Sipadan Island - Being there, Part 2

by B. N. Sullivan

Pulau SipadanYesterday, I began to tell about what it was like to stay at Sipadan Island in 1993. These days, staying on Sipadan Island is not allowed. Following a 2004 decision by the Malaysian government, lodging facilities on the island were closed down in an effort to preserve Sipadan's fragile ecosystem. Divers can still visit the dramatic walls and lush reefs of Sipadan on day trips, but they must stay elsewhere. In 1993, however, there still were a few facilities on the little island where visiting divers and sport fishermen were accommodated. Those 'resorts' were only for the hardier breed of traveler, however.

We stayed at an establishment called the Pulau Sipadan Resort (PSR), which could accommodate about 25 to 30 guests at a time. The place was well run -- clean and organized, with a friendly and competent staff who did an amazingly good job, given what they had to work with.

The accommodations on Sipadan were adequate, but spare. As I mentioned yesterday, the island was (and is still) without electricity and other utilities. Each of the lodging facilities had its own generator to produce electricity for its own use.

All supplies used on the island -- fuel for the boats and generators, foods, beverages, cleaning supplies, and so on -- had to be imported by boat from mainland Borneo. Potable water was regularly delivered to the island this way as well, arriving in large plastic bladders. Potable water was a precious commodity on the island, and it was carefully rationed.

Lodging consisted of small thatch-roofed huts, with virtually no amenities, save for beds and some plain wooden shelves. The huts had no running water -- much less bathrooms.

Aside from the resorts, there have been no permanent human settlements on the island, in part because there is no reliable source of fresh water on Pulau Sipadan. When the resorts were established a system was devised to tap into a brackish water source in the island's interior. That water was unsuitable for drinking or cooking, but good enough for bathing and cleaning.

SipadanBathing on Sipadan entailed a ritual that became a part of the adventure of the place. PSR had a single bath house for everyone to use. It was an oblong structure made of concrete blocks. Inside, a row of stalls lined each side, and at the end of the corridor between the rows of stalls were a few sinks. The toilet stalls were on one side of the building, and on the opposite side were the shower stalls. As best we can recall, there were six toilet stalls, and six shower stalls. Nothing too unusual so far.

The bathing ritual began outside the bath house where prospective bathers lined up at designated hours, carrying their towels, robes, soap, and shampoo. Alongside the path leading to the bath house was a stack of plastic pails. Each bather was instructed to pick up a pail.

Near the door to the bath house, a few PSR staff manned a charcoal fire over which a very large cast iron kettle was suspended. In the kettle, fresh water simmered, warmed by the charcoal fire. Just before entering the bath house, each bather held out his or her pail, and the staff used a large metal dipper to fill the pail with warm, fresh water.

Each of the shower stalls had a pipe -- no shower head -- that emitted lukewarm brackish water. We soaped up and washed with the brackish water, and then poured the fresh water from the plastic pails over ourselves to rinse.

SipadanBy the way, we were never alone in the shower stalls: several pairs of eyes always watched us as we bathed. The eyes belonged to creatures from the island's dense jungle behind the bath house. The creatures -- mostly large Monitor Lizards, and the occasional Coconut Crab -- liked to hang out in the bath house.

The lizards, which were between one and two feet long with a hefty girth, liked to walk along the tops of the partitions between the stalls, and from that vantage point, they 'monitored' the bathers. This was a bit unsettling at first, but it soon became apparent that they only wanted to watch, and by day three, we just ignored them.

The big crabs were more difficult to ignore. If they felt challenged, they would rear up, holding out their rather large pincers in a threat display. Those pincers are capable of cracking open coconuts -- hence the name 'Coconut Crab' -- so when one appeared in a shower stall where we were standing naked, we were inclined to behave in a way we hoped the crab would not perceive as unfriendly.

Of all the aspects of the Sipadan bathing ritual, though, the thing that became legend among the guests was that big iron kettle of water simmering over the fire outside the bath house door. The daily allotment of warm, fresh rinse water was welcome, of course, but that big pot also evoked cartoon-inspired images of cannibal tribes. After all, this was Borneo. We all joked that, should we see sliced carrots and onions floating in that kettle one day, we would know we were about to become soup!

Next, for Wordless Wednesday, we will post a photo of one of Sipadan's reef creatures. After that, we have a few more stories to tell about Pulau Sipadan.

Sipadan Island - Being there, Part 1

by B. N. Sullivan

Sipadan IslandIn the previous two posts, we told the story of our first trip to Sipadan Island, also known as Pulau Sipadan, a remote oceanic island off the coast of Borneo. It was a long and complicated journey, and we arrived on the little island in a dazed and disheveled state.

Because of its physical remoteness, one had to exert considerable effort just to get there: Pulau Sipadan is not on the way to or from anywhere else. As someone we know described it, "Sipadan is not exactly at the end of the Earth, but you can see it from there."

The island is a nature preserve, and a nesting ground for sea turtles. At the time we first went there (1993), the island had three resorts (I use the term loosely) catering primarily to divers and sport fishermen. Then, in 2004, the Malaysian government ordered the operators of tourist facilities on Pulau Sipadan to vacate the island. As a result, it is no longer possible to stay on Pulau Sipadan, although several companies still run boat trips to the island so that divers can still visit Sipadan's underwater wonders.

Chalet at Pulau Sipadan ResortPulau Sipadan is remote by its physical location, and it also is figuratively remote from the mainstream of human civilization by several orders of magnitude. Although we concluded that it definitely was a worthwhile thing to do, staying there entailed quite a few improvisations.

Those improvisations began with the accommodations on Pulau Sipadan. The operators of the visitor facilities on the island called them 'resorts' but they really were more like semi-permanent camps. Guests were lodged in 'chalets' that actually were little huts on stilts, with thatched roofs. The one in the second photo on this page was where we slept during our ten days on Pulau Sipadan.

The huts each had two beds -- mattresses on metal frames. The beds did have linens, and each hut had one wooden shelf, but there were no other furnishings. The huts were wired for electricity, sort of. Each had one electric light in the form of a bare light bulb suspended from the center of the roof on a wire. That was it. There was no running water in the huts, so there were no bathrooms -- not even a sink or a tap. (More on this a bit later.)

Borneo Divers facility at Pulau SipadanPulau Sipadan is quite distant from mainland Borneo, and there are no underwater cables between the two. When we stayed there, the island had no regular telephone or electric service. Each facility on the island generated its own electricity, and a radio telephone -- also run on a portable generator -- was the primary means of communication with the rest of the world.

Electricity from the generators ran everything on the island during the day. Fuel for the generators had to be imported by sea, so it was expensive. Shortly after sunset, the generators were switched off as a conservation measure. As a result, life on the island matched the rising and setting of the sun. We rose with the first rays of light, and, since there was no light source after sunset, save for our flashlights, everyone retired early.

Next - more details about daily life for visitors to Pulau Sipadan, including the most 'interesting' bathing facilities we have ever encountered.

WW #39 - Hawksbill Turtle at Pulau Sipadan, Malaysia

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Sipadan Island - Getting there, Part 2

by B. N. Sullivan

This is Part 2 of a story I began to tell yesterday -- the story of our first journey to Pulau Sipadan, a tiny island off the coast of Borneo. The story so far: we flew first to Kuala Lumpur, then to Kota Kinabalu, and then to Tawau. From Tawau we traveled by car up the coast to Semporna. This episode picks up at Semporna, where we began the final leg of our very long journey.

SempornaBy prearrangement with the folks who managed the place where we would stay on Sipadan, a smallish motorboat was dispatched to ferry us to the little island. Since our flight to Tawau had arrived late, we had missed the mini-bus to Semporna. We traveled to Semporna by taxi instead, and we were running a bit late, so we were relieved to find the boat waiting for us at the fishing pier in Semporna when we arrived there.

