This story was originally printed in the West Australian newspaper.
It was like winning the lottery and then realising I’d thrown out the ticket. On my arrival at the dive centre in Malaysian Borneo, I discovered I’d been granted a permit to dive the holy grail of Sipadan the next day. With only 120 permits issued each day, and hundreds of divers from around the world clamouring to get them, I was feeling pretty lucky. But then disaster struck during my orientation dive just hours later. While trying to equalise on the way down, I heard a strange squeaking sound in my left ear. The words ‘perforated eardrum’ started swimming around my head along with the brightly coloured fish. I spent a night with pain in my ear, limited hearing and visions of having to cancel three days diving after only one little dive. The next morning, it still wasn’t any better, so I reluctantly told the dive master I’d have to give up my spot on the Sipadan boat and watched it roar away without me. Happily though, my lucky numbers came up again and I was issued with a second permit to dive Sipadan the next day. Luckily, the perforated eardrum scenario turned out to be a little bit of an overreaction and I found myself on the 6am boat to one of the Meccas of diving.
As a child, I remember sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, staring at the aquarium and wondering what it would be like to get in there with all those fish. After diving at Sipadan, I no longer have to wonder. Exotic looking lion fish, colourful parrot fish, comic looking puffer fish and cute clown fish all vied for my attention. The strict permit system, introduced in 2008 to protect the marine environment, appears to be having the desired effect. While other dive sites in South East Asia seem to have more divers than fish, marine life around Sipadan is definitely in the majority and the reefs are in pristine condition.
On our first dive, it didn’t take long before we spotted the reason for our 6am start. A school of huge ugly green monsters with serious overbites swam by. The bumphead parrot fish, so named because they look like they’ve run into a brick wall, travelled side by side like they were on a fish superhighway, ogling us as they went. Next we spotted the second thing on my mental checklist: a black tip reef shark. A celebrity of the marine world, it glided by with its entourage of little fish in tow, cleaning it as it went. Soon after, we saw an equally graceful white tip reef shark sail past as it headed off for a little nap on the sandy bottom. Later, we practically ran into a wall of trevally, a grey underwater tornado flashing with silver.
Another highlight was on our third dive when we came face to face with some hawksbill turtles. Popping their heads up for a quick sip of air, they then glided off into the crystal clear waters. During the dive we came across so many I started to feel a bit like an oversized crouton in a turtle soup!
By the end of the three dives, there was just one thing left on my checklist: one of the kings of fish - the barracuda. Our dive master, Cat, had given us a money back guarantee that we’d see at least one, but they managed to elude us. However, just as we were about to head back, he spotted a big school of them next to our boat. Grabbing masks, we jumped in, following them as they moved along in a silvery mass, their bottom jaws jutting out with attitude. My checklist was complete.
The Malaysian government evicted all the resorts from Sipadan at the end of 2004, meaning divers now have to stay on the nearby islands Mabul or Kapalai. Or, like me, you can take a completely different option and stay on a converted oil rig just off the coast of Mabul. The Seaventures rig started its life as a drilling rig off Panama in the 80’s before being sold and converted into accommodation. It was then towed around the ocean until it found its new home in Malaysia.
It might not be a five star resort, but it’s hardly roughing it. The cabins are surprisingly comfortable and about the same size as hotel rooms across Asia (granted, that’s not very big). They each have aircon and their own bathroom with a western toilet and hot water shower. And for those of us tied to our laptops, wifi is accessible from every cabin and the main deck. The rig also has a sundeck where you can watch the incredible sunsets with a beer in hand after a tough day’s diving.
Seaventures offers packages which include all meals and snacks, served throughout the day on the main deck with ocean views on either side. The price also includes two or three dives a day (excluding dive permits for Sipadan) and unlimited free house diving around the rig, although strong currents can make it a bit like diving in a washing machine. For those with the right qualifications, there’s also night diving. And if you don’t have any qualifications at all, or want to refresh yours, there’s a full range of PADI courses available.
The rig is about a 20 min boat ride from Sipadan. I only got the chance to take that ride once during my stay, but with each of the dives full of new discoveries, it felt like I hit the jackpot.
Note: Nearest airport: Tawau. Fly from KL or KK.