Into the Wild Biru Yonder

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1994

Into the Wild Biru Yonder

On the Sipadan side of the world, diving is more soaring than descending
By Randy Wayne White

Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia
A side benefit of exotic travel is that you acquire bits of language not normally heard in the hurly-burly of modern commerce and so are guaranteed to impress the folks at home. Some examples from my dive journey to this tiny island off the northeastern coast of Borneo, at the very back of beyond: penyu (turtle), ajaib (magic), pelayan, tolong tambah bir (waiter, we require more beer), air biru (blue water), pulau (island), jatuhkan senapang itu! (drop that blowgun!).

Depending on how far you go and how long you stay, even a list of non sequiturs like this can become useful, indeed can exert a kind of karmic influence, adding shape and fabric to a trip. On Sipadan, the synthesis began with my first dive.

A stone's throw from my thatch-roofed cottage, the sea bottom dropped abruptly to 240 feet. Another stone's throw, it sheered nearly half a mile. Drifting down that coral wall was more like soaring than descending. Sipadan is a jungled apex; less than 30 acres breach the surface. The bulk of the mountain lies below, where I floated past bluffs and crags. There were clown triggerfish, gold anthius, velvet unicorn tangs, and hundreds of other species I didn't recognize. The coral walls could have been a Disney garden; the fish could have been wildflowers or butterflies. If you dive, you know the protoplasmic gush and flow of activity. You know the streaming colors. Individual elements blur into a glittering pointillist image. You might be in the Celebes Sea, but you could also be in the Caribbean or the South Pacific--or at some Sea World venue. The effect is overwhelming. It numbs.

Then I saw my first sea turtle--a huge green thing flapping out of the murk. The animal was as big as I am; it had to weigh more than 200 pounds. Its carapace was olive and fouled with benthic travelers. The stroke of its flippers mimicked the wing stroke of seabirds; barnacles on its shell were the shape of volcanoes.

I saw another...and another. There were sea turtles everywhere. They floated above me, silhouettes on the edge of visibility. There were turtles grazing on the patina of living corals, turtles wedged into crevices, their reptilian eyes dark and indifferent.

It was on this first dive, on the high reaches of the abyss, that I thought of a more appropriate name for Sipadan: Pulau Penyu, Island of Turtles.

Back on the beach, I ordered bir. The sea was air biru, without a horizon. I sat on the dock and watched the big greens surface. When their dinosaur heads punched through the sea membrane, they opened their beaks and hissed.

The island was showing itself, drawing meaning from my strange word list.

The island was ajaib.

Some dive spots, getting there is half the fun. some dive spots, getting there is none of the fun. Sipadan is a little of one and lot of the other. After 42 hours in airports and on planes, after a seven-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur, after a lunatic bus ride from Tawau to Semporna, and after an open-boat crossing of the Mabul Passage during which for the first time in my life--the first time in my life--I voluntarily put on a life jacket, I think I can say that.

In the sometimes snooty game of diving, degree of difficulty matters. Sipadan ranks right up there.

At the docks in Semporna, with my shaving kit in hand (my luggage hadn't been seen since we left Florida), I set off on Borneo Divers's 28-foot transport through the straits of the Celebes Sea bound for Sipadan, 28 miles away. Along Borneo's northeastern coast were water villages of zinc-roofed stilt houses, gold-domed mosques, candy-colored longboats under sail--all but unknown to tourists until the mid-1980s, when Jacques Cousteau's film crew discovered Sipadan ("We have found an untouched piece of art!") and the rush of sport divers began.

After so many hours in the air, and after the terrifying ride from Tawau, it was wonderful to climb into an open boat. A person can breathe in an open boat; he can relax a little, for the chances of experiencing a sudden loss of cabin pressure or colliding with a lumber truck are practically nil. But my sense of well-being didn't last. We made our way through Ligitan Channel, past the fishing kampongs of Bum Bum Island, and then, leaving Hood Hill and its cascade of forest in our wake, we dolphined toward the open water of Mabul Passage.

My helmsman was Omar Hani, a Borneo Divers staffer and presumably a veteran of hundreds of crossings, so I was unconcerned by the freshening wind and the squall curtain drifting toward us. In an open boat, one expects to get wet; indeed, after four days in the same clothes, I craved a good hosing. Even when the seas convoked an ugly cross-chop, swelling into open-ocean rollers, I wasn't worried. But soon we took a few waