6 05 2008

Most lists seem to put Pulau Sipadan in the top five dive sites in the world. I haven’t dived anywhere near enough to know if that’s right, but I can tell you that this place is basically one giant exotic aquarium. I’ll skip the superlatives and just tell you about the place.

Access is from the nearby mainland town of Sempurna. This is a rather ordinary seaside town, nothing really worth writing about – except the lizard in the sewer. Most places here have an open sewer system: a concrete ditch along one or both sides of the road, covered by flat concrete blocks (an alarming fraction of these are broken and caved in, so I avoid walking on them when possible), welded metal grates, or often nothing at all. Inside the ditch resides all manner of garbage, sewage, animals, or other disgusting material. In Sempurna I saw a very angry five-foot long monitor lizard in the ditch wading through sewage up to his neck, luckily under a metal grate that prevented him from giving me a fatally-septic lash with his tail. Couldn’t get the camera out before he dashed under the safety of the concrete sidewalk, though.

Approaching the guesthouse where I stayed, built out over the water

Meredith captioned this “I see your two fish and raise you three”

There used to be guesthouses on Sipadan. Bear in mind that there is nothing else in this region of Sabah that can compare to the economic draw of one of the world’s top five dive sites. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have fought a protracted legal battle over control of the island, including terrorist kidnappings of tourists and tons of illegal development deals.  All the guesthouses were evicted from the island, nominally to protect the reef from dumping of sewage and garbage, and a permit system was put in place.  The guesthouses are now occupied by a substantial Malay military garrison, and the government collects the permit fees where previously they got only tax revenue.  The permits are theoretically limited to 120 per day (400 per day was common before the permits), but the dive guides report that corruption and bribes are rampant.  So draw your own conclusions.  At any rate, the reef seems to be well protected and certainly teems with life.  At times it’s an underwater coral fantasy straight from a Jacques Cousteau film.

The guesthouses all moved to the nearby island of Mabul.  The existing inhabitants were already occupying most of the very limited real estate there, so all the new development went onto makeshift pilings out into the ocean.  There are two vast five-star resort complexes here built far out over the water, one complete with a helipad ($300+ per night). 

I stayed instead in a flimsy backpackers longhouse ($15 per night), where the occasional nighttime storm blew straight through the ill-fitting windows and left me sleeping in wet bedclothes.  Five days of diving, three dives a day (around $100 US per day) left me a little exhausted, but the tranquility of the island and its inhabitants was a welcome relief.

Lots of people here spend their time building and repairing ships, in a uniquely gaudy style

The finished product

The barbed wire seperating the village from the resort is an excellent place to hang your laundry

But enough about the village, here are some critters I met underwater:

Nudibranch (a psychedelic, Dr. Seuss sort of sea slug)

Cuttlefish, a sort of big hyperintelligent cthulhu-like squid. They communicate with each other via rapid flashing, fluttering color changes all over their body. When you approach, they start a kaleidescopic display of whirling colors as if to ask “you speak flashing cuttlefish language?” Upon receiving no reply, they fade back into camoflage with the background and go back to sleep.

Speaking of camoflage… (crocodilefish)

Here’s a funny story. A resort developer wanted to buy some unused land on Mabul that was controlled by the neighboring resort, which of course refused. So the developer goes to the neighboring petrosultanate of Brunei, buys a surplus shallow-water drilling rig, tows it to Mabul, and plunks it down right in front of the landowning resort, ruining the view of the sunset. He then develops it as a dive resort, converting the helipad into a sundeck, building luxury bunks in shipping containers, and painting it the gaudiest colors imaginable. Revenge is sweet…

Poisonous lionfishes

Frogfish, possibly the ugliest thing in the sea

When you’re looking at the clouds from 20m deep, you know the visibility is excellent…

All green sea turtles, abundant here.

Scorpionfish (poisonous), garden eel, and eyeball of unidentified creature

Fantastical coral gardens

The tornado of a school of barracuda, one of the most famous sights here.

Colossal bumphead parrotfish, each 3-4 feet long

angry moray eel

Shark, turtle, fish…

Nemo! These guys are endlessly fascinating. They hide in the tentacles of the anenome, then seem overcome by anxiety and swim around frantically. Wiggle your fingers and curiousity takes over for a moment, and they’ll emerge to look at the weird fingerfish before dashing back into safety.

Plenty more photos to see in the smugmug folder if you haven’t had enough. I’m back in Bali now. One thing I’ll say for Borneo, it may be overpriced, overhyped, and trampled, but no one hassles you on the street for t-shirts and motorbike rides.



8 responses

6 05 2008

Great entry! I was wondering what the story was with the oil rig. Pretty ruthless… but it works. And the thing about the psychedelic fish trying to communicate with you is pretty awesome. Nice shout out to Kthulhu. I meant to comment on Smug Mug that the color in the guest house walkway shot is fantastic, even without any work.

6 05 2008

All I can say is: I wish I hadn’t got a job 3 f’in days before you quit!

6 05 2008

Wow. Just… Wow.

7 05 2008

Now I see where they got the inspiration for Nemo. And that was before I got to the clownfish picture! The schools of fish in particular are fascinating. I’ve never even been diving, and only snorkeled one time. The feeling of vastness that overcomes you underwater can be overwhelming, even scary. These pictures make me want to take diving lessons and head to Sipadan.

7 05 2008

Katie took the words out of my mouth (or from my keyboard)!!
I’m sending another printed shipment off to Anita, the 90 yo computer-less great aunt.
Love always.

8 05 2008

Yes Sipadan (and Mabul!) truly is one of the most amazing spots on earth 🙂
Grettings from Manila


26 05 2008

Oh WOW — I’m so glad I found you! I won’t even confess to what I Googled that led me to a page on your site and pure curiosity led me to your blog where I discover THIS – some awesome photos and refreshing reading of something outside of the sad & pathetic dungeons of MySpace! I added you to my bloglines and am ANXIOUS to see more of your fantastic photography and reading more of your travels! Thank you for the cool drink of water!

29 05 2010
diving panglao

great blog post, thanks 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: