From the moment I descended on that first dive, below the surface of the Celebes Sea, I was literally gob-smacked. I felt like I was in a dream and stared with incredibility at the life swarming around and past me. There was so much life, at times it seemed that my Malaysian guide, John, was continuously banging on his tank to get our attention and pointing one way and then seconds later banging on his tank and pointing in another direction. First pointing up, then down down, left, right., up and down again. All I could do was look at John, shrug my shoulders, hold my hands palm up in front of me in disbelief and laugh through my regulator whilst tears of joy welled in my eyes.
Since 2005, Sipadan Island has been under the management of Malaysian Parks and Wildlife. The five resorts that were operating on the island have been dismantled. Only one hundred and twenty visitors are allowed on and around the island each day to dive or snorkel and visitors are not permitted to stay on the island. This means pre-planning a trip to Sipadan because most of the dive shops only have seven permits each and these can sell out anywhere from two weeks to two months in advance. However, the result of limiting the number of people on the island is that the dive sites are pristine. There is next to no rubbish or coral damage and there is an absolute abundance of life.
Four minutes into my first dive at a depth of twenty eight metres, I stared in disbelief as a white tip reef shark cruised by about ten metres to my right. It glided gracefully, its fins swaying elegantly side to side as it snaked its way through the water. My breathing increased fivefold from its normal, calm, even pace and my eyes opened wider with delight. I even managed to smile whilst keeping my regulator firmly in my mouth. Onwards, as we glided farther through the water, my eyes opened even wider with incredibility at all the different types of fish before me, many I had never seen before and am still unable to identify. Then fourteen minutes into the dive, another two white tip reef sharks go cruising past my right hand side and on into the deep blue distance. I clapped my hands with glee for the first time that day. Twenty minutes into the dive and another white tip reef shark glides two metres below me. I hovered in the water watching in awe as it disappeared into the distance. Four reef sharks in twenty minutes!
A few minutes later, John tapped rapidly on his tank to get our attention yet again. He points up towards the surface and there silhouetted in all its majesty is a turtle swimming through the water. Watching a turtle move through the water is one of the most amazing sights to see and one of the reasons I adore them. On land they are heavy and awkward, but in the water they move with such grace, ease ad speed. Their two front fins powerfully paddling them through the water effortlessly and allowing them to glide as gracefully as an eagle through the air. And whilst their movement may appear steady and slow, it is hard work if not at times impossible trying to keep up with one swimming off into the distance.
My fondest turtle moment came as a complete surprise. John took me through a small upward slanting opening in the limestone wall, what we call a swim-through. Up I slowly floated, careful not to touch the coral lining the wall. As I came to the top of the swim through and flicked my fins to swim out into the blue again, I looked to my right, and no more than 30 centimetres away was a sleeping hawksbill turtle. It was so close I could have hugged and kissed it. I giggled, first in surprise and then in glee and looked at John, clapping my hands to indicate my joy and appreciation.
As we floated on the surface after this first dive, waiting for our boat to come and pick us up, I was speechless. I could not find one word to describe how I was feeling about what I had just experienced. The best you could get out of me was some incomprehensible spluttering and head shaking. I had seen a total of six reef sharks and two turtles on this dive, the most I had seen one dive. But it was not just the sharks and the turtles that had left me in awes, it was the abundance of life and the condition of the site that had me shaking my head in disbelief. I could not bring myself to imagine what my remaining dives would be like. Was it possible that they could surpass this dive?
Dive two was Barracuda Point which delivered on its name. As we descended, another huge green turtle was swimming down directly below my path of descent. I looked at John, pointed to the turtle and again clapped my hands with glee and crossed my hands over my heart. Minutes after descending, there was a school of silvery Jacks just to our right. These fish were at least sixty centimetres in length and there were hundreds of them, moving together in a tight group. John lead the way, his hands together in an outward prayer position and created a parting in the school of fish. We swam through, surrounded by these large fish on our left, right, before us and behind us. Incredible.
