Excited to leave Tawau, our pick up could not have arrived soon enough. We hopped in the van and headed to the airport to pick up two more people. Slightly annoying as we definitely would have stayed an extra day in KK instead of in Tawau if we new that was an option. Oh, well. The drive took a little over an hour. The vast landscape of palm oil tree plantations was a very depressing.
[PSA: Don’t use palm oil aka vegetable oil!!! So many animal and plant species are in danger due to habitat loss from deforestation attributed to encroaching palm oil plantations. Also, its so bad for your health. Okay, rant over.]
Semporna is the jumping off point for our adventure to Sipadan. As we pulled into the port, I immediately regretted not staying there instead of Tawau. Maybe it was the sighting of a Starbucks. Semporna looked clean. The buildings were freshly painted. There was still trash everywhere but it appeared seemingly better. I would later be proven so, so wrong.
We hoped in our boat and started our journey to the rig. Our diving adventure in Sipadan was becoming a reality! After so much wasted time in Kota Kinabalu I was pumped to finally be heading out to do something but even more excited that that something was diving in Sipadan! I didn’t even know this place existed three weeks ago and now it was a bucket list place to visit. My new Spanish friend, Anna, was so excited about diving and even more excited about diving in Sipadan that her enthusiasm was contagious. Before I even realized it, I too needed to dive in this place. And that is how we ended up diving for three days in one of the top diving sights in the world.
After researching all the places, and there are a lot of dive operators to choose from, we landed on Seaventures. It was reputable, not the cheapest (cheap dive operators make me nervous) and most importantly, they had space on short notice. Their accommodation is like no other. It is a decommissioned, Panamanian oil rig that has been repurposed as an accommodation for divers. In my mind, I was picturing us out in the middle of the ocean. Alone in the wild on a rogue oil rig. I was trying to hide my apprehension, but it was apparently palpable. Although, thankfully, Todd didn’t tell me that part until later. In reality, the rig was less than 400m from Mabul island and a quick 20min boat ride to the Sipadan island.
Let’s talk about this rig. It is massive! As we pull up, its incredible size came into view. A platform is lowered three stories from the main floor to the water. An open-air, industrial elevator if you will. As we rise, we are greeted at the top by the entire staff. It was cheesy, but that type of customer service always makes my former hospitality-service self smile. The first floor is equipped for dive preparation and dining. The 2nd floor has a game room with both a ping-pong table and a pool table. The weight room while functionable consists of a rusty bar bell, bench and a dumb bell or two. I immediately eyed it with enthusiasm though: convinced I would have the energy to use it while on board. The 3rd and 4th floors were for accommodation as well as a sun deck. The deck included recliners for sun bathing and hammocks for chilling. And our room was small but considerably larger than anticipated. Tourism is still ramping up in this part of the world. Although the rig can accommodate up to 60ppl, we topped out at 12ppl over our four days there. This made for immediate camaraderie among the group.
Helmi, our dive instructor, gave us the run down of what to expect over the next couple days. We rented the necessary gear, aka everything, and placed it in our designated bins, 401A for me. Also our room number which was convenient.
After lunch we were to do an exploratory dive off the rig. This made me happy. A chance to ease into diving in a safe space vs in the middle of the ocean with strangers. Which to be honest, as I discovered in Fakarava, the latter part stresses me out. The exploratory dive was a nice way to ease into the whole thing and I was here for that. Real talk, I am still on the fence about diving. Yes, I went through the motions in Tahiti to obtain my open water but I wasn’t convinced that this was a thing I actually liked let alone was ready to embrace. Was this girl from landlocked Missouri really a diver? I didn’t fit the bill and hadn’t fully committed to diving as part of me, as part of my story. Not sure if that makes sense, but it didn’t/doesn’t feel natural yet which is uncomfortable and scary. It has been a long time since I have done anything that made me feel this uncomfortable. Yet, I want to keep going. Little did I know that Sipadan would give me wings.
So, quick sidebar… Sipadan is a protected park so permits are limited to ‘x’ amount per day. When we booked our 3 night/4 day dive trip, we were guaranteed one day (3 dives/day) at Sipadan. We were excited for this one day opportunity to dive in such a coveted location. With so few people on the boat, we ended up diving for 3 days, 3 dives a day in Sipadan, which is unheard of!
I was feeling confidant after our exploratory dive under the rig. Helmi, our instructor for our time with Seaventures, reminded me so much of Thibault, my dive instructor in Tahiti. He was calm and gentle. He didn’t rush me and during our dive he checked in constantly to make sure I was okay. Some people have a calming effect just with their mere presence and both Helmi and Thibault hold that quality. Helmi’s disposition put me at ease. I had also been working on visualizing techniques to help me work through my anxiety around diving. I need to picture myself diving, as a diver, instead of as a poser (who’s thoughts always end up in some type of tragic emergency). Between the successful exploratory dive, a great instructor, and my building confidence, I was ready to tackle 3 dives a day.
