Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mataking and Sipadan Island, Malaysia

Whirlwind #1

Yes Whirlwind, because I believe that is what this trip is going to feel like in the end.  4 Whirlwind tours.  After 4 flights, and 35 hours of travel, 1 hour of which was a boat ride, we arrived at Mataking Island, off of Borneo, Malaysia.  When our plane landed in Tawau city of Borneo and we drove to the town jetty in Semporna, I couldn't tell the difference between Malaysia and a Caribbean Island such as St. Lucia, or even Guatemala. The scenery was so similar.  Rolling hills covered with Palm trees everywhere. Colorful cement buildings lifted off the ground on stilts.  The few things helping me know I was on the other side of the world were the amount of Muslims, dressed head to toe, and the toilets.  While the public restrooms had western toilets, they also had squat pots.  But here on Mataking Island, we were away from the towns and cities.  On this small island is a small resort and Police outpost.  

We came here to go diving at the nearby by Marine Park of Sipadan Island.  You can not stay at Sipadan, only at the nearby islands.  We weren't as near as other islands, but close enough to spend an entire day diving there.  Sipadan Park only allows 120 permit divers per day to view it's beautiful waters.  We were excited to secure 2 permits while making our arrangements with our resort to dive this amazing area.


We arrived at Mataking exhausted.  They fed us, took our bags to our beach chalet, and then requested we go diving with them.  Tired or not, who can turn that down?  Really we needed to do a check dive with them so they can confirm we know how to dive and are capable to spend the next day diving at Sipadan.  It's a safe practice, and their house reef was beautiful.  We were excited to see many colorful corals and fish, including several little Nemo's swimming in anemones. It was a fun dive, and refreshed us a little after all that travel.  But the refresh didn't last long.  Before the 7pm dinner hour, I was barely able to stay awake.  I hardly slept on the flights, and it was 4am back home. We ate dinner quickly and returned to our chalet to sleep for the night; we had a big day tomorrow and needed to be well rested.  Below is the view from our chalet porch.

We mostly got in a full nights sleep, awaking a little earlier than we'd like, but enough rest for the day.  After an early breakfast, we took off on a boat headed for Sipadan Island, 1.5 hours away by speedboat.  We were the only divers, joined by 2 snorkelers, a young couple from London.  Along with the boat and dive crew, we had 2 armed police officers on board, escorting us to Sipadan.  Apparently there is a concern for safety from the nearby Philippines, but more on that later.  

We arrived safely to Sipadan and after a quick trip to shore to sign in with the park registry, we were quickly in the water.  The boat pushed out from shore no more than 50 yards and the dive guide said, Get ready, we dive here.  I thought-- we are so close to shore, how can there be a wall and great diving right here.  But there most certainly is.  We readied ourselves, and back rolled into the water to find an amazing treasure below.  Fish everywhere-- fish by the thousands.  Corals, hard and soft were colorful, healthy, and plentiful.  Sponges were the same, colorful and everywhere.  It was an amazing sight.  Our first dive went by quickly.  It was beautiful.  We saw turtles and several sharks, white tip reef.  We saw thousands of little fish living in the coral, swimming all through the anemones. It was great.

Soon we were back on shore for a break and snack.  One member of our boat crew came along specifically to prepare and serve us food for the day.  Aimee was great in filling our waters and providing us our meals brought from Mataking.  For our morning snack we had melon, bananas, and muffins, and egg sandwiches.  We visited with the snorkelers and found they had enjoyed their snorkel as much as we had our dive.  Soon we were back aboard our boat head, again not far from shore for our second dive.  One of the amazing things about this area are the huge schools of fish found here.  It reminds me of Finding Nemo and thousands of fish traveling together in the current. We saw huge schools of Jack Fish swimming above us, all of the fish in general were larger than any other reef we had been diving at before.  Clearly they eat well at Sipadan.  Again it was a spectacular dive.

Next was the lunch break.  All the divers from other resorts also break at the same time, all sharing the same pavillion, but each dive boat brings their own food.  Many of the boats also bring security, and I believe there is a police presence on the island at all times.  The Police came and shared our food, but ate with the other Police.  Likewise the dive and boat crew ate seperately, while the divers and guests ate together per their boat.  We were the small group of the bunch.  We enjoyed our lunch, set up by Aimee.  

Back to the boat for the last dive of the day, this time the whole crew boarded the boat, police and all.  The other dives the police and Aimee had stayed on the island while we dove, but this time all were aboard the boat, assuming we would leave straight after the dive.  The crew was calling out to the other boats, all of them looking in the water as they drove around the island.  They were looking for the school of Bumphead Parrot Fish.  The snorkelers, Adam and Emma, informed us they had seen the large school of ugly buck teeth fish on the last snorkel.  We did not see them, so the crew was hoping to find them for us.  They had told us they also hoped to find the large schools of Barracuda that roam the island, but that they have been hard to find recently.  Well they did not find the Bumphead Parrot fish, but in the water we went for another spectacular dive-- David's favorite.

On the last dive, we did find 2 huge schools of Barracuda.  Each school with hundreds of Barracuda.  Looking up from below, they were beautiful to watch them swim in their circular patterns.  It was an awesome sight.  We ended our dive in David's favorite area, it was coral as far as the eye could see. Neverending staghorn coral.  It was breathtaking to take in, as we had no idea that so much coral existed in one area.  It was incredible.  White tipped and blue tipped corals, mixed in were colorful sponges and soft corals, and of course thousands of colorful little fish.  It was the most amazing aquarium I had ever been in and left us wanting more.  The world is an amazing and beautiful place.

 Malaysian fishing vessel.  We saw several boats, some much smaller down to the panga size, out on the waters travelling or fishing, as we traveled both to and from Sipadan.  We learned that they have had some issues with the Philippines.  They come here illegally, and there have been a few kidnappings or hostages over the last few years.  So many of the resorts, especially the ones that travel far to Sipadan take armed police along to escort.  Mataking Island specifically has police stationed on site.  Here they have a lookout tower, with radar and they are actively monitoring boats in the area, looking for boats coming from the Philippines.

After our spectacular day at Sipadan, we contemplated a night dive that evening at the house reef, but I was completely happy with our beautiful dives at Sipadan to call it a day.  It was a good choice. By the time the 7pm dinner hour rolled around, we were exhausted and ready to sleep.

The next day we did another 3 dives, but all at nearby dive spots.  Here our dives focused on macro sites.  We found nudi's and tiny creatures living among the corals.  There was still lots of fish and coral and sponges, just not near the magnitude of out at Sipadan.  We found tiny colorful little worms and slugs.  A few eels, and small rays, beautifully colored in yellow and blue.  Eels have such ugly faces, but these eels had pretty purple eyes.  Different than Sipadan, yet great dives still.  Our favorite was again the last dive of the day, where we were dropped into what seemed like a garden of coral patches.  We went from one patch to another searching for little fun creatures. Visibility was not great, but on a dive like this, it was plenty good to see and focus on the patch in front of you and still see other divers at the patches around you.

This was also the last dive of our trip.  Tomorrow we would travel back to Semporna on the boat, and be driven back to the airport in Tawau.  We had exactly 24 hours between our dive and take off of our flight, to allow us enough time to gas off our excess Nitrogen from diving. We awoke our last morning to rain and wind, but it cleared enough for our journey back to shore.  Goodbye beautiful Mataking and Sipadan.  On to new adventures...

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