Deep Blue Borneo

It took over three days of travel to finally reach Borneo, but I knew it would be worth it the moment I caught my first glimpse of the Celebes Sea from the docks in the southern city of Semporna. We had left our hotel in Kuala Lumpur at 4 AM to get to the airport for our flight to Tawau, a coastal city in the state of Sabah. A driver met us at the airport when we landed, and took us on an hour long drive along a highway lined with palm oil farms until we reached Semporna. But we weren’t staying there either, we had to wait for a ferry from our resort to come and transport us another forty minutes out to the island we’d actually be staying on.

I could have gone for a nice long nap by the time we finally docked at the Borneo Diver’s jetty on Mabul island, but we had a lot to do before that would be possible. As we stepped onto the jetty, we were greeted by our divemaster, Roy, who gave us a quick tour of the jetty along with the gear room, and dive schedule. Then he led us to the Borneo Diver’s dining hall where we had a quick lunch while signing liability waivers and watching an introductory presentation about the resort. We got our room key, and had just enough time to settle into to our poolside villa before we had to get back to the jetty for our first dive with Roy.

The purpose of this dive was for Roy to familiarize himself with our abilities at the resort’s house reef before taking us out to more challenging dive sights. He described a straight-forward dive plan, and then we geared up and got in the water just off the end of the jetty. I was particularly excited because this would be my first time trying out my new (well, new to me) dive computer that Vince given me as an early Christmas gift.

Mabul Island is known for having a lot of small things to see underwater, so as we began our dive I was expecting to find a lot of nudibranchs, shrimp, and frogfish, and wasn’t really banking on seeing anything big. We started diving along a sandy bottom, and immediately found a blue spotted ribbontail ray and a blue spotted stingray. You wouldn’t necessarily expect sand to be an interesting dive site, but when you look close enough, you can find all sorts of neat animals, especially ones that have excellent camouflage like rays, or tiny creatures like shy garden eels. Soon we approached the looming shadow of a shipwreck. Borneo Diver’s has a handful of wrecks sunken just offshore which serve as a base for corals to grow, and add interest to what might otherwise be a very short dive. Roy floated over the wreck first, and signaled to us that there was a turtle on it. When I approached I found myself inches away from the biggest green turtle I’ve ever seen. It was resting atop the wreck, and regarded us as though we were just a few weird fish passing through and making an unusual amount of bubbles.

We continued around the wrecks, and encountered another turtle sleeping on the ocean floor, a giant moray eel, and a couple of different types of nudibranchs (festive looking shell-less mollusks). Then we circled back to the coral reef that ran parallel to the jetty, and explored some more, finding more nudis, some almost microscopic shrimp, three crocodile fish, and a new species for me, a flying gurnard. This fish clearly got its name from its pectoral fins that look like wings designed in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci.

I was amazed that we had found so many animals by just stepping into the water at Borneo Diver’s house reef. This seemed like a great sign for how the rest of our week would go. When we surfaced, we rinsed and stored our gear, and then checked the schedule and found out that we’d be doing three boat dives around Mabul and nearby Kapalai the next day with Roy as our divemaster. Roy asked us if we wanted to sign out for another dive that evening, but we were both so tired that we had to decline. Instead we spent our evening lounging around on the jetty’s comfy furniture and flying the drone that I’d given Vince as an early birthday present (we really blew all of our 2022 holidays for this trip).

Vince flew the drone out to get a better look at the Seaventures Rig, which is a retired oil rig turned dive resort.

We slept very well that night, and the next morning I was itching to get back in the water as we arrived at the jetty and had coffee and water to hydrate before our first dive. We also met two German expats named Lisa and Tina who would end up being on all of our boat dives with us for the next three days.

Our first dive of the day was at a site called Mandarin Valley at nearby Kapalai Island, which lies at sea level and is basically a sandbar with a resort offshore. Mandarin Valley had a lot of towering, artificial reef structures that provided a base for coral to grow on, and a place for plenty of fish to hide. Highlights from this dive sight included a mantis shrimp peaking its face out of its burrow, several nudibranchs and frogfish, a school of small barracudas, and a couple more green turtles sleeping on top of one of the artificial reef structures.

Something I wanted to see on this trip was a school of bumphead parrotfish. Although we never ended up seeing a big group of these like I was hoping, we did see three of them during this dive. They were huge compared to other species of parrotfish that I have seen, and had beautiful coloration.