On we went, and John’s consistent tank-banging commenced as the reef sharks started to cruise by. I stopped counting after twelve. I was amazed at how many there were and how frequently they were cruising by, I completely lost count. The highlight of this dive, was not the sharks, but the massive battery of Barracuda. Each fish was over one metre in length. I have seen schools of them in the past, but nothing as large as this. There were hundreds of them. We settled down on a rocky patch, close to the circling school and just watched them for ten minutes. Then slowly, we edged our way forward into the circling whirlpool of movement and settled ourselves down on the bottom again. We were surrounded by these giant silver striped fish of the sea, circling just above our heads.
Suddenly I was feeling a little anxious. I was wearing my Nana’s engagement ring that my Mum gave to me for my 21st birthday present. I always wear this ring, very rarely do I take it off, not even for diving. It is yellow and white gold with a small diamond in it. Nothing huge but it is a pretty diamond with its own small sparkle. Suddenly I remembered stories I had heard about how Barracuda are attracted to shiny objects. “Uh oh” I thought to myself. I have hundreds of these fish around me and one little finger with a little sparkly jewellery on it. I turned the ring around so the diamond was on the palm side of my hand. I then attempted to hide my fingers by tucking arms firmly under my arm pits. Fortunately the barracuda showed no interest in my little bit of bling and my fingers survived intact.
We moved on, and not more than a minute after we left the circling school of barracuda, another white tip reef shark passes us by. Then we come across a small school of yellowfin barrucuda. As we were distracted by this school, I catch sight of a white tip reef shark cruising from my left to my right. I grab John’s fin and point excitedly. Then we notice not one, not two, but three of them swimming by. I look at John, shrug, palms up, and shake my head in disbelief, yet again. John covered his heart with his hands and made an audible “ahhh” sound through his regulator. Was this the most amazing dive ever? At the time I thought so but that was before I had completed dive number three.
Dive tgree was at a site called Drop Off which can easily be reached by strolling out from the beach. The wall at this site literally drops away at an angle of seventy-five degrees for six hundred metres. Again we were surrounded by life, unicorn fish, groupers, angel fish, moorish idols and bannerfish, batfish and again, we were circled by great schools of jacks and barracuda. The marvel of this dive was the amount of “big” life that passed us by. I lost count after twelve reef sharks and ten turtles. We even saw a leopard shark sitting on a rocky outcrop. In mathematical terms, that was a turtle or shark at least every two minutes of the dive (not including barracuda and jacks). This dive was just amazing, like nothing I had experienced before. Again after we surfaced, I was lost for words. I shook my head in disbelief with a huge grin on my face. I was amazed, incredulous, supremely happy and feeling such gratitude for this amazing planet we live on and the privilege of diving somewhere so beautiful.
My favourite dive on Sipadan, and in fact, the best dive I have ever had, was my seventh dive on a site called South Point . The current here was strong and we drifted along at great speed at a depth of twenty-eight metres for the first part of the dive. Every which way I looked there was a shark or a turtle. On this dive we saw a total of twenty-four reef sharks and ten turtles. At around fifteen metres depth, we came across a sandy and rocky flat patch where there were eight white tip reef sharks resting on the bottom. John indicated to us that this is where the sharks come to sleep. We settled ourselves on the bottom and watched as the sharks rested and some swam around. They appeared to be very inquisitive and curious about us. The longer we stayed where we were, the closer they came to us, looking directly at us.
I was lying on the bottom on my stomach in a nice relaxed position. Twisting onto my right or left hand side occasionally to watch as one of these majestic creatures cruised by and behind me One seemed to have taken a particular fancy to me as it swam up and back down my left hand side a couple of times. Then before I knew it, it was gliding right over the top of my fins. I have never had a shark approach me this close before. Although I know these sharks are generally placid, having one come this close to me was unexpected, and the tiniest tinge of fear coursed through my body which quickly transmuted to exhilaration. I exhaled a little squeal, part delight, part fear, part relief through my regulator.
Jacques Cousteau said of Sipadan in 1964, "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art". In my very limited diving experience, Sipadan compares to nowhere else I have seen. It is a place of such beauty that it is a natural artwork. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to dive here and realise one of my dreams. I can only hope that the Malaysian government can continue to protect and preserve this very special place to ensure the proliferation of the creatures who call Sipadan home and so future generations can see and experience the magic of this underwater paradise in a pristine state.
Photos taken by John, Sipadan Scuba
School of Jacks
Battery of Barracuda
Little turtle sleeping a barrel sponge
Whitetip Reef Sharks - trifecta!