A SOUND LIKE NOTHING I’ve ever heard before jolts me violently out of my macro-hunting reverie. I look up from the seabed to catch the eye of my buddy, who has been disturbed in the process of lining up a shot of a nearly transparent, hard-to-spot Pikachu nudibranch. He clearly has no idea what just happened either.
I look to our guide, but he appears unfussed so, a little shaken, I return to my hunt.
I’m on the house-reef at Kapalai, a short boat-ride from where I’m staying on the nearby island of Mabul, off the north-east coast of Borneo.
I’m in the area to see whether the diving on Sipadan, the other island in this group, is as phenomenal as it’s reputed to be, but the macro magic of Mabul and Kapalai is a nice bonus.
A few minutes later I’m disturbed again, and then again by bone-shaking booms that I now assume must signal some catastrophic event at the surface some 18m above my head.
It’s only when we’re back on the boat – a boat that I genuinely feared might have been taken over by pirates – that I discover the truth.
It’s not pirates – a relief, given the FCO warnings against all but essential travel to this part of Malaysia – but illegal blast-fishing.
It’s a sobering reminder that even here, one of the world’s best dive destinations and a place largely dependent on dive tourism for its survival, that the fight to protect the marine environment is far from over.
The nerve-shattering interruptions notwithstanding, Kapalai offers a remarkably rich macro experience.
Feather corals bloom across remains of small boats and huts that litter the seabed, as dozens of nudibranchs inch their way around the place.
There are rarer delights too, including a tiny red frogfish, so expertly camouflaged against a sponge and so amorphous in form that it’s only when it opens its mouth wide that I really get a sense of what it looks like.
You used to be able to stay on Sipadan itself, but in 2004 the Malaysian government stepped in to protect the marine life there and ordered the closure of all resorts on the tiny island.
A permit system was introduced to limit the number of divers, with nearby resorts each given a daily quota.
The way it works with our hosts, Borneo Divers, is that a four-night booking guarantees you one full day of diving on Sipadan.
But if the resort isn’t full you’re likely to get additional chances to dive there, with the following day’s schedule going up on boards at the jetty and in the dining-room the night before.
On non-Sipadan days you’re diving at sites off Mabul or Kapalai, and have access to the excellent house-reef for sunset and night-dives.
My first visit to Sipadan – the first of three on this eight-night trip – takes place on day two. The bumpy, overcast ride takes around 40 minutes and there are already a couple of dive-boats from other resorts moored off the island’s white-sand beach when we arrive to sign in at the little office on the jetty.
THE PERMIT SYSTEM is strictly enforced, but the dozen or so soldiers hanging around this idyllic guard-post are here to protect the divers, rather than the reef. Twenty-one people were kidnapped from Sipadan by Filipino Islamist terrorists in 2000, and there have been a number of smaller-scale kidnappings on other islands since then.
As a result, security is taken very seriously here, not just on Sipadan but in the rest of the area, where you’ll see a strong military and police presence.
Before I arrived, I was worried that all this would add up to something of an oppressive atmosphere, but it’s actually surprisingly laid-back.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not exactly relaxing to be surrounded by gun-toting soldiers while you’re trying to chill out between dives – but at no point (other than when I first hear the explosions) do I feel as if I’m in any danger, and the mood is never threatening.
The set-up on Sipadan is very basic – covered picnic areas where each resort has a table for its own guests, plus a toilet and shower-block and a handful of wooden sun-loungers – but the surroundings are undeniably beautiful and the diving, of course, makes it all worth it.
SIPADAN IS MALAYSIA’S only oceanic island, sitting on top of an extinct volcano that rises 600m directly from the seabed. There are technically 12 dive-sites to explore, but there’s little to distinguish between most of them, given that the topography of the reef encircling the island doesn’t vary much as it drops off into the deep.
That’s not to say that these sites aren’t spectacular, just that if you dive, say, Staghorn Crest and Hanging Garden, there’s no need to rush to visit the site that connects them, Lobster Lair.
You get a real sense of the topography at Drop Off, the closest site to the island.
Look up from the lovely shallow patch of coral garden and you see palms waving in the breeze. Look down past the brightly coloured tree-like forms growing from the wall and you’ll find your gaze pulled away into the darkness beneath.