Our friends who had preceded us on this journey had warned us about this final stage. They told us that the trip would be made in an open boat that went very fast and created a lot of spray. They said we should be prepared to get wet during the boat ride, and advised us to dress accordingly. They were not kidding!

Our boatman loaded all of our things into the stern of the little vessel, and indicated that we should sit on some bench seats beneath a tarpaulin sunshade. We cast off from the pier, and gently motored through the harbor. Near the outer edge of the harbor, we passed by numerous clusters of houses built on stilts over the water, and then by a few tiny islets. As soon as we got to the open water, the boatman increased speed. A lot!

Once we left Semporna and the islets behind, there were no more landmarks at all -- nothing but the glistening surface of the Celebes Sea in every direction. Later we discussed how we both felt a bit leery at that point, heading straight out to sea at a high rate of speed in a small open boat, hoping against hope that the boat driver actually knew how to find Sipadan. At the time, though, it was impossible to discuss this or anything else. The noise from the boat's motors was very loud, and we were traveling so fast across the water that we couldn't even turn toward each other for fear of having our sunglasses blown right off our faces. All we could do was hold on tightly to the edge of our seats, and, squinting against the bright sunlight reflected from the sea surface, pray that we would eventually make it to Sipadan.

Sipadan IslandAbout an hour after we left Semporna, the boat driver slowed a smidgen, and pointed toward the horizon. A tiny tropical island appeared before us. From a distance, it looked just like Gilligan's Island. As we glided up to a sandy beach, the boat's engines were cut and a few men ran down to the shoreline to catch the mooring line. We were instructed to hop out -- which we did, into thigh-deep water -- and several staff from Pulau Sipadan Resort, where we were staying, waded out to fetch our belongings.

Once ashore we glanced around quickly and noticed a number of people sitting on a sort of deck, chuckling and grinning at us. It turned out that the arrival of new guests was one of the most amusing events of the day at Sipadan.

Pulau Sipadan ResortOn each of the following ten days that we spent on the little island, we would join the group on the deck to watch the latest arrivals to Sipadan. They all looked like we did when we arrived: disoriented, wilted from the heat, totally drenched, wearing sunglasses nearly opaque with sea spray, hair frozen by salt in whatever way the wind had blown it during the boat ride. Everyone, it seemed, arrived at Sipadan somewhat dazed and looking a wreck.

Here's a link to a map of Sabah state on Borneo. If you like, you can use it to retrace our journey from Kota Kinabalu, to Tawau, to Semporna, to Pulau Sipadan.

Next (after Wordless Wednesday) - what it was like to stay on Sipadan Island in 1993.

Sipadan Island - Getting there, Part 1

by B. N. Sullivan

Often we are asked which is our favorite place to dive. While it is difficult to choose even one general area, let alone just one dive site, Sipadan Island certainly would be a top contender for "diver heaven."

Pulau Sipadan, MalaysiaWe first learned about Pulau Sipadan, as it is called there, by asking that very question of someone else. In 1992, while we were on a Caribbean dive trip, we met and befriended a married couple who both were marine biologists and underwater photographers. They had traveled all over the world to dive, for recreation as well as for their work. Naturally, we asked them which place was their favorite. One of the places at the top of their list was Sipadan.

Listening to our new friends' vivid descriptions of Sipadan's underwater world, we decided we had to see this place for ourselves. They had mentioned that Sipadan was in a remote location, and told us that just getting there was an adventure. Once we set about to plan our first trip there, we realized that they were not kidding about the remoteness -- nor about the adventure of the journey.

Pulau Sipadan (pictured above) is an oceanic island in the Celebes Sea. It is located off the coast of Sabah State, on the Malaysian side of Borneo. Getting there took several days.

First, we flew to Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur -- a major trip in itself. We stayed there overnight, and then flew to Borneo, landing at Kota Kinabalu, a coastal city in Sabah state, situated on the South China Sea. We changed planes in Kota Kinabalu for our connecting flight to the port city of Tawau, on the opposite coast of Borneo.

