed to get some rest inbetween dives, on land and in one instance in bed! The weather was very good and although we had a couple of tropical downpours, they only lasted an hour or so and didn't impede the diving. Having said that however, boat 6 did have problems one day getting to Sipadan - they had to turn back twice because of rough seas, but this was out of the ordinary.

We would definitely recommend Sipadan-Mabul as a diving holiday destination; it is the best dive location we've been to so far. For more (higher-resolution) photos and videos, click on the icons ( & ) at the top.

Summary of Sue's Dives
Date Depth (m) Time (min) EANx Sipadan-Mabul Dive
19 Oct 19.5 44 - Mabul House Reef - Brilliant first dive, large shoal of jacks, 6! frogfish
19 Oct 17.7 55 - Mandarin Valley (Kapalai)- Amazing, batfish, frogfish, leaf fish, you name it
19 Oct 14.3 54 - Paradise 1 - At first appearance nothing special, but it was!
20 Oct 19.1 51 32% Whitetip Avenue (Sipadan)- Steep wall huge shoal of batfish
20 Oct 16.2 50 32% Barracuda Point (Sipadan)- Amazing shoal of barracuda, bump-headed parrotfish
20 Oct 18.0 54 32% Hanging Gardens (Sipadan)- Unbelievable wall dive, turtles by the hundred
20 Oct 22.0 55 32% Dropoff (Sipadan)- Fabulous wall dive, jacks, sharks, turtles, lovely corals
21 Oct 17.4 51 - Platform - Brilliant dive underneath the Seaquest
21 Oct 16.2 51 - Paradise 2 - Turtles, rays, nudibranchs crocodile fish etc.
21 Oct 15.2 62 - Paradise 2 - Night dive, saw the mandarin fish plus loads of others
22 Oct 20.4 61 - Froggy Lair - Lovely dive, saw a ghost pipefish, wow!
22 Oct 13.7 55 - Platform - Stunning corals and sponges, giant clam etc.
22 Oct 17.1 57 - Gurnard Ground (Kapalai)- Decent dive, but not brilliant
23 Oct 26.5 53 32% Barracuda Point (Sipadan)- Lovely wall with a steep dropoff
23 Oct 24.1 58 32% Midreef (Sipadan)- Wonderful dive, beautiful corals, nudibranchs etc.
23 Oct 20.4 56 32% South Point (Sipadan)- Fabulous dive, besutiful corals zillions of colourful fish
23 Oct 21.3 57 32% Barracuda Point (Sipadan)- Another great dive, huge shoal of Jacks at the start
24 Oct 25.4 51 - Ray Point - Lovely dive, garden eels, frogfish, octopus, nudibranchs etc.
24 Oct 14.3 63 - Paradise 1 - Great dive Many rare and unusual creatures, weedy pipefish
24 Oct 11.3 36 - Mabul House Reef - poor viz. but still lots to see
24 Oct 18.9 57 - Mabul House Reef - WOW! THE BEST NIGHT DIVE EVER!!!!
25 Oct 25.9 53 32% Barracuda Point (Sipadan)- not as good as last time, but still a good dive
25 Oct 25.0 55 32% Turtle Patch (Sipadan)- Awesome spectacle of a thousand barracudas in a whirling vortex
25 Oct 21.0 60 32% Hanging Gardens (Sipadan)- Wow! Even better than before
25 Oct 22.9 62 32% Whitetip Avenue (Sipadan)- Fabulaous dive following a fantastic snorkelling session
26 Oct 25.6 52 - Siamil Reef - Lovely dive, despite destroyed reef. Marilyn saw a Flambouyant Cuttlefish
26 Oct 24.4 57 - Danawan Reef - sandy bottom dive, but still good nevertheless
26 Oct 19.8 50 - Mabul House Reef - Great dive, Giant potato grouper and loads of Lionfish
27 Oct 22.9 55 - Mandarin Valley (Kapalai)- Lovely dive with amazing artificial reefs
27 Oct 17.1 60 - Platform - Poor viz. but loads of crocodile fish and scorpion fish
27 Oct 15.2 62 - Nudibranch Avenue - Quite a bit of current but lots to see
Slideshow (of a few selected photos)

For the whole photo album click on the "Photo Album" icon ( ) at the top.