After we surfaced, our boat took us back to the jetty where there were unlimited snacks and drinks to keep us energized and hydrated while we waited to go back out for our next dive. I enjoyed getting to relax onshore instead of bobbing around on the boat during our surface interval. It was refreshing, and I got to pet the kitten that one of the dive shop employees had brought to the island a couple of weeks earlier. He was an orange kitten named Simba, and I spent a lot of time on my surface intervals making friends with him.

An hour later, we pulled on our wetsuits and got back aboard the boat which took us to a dive site called Ray Point. It’s often safe to expect to see whatever a dive site is named after while you’re underwater, but in this case we did not encounter any stingrays. The site still had an abundance of life though. Of course there were more green turtles, which were starting to seem like an inevitability at this point. A small, black and white eel wriggled across the ocean floor right underneath me. I’d never seen one like it before and later identified it as a snowflake moray. The reef was also the prettiest one we’d seen yet, and the bright sunlight filtering through the water illuminated it with an otherworldly glow.

But the highlight of this dive was hands down when we spotted a cuttlefish that was doing a very good job of looking like coral tucked up under a rock. The last time I saw a cuttlefish was back in 2018 during me and Vince’s open water diver course in Komodo National Park. It was my first, and possibly favorite cephalopod (although in all fairness my favorite cephalopod tends to be whatever one I’m looking at), and I was thrilled to finally get another encounter with one. Cuttlefish are brilliant at camouflage and can change the color and texture of their skin to hide from predators, or to signal to other cuttlefish. It can be quite difficult to identify their exact subspecies because they can change their appearance so drastically, but I would hazard a guess that this was a broadclub cuttlefish because that is the most common species to see at coral reefs.

We had a longer surface interval back at the resort after this dive, and used the time to grab lunch at the dining hall before meeting back up for our last boat dive of the day at Lobster Wall. This name turned out to be more on-the-nose because it was a towering wall with plenty of crevasses where we did see lobsters. There was a strong current here and we started the dive swimming against it, and then got to drift back at a relaxing pace for the second half of the dive. I was delighted when Vince spotted a gorgeous peacock mantis shrimp in a little cave. Although I’d seen one of these earlier that day, this one was out in the open so I could see all of its vibrant colors, and watch its bulbous eyes moving independently of each other. I thought it was adorable.

Apparently three dives in a day just wasn’t enough for me and Vince, so we signed up to do a night dive with Roy after getting back to the jetty once again. While we waited for sunset we napped for a while, and then watched a water monitor lizard waddling around the pool deck. I was honestly feeling very worn out. Diving doesn’t feel like it takes much energy while you’re doing it, but afterwards you can feel very drained, and this was my first time doing more than two dives in a day. Still, I was eager to go on the night dive since we’d never been on one before, and I’d been told that it is incredible to be on a reef after dark. We enjoyed a peaceful sunset from the jetty, and then Roy met up with us and we all put our wetsuits on for the last time that day. Roy briefed us about how to do hand signals with only one hand under our torch light, and then we started the dive.

Part of me thought it might be a little spooky to be underwater in the dark, but I ended up feeling completely comfortable. In fact, every time we found an animal it was doubly exciting. Under the direct light, we were able to get a much better look at everything’s real colors instead of seeing them through a blue filter. Many different kinds crab had emerged from hiding under the cover of darkness, my favorite being a huge hermit crab that sat on a chunk of coral as though it was waiting to have its picture taken.

As much as I loved the night dive, I think Vince was even more ecstatic than me when we resurfaced. He seemed to have boundless energy to keep talking about how amazing it had been, meanwhile I was now fully ready to crash into bed. Apparently three dives in a day is fine with me, but add one more and I’m cashed out. We took a look at the schedule for the next day and found out we’d be doing three more boat dives around Mabul and Kapalai. Roy had to guide snorkeling, so we would be with a different divemaster named Kun, but we’d still be on the same boat as Lisa and Tina, which was great because we’d really enjoyed diving with them. Now that we knew what time we’d have to be up the next morning, we could finally go to sleep.

Our three boats dives the next day ended up being a little less climactic than the others had been. In addition to Lisa and Tina, two others divers were also put in our group, and after the first dive, the rest of us caught on that we needed to keep an eye on them. About thirty minutes after submerging, Kun signaled the group to check on our air. Vince, Lisa, Tina and I all had similar amounts of air pressure left, just a little under a half tank, which seemed appropriate because we’d spent some time deeper than eighty feet towards the beginning of the dive. Everything seemed normal until one of the newcomers signaled that he was down to twenty bar. I’m near-sighted, but I could still see Kun’s eyes widen behind his mask upon learning this information.