The flight to Tawau was the final air leg of the journey to Sipadan, but Tawau was just a waypoint in the journey, not our destination. We still had an overland leg and a boat ride ahead of us.

We were supposed to travel next by mini-bus from Tawau to Semporna, a smaller fishing port up the coast. That was the plan, but as luck would have it, our flight arrived late in Tawau, and by the time we cleared through the airport, the mini-bus had left without us. We took a taxi into the center of town to find some lunch while we figured out what to do.

Our taxi driver spoke no English, but he understood our hand signals indicating that we wanted to find a place to eat. He dropped us at a small hotel that appeared to cater to local business travelers. They had a curry buffet for lunch, and that was welcome, since it excused us from having to choose items from a menu we couldn't understand.

SempornaBellies full of fish curry, fresh fruit, and tea, we set off for a nearby square where we had seen a rank of parked taxis. The taxi drivers eyed us warily as we approached. We must have looked a sight -- travel-weary Westerners hauling what must have seemed an inordinate amount of luggage. In truth, we took very few clothes with us on that trip, but we had several cases full of dive gear and camera equipment.

While I parked myself at the curb with all of the luggage, Jerry sought out a driver who would be willing to ferry us up the coast to Semporna. After much sign language and pointing at maps, Jerry struck a deal with the driver of a reasonably intact Toyota, and off we went. After about an hour's drive on a road that passed through vast palm oil plantations, we arrived at Semporna. (That's Semporna in the second photo.)

Now we were about to embark on the final leg of the journey, which I'll tell about in the next post. Meanwhile, here's a link to a map of Sabah state on Borneo. If you are interested, you can use it to trace our journey from Kota Kinabalu, to Tawau, to Semporna, to Pulau Sipadan.

The Cave Where Turtles Die

by B. N. Sullivan

Back in the early 1980s, the famous ocean explorer Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau and his team made their first visit to Sipadan Island, off the coast of Borneo. They made a film about Sipadan, and one of the highlights in that film was an eerie cave in which they found many bones and skeletons of sea turtles. They had never before seen such a sight, and they were puzzled by it. At the time, they theorized that perhaps old sea turtles just went there to die.

Sipadan Turtle CaveAbout a decade after Cousteau's first visit to Sipadan, we went there to dive. We had heard about the legendary turtle cave, and it was one of the things at Sipadan that we wanted to see for ourselves. Since it's a potentially dangerous dive, the Sipadan Turtle Cave is restricted to experienced divers who have had appropriate training, and it is essential to go with a guide who knows the terrain inside the cave. Fortunately, we were able to make arrangements to dive the Sipadan Turtle Cave with a veteran guide who knew the cave well.

As underwater caves go, this one is not particularly deep. The entrance to the cave is in the side of a limestone wall that begins a few meters below the surface and plunges straight down to a depth of about 600 meters (about 2,000 ft.). The mouth of the cave, found at a depth of only 20 meters or so (about 65 ft.), is small and partly disguised by large soft corals.

Just inside the cave's narrow mouth is a fairly roomy chamber, where we paused to let our eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Once we passed beyond this first chamber there was no ambient light at all, so of course the three of us -- the guide, Jerry, and I -- carried multiple lights with us on this dive.

What makes the dive tricky is the cave's interior terrain - an intricate maze of chambers connected by narrow tunnels. The tunnels are not straight: they curve this way and that -- not just left and right, but also up and down, as if the whole works had been built as a bed for a roller coaster.

The bottom of the entire cave system was covered in fine, silty sand, so we had to be extremely careful to stir it up as little as possible as we went along. Once fine sand gets stirred in small spaces like that, visibility is quickly reduced to zero.

Sipadan Turtle CaveWe saw and photographed the famous turtle skeletons, which we came across in several of the cave's chambers. Some were no more than disorderly piles of bones, like the first photo on this page. Others were more complete skeletons, with half-disintegrated carapaces, and goofy looking turtle skulls, like the second photo. [Click on any of the photos to enlarge.]

