Shimmering Shoals

A light rain pattered at the roof of our little dive boat as we motored through choppy waves on the open ocean. The sun was just starting to rise, illuminating dramatic clouds that sprinkled out the last gasps of an early morning storm. In the distance, a dark shadow began to take shape on the horizon, growing from little more than a speck in the distance to an ever-clearer silhouette of waving palm trees atop a mound of sand. It was an unassuming island to be sure, but it was what lay below the waves that had drawn us here. My heart raced in anticipation as we got nearer and nearer to the place that had attracted us to Southern Sabah, the diver’s paradise of Sipadan Island.

Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia and is under extensive protection from the Malaysian government. Less than 200 permits are issued to divers each day. This strict regulation has resulted in healthy, pollution-free reefs that are known for large concentrations of pelagic species. Mabul had been the perfect place to find small sea creatures, but Sipadan held the promise of encounters with large animals.

Our boat pulled right up to the shore of a pristine, sandy beach, and we all jumped off of it into warm, ankle-deep water. Vince and I were joined by Tina and Lisa, the two Germans we’d dived with for the past couple days, and our divemaster, Roy. Roy led us up the beach to a small building where we checked in with the island’s authorities, then he briefed us on our first dive next to a large map of the island and all of its dive sites.

We would be starting the morning off at Coral Garden, where Roy hoped we would see bumphead parrotfish. That wouldn’t end up happening, but the site was magical nonetheless. When we first entered the water, we saw several whitetip reef sharks, gliding along the wall below us and the reef above us. But true to its name, the spectacular coral reef was the main attraction at this site. The sea bead was blanketed in some of the healthiest hard corals I’ve ever seen, interspersed with lace-like soft coral that swayed in the current. Colorful fishes darted into and out of view too quickly to focus on any one species, and there was an unceasing hum of sounds that served as a constant reminder of how alive the reef was. Most insistent was a crackling sound not unlike that of popcorn or a sizzling frying pan. This came from unseen snapping crabs, so small that I couldn’t find any of them amidst the chaos of living things, and yet so loud that I could hear their snaps ringing in my ears even after we resurfaced.

After our dive at Coral Garden, we returned to the picturesque beach on Sipadan where we had a picnic breakfast provided by our resort, Borneo Divers. When our dive computers had recorded an hour of surface time, Roy gathered the four of us and conducted the morning’s second briefing. Our next dive would be at South Point, and Roy warned us to follow him closely because of the possibility of strong, and potentially dangerous currents.

Sipadan’s dive sites only took minutes to get to by boat, so we started putting gear on as soon as we pulled away from shore. When we actually arrived at the site, we slid into our BCDs and fins and then waited on our captain to tell us to get in the water. He had carefully chosen where to drop us off so that we wouldn’t have to use up any time trying to find exactly what we were looking for at this site.

On his signal, we rolled backwards off of the boat, and then briefly grouped up at the surface before following Roy underwater where we found ourselves spectators to one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

A gargantuan, undulating shadow moved in the distance behind a veil of blue water. It looked like a single, shapeless entity from this distance, but I knew that the mass was actually hundreds upon hundreds of trevally schooled together, all constantly vying to move further into the cluster and away from the inherent danger posed by lingering on the outskirts.

The five of us floated motionless, eyes transfixed on what looked like a ballet of sorts; a dance that drew ever closer the longer we lingered. As the school neared us, the amorphous shadow crystalized into the shining forms of individual fish, all of them swimming in coordination to create the leviathan illusion.

Just as they approached the sloping wall that was to our backs, the school seemed to shatter like a dropped vase, shards of glittering glass splintering in all directions. And then we were surrounded by faces with ghostly eyes that looked at us without truly seeing us.

For a few infinite moments we were engulfed, just five more in a river of fish that flowed passed us. Then as quickly as it had exploded, the school reformed, slinking as one being once again over the reef and out of sight.

In that moment I thought I had never seen anything quite so perfect in my entire life.

All too soon it was time once again to exchange the cool, blue underwater world for that of the sun and sand of the island, but in all fairness there have been worse trades. Vince and I spent this surface interval relaxing on the soft beach, and cooling off in its tranquil, turquoise waters. There wasn’t a piece of litter in sight, a true testament to the care that is put into protecting the fragile ecosystem of Sipadan.

