Malaysia 2013

Divetrip to Seaventures - Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan

Almost two months have passed since we returned from our dive trip and I have still not gotten around to documenting our adventure. I blame it on the stupid .mov format that my videos are in (trying to edit them is a pain), but to be honest it is only part of the story. Overworked and tired, I just haven't felt up to it. Now - on a rainy Sunday - it is time to do something about it. Video or not...

It was May and Agniezska had persuaded Paula that a trip to the dive platform Seaventures off Borneo wouldn't be her worst nightmare. I don't know how she did it (I had been trying for years), but suppose that it was with a bit of reasoning and a lot of threatening! Agniezska can be very persuasive ....

Michal had booked the dive part of the vacation for us, but luckily we had booked our own flights. Luckily because we later found out that when M&A tried to check in for their domestic flight in Kuala Lumpur, they were made aware that they were one day early !! Our trip there was not as eventful. A direct flight to Kota Kinabalu followed by a 5-hour hotel stay and then a 1-hour flight to Tawau. From Tawau it was 1 hour in a minibus through palm-oil plantations to Semporna and then 1 hour by boat to the Seaventures platform. But back to the palm-oil plantations.... When I was a kid I read about Hjalte and Nina's motorbike trip through Borneo with their kids, about the vast jungle and the old tribes. Borneo quickly became a mystical place for me, and the plantations didn't live up to the mental picture I had. It was the same when we flew in to Kuala Lumpur last year - plantations as far as the eye could see. Not what I wanted to see. Paula was put off by the poverty in Semporna - I guess I have hardened by many years of travelling, so I was more bothered by the man-made landscape.

We almost didn't make it past Incheon Airport .....

Leaving Semporna on a rainy day

One man at the helm and one man pumping fuel !

The Seaventures converted platform that Paula dreaded so much turned out to be much bigger than she had imagined. It was also a mere 300m off the coast of Mabul Island, so she avoided the lost-at-sea feeling. I had wanted to come here for a long time, but we just never saw things the same way. Paula wanted to see the orang-outangs and I agreed only if it was combined with a trip to the platform. So in the end Agniezska sorted it out, but Paula never got to see the orang-outangs ..... although we had spare time, she decided it wasn't worth the effort after all.

Seaventures Dive Rig

Paula and Mabul Island (resort)

Once on the platform we were served lunch and then went for a check-out dive below the platform. The current was quite strong and the visibility poor, but we did get a little taste of some of the strange creatures we would see over the next few days. This is macro heaven. And Michal and Agniezska - having already spent two days on the platform - could inform us that there were bigger things out there as well (I kind of knew that after I saw the man-sized grouper at platform leg no. 4 .... HUGE!). A&M came back from their morning trip to Sipadan and joined us for an afternoon dive at Mabul island. Just in front of the beach and the platform, we found giant turtles en mas, eels, sea horses and many many more interesting sea life. No waves nor sharks, so perfect snorkelling for Paula.

Ready in pink and yellow (how did black get so big in scuba diving ?)!

Apparently we were not the only ones on vacation .....

Just the opposite strategy compared to an ostrich (i.e. opposite of the head-in-the-sand strategy).

The elusive Mandarin fish. Difficult to get a decent photo of this one as it rarely comes out in the open

Thorny seahorse

Bloody Poles blocking the view ;-)

Nightdive at 19 with A&M and Eugen - an Aussie A&M had been diving with for a few days. The current was once more ripping and made for a bit of a confusing dive. Still - any dive is a good dive. As the night diving was just below the platform, the waiting time for Paula was short. Actually, it is a perfect set-up. Like being on a liveaboard but without the seasickness.

Next day we were allocated to the local dive trip. The local diving is really good for critters - small stuff that is difficult to find elsewhere - but the big draw is Sipadan. Sipadan Island is one of the premier dive sites in the world, but I also know it for something less flattering. While I was working in Zanzibar in 2000, I got news that two people I knew from Malawi had been kidnapped during a dive holiday there. They were taken to Jolo Island in the Philippines by Aby Sayyaf and held captive in the jungle. It was all over the news back then, with videos and photos of a more and more hairy Callie and a skinnier and skinnier Monique being broadcasted every month or so. 4 months later they were released after Gadaffi paid their ransom (?), Sipadan was closed down a few years later and is now only accessible for a few soldiers and the 140 lucky people with permits to dive, snorkel or just set foot on the island. As it is so well-known, 140 dive permits per day is not a lot, but luckily 11 of these permits are allocated the divers at Seaventures. With a maximum of 40 divers on the platform at one time, you are guarantees a trip to Sipadan every 4th day. A&M were lucky - 3 trips in 6 days!

But back to Kapalai - no biggies here, but again lots of small critters, flamboyant cuttlefish, frog fish, sea horses, turtles and more. There really were no natural reef where we dived - maybe a result of the shore-side resort - but the man-made reefs were very well made and full of life. First time that I have seen such artificial reefs. Normally artificial reefs are just junk, but here they were purpose-built structures with minimal effect on the environment. Nice to see.

Kapalai - some resorts are basically right above the dive site. But we had Sipadan!

In my element

Warty Frog fish

Flamboyant cuttlefish

It looks like a pig but it is a juvenile flamboyant cuttlefish!

A very large frog fish

A look through one of the many "fish houses" - the artificial reefs off Kapalai Island

That evening's nightdive with Michal was much better than the first one. We got in before the tidal current picked up and got a nice dive out of it before heading back up into the now ripping current. The navigation is not difficult as you often come across one of the platform's 6 legs, but with the strong the random directions of the current, caution is advised in order to avoid spending the night at open sea. The current is often too strong to swim against and not always in the same direction on the surface as at the bottom - makes navigation a challenge.