While Cousteau and his group conjectured that old or sick turtles may have gone there intentionally to die, our guide told us that Cousteau's original notion had been replaced more recently by a more prosaic explanation: Turtles occasionally wander into the cave system, perhaps to rest, or to hide from a predator, or maybe just out of curiosity. Then they become lost in the dark, disorienting interior of the cave. When they need to surface for a breath of air, they can't find their way out, so they drown. This explanation, while not as romantic as Cousteau's, made sense to us.

Sipadan Turtle CaveTurtles are not the only air breathing animals to have drowned in that cave. In one of the cave's chambers our guide used his light to direct our attention to a rocky ledge. There was the complete skeleton of an unlucky dolphin, which had shared the fate of the hapless turtles.

Diving in the Sipadan Turtle Cave was one of the highlights of our time at that remarkable little island in the Celebes Sea. We recently unearthed a cache of photos from our first trip there -- not just underwater photos, but some taken on the journey there, and on the island. For the next several posts, we will share some of those photos, and the tales that go with them. Stay tuned.

On a collision course with critters in the sea

by B. N. Sullivan

This post was inspired by a comment on our Rush Hour On the Reef photo in which Chris asked, "It's probably a fairly silly question, but do you ever get run into by fish?" The short answer is, "No, not really." But we have had some very close calls.

Little fish, like the fast-swimming Fuslier Fish we showed you recently, often approach in a large school, and at a high rate of speed, but they manage to steer en masse around obstacles -- including divers -- by making high-speed turns in unison, or simply by splitting the school for a moment, with half the fish passing on each side of the diver. Once past the obstacle, the fish reunite into one school again and continue on their way.

Other kinds of small fish that form dense schools do more hovering than swimming around. Sometimes a diver will encounter a dense school of Sweepers or Glassfish hovering in an underwater canyon, or even inside a shipwreck or a cavelet. As the diver (or a large fish) swims toward the apparent wall of little silvery fish, they may scatter. More often, though, the school simply parts like two halves of a stage curtain to allow the bigger swimmer to pass through, then closes again afterward. It can be an amazing sight, and an almost dream-like experience.

In sum, smaller fish usually get out of the way of larger fish and divers, one way or another. Now let's talk about larger fish -- much larger fish.

Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus)Over the years, we have noted that the larger the animal, the more likely it will notice divers and even come close to have a look. On occasion they come very, very close.

Consider the photo at right: that's a Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus). I first saw this particular shark while it was about 75 feet (23 meters) in front of me. It was coming toward me at a leisurely pace, so I settled into position and aimed my camera, hoping it would come close enough for a good photo.

Through the viewfinder I watched it come closer and closer, heading straight at me now. It had spotted me, for sure.

About two seconds before I snapped the shutter for this shot I thought I might have to duck out of the way, because the shark had now picked up speed a bit and I feared it might bump into me, head on. I knew it had seen me, so it was starting to feel like a game of chicken! Then at the last moment, the shark made a sharp right turn directly in front of me and swam off (as if that had always been what it had intended to do!), avoiding a collision.

This was neither the first nor the last time that one of the larger species on the reef had intentionally come right up to one or both of us to look us over, and made a very close pass. In fact, sharks and barracudas often do this. So do large groupers, wrasses, jacks, and every kind of marine mammal we've ever been with in the water, including dolphins and whales. (Long-time readers of The Right Blue will recall our tale of close encounters with humpback whales.) But none of these cases ended in a collision, either.

On the other hand, we've had, or witnessed, quite a number of very close calls -- near-collisions with big critters in the sea. Usually this happens when two critters, or rather a critter and a diver, round a corner or swim over a rise at the same time from opposite directions, unaware that the other is approaching until they nearly collide.