We still had one last dive on the schedule before leaving Sipadan, and this one would be at what is consistently ranked among the best of the best dive sites in the world, Barracuda Point. Roy was very specific that we were to follow his moves exactly on this dive because there would be a strong current.

When we rolled out of the boat, the water’s surface was deceptively calm, which belied the whirlwind of a dive we about to sink into. I noticed a couple of nearby turtles poking their heads out of the water to grab a breath of air, and quickly dunked my own face underwater to get a look at them. In fact there were several turtles hovering just under the surface, but at Barracuda Point, you don’t stop to look at turtles. Roy gave the signal for us to dive and we dropped down along a wall where a strong current carried us, negating any need for us to use our fins to propel ourselves. Instead, I used mine as more of a sail of sorts to try to gain better control over my speed as we rocketed next to the reef.

I quickly realized why no one seemed to feel the need to point out turtles. There were too many to count. It was more efficient to just assume that there was always a turtle somewhere in view than it was to try to alert others to their presence. Instead, Roy let us know when a trio of whitetips cut through the water below us, their powerful bodies gliding with ease and grace.

As we floated passed the wall, Roy kept checking above us, and eventually beckoned for us to follow him upwards until we were above the reef and in the middle of what felt like a washing machine. The relentless current swept across the reef, and the five of us stayed as near to each other as we could with Roy as our leader, alternating between fighting the current and floating with it. He was searching for the site’s namesake, barracuda, and finding them proved to be the most challenging dive I’ve undertaken yet. The physical effort put into navigating the current was much greater than that of an average open water dive, but I knew it had been worth it when we finally saw the long, silver bodies of a school of barracuda weaving towards us.

Like the trevally, we had face to face encounters with the barracuda as they swam passed us. It was a definite thrill to be so close to an animal that is often misunderstood and feared. Even though they have large, intimidating teeth, barracuda are rarely responsible for attacks on humans, so I felt completely at ease in their presence.

Because this dive was turning out to be so strenuous, I was keeping even closer track of my air consumption than usual, and I was somewhat surprised to find that I still had well over a half tank left even though we’d been down for more than forty minutes. We may have just seen exactly what we were looking for, but we all had enough air left to stay underwater for a bit longer, and this yielded an unexpected run-in with a school of batfish. We’d seen a handful of lone batfish during our dives around Mabul, but it was much more impressive to see a large grouping of them.

By the time we resurfaced, we’d spent nearly an hour at Barracuda Point, which seemed impossible to me considering the extra exertion. It honestly felt like a gift that all of us had been able to stay down that long at what was hands-down the best site I’ve ever dived. We all apologized for accidentally jostling each other in the current and laughed in the way people do when they’ve just been through something extraordinary together while we waited for our boat to come pick us up.

I kept my eyes trained on Sipidan as it shrank behind us on the horizon, wanting to burn its memory into my mind. It had lived up to every wonderful thing I’d read about it and then some, and I had a strong sense that I’d just had one of the most special experiences I could ever dream of.

Part of me wanted to take a nice long nap once we arrived back at Mabul, but I also knew that this was our last evening on the island before heading back to the mainland, so I powered through my urge to rest as Vince and I took the resort’s clear kayaks out for a paddle on the sea. I smiled as I noticed a couple of turtles surfacing for air in front of my kayak; they really were inescapable.

Vince and I decided to go on one last dive together at Borneo Divers’ house reef, and this time we were so familiar with the dive site that we found lots of fun animals with ease even though we didn’t have Roy with us to point them out.

Of course, we also ran into the two turtles that at this point I had come to rely on seeing anytime we were at the jetty.

It was fitting to end our trip with one last dive at the site we’d started at days before. The two dives felt like perfect bookends on an exciting four days of exploring the sea. When we resurfaced for the last time, the jetty cat, Simba, was waiting at the edge of the water. He meowed impatiently as we clumsily clamored up to him in our heavy gear, and happily demanded pets despite the fact that we were dripping in salt water.

We would depart from Mabul the next afternoon. I was sad to go, but it was time to shift my mindset from dive vacation to safari mode because we were now bound for the rainforest on a quest to see even more of Borneo’s amazing wildlife!

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