*Disclaimer: I am not a dive instructor. I am just a recreational diver who tries my best to follow the safety guidelines I’ve been taught in order to maximize my chances of a safe and fun dive. Do not use my words and opinions in the place of legitimate dive training.

I’ll try not to get too technical here, but this probably needs some explanation for anyone not familiar with SCUBA diving. Our tanks started out with 200 bar. For a recreational dive, it is fairly standard to turn the dive before you reach a half tank, meaning you and your buddy communicate that the dive is halfway over (based on whoever has the least air left), and it’s time to start executing your plan of how you’ll get back to the surface. This varies based on the conditions at the dive site, but since this was a drift dive, “turning the dive” really just meant that we should be gradually working our way to shallower depths. It is also fairly standard to start your final ascent to the surface when you are down to fifty bar, and you should always be keeping an eye on your and your buddy’s air to make sure you have enough to make a safe ascent. Fifty bar leaves enough air to get to the surface with a three minute safety stop to let nitrogen bubbles work their way out of your body, and some extra in case there is a problem and you need to share air with your buddy. It’s the responsibility of each individual diver to signal to their buddy and the divemaster that they need to start their ascent. The diver in question had made no indication that he was running low on air whatsoever, so the rest of us were just casually drifting along thinking we probably had at least ten minutes left before we’d have to surface.

Kun immediately signaled to the group to ascend to five meters and then do a three minute safety stop, and just like that the dive was over. When we reached the surface, the diver in question only had five bar left, which is almost nothing, but he was shockingly unconcerned. Kun had a talk with him, and he acted as though he understood what had gone wrong. I spent the short drive back to the resort feeling somewhat rattled, but gradually started to shake it off as I sipped some juice in the sun.

During the next dive, I could tell that Kun had adjusted his plan to try to help the diver’s air consumption rate, because we didn’t go any deeper than sixty feet. Once again everything seemed totally normal for the first part of the dive. We even saw a hawksbill turtle, which really cheered me up since we’d only seen green turtles up to that point.

Then at the thirty minute mark, Vince managed to catch a glimpse of the diver’s air gauge, and swam over to him to tell him he was low on air. The diver signaled to Vince that he was OK, and Vince signaled back “NO You’re low on air,” and then pointed for him to tell Kun. Once again the dive was immediately called, and we all surfaced with half a tank, except the one diver who came up with five bar. Lisa and Tina started ribbing him as playfully as they could, and said “how are you not panicking right now with basically no air left?” He replied that it was fine because he could just go to the surface if he was really going to run out. The absurdity of that statement caused my left eyebrow to raise so high that I thought it would most likely detach itself from my face. Technically you can risk surfacing without a safety stop if your only options are to do that or drown. It’s called a controlled emergency swimming ascent, or CESA, and it should really only be done if there is no other way to solve your problem while remaining underwater. Surfacing too quickly puts you at risk for decompression sickness and air embolism. The nearest hyperbaric chamber to Mabul is at a naval base back on the mainland between Semporna and Tawau, so if the diver were to get the bends, it would optimistically take several hours to get him there. All of this ran through my mind as Lisa told him that he should really conserve more energy underwater if he wanted to make his air last longer. She said she expected him to come up with fifty bar on the next dive and he said he would try.

That afternoon, we all congratulated him when he successfully finished our last dive with fifty bar, and he played along good-naturedly. He was a fun guy, and had been great to hang out with on the boat. He had just really worried me on the first couple of dives.

Vince and I hiked around the perimeter of Mabul before dinner, which didn’t take long because the island is very small. We passed through two fishing towns and a surprisingly dense forest, and saw all of the other resorts along the way.

Afterwards, we sat with Lisa and Tina at dinner. All four of us were beyond excited because we were scheduled to go to Sipadan Island with Roy the next morning. Sipadan is the main reason that divers are attracted to this area of Borneo. It is an oceanic island with strict governmental protection that only allows for 120 divers to visit a day. Those who do visit have to pay for a permit, and are expected to abide by strict guidelines to conserve the spectacular reefs around the island. It is known for a having huge amount of large pelagic species, and is one of the world’s most coveted destinations for divers.

I went to bed that night fully expecting the next day to hold the best diving of my life.

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