The rainbows are spectacular and frequent (after any rainfall).
At the bus station, the toilets are closed, guarded by men with stern stares who slowly shake their heads at anybody trying to squeeze by. I ask for the nearest alternative and am told the entire city of Kinabalu has “run out of water.” In my hostel, we were asked to flush sparingly, but I didn’t realize the problem was this extreme.
The green toilet isn’t an option, and I can’t really hide behind a building because the place is packed. So, I hold my bladder and wonder how long till I let go of my Western sensibilities. I get lucky on the bus ride as it makes a pit stop. “Pit stop” might bring to mind an F1 stop where the vehicle refuels and receives repairs, or the alternate reference of rehydrating oneself with water. All I think of is a pit in the earth. And, these spots pretty much match the description with unlighted squat toilets, loose doors, and no toilet paper or hose. Hose?
The Malaysian Toilet
Any research on Malaysia advises: bring extra toilet paper because many toilets will not provide them
. Taking this further, a hose hangs on the wall next to the
toilet (squatter or seater), which you use to clean yourself. The intrepid traveler will adapt, but if you’re not quite ready to go the distance, remember extra toilet paper
The 8-hour night bus from Kota Kinabalu (Mt Kinabalu: Mud in the Washing Machine, Ice in the Shower
) arrives in Semporna at four in the morning. A few days have passed since climbing Mt. Kinabalu, but my legs are like thick wooden planks that refuse to bend. I walk around a bit, but the whole city’s dead asleep. Nothing open, nobody in sight, and my body refuses any further step, so I resign myself to sleep on a bench with my bags tucked under me.
When I wake up, I squint my eyes to see a fellow American, Scott from Washington State, who asks, “Have a good nap?” I laugh back, feeling oily and gross from lack of shower (remember, Kinabalu was low on water!) and after some small talk, we wait for the metal-linked gate to open. Soon, Swedish Mattias with a cool two-braided beard hanging off his chin and chatterbox Mike from Georgia (also USA) join us in waiting.
The Celebes Sea is speckled with stilted houses and green islands that look like
gigantic broccoli heads sprouting out of the water. And when we arrive at Mabul Backpackers
, we receive a warm welcome.
Nina, Tomo, Jamie, and Fédé are knowledgeable DMs in the water with hilarious commentary outside. Take the guy with half a lung who wanted Open Water certification. “Um, yes, that’s contraindicated,” Nina insists in her re-telling of the story, to which the guy still seemed dumbfounded. Or, the narcoleptic who confessed to Jamie right as they were about to dive into the water, "By the way, I'm narcoleptic." Of course, it’s not all funny, some of it’s downright heartbreaking.
Diving and Epilepsy
One circumstance that riles up much debate is epilepsy. PADI’s rule is that a person can dive if they have a doctor’s writ approval and no episode within the past 5 years. The doctor’s approval is easy to obtain. All you need is a local doctor who doesn’t understand or care. The note is more to protect the business if somebody is hurt after lying about their medical condition.
The danger in one paralyzing episode or incapacitated breath is that it can lead to decompression sickness, or one can receive injury from hitting an obstacle,
or put one’s buddy in danger when they are in need. One heated forum on the subject countered that the majority of divers are older males prone to heart problems, which are equally debilitating but less likely to be confronted in a dive shop prior to diving.
As one DM put it, “I know it’s not my fault if somebody doesn’t disclose the fact that they have epilepsy or half a lung or even half a brain, but I don’t want to witness somebody dying because they feel putting their life at risk is a reasonable exchange for a dive. I think it’s irresponsible and selfish to put that on a dive master or dive buddy.”
The DMs hold an endearing relationship with some of the locals like Mee, nicknamed “Mini-Mee” for her petite size, but whose smile is huge and contagious. She may be tiny, but works hard to keep everything moving smoothly.
And there are frustrations, too—identical on every island
I’ve visited—, such as redundant meals, stolen sandals and high turnover in visitors, which means “goodbye” almost every day. These aspects are often skimmed over in island life’s glorification.
booked with Scuba Junkie because they came highly recommended, but they couldn’t match my schedule. So, a curious group of us treks over to see what the big deal is. Who do I run into, but Annabelle (whom I last met in Kinabalu (Mt Kinabalu: Mud in the Washing Machine, Ice in the Shower
). She’s finishing her Open Water and has nothing but positive things to say about Scuba Junkie and her DM. I, of course, tell her about Mabul Backpackers—not as well-known, but with its backpackers appeal, more calm atmosphere, and great crew--soon to be a big contender as time passes.
Muck Diving in Mabul
The turquoise water is translucent with colorful starfish in blue, purple and white. You can literally step off the patio ladder into the water and begin snorkeling in less than 15 seconds from your room!
Children decorate the island. They hang from ladders, walls, some bob up and down in half-submerged boats. Pockets of trash dumped into the sea by locals returns to shore, yet it doesn’t spoil the beauty, and the DMs at Mabul Backpackers are educating children about picking up the trash.
Though the negative geological effects are obvious, there is also the strange consequence of rare creatures
Grass or Pipefish?
Do you see it's little nose?
emerging from the litter, which ironically accounts for the spectacular muck diving.
We’re shown purple, green, and white leaf fish that seesaw like autumn leaves under a soft wind. Similar to a scorpion fish, their eyes are reflective, looking more like chiseled crystal than seeing apparatus.
Nina spots a rare ornate ghost pipefish camouflaged in the sea grass growing on the artificial reef. We visit Tomo’s Frogfish, and spot countless nudibranch decorating the Lobster Wall.
Over at Sea Ventures, we see crocodile fish camouflaged, but with their bulbous eyes poking strange shapes above the sand. You’ll notice the toilet that’s a part of the artificial reef, and yes, the fish thrive. It’s like seeing random remnants of mankind, and we’re aliens with our masks and tanks, visitors from the future trying to make sense of what’s been left behind.
All of us sympathize with Mattias who forgot his diving permit in KL. Nothing’s a greater bummer after traveling so far. Still, he swims so deep and stays underwater so long, that occasionally we think there’s an extra diver in our group rather than a snorkeler. There’s no doubt that he’ll return with his permit next time
Our guides prep us for the night dive by asking, “Are you ready for the Boom Boom Jiggie Jiggie?” Under dimmed flashlights (so as not to hurt their vulnerable eyes), we watch the mating ritual of rainbow striped mandarin fish trailing one another and finally coupling together in a vertical rise then drifting apart once the deed’s done. It feels perverse to say that it’s a fascinating ritual to witness, but it is!
The night teems with life: a collasal turtle with a nasty, old crevice on its shell, so misleading that we mistake it for terrain until Nina spots a large back leg, and cuttlefish roll their front tentacles, still awake in the black water.
Forgive some of the amateur, fogged photos. This was my first try. You don’t want to be the dunce making everyone wince when you sacrifice wildlife for a photo.
Creatures are swept up by billowing clouds of sand when a diver carelessly sweeps their fins when chasing another photograph. Or the local seahorse that is “always” there, disappears after professional photographers have taken advantage of it like an overworked model in a photo shoot. It’s
easy to spot if a photographer prioritizes photos or sea life.
Knowledgeable DMs will let you know when flash is okay and when to turn it off, or perhaps when to skip a photo altogether, no matter how much you’re fingers itching to take the shot. You have to think, if the creatures die from stress and overexposure, there won’t be many photos to take down the line…
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