Sipadan Island Diving; December 24-30, 2009

Tiny Sipadan Island is legendary among scuba divers. Even the world's most famous diver, Jacques Cousteau, expressed his enthusiasm with a quote that's featured prominently in Sipadan marketing literature: [French accent] "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art." In the early 2000's, the three small dive resorts on Sipadan Island closed. Part of the reason was to keep Cousteau's art as untouched as possible; another was an infamous-among-divers event in the year 2000, when Filipino guerrillas raided the island and 21 people, including dive tourists, were taken hostage.

Now the island has a small military presence to keep an eye on things, and divers visit from the dozen or so resorts that are within a half-hour speedboat ride. A complicated permit system strictly limits the number of divers each day -- we expected to dive Sipadan perhaps two days during our stay, and were very fortunate to get permits almost every day. There's other good diving around, but Sipadan is the best.

While many of the resorts near Sipadan are made up of swanky over-the-water bungalows, we opted for Seaventures Dive Rig (photo 1). It's a defunct oil platform; a far cry from five-star accommodations, but it's the five-star diving we came for. Photo 2 shows the kid's room -- former rig-worker quarters and typical of nearly all the guest rooms. However, because we booked far in advance, we were able to secure one of the two "VIP rooms" (photo 3; it must have housed the big oil boss), at a minimal surcharge. The Malaysian food was plentiful and good, the other guests a mixed and interesting lot, and on Christmas eve the staff (along with some extroverted guests) formed a rock band with, shall we say, the expected results.

In addition to diving Sipadan and other nearby islands by speedboat, the area right under the rig is itself an excellent dive site. To board a boat or enter the water, one rides an elevator-platform down the side of the rig (photo 4), truly unique. Photo 5 gives a feel for the main dive set-up, eating, and hanging-around areas. Overall, the atmosphere on the rig is very much like a ship; it just doesn't move. We were very happy and would return in an instant.

As for the diving itself, we couldn't have asked for more, in either quality or quantity. We usually set off for our first dive at 6:00am, easily fitting in five dives before dinner. The number and variety of underwater flora and fauna can't be described -- uncountable sharks, turtles, schooling barracuda and jacks, schooling giant humphead parrotfish, cuttlefish, lionfish, crocodile fish, hard and soft corals, the list goes on and on, and that's just the bigger stuff. On the "micro" end we had nudibranchs, pipefish, pygmy seahorses, mandarin fish, again the list is endless. Tim captured it all with a brand-new housing and strobe for his Canon G10, which he spent several months earning money to buy specifically for this trip. Photos 6-13 are a small and somewhat random sample of the results (in case you don't recognize it, photo 12 is a crocodile-fish eye); his complete curated collection will be posted in due time.

Next: Rounding out our time in Borneo in the same fashion as in 1992, we'll head into the jungle for two nights at Bilit Rainforest Lodge, followed by a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary before heading home.

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