Appeared in DIVER October 2008

Its A Small World
Sipadan is the big name in diving off Sabah, East Malaysia, but now two new island resorts, Kapalai and Lankayan, are attracting muck-divers with their macro cameras and microscopes. Jack Jackson found that a spare pair of eyes came in useful too

SCREAMING THROUGH HIS REGULATOR, it was clear that my dive guide Honarius could not contain his excitement. Highly camouflaged among the coral in front of us was the holy grail of so many underwater photographers, a weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa).
     However, by now I was becoming blasé. This king of critters might be a favourite with divers looking for the rare and unusual, but it was just another of a wealth of fascinating subjects that had been pointed out to me on this trip. Still, at least this creature was large enough to recognise - many of the subjects that I had photographed had been so small that I couldnt figure out what they were until I focused on them with a macro lens.
     I was at Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort, a large facility built on stilts above the sea on an island that had eroded away, leaving only a sandbar visible at low tide. Located between Sipadan and the populated Mabul islands in the Celebes Sea, Kapalai is only 15 minutes from Sipadan but the diving is quite unlike that found around that famous island.
     Mating mandarinfish cavorted under the jetty while, just 5m away, two flamboyant cuttlefish flashed brilliant black, maroon, yellow and red colours to stand out against the sand.
     In the same area, but so well camouflaged that they were far more difficult to see, two differently coloured 4cm harlequin ghost pipefish lay among the branches of similarly coloured sea fans. Another 15m away, a 3cm seagrass ghost pipefish concealed itself among weeds, while a 3cm bright red frogfish hid against a sponge. It was hard work picking out the mobile life from the static.
     Camouflage markings and small size together conspired to hoodwink divers. But searching gorgonian whip corals with a small dive light, we found tiny, almost-transparent commensal gobies or shrimps camouflaged among the feeding polyps. Anemones, bubble corals, soft tree corals, sea cucumbers and cushion stars harboured tiny shrimps and crabs, while seahorses lurked among algae.
     Most of these photographic subjects were constantly moving, so focusing at such high magnification was difficult. Add blue-ringed and mimic octopuses, flying gurnards, crab-eye gobies, sea moths, jawfish, snake-eels and many colourful nudibranchs, and you get need to get your eye in.
     The term Òmuck-divingÓ was coined by Bob Halstead in Papua New Guinea. The practice takes place over silty, sandy or coral-rubble seabeds, where concentrated observation locates small and often colourful or weird creatures camouflaged against their environment.
     Most of us will appreciate the help of local dive guides to locate these animals, many of which are so small that it really is worth carrying a magnifying glass under water.
     Having realised the possibilities, divers soon found creatures that they had been missing in Indonesias Lembeh Strait, Borneos Mabul, Kapalai and Lankayan and in the Philippines Anilao, Boracay, Puerto Galera and Malapascua. Often, no one had bothered to look for such small creatures before, so it seems likely that they are found on most reefs if divers care to look hard enough.
     Lying on the huge but shallow Ligitan Reefs on the edge of the continental shelf, Kapalai was well known among Malaysian underwater macro photographers for colourful nudibranchs two decades ago, but at that time they were unaware of the other interesting creatures that could be found there.

A weak current produces better visibility than that at nearby Mabul, but it rarely exceeds 20m and few dive sites exceed 25m in depth. As well as tiny creatures, the reef has turtles, mantis shrimps and lobsters and is teeming with fish, from large shoals of bigeye trevally and fusiliers to smaller shoals of bumphead parrotfish, lone humphead or Napoleon wrasse, moray eels, ribbon eels and blue-spotted ribbontail rays.
     Less common are several species of scorpionfish, including magenta, white and the rare yellow-leaf scorpionfish, several species of stonefish and sea-snakes. Divers based at Kapalai also dive on Mabul and Sipadan, and many of those on the other islands also dive on Kapalai.
     Much further north, a two-hour speedboat journey north-east of Sandakan on the border with the Philippines in the Sulu Sea, the latest diving destination to be developed off the east coast of Sabah is Lankayan Island Dive Resort.
     An even smaller tropical island than Sipadan, Lankayan is covered with lush vegetation, including casuarina trees and the ubiquitous pandan screw pines. Set up in conjunction with the Malaysian government, this muck-divers heaven lies among several large but shallow reefs replete with reef and pelagic species.
     Whale sharks pass by in late March and early April and the occasional dugong has been seen. Protected from blast-fishing for the 10 years before it was developed as a diving resort, it has been declared a Marine Protected Area.