Nightdiving made easy - just take the elevator

.... or don't.

Easy life

And live music - even when you don't want it !

Next day we were up at 5am to set off for Sipadan at 6. Unusual to see A&M up so early - a testament to their love of diving ! We were lucky with the weather - it had rained some the days before, but now it was sunny and the sea was like a mirror. 30 minutes later we were getting ready for our first dive at Coral Gardens (not a very original name). No guarantees we were told, but likely to see bumphead parrotfish. What I hadn't expected was that there were so many of them! And as you can see in the video below, they weren't too bothered by us. Every morning they make the swim from Barracuda Point south, so I guess they are used to divers by now.

Sipadan around North Point

The reef life was good, but we were there for other reasons....

Bumphead Parrotfish for example

Breakfast was served on the beach and second dive was at Barracuda Point. This is the highest rated Sipadan dive site by most people and I thought we had a very good dive there. We saw lots of turtles, sun-darkening shoals of jack-fish, shoals of giant barracudas, sharks .... stuff that other dive destinations can only dream about, but according to Michal it was a terrible dive ! His reference was a dive two days earlier where they got to dive through a giant shoal of jack fish. I think he is crazy, by the way.

Second breakfast at the military outpost - note the friendly rifle at the sign post

Sipadan from the North-east side

The snorkeller

Jackfish literally blocking the sun

Second breakfast on the beach and then to South Point for the third dive. Turtles and sharks everywhere. I hung out off the reef and spotted about 25 whitetip reef sharks throughout the dive. At one point 5 turtles were meeting up, each going his own way. Nice ....

3 whitetip reef sharks resting

After three amazing dives we headed back to the platform. As the dive permits are for the entire day, we had booked two afternoon dives as well. If I remember right, then we did Whitetip Avenue before going back to Barracuda Point. And Barracuda Point was some finale ! Current a little crazy and maybe therefore we had more action than on our first dive there. My highlights were a humongous spiralling shoal of giant barracudas and a spotted eagleray just at the end of the dive. I was the only one to see it, as I (as usual) was hanging back from the group a little, decided to left around one of the rock outcroppings and there it was. I was torn between following it (more than I ended up doing) and joining up with the group, who was probably wondering where I was. I hung around a little before rejoining the group - divemaster already in search of me (I know - not a good role model). What a dive !

Giant Barracudas on the move

In the beginning they didn't really want to do the tornado

.... they were a bit here, there, all over.

... and when they finally did the tornado-thing, I was in need of a wide angle lens. No bother - I saw it.

Spotted eagleray 10m below me

Last dive day was around Mabul again. This time Helmi, our dive master, showed us a pygmy seahorse (how on earth he found it I do not know), mantis shrimp (Agniezska found that), Banded moray, giant moray eel (and I mean giant !) and much more.

This pygmy seahorse if probably abt. 1-2 mm wide and 10mm long. No idea how they found it.

Ornate ghostfish

Ribbon eel

Sightseeing on Mabul Island one afternoon

Beautiful resort over the water

But all this was a stark contrast to what we found in the village - children everywhere, very hot and ... bad news for the divers .... on-the-beach "toilets"

Local football tournament

It took forever to get these tropical juices, but when they arrived they were basically fruits in glasses. Too rich actually.

All in all I was really stoked about the diving. A&M wouldn't go as far as saying it was the best diving they have done, but I can truly say that the day at Sipadan was my best diving day ever. The variety and the amount of life on every dive was outstanding as was the professionalism and service from the Seaventures staff. I may have done better single dives, but have never seen such consistency in multiple dives. Brilliant !

Getting a transfer back to the airport proved a bit of a hassle, as we had not read the small print and therefore had to get a private transfer (only two regular transfers per day and none of them suited our schedule), but can't actually blame Seaventures for that. They still did their best to serve us - it just cost us a bit extra.

In Kota Kinabalu we had booked 4 nights at a fancy resort - first time in our lives ?!? Normally we go for a small pension style place with a pool, but didn't find anything like that, so we just followed A&M's lead. I had passed the responsibility for those 4 days to Paula, who had several possible outings in mind. I thought one of those would be a trip to the orang-outang shelter in Sepilok, but in the end Paula decided it wasn't worth spending one full day travelling to see the orang-outangs feeding for half an hour. Think she was also freaked out by A&M's photos of their trip some years ago, where we could see them swamped by monkeys! Instead we went for a snorkelling trip to the islands (in the rain), dining at the waterfront, shopping at the Rip Curl store, chilling at the pool side and eating in El Centro - a small café in down-town with mouth-watering food. In the end we shortened the trip by one day, as Kota Kinabalu had a little less to offer than we had expected and the workload at home was piling up for every minute I was away. No bother - the essence of this trip wasn't Kota Kinabalu - it was Sipadan !

The view from our hotel - after we received an upgrade (rooms weren't ready).

Pool ....

... and relax

Romance in the sunset

Kota Kinabalu has perfect location for sunsets

Pre-dinner drinks

The most spectacular think on the snorkelling trip wasn't the fish (there weren't many), but the lizards

They were MASSIVE !!

Below is where my video slash slideshow will go when I finish with it (I am still an optimist - but Youtube and .mov is working hard on converting me into a cynic). You will have to manually turn on captions and change quality to something a bit above poor....