The first place I’m taken after arriving at Sipadan is Barracuda Point, a favourite with the divemasters for the sheer variety of life and seascape on offer. We’ve come for barracuda but there are none to be found, despite the tempting presence of an enormous shoal of jack close to the surface near where we start the dive.
Looking up into their midst, at this shimmering, swirling ceiling of fish, is a sublime experience. But there’s more to see so, regretfully, I let the gentle current take me on its way.
The reef slopes more gently here than elsewhere around the island, creating a sweeping valley at around 20m down that’s home to dozens of whitetip reef sharks. They congregate on the seabed like gangs of moody teenagers, swimming off in a huff when anyone gets too close.
This area used to be blast-fished, so it’s a pretty depressing sight in places, but the sharks don’t seem to mind, and the coral is gradually recovering.
Forests of staghorn coral give way to fields of table coral, interspersed with alien-looking gourd sponges, some as big as oil-drums. I expect to find something fearsome when I peek inside, but they’re almost always strangely empty.
The colours are muted at this depth, but the visibility is always excellent – never less than 20m and usually more.
At Turtle Cavern, nearby, and at Hanging Garden, on the other side of the island, it’s all about the wall. Feather and broccoli coral dangling off the rock are caressed by currents so fickle it’s impossible to plan ahead. The most common signal made by divemasters here is “turn around”, and we do, frequently, zig-zagging our way down, then up, the wall.
Along the way I find myself enraptured by the tiny eco-systems within each cleft and overhang.
A triggerfish no bigger than my fingernail buzzes around a shock of red soft coral, while a pair of scorpionfish sit companionably on a ledge.
NO LESS FASCINATING are the antics of the dozens of green and hawksbill turtles that call Sipadan home. I lose count of the number of times I pass close to an overhang, only noticing its snoozing shelled resident at the very last minute.
Turtles take off and land on the reef like planes at a busy airport, almost entirely fearless around divers, perhaps as a result of the tagging programme implemented by the Borneo Marine Research Institute at the University Malaysia Sabah and various of the area’s resorts.
At one stage a green turtle pushes off from the reef at exactly the moment I’m passing overhead. I swim alongside it for a long time, close enough that I can see the mouths of the large barnacles on its head and shell waving in the current.
A couple of dives later, I see the same animal again, relaxing in an overhang, seemingly untroubled by its crustacean passengers.
One of the most thrilling moments of the trip is a visit to Turtle Cavern, a site just a short hop from the beach.
Located at around 18m, the wide-mouthed cavern is the entrance to a small cave system that harbours the remains of a large number of turtles that fell asleep there and then couldn’t find their way out in time.
I’m not allowed beyond a warning sign that bobs above the sandy-bottomed space a few metres in, but looking out into the blue from this atmospheric spot is an experience
that sends a shiver down my spine that has nothing to do with the chilly thermocline approaching from below.
My three visits to Sipadan are wonderful, but they’re also intense – starting at 8am, squeezing in four dives, arriving back at the resort exhausted in time for a quick shower before dinner – so I’m glad of the more relaxed days at Mabul and Kapalai too.
Each island’s 20 or so dive-sites is close enough to the resort that we come back between dives, hanging out at the jetty bar, taking a dip in the pool or napping in our comfortable semi-detached beach-hut.
ALL THE DIVEMASTERS ARE friendly and enthusiastic, but Scott deserves a special mention for his superb macro-spotting skills, demonstrated most impressively on a visit to a Mabul site called Panglima Reef in search of pygmy seahorses.
It’s not hard to find the gorgonian seafans that the seahorses call home, but getting close enough to find the tiny creatures themselves is a trickier business.
Finning hard against a strong drift that’s trying to carry me away along the gently sloping wall of the reef, I search and search, but come up with nothing. Scott points to a branch of the coral – still nothing.
He points more vigorously, and finally I see it: a seahorse no longer than an eyelash, perfectly camouflaged against its pink home. A moment later I’ve lost it again, and it’s only really when I see my buddy’s photos that I get a proper sense of what I’ve “seen”.