And I not only tackled diving in Sipadan, I f*cking loved it! (Sorry for the language, mom) Yes, there were moments of ‘oh, sh*t,’ but they didn’t end in panic and that unto itself was a success. Todd and I talked before the first dive and decided on a check in system. If I felt panicked or anything at all, I could reach for him and he would let me dive next to him with my hand on his arm. My hand on his arm was my calm under water, my calm in the storm. And it worked. I needed him at points and he was there to provide me that tranquilo feeling.
Now for the fun part, Oh, Sipadan, the show you provided. This mushroom shaped island has reef walls for days, and then drops 600ft into the sea. Our instructors mentioned multiple times, don’t drop anything, there is no retrieving it. They also reviewed the dive protocol for getting separated from your buddy and your group – Look around for one minute. If you do not see anyone, stay calm and surface. My first thought was, 'hell, no.' If Todd loses me or I lose him and have to surface, calm is not going to be my state of mind. That said, protocol review was welcome.
Our first dive was at Barracuda Point. The prized dive sight of Sipadan. It is also one full of strong currents and all the tourists. As you descend, it is a game of dodge the coral and dodge the other divers. The current is incredibly strong so while you are dodging all the things, you are being pushed by the current. As you focus on all these things, there they are. The aptly name Barracuda Point namesake comes into few. Not one or two, but hundreds of barracuda. The circling school is massive. The current is still pushing you along so the goal is to hover and oh, so subtly grab onto a rock for stability. This part always stresses me out. Am I grabbing the right thing, why is water entering my mask, where is Todd, and oh, yea, those barracudas are so amazing.
Not sure I would ever want anyone to hear my inner diving dialog. It is manic to say the least. ‘Oh, Nemo, you so cute. Oh, look at that coral. F*ck I am getting pushed, am I going to get pushed out to the deep see, Oh, hi Todd, yes, yes, I am okay (give ok sign, but am I?), oh my god, how much air do I have left (check bars), how long have we been under water (4min, f*ck we have another 45min), oh, pretty fish, inner swoon, WOW, what is that?, oh, my foot itches, hmm, I need to look up this recipe when we get back, wonder what my family is up to today, yes, Helmi, I am ok (shows ok sign), oh, my god, my watch is beeping, am I going to get the bends?, no, ok, instructor says its okay, holy shit, a shark, man they are so beautiful, they kind of look drunk when they swim, ugh, this current, wait, what is that, oh, someone is below me, that’s the feel of their bubbles on my leg, oh, another nemo aka clown fish, is that a puffer fish? so cool, hmm, what is that sign Helmi is giving me?, I have to pee….’
For three days, three dives a day we dove Sipadan, North Point, Barracuda Point, Hanging Garden, Southpoint, and Drop Off Wall. Watching little clown fish play like school children in the coral. Games of hide and seek ensued. The coral was beautiful. Some coral danced in the current while others pulsated in and out like they were breathing. Coral fans held strong yet their delicateness looked so fragile. We had a marine biologist in our group which was an amazing asset. Apparently the brown coral is healthy and the beautiful green and purple is a sign of damaged or dying coral. That made me feel better after we passed a huge group of brown coral which I thought was dead.
Every fish or most of the common fish anyway, have hand signs so the dive master can communicate with you underwater. Well, some are entertaining and self explanatory. Shark, yes, it is obviously a hand to the head like a fin. Leaf fish, a vertically placed dancing hand upon the flat palm of another hand. Barracuda, one outstretched arm as your other hand moves up the arm tapping it as it goes. The bump head or Napoleon depending on where in the world you are is an easy one. A simple fist to the forward aka ‘bump’ head. He, he, he. It’s all fascinating. Wish I actually understood half the things that were signaled to me. If in doubt, a dive instructor will simply point at you and then in the direction of a fish.
Hanging Garden may have been my favorite. The current was calm. It pushed you oh, so gently along the reef wall or ‘hanging garden.’ The scene unfolding before you like a movie. And the turtles, so many turtles (enter a swooning heart.) They tuck themselves into coral shelves. You’ll see them snuggled up and resting. It is incredible. When we were lucky, they would tire of the attention and swim from their shelf as we passed. Their immense size paired with their agile movement in the water doesn’t match up. They should sink to the bottom. Instead they glide gracefully through the water. Majestic in their entirety. Simply beautiful and breathtaking.
Those are the moments I forget myself in the water. The moments that light my fire for this new found skill. Yes, the dialog may continue in my mind, it happens above water as well, so it is what it is, but maybe, just maybe, I am a diver after all. I think this diving thing is taking hold.