Divernet



Sometimes I say things I regret. It was immediately after telling two new arrivals to the Malaysian island of Sipadan that there were hardly any currents to worry about - nothing you couldnt handle, nothing more than a bit of a push - that I found myself tumbling, spinning, twirling like an autumn leaf in a gale, up and down, and helplessly ineffective with my fins, past that most famous of all its dive sites, Barracuda Point.
Thats not to say it wasnt a great dive. The scenery rolled irresistibly by. Great green turtles, oblivious to the flow, cruised serenely past in the opposite direction, pausing to check their reflections in the port of my camera; a mass of silvery jacks huddled in an indentation in the reef like sardines in a can.
A towering circle of barracuda, 25m high, chased their own tails; endless numbers of whitetip reef sharks slipped mysteriously off the reef top into deeper water; a massive column of humphead parrotfish paraded in line and headed off for some important appointment. What a movie - and I was in it!

TURTLE NURSERY
At the north-east corner of Borneo, Sipadan is Malaysias only truly oceanic island. It sits atop a column of rock that rises from the depths to form a large circular reef. The island itself is tiny, but it has become a Mecca for international divers. The diving is always spectacular because it has also become a Mecca for the wildlife of the Celebes Sea. It is the sort of place where underwater photographers run out of film long before they run out of air.
It is noted for its large breeding colony of green turtles. No one is allowed to walk on the beach at night for fear of disturbing nesting females or tiny hatchlings making their way down to the water. The large supply of baby turtles supports an equally large population of the whitetip reef sharks which prey on them.
Green turtles lay eggs throughout the period between July and October. The massive females drag themselves well up beyond the high-tide mark and excavate a hole with their rear flippers. They lay an average of 100 eggs at one time.
The whole process takes around one hour, the hole is refilled and the turtles retreat to the sea, where they gain the attention of rampant males. The luckiest male mounts the female and remains in position for many hours, unless another male manages to prise him off by biting and clawing at him.
So you will see turtles locked in an embrace, followed by gangs of other massively endowed males attempting to participate, while the female swims oblivious to it all.
Meanwhile the eggs are left to incubate under the sand for 50 to 60 days. The ambient temperature determines the sex of the babies. The babies that survive the adventure down to the sea and out into deep water take around 30 years to mature but the females always return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs.
There are also some hawksbill turtles around Sipadan. They feed on small invertebrates and certain live corals. Sipadan now provides less favourable conditions for them than in the past, because the ecological disaster of rising sea temperatures in 1988 affected Sipadan just as it did the rest of the tropical world.

UNNATURAL CALAMITY
Eighteen months ago, Diver expressed alarm about the danger to this fragile environment from too many divers. However, the effects of global warming have overtaken worries about diver damage. There has been an unnatural calamity and the evidence is clear to see.
If you have beautiful photographs of the shallow waters of Sipadan from the past, cherish them. Most of the colourful corals which characterised the reef top have been killed. Big seas then pulverised the reef top, unresisted. The effect looks like that of dynamite fishing, and what was coral is mainly rubble now. Only the reef walls remain intact. Fortunately the animals, for the time being, seem unaffected.
It is also ironic that just as Sipadans dive resorts had begun to co-operate over limiting the number of divers allowed to stay on the island at any one time, they now face greater competition from a neighbouring island. It seems that any shortfall in capacity on Sipadan will not stem demand to dive there, because a new hotel on Mabul can put 100 divers into the limited waters off Sipadan at one time. The Malaysian government keeps promising to enforce controls but its promises seem increasingly empty.

LIVE-ABOARD GOING NOWHERE
At the same time, the accommodation on Sipadan has been upgraded. Most of the rooms have en-suite facilities and air-conditioning. The Abdillah Sipadan Paradise Resort, for example, now has rooms as comfortable as any international hotel. There is a proper freshwater supply from its own desalination plant and sewage is treated in a safe and hygienic manner.
Some of the resorts have actually moved back from the waters edge; an encroaching sea which washed away a lot of the beach on the west side of the jetty saw to that. The rainforest is still as impenetrable and bemused iguanas regularly stroll around the fringes in plain view.
Sipadan can be regarded as a live-aboard that doesnt rock about or go anywhere. The activities on the island are limited because there is nowhere to walk save along the beach to your dive boat. One tends to use the time ashore to eat or sleep or talk about the last dive. For that reason it is not really the best place to take a non-diving spouse unless they are happy to sunbathe and settle for the high quality but limited menu of the resorts restaurant. It is not a good place to consume quantities of alcohol, either, because you can do as many as six dives every day, although this does mean setting your alarm clock for 6am - but then, that dive is always the best one of the day.
Get up early and you might see leopard sharks mating. I did. The male bites the females flanks and turns her on her back in a rather conventional, missionary style, oblivious to the gaggle of bubble-making voyeurs. The female remains passive throughout.
It is also a time to see a thousand schooling barracudas doing their famed impression of a silvery twister, and masses of jacks synchronised-swimming.
Humphead parrotfish are becoming rare worldwide, so the Sipadan population is becoming increasingly important. These substantial and curiously ugly animals use their bony foreheads to smash off great lumps of coral before they crunch it up with massive front teeth. A close inspection of the damage caused to their heads reveals that the coral can be very resistant to this approach. Most of the sand of Sipadans beaches is coral that has passed through the gut of these animals, which graze in a bison-like herd.
There are numerous dive sites from which to choose, but for me Barracuda Point is the first choice. South Point is good during the afternoon, as the wall becomes full of roosting turtles.


Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. By minibus and boat to Sipadan.
DIVING DETAILS :John Bantin travelled with XXL Encounters (0800 028 7542). Divequest (01254 826322), Goldenjoy (0171 794 9818) and Touchdown (01293 425089) can also arrange packages.
ACCOMMODATION : Abdillah Sipadan Paradise Resort and similar all-inclusive island resorts Sipadan Dive Centre, Borneo Divers and Palau Sipadan Resort.
LANGUAGE:English.
MONEY:US dollars accepted.
FOR NON DIVERS: Sun and snorkelling.
HAZARDS:Tropical sunshine and normal marine hazards. Occasional strong currents at one site.
BEST TIME TO GO: February to August.
WATER TEMPERATURE:26-32C
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone
COST:Typical 10-day itinerary (Sipadan-based)£1500.
PROS:Great diving on the doorstep with diverse and prolific resident marine life at a unique diving destination. If you get up at dawn, it is possible to do six easy dives each day.
CONS: Long journey time from UK and limited availability. Restricted choice of food. Only for those who want to dive, dive, dive!
WERE ALL GOING ON A DIVING HOLIDAY     THE HOLIDAYMAKERS     Leopards, Lions, Scorpions & Giant Shrimps    Buy Now While Stocks Last!    Our Own Sunny Backyard    Turned Out Fyne Again     SO YOU WANT SEALS...      PAYING A VISIT TO WRECK WORLD      SOFT CORAL & SOFT BEDS      CAPTIVATED BY THE MANACLES      ACTION AS GOOD AS EVER!