Sipadan: Shark Teeth, Explosives, and Every Shade of Blue

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October 23rd 2010
Published: August 29th 2011
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The sun is muted by the water into gradients of baby blue while darker sapphire obscures the ocean’s depths. I might be looking out for miles without exaggeration. Big turtles and white-tip sharks, one to two meters long, swim behind a hazy blue curtain, giving perspective on distance and visibility.

I equalize my ears and sink lower, unable to take in every detail that vies for attention on the coral wall. Kaleidoscopes of fish flicker every which way. I'm in an otherworld on par with Dr. Seuss’s imagination.

This is Sipadan, for the Big Stuff. If poetry takes physical form, surely, the ocean provides one of the most prosaic experiences.

Sharp, crackling sounds travel through the water (4x the speed of sound in air). Every diver turns a different direction while trying to pinpoint the sound’s origin. Some twenty meters ahead, forty Bumphead Parrotfish congregate. They stuff their faces, damaging the coral along the way, but as another example of nature’s strange balance, the hefty fish will distribute the coral to new places once they excrete. They ram the coral and grind the smaller pieces in their mouths. Snap, crackle, pop, the feast echoes like static leftovers from an old record player run out of music.

Under spectral sunbeams, an angelic silhouette appears; a turtle flies above us. Most of the scuba divers are elegant figures themselves, moving in what seems a coordinated dance looking from one species to the next.

At Barracuda Point, a swarm of speckled silver-black fish sweep through the water. A visible current of hundreds upon hundreds of meter-long barracuda spiral in from the deep. They remain unfazed by our small size, pouring through like a metallic river, unstoppable.

(The closest photo I could find to the experience is on this website promoting greater ecolife preservation.)

Let Sleeping Sharks Lie

We coast over geometric coral to snuggle up to sleeping sharks. At one point, our dive master, Jeff, floats next to one particular whitetip that dozes, still as a statue, with its eyes open. Jeff motions me over and takes out his regulator to smile. I drift a little closer to the shark and give Jeff an OK sign. He shakes his head and waves me closer. This time, he points at his teeth and then points to the shark’s teeth. I pull in close, my head sitting directly in front of its chompers, taking in the details of every sharp tooth. Wow.

But, far more dangerous than the row of shark's teeth and in stark contrast to the whitetip's peaceful slumber is the illegal fishing. Explosives rip through the water like a Grecian god's thunderbolt splitting the ocean's floor. Sleeping sharks wake and divers look shaken as the unexpected blasts continue in unpredictable increments.

“Underwater shock waves produced by the explosion stun the fish and cause their swim bladders to rupture. This rupturing causes an abrupt loss of buoyancy; a small number of fish float to the surface, but most sink to the sea floor. The explosions indiscriminately kill large numbers of fish and other marine organisms in the vicinity and can damage or destroy the physical environment, including extensive damage to coral reefs.” (Wikipedia on blast fishing)

DM Jeff shakes his head and shrugs. Back on the boat, he explains that the waters are too expansive for thorough patrolling against the illegal blast fishing.

Legal Matters . . . Sipadan's Tug o' War

After a squabble between Malaysia and Indonesia regarding ownership of the island, Malaysia was granted ownership as recently as 2002. Only two years later, the authorities kicked out resorts to prioritize ecolife preservation. Unhappy resort owners were compensated by receiving, altogether, 120 daily dive passes. In the following years, Sipadan burgeoned back from a fragile ecosystem to the colorful, thriving ecolife that perseveres today.

The limited 120 passes stir tales of mad resort owners who collect passes but refuse to sell them (decreasing the number of available passes if the alleged story is true). Rumors spread regarding stingy owners who hold the passes hostage as status symbols rather than any moral motivation. There are also some, I hope exaggerated, tales of violence between resort owners fighting over an unequal distribution of passes and other dramas. The stories are either true or a great marketing ploy because they warn divers to book ahead for the coveted passes.

To ensure the number of divers visiting Sipadan are within the limited 120, authorities require departure from Semporna. Even if you are on Mabul (from where you can see Sipadan), you must return to the mainland, spend a night, and leave for Sipadan the next morning.

Semporna Cockroaches, a Delicacy?

Heading to Semporna during low tide, our boat catches on random drifts of trash, wood, and seaweed. Two Korean men I had met while in Mabul joke about the very real possibility of having to row back to shore. Frying away, we block the steady sunrays with orange life vests—there are only three for the nine of us.

Next to our sputtering boat, Bajou homes stand stilted above the water. Curious children poke out their heads from open doorways watching our progress. The boatman flips over the tillers and tries various blunted instruments to untangle the mess knotting the steering equipment. After a half-hour staying put, the boat sputters forward, this time crawling at a slow speed to avoid debris.

My new friends invite me to dinner and advise that I switch to another accommodation with hot water and Wi-Fi--rare amenities in many diving places--and the brief respite from dormitory style accommodation is welcome. Plus, most importantly, less mosquitoes.

Roaches reflect florescent lights as they scuttle across Semporna following promising smells. Locals regard travelers with passive acknowledgement.

Over dinner, conversation focuses on the future: long careers with job security or risky ventures with unpredictable outcomes, returning home to friends and family or becoming long-term expats in a new country, and the availability of delicious Korean food, of course.

They ask, "What about marriage? Do you plan on finding a husband and having children?"

"Well, I'll see what happens. I want to be with the right person and not just settle because it's time to get married. I suppose I'm a hopeless romantic to a degree, but on another hand, I think it's just more practical to get as close to the right person as you can."

In the past six months, I've grown more and more detached from the expected 9-5 daily grind. In response to questions regarding my future plans, I throw out the conclusion that I won't be returning to live in the States any time soon except to visit. For a while I considered moving to Taiwan, Prague or Argentina, but I have also unexpectedly fallen in love with Malaysia.

Whatever our varying outlooks, we agree that diving off this far East coast of Borneo is a humbling encounter with nature not easily forgotten. As if marking the short distance between "civilization" and nature, a cat jumps onto our table with authority, scaring us witless from our seats, and throwing us into a fit of laughter.

There are many geckos in KL, the gentlemen warn. I love geckos. There are cockroaches everywhere. I blanche at the thought. Well, there are ups and downs in any country. They give me their contact info, and in a very Korean fashion both hospitable and brotherly, offer help and networks should I decide to move to Kuala Lumpur.

When I next dine in Semporna it's on my own. The service is languid like island life and the food wanting. As I sit reading and looking around the indoor restaurant, I spot a roach on the tiled ground. As if sensing my gaze, it rushes like a targeting missile in my direction. I slide my sandals off, cross my legs on the chair, and continue reading. I don't think there is a single restaurant in Semporna that doesn't have roaches in the kitchen.

I remember thinking of the interesting juxtaposition, a port of grit, grime and creepy crawling creatures sits as a gateway to world wondrous atolls and imagination-defying beauty, hmmm.

[note: Many photos in this blog were taken by other divers because I didn't have an underwater camera yet. Credit in photo titles. Thanks to you photographers for being kind enough to share your beautiful shots!]

Additional photos below
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30th August 2011
Storm and Water Gypsies

Love, love, love this photo!!
I love looking at this photo
30th August 2011

Please purchase an underwater camera soon - would love to see your own photos of the world beneath the waves!
30th August 2011

Thanks Dave & Merry Jo!
It was fascinating to contemplate the water gypsies lives living in the water day-in day-out, not to mention through storms~
30th August 2011

Thanks Shane!
You know, right after Sipadan I fell into temptation and bought an underwater camera, haha. So, next blog will have amateur underwater photos taken by moi.

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