In the fin-kicks of Cousteau: a diving holiday in Sipadan, Borneo

In the fin-kicks of Cousteau: a diving holiday in Sipadan, Borneo

Travelling to Borneo has to be one of my most eagerly anticipated trips, with the promises of world-class diving in crystal clear waters from idyllic tropical islands, combined with tracking orangutans, Proboscis monkeys and rare Pygmy elephants, and cutting a trail through dense rainforest to hidden away caves. For this post however I’ll try to restrain myself and focus on the tropical island retreat – we’ll get to the jungle later.

As with a lot of things in life, the best results often require a bit of hard work and sacrifice, and this is certainly true with Borneo. Dream destination as it is, it’s no walk in the park to get there. We flew from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (approx 7 hours) then had a couple of hours in KL Airport (no real issue as there is plenty to do and free wifi), we then had a flight from KL to Tawau, Borneo (approx 3.5 hours). Entering Borneo was easy and time spent in the airport was limited as our destination, Sabah, belongs to the Malaysian part of Borneo, meaning the flight was technically internal. We were picked up by the Borneo Divers bus and had a 2.5 hour drive to Semporna where we boarded a speed boat and jetted across the ocean for an hour to reach Mabul weary and exhausted. It was a long, tiring journey but the sight of the beautiful island and the warm welcome soon revived us and left us in no doubt that the 16 hour trip had been worth it.

After losing a day in travel, the next five were spent on Mabul Island diving with our group – a handful of divers from Pavilion Dive Centre in Dubai who were previously unknown to each other. Despite my passion for the sport, this was my first dedicated dive holiday, and I really couldn’t have chosen a better spot. Neighbouring Sipadan Island is widely acknowledged as one of the best dive sites in the world, and as word spread and divers began to descend on the fragile coral ecosystem in droves, action was taken to protect the marine environment, preventing visitors from staying or even landing on the island, and limiting the number of divers in the surrounding sea to 120 per day. As a result, Mabul and Kapalai are now the nearest islands to stay, each with resorts catering to the diving community. Divers in these resorts are guaranteed a one day diving permit in Sipadan per four night stay – we were therefore thrilled to get two days during our six-day visit.

Both Mabul and Sipadan islands are breathtaking in themselves, as is neighbouring Kapalai and the slightly further Si Amil Island – truly the stuff of castaway novels with low sweeping palm trees fringing white sandy beaches, and all the sounds of the jungle reverberating from the lush green interior, while dazzlingly clear seas reveal the coral and abundant marine life underneath.

The diving was out of this world, from the teeny tiny, colourful macro life of shrimps, lobsters, octopi, nudibranchs and the rare Pygmy seahorse in the waters around Mabul and Kapalai, to the more obvious charms of Sipadan’s waters, which were teeming with turtles (the biggest I have ever seen) sharks and unmistakable bumphead parrotfish, as well as huge swirling schools of jacks and barracuda. The variety of corals, sponges and sea squirts at each site was equally as impressive – an outstanding array of colours, sizes and textures which form the homes, nurseries or food sources for a huge number of fish and marine animals.

We were also privileged to be granted special access to visit the turtle hatchery on Sipadan Island which was fantastic to see. The eggs laid by turtles are protected from the huge monitor lizards wandering around, and the hatchlings are cared for until they are able to make it to the sea. The only other non-diving activity during the course of our stay was to venture out for dinner to the village next to our resort. After yet another strikingly beautiful sunset, we took up our torches and picked our way carefully over the boards that make up the pathways between the buildings on stilts all around the coastline, venturing to the neighbouring Sphere Divers Lodge, there we learned a lot about the plight of the local sea gypsies who don’t have citizenship for either Borneo or the Philippines. The lack of paperwork means that their children are not entitled to go to school on the island, this predicament prompted the guest house owner to set up a voluntary school on the premises, which, if the pictures are anything to go by, is currently making local children very happy as well as giving hem a chance at a better future.

It wasn’t just the diving and activities that made for an outstanding trip however, the people at Borneo Divers were as much responsible for the happy smiling faces as the creatures under the sea were, contributing equally to the lifelong memories made over the course of the week. Not only were they fun, helpful and friendly during the dive trips, they were also great company in the evenings, once dinner was over and we had retired to the beach bar to drink local rum, sing songs and talk – I certainly haven’t laughed that long or hard for a while!

It was a week that I will never forget, and one of the few places I am already planning on returning to. I think we all felt a sense of sadness as the boat pulled us away from our tropical paradise island, which was why I was grateful to have a few more days planned in the jungle before making the final break from the beauty of Borneo – but more on that to come in the next post.

Before moving on though, my top tips:
– Ensure to do at least one night dive and one sunset dive, whether just from the pier or by taking a boat – it’s a magical experience and there is so much to see by torchlight.
– To make the most of the experience, make sure you have completed an advanced diving course and ideally the night diving speciality so that you are more relaxed and comfortable diving
– Make sure you have a good handle on your buoyancy – life on the reef is fragile, and one little touch of a fin or hand can destroy hundreds of years of growth and development
– Make sure you pack an alarm – there are no lie in’s with so much diving to be done
– Try and resist the Borneo Divers cookie jar! The biscuits served at every break are to deliciously more-ish, and I’m convinced are what lead to my two kilo weight gain!
– Finally, make sure you have a good camera with a long battery life – you’re going to need it!