|Layang Layang stinks - literally! As you disembark from the little Twin Otter of Trans Pacific Airways (a rather grand title for such a small operator), the caustic smell of guano assaults your senses, scouring your nasal passages with its acrid ammonia. It is all-pervading.
Layang Layang is a man-made island with just an aircraft runway and the few buildings that constitute the hotel set on top of a submerged coral atoll.
It is a lonely outpost of the Malaysian Navy, and a political solution to the problem of increasing Malaysias territorial waters further out into the South China Sea. Viewed from the air, the effect is rather like a marooned aircraft carrier waiting for its flyers to return.
But it is not just Twin Otter flights from Kota Kinabalu that arrive here. The island is a magnet for all manner of migrating birds, offering them a welcome respite from miles of empty ocean. It also has a huge permanent population of sooty terns and brown noddys, which use this convenient platform as a breeding colony. Millions of birds roost here. The Australian manager affectionately calls his uninvited cohabitants shite hawks.
With average temperatures around 40C and humidity approaching 100 per cent, the smell on Layang Layang is something akin to putting your head down the lavatory after your mother has gone mad with hot water and a bottle of Domestos.
The Layang Layang resort is functional rather than beautiful. The buildings are utilitarian in nature, although they come with efficient, and some would say essential, air-conditioning. Water supplies seem to be both fresh and plentiful - if you choose to shower at the right time of day.
There is a swimming pool, but this is a place to survive the heat rather than somewhere to do any serious swimming. Surfacing after a protracted period under water holding your breath, you could be forgiven for thinking the pool is over-chlorinated. It is not. Which brings us back to the smell of guano. So why go there
Layang Layang is an atoll of about 9 square miles lying 200 miles off the most northern tip of Borneos Sabah. Geographically, it belongs to part of the Spratley Archipelago. It is a unique destination, of great interest to divers - although, quite frankly, no one else would want to go there!
I am told by marine biologists from the University of Malaysia (Sarawak) that this is one of only two places in Malaysian waters where you will find viable breeding colonies of grouper and Napoleon wrasse. Sipadan is the other.
Layang Layang is remote - it is like a liveaboard dive boat that sits permanently over the dive site. There is a good ambience, and with its limited group of visitors and friendly mixed-race Malaysian staff you soon get to know everyone. So I was shocked when my computer watch was stolen off the peg in the dive centre, and another guest lost his watch at the same time. Being so remote from any civilisation, Layang Layangs enormous coral reef is unique in that it is un-touched by any human intervention. No dynamite fishing or even inexpert divers have damaged it.
These corals are seen in great profusion - and there are so many different types. My first dives here had me marvelling at it all. By my fourth or fifth, I have to admit that it had become a bit like wallpaper, albeit the sort of very expensive wallpaper Lord Irving would approve of for his chambers in the Palace of Westminster.
If you are a student of coral growth or if you look at life with the myopic view of the macro camera, you will be well amused. But dive sites with names like Sharks Cave, Wrasse Strip, Gorgonian Forest and Dogtooths Lair started to seem very similar to me.
Even D Wall was unrelentingly the same, with its acres of perfection, yet not one distinct feature I felt I could get to grips with, in my minds eye. No, for me Layang Layang has one important site at its most eastern end. Miss the Point and you miss the point of diving at Layang Layang.
There are eight dive boats, each of which can hold 12 to 15 divers. They normally go out three or four times a day. After three days, I decided I wanted to concentrate on diving at the Point. Like a cruise ship, activities tended to revolve around meal-times. I suggested we dived the Point before the early-morning light breakfast, before the breakfast proper, and either side of lunchtime.
Crazy Repetitive I thought not. The reef wall at the Point is subject to the ever-changing tide. The current varies from non-existent to an irresistible stream. As it ebbs and flows, the character of the reef and its inhabitants, and the nature of its visiting pelagics, change too.
The reefs attract plenty of white-tip reef sharks, sweetlips, turtles, slimline barracuda and the whole catalogue of Indo-Pacific reef life. Collections of bannerfish decorate the blue water at the fringes of the reef like confetti fluttering in a breeze. Elegant if rather foolish-looking moorish idols browse in pairs.
Bumphead parrotfish, in a big shoal, chomp their way along the coral like a resident herd of buffalo. Predatory dogtooth tuna patrol the margins.
The reef fish have not yet got used to hordes of divers, and their reactions can be dependent on the behaviour of those who might have passed by shortly before you. A school of jacks either dash about in wild and never-ending panic or might be found jammed closely together and as passive as a mass of sardines in a can.
This second state of affairs gives the photographer the only satisfactory chance of a sensitive composition, yet I had no success right up until my last and sixth dive at the Point. Only then was I able to insinuate myself among them without reaction or protest, alongside a little grey reef shark doing the same. The preceding party of Italian divers had finally gone home!
On the subject of sharks, we found ourselves in the company of a group of French hammerhead enthusiasts. While my buddy and I hung lazily about the reef or spun along it with the current, these macho types, armed with grotesquely over-length fins, headed off into the blue and later compared the number of hammerheads they claimed to have sighted.
I spotted the occasional solitary example in the distance, but I was encumbered with a camera. It seems that here you cannot really see hammerheads unless you are fit and stripped for action.
I am informed that the best time to see hammerheads is between February and July. However, in my opinion, you would be much more likely to find hammerheads in the colder waters of Cocos or the Galapagos.
The sea around Layang Layang is at its calmest between May and July. I was there at the end of May, when the sea was the temperature of bathwater (around 29C).
This island has a lot to offer: crystal clear and comfortable conditions, and a wonderful and uniquely undamaged coral reef. Still, however consistently good the reef diving is, I believe any ordinary leisure diver will cease to marvel at it after five days. And do not consider for one moment taking a non-diving spouse - divorce would quickly follow.
I suggest too that you combine a trip to Layang Layang with a trip to the other outstanding diving destination Sabah has to offer - Malaysias only truly oceanic island, Sipadan.
You can get to Layang Layang via Kota Kinabalu, flying from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. John Bantin travelled with Explor - Dive the World (01752 204602). A two-week trip (ten days diving), which includes both Layang Layang and Sipadan, costs around£1900.
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