At Stingray City, another Mabul site, I experience another remarkable first: a flamboyant cuttlefish. The dive has a fairly humdrum start – it’s an overcast day so the reef is dull, with very few creatures coming out to play. I see the occasional blue-spotted ray, but they’re mostly concealed under overhangs at the foot of the reef’s sloping wall, and not putting on much of a show.
Then suddenly there’s a flurry of intriguing fish and crustaceans. First out is a fire goby, darting playfully in and out of its burrow, then a mantis shrimp, looking like a peacock against its boring sandy background. Then, the pièce de résistance, the flamboyant cuttlefish, so strange that I have trouble believing what I’m seeing.
As long as my hand, it bumbles around a cleft in the reef like a disco bumblebee. Photographs don’t do justice to the waves of black stripes coursing down its back – have a look on YouTube. It’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen under water.
The following day we head to the SeaVenture Rig, just off Mabul’s north coast and clearly visible from the Borneo Divers jetty. Built in Panama and used for the oil and gas industry in various places around the world, it was decommissioned and moved here in 1997, and is now a hotel.
The current is strong at the surface, threatening to drag me off the line to which I’m clinging as I wait for the rest of the group, the rusting underside of the rig soaring, cathedral-like, above my head.
Down at 5m there’s no current at all, allowing for an absorbing 70-minute search for all kinds of interesting macro species amid the small wrecks and piles of debris that litter the seabed between the massive concrete piles of the rig.
It takes a while to get your eye in at a muck-site like this, but once you have, there’s a huge amount to see, from grumpy-looking crocodilefish and stonefish to tiny neon flatworms and miniature yellow boxfish to a large black frogfish that’s even harder to spot than the red one at Kapalai. Nearly an hour passes before I know it.
But you barely even need to leave the Borneo Divers Resort to experience great macro diving here.
The house-reef, located off the resort’s jetty, has a coral garden at 3-10m down and a collection of small wrecks further out at around 20m, so there’s plenty of variety whatever your interests.
Most rewarding are the sunset- and night-dives I indulge in almost every day – there’s a member of the resort team on duty at the jetty in the evening, so all you have to do is put your name on the board so they know to look out for you.
Visiting the same spots again and again, I get the chance to observe the behaviour of particular creatures in a way not usually possible, including a banded pipefish, a shimmering shoal of anchovies and a Persian carpet flatworm, displaying beautifully as it swims in and out of my torch-beam.
I HEAD BACK TO SIPADAN for the final time on the last day of the trip, and it’s back to Barracuda Point for two of the four dives. The barracuda elude us again at first, but on the second visit, our persistence is amply rewarded.
We find the usual shoal of jack immediately, spending time swimming with them against the strong current before relaxing into the drift.
Then suddenly the barracuda appear – dozens of them, each up to a metre long, in dogged pursuit of the shoal.
We keep up with them for a few minutes before we’re forced to drop back into the drift yet again, thrilled by the experience but disappointed that it is over so soon.
Then, just as I’m recalibrating my expectations for the remainder of the dive, there’s one final, extraordinary surprise: a shoal of bump-headed parrotfish, grazing on the hard coral beneath us with their huge white beaks, leaving a trail of destruction the likes of which I’ve never seen.
They’re gone almost as soon as they’ve arrived, thanks to the current, but I’m with them long enough to understand why the dive-guides return to this spot again and again.
Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai may not be the easiest places to reach, and may not be the safest, but if you’re looking for pelagics, coral gardens and muck-diving all in one destination, this part of the world is pretty hard to beat.
GETTING THERE: Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia fly to Tawau, then transfer to the port town of Semporna, where boat transfers depart for Mabul or Kapalai.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Promenade Hotel, Tawau, www.promenade.com.my/tawau. Borneo Divers Mabul Resort, www.borneodivers.info
WHEN TO GO: Diving takes place all year round, with optimum visibility between March and July.
CURRENCY: Malaysian ringgit.
PRICES: Flights to and from Tawau from £570. Full-board five-day dive-packages from £600pp, including a single permit to Sipadan and transfers to/from Tawau. Dive gear rental £17.50 per day. Additional Sipadan permits £7 per day.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.sabahtourism.com, www.tourism.gov.my
HEALTH: Nearest chamber is on the naval base at Port Blair.
PRICES: Round-trip flights from Heathrow to Chennai cost about