Another scenario for close scrapes occurs when a diver inadvertently startles an animal, and the animal reflexively attempts to escape the scene. Once, while diving with a good friend and a visiting diver, we took the visitor to a place where we knew Whitetip Reef Sharks went to rest. The spot was a sheltered cavelet in the face of an underwater cliff. We approached carefully from below the cavelet and quietly positioned ourselves so that we could peek inside. My friend shined his light onto the ceiling of the cavelet, so that the light reflected down just enough for us to see two sharks 'sleeping' inside. The visitor, wanting to get a better look, shined his light straight into the cave, right into the face of one of the sharks. The shark startled and shot out of the cavelet like a missile, grazing my friend's head on the way, and knocking off his dive mask in the process.

On another occasion, Jerry and I passed below a ledge where drowsy sharks sometimes lolled. I was in the lead, with Jerry following just a meter or two behind me. As best as we can reconstruct what happened, we think my exhaled air bubbles must have passed by a shark on that ledge and disturbed it. It was another 'missile launch' situation, but this time the shark swam between Jerry and me, and as it did, it passed right in front of Jerry's face. Reflexively, Jerry's arms shot forward and he shoved the shark. This shocked the poor shark even more, and it sort of jack-knifed sideways. By this time I had turned around, and now the shark went berserk, probably thinking we were trying to corral it. It swam around frantically in a very tight circle for two or three revolutions (like a puppy chasing its tail) before it saw its opening and catapulted itself from between us and went careening down the reef. We stared after it until we could no longer see it, our hearts pounding from the unexpected excitement on an otherwise tranquil and leisurely dive.

Here's one more photo from a near-collision we had with a large stingray. From a technical point of view, it's a lousy shot, but I'm posting it anyway because it has such an interesting story.

We were on a deep sandslope, where I was shooting macro photos of small creatures that inhabited the nooks and crannies of a large, irregular rock. We were both crouched over the rock, engrossed in the task. Jerry looked up briefly, just in time to see an Amberjack swimming up the slope, heading right toward us. Jerry nudged me and pointed toward the Amberjack. I turned my head to look, and noticed that there was another, darker creature moving along the sand, beneath the Amberjack. In one of those 'lightbulb' moments of comprehension, we instantly recognized that we were witnessing a rare sight: a large deep-dwelling stingray species hardly ever seen by divers. Even though my camera was set up for macro, I whirled around and snapped this one shot, just as the Amberjack veered away, and the stingray sort of skidded to a stop, touching me, but just barely.

What looks like snow in the photo is light from my camera's strobe, reflected on sand particles that the stingray and I had stirred up at that moment. An instant later the big stingray did an urgent about face, stirring up a huge cloud of sand particles as it quickly retreated back to the depths.

In case you are wondering about the stingray, it looked to be about 1 to 1.5 meters across. It is either a Hawaiian Stingray (Dasyatis brevis) or a Brown Stingray (Dasyatis latus), but the photo is not clear enough to determine which it is with certainty. Both are known to inhabit deep sandy areas in Hawaii. They are uncommon around reefs, so they are rarely seen by divers. This was one of only three or four encounters we have had with one of these stingrays in all our years of diving in Hawaii, and this was the only time I got to photograph one.

Fusilier Fish: Speed Demons of the Reef

by B. N. Sullivan

This is a Right Blue photo essay on Fusilier Fish (Caesionidae). These fish, which move about a tropical reef in large schools, always seem to appear suddenly and out of nowhere. In unison, they zoom first one way, and then another, at speeds that can make your jaw drop, doing precision turns that leave those watching in awe. For divers, encountering a school of Fusilier Fish always is exhilarating. I hope this series of photos, which I took in quick succession, will give our readers a sense of what it's like to encounter a school of Fusilier Fish.

Here they come.

Fusilier Fish (Caesionidae)
Then they do an about face.

Fusilier Fish (Caesionidae)
Then they circle back again.

Fusilier Fish (Caesionidae)
And then they're gone!

Fusilier Fish (Caesionidae)
[Click on any of the photos to enlarge.]