The attraction of diving at Lankayan is that divers do not have to sacrifice beautiful corals and teeming fish life to find small and exotic species. Recent scientific research found high biodiversity, less than 5% coral bleaching, healthy corals re-colonising the reefs, and plentiful numbers of many of the commercial fish species that are harvested on other reefs.
     There can be strong surface currents, but dive onto the gentle slopes down to 25m and youll find a mixture of sandy areas with large barrel sponges, gorgonian sea fans and whip corals, fields of lettuce corals, staghorn acropora corals and large porites coral heads.
     Visibility varies depending on the reef dived and the state of the tide, but 25m is considered good.
     The smaller creatures here are similar to those at Kapalai, but with the addition of species specific to the Sulu Sea, including a larger species of jawfish at Jawfish Lair. A few of these fish are used to photographers and do not retreat into their burrows when approached.
     Large and small nudibranchs are everywhere, and batfish, barracuda, sweetlips and large groupers would follow us around. Massive spiny lobsters stared out from under overhangs. Devil and leaf scorpionfish, ribbon-eels, mantis shrimps and true giant clams were common. Only the rays were skittish, darting off as soon as we drew near.
     Green and hawksbill turtles use the beaches for nesting, and the resort has a small hatchery. Local wrecks include the Lankayan Wreck, an ocean-going fishing vessel that was caught poaching and purposely sunk, and whats left of an armed barge of the Japanese Mosquito Fleet, sunk during World War Two.

This wooden fishing boat is now breaking up but can be entered with care. It has profuse fish and invertebrate life, including groupers, emperor snappers, longhorn boxfish, sweetlips and large Discodoris boholensis nudibranchs. The superstructure is covered in wing oysters.
     As a photographer I usually prefer to dive alone, but at these destinations I was grateful for the help of local dive masters, Honarius at Kapalai and Amillson at Lankayan. Without them and their intimate knowledge of the terrain and animal behaviour, my old mans eyes might have missed half of what we saw.
     From the backward roll into the water to climbing back into the boat, each dive was like touring an aquarium. Every hole contained something interesting, but many exciting subjects were not in the holes, but just depended on excellent concealment techniques.

Having flown all the way to Malaysian Borneo, it would be a pity not to see some of the country. For the energetic, trekking in the rainforest, climbing Mount Kinabalu and visiting the worlds largest cave, tribal people or longhouses are just a few of the excursions on offer.
     Borneo is a botanists paradise, with its orchids and rafflesia, the worlds largest flower. And for the less energetic, Sandakan, the port for reaching Lankayan, is also the base for reaching sanctuaries where you can get close to orang-utans and proboscis monkeys.

An emperor snapper
Tiny longhorn boxfish feed on benthic invertebrates at Kapalai
Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort is built on shallow sandbanks
Enjoying a banana, an orang-utan from the Sepilok sanctuary at Sandakan
Its easy to see where the gold specs jawfish gets its name - it lives in burrows and incubates its eggs orally
mating Hypselodoris bullocki nudibranchs
harlequin ghost pipefish camouflaged against a gorgonian
red-leaf scorpionfish
more impressive camouflage as a harlequin crab makes itself at home on a leopardfish sea cucumber
tiny yellow sea cucumbers on a red sponge
a stony coral
Lankayan Island Dive Resort
Lilac tube sponge, a favourite jawfish lair
thorny seahorses are found in sheltered areas around sea grass


GETTING THERE Fly to Kota Kinabalu with Malaysian Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines or Singapore Airlines. Then fly with Malaysian Airlines to Tawau for Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort, or to Sandakan for Lankayan Island Dive Resort. Onward road and boat transfers are organised by the resorts. It is possible to fly between Tawau and Sandakan, so divers can cover any permutation of Sipadan, Kapalai, Mabul and Lankayan on one trip.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Both Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort and Lankayan Island Dive Resort have full en suite facilities and are run by Pulau Sipadan Resort & Tours, 006089 765200,, You can book direct or through UK tour operator Pearls of the Ocean, 020 7932 0108.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is possible all year round but the best conditions occur from March to September. Whale sharks frequent the area in late March and early April.
SECURITY: As a result of Filipino Abu Sayyaf guerrillas taking Western divers hostage from two East Sabah diving resorts in 2000, all resorts or islands now have security consisting of 20 or more heavily armed soldiers and police with fast, armoured speedboats and night-vision equipment. There are also regular low-level flight patrols by military C130 aircraft.
MONEY: Malaysian ringgit - 5.2 ringgits equals£1. Most credit and debit cards are accepted.
COSTS: Flights range from£470-700 in July/August. Prices for divers at the Kapalai and Lankayan resorts start at£570 for five nights, with extra nights£69 and discounts for more than seven days. Pearls of the Ocean offers an all-inclusive two-centre package for£1998, including flights, transfers, two nights B&B at Kota Kinabalu, one at Sandakan and five each full-board at the two resorts, with three dives a day and unlimited shore-diving. .
FURTHER INFORMATION: Malaysian Tourist Board, 020 7930 7932,