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The Island of Borneo: Semporna, Sipidan & Mabul

Written on: Sunday November 2nd, 2008

Leaving Sandakan, we had only a four hour bus ride (or so we thought) to the town of Semporna, gateway to the best diving in the area.  About two hours into the journey the bus broke down near a service station.  We pulled in and the driver tried to fix the problem.  After only an hour and a half we were back on the road, where we proceeded to drive another fifteen minutes before breakdown number two.  This one was worse: we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle, with no spare parts.  After a ridiculous amount of deliberation on the bus company's part, they finally decided to call a different bus from Semporna to come pick us up.  In the meantime, we tried to hitchhike there.  We actually got about fifteen cars to stop for us, but they were either not going to Semporna, or didn't have enough room for four blokes and their big travel bags.  A couple other people on the bus actually went with the rides that we flagged down.  So instead we waited for the new bus and played games like: who can hit that sign over there with a rock.

Eventually the bus arrived and we made it to Semporna, a hefty twelve hours after we departed.  We checked in with the dive center, threw our stuff into the dorm room and headed downstairs for a beer and a game of cards.  The place we stayed, Scuba Junkies, was set up pretty well.  We had a conveniently located room and the dive shop was closer to the harbour than all the other operators.  A fun bar and huge complimentary breakfast rounded out the perks.

The next morning we woke, ate and headed to the dive shop to load our gear into the boat.  Today we were diving Sipidan, a world class destination and easily the best dive site in the area.  Diving Sipidan is complicated: there is a restriction on how many people are allowed to be there every day.  Each dive operator is allotted a certain number of spaces for divers.  But these spaces must be reserved about two months in advance.  Obviously this isn't going to work for most people visiting the area, so a new method exists for getting around this problem.  There is a perpetual two month gap between the actual current divers and the names of the people who reserved space two months ago. So today we will be diving as the people who reserved spaces two months ago.  And we actually have to check in with the military, who has a permanent base on the nearby island of Mabul (more on this to follow later), to sign our new name and country of residence before we would get approval to dive Sipidan.  It was decided that I received the coolest name of the group: I was Eduardo Gonzales of RUSSIA!  I had an entire story made up of how my family was in the Panamanian government and had to flee unexpectedly, choosing Russia due to underground connections that we had made over the years.  Yes, it was good fun!

The three dives we did off Sipidan were excellent.  The coral was good at these wall dives, but by no means the best I've seen.  This surprised everybody who discussed it with me, as most said this was the best they had ever seen.  That really made me appreciate how fortunate I've been to dive at the places I have.  The interesting part for me was the sheer quantity of turtles at these sites.  We literally had to be careful not to swim into them!  They were everywhere, as as you watched one, two or three more would suddenly appear from over your shoulder.  There was a fair amount of shark action as well, although most were small reef sharks.  A couple spots along the dive had significant current, and served as cleaner stations for sharks and larger fish.  One interesting highlight for me was letting cleaner shrimp nibble at the skin around my fingernails.  I've done this countless times before, but this time I was shocked as a small moray eel attacked my little finger while the others were being cleaned by the shrimp.  It was an adrenaline rush to say the least, but fortunately caused no damage, which is more than the divemaster can say, as she did the same thing five minutes later, and the eel drew blood with a nice cut along her finger.

Our surface intervals were back on the beach, near the military base.  It was strange to see this base, complete with approximately thirty soldiers, on such a tiny island.  The reason it exists is that in APR, 2000, terrorists from the southern Philippines had kidnapped divers and taken them as hostages.  I believe that a second attack occurred in 2001 as well.  After this, the Malaysian government decided that it couldn't afford to lose the tourism cash flow and stepped up security to protect all that choose to visit the area.

The next day we dived Mabul.  This is muck diving, which is completely different from reef/wall diving.  It is shallow diving over sand or mud, with little coral or underwater structures in general.  The first site was a series of manmade artificial reefs.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed that we were diving here, but my opinion quickly changed after we entered the water.  The first artificial reef structure housed a myriad of unusual and difficult to find creatues.  There were several lionfish and a couple frogfish!  Also seen were three pipefish, which was the first time I have ever seen them.  We kept exploring the other artificial reefs and continued to be impressed.  More lionfish, scorpionfish, literally dozens of pipefish, large groupers, eels and strange flat worms everywhere.

The next two dives proved even more eventful.  We saw hoards of pipefish, frogfish, squid, a giant cuttlefish, eels, hermit crabs, pygmy pipefish and pygmy seahorses.  Yes, muck diving was awefully fun.  The only downside to this day was when my Danish friend, Lehrke, jumped off a 5m pier and landed on a sea urchin.  Ouch!  She was tough and didn't say much, despite the fact that 30 spikes were stuck in here left foot, while her right housed eight.  Hope she's doing ok now.

So that was about it for diving.  We spent our nights in Semporna, exploring the little town, playing pool, and partying a bit much at the local bars.  Even learned a couple more games...just hope I can remember them all by the time I get home. 

So Brad stayed on to dive Sipidan (he had just completed his open water training off Mabul and wanted to check out Sipidan when a space opened up), while the rest of us headed back to KK for one final night together before going our separate ways.  We certainly had a good run in Borneo, with significant adventure, enjoyable banter and never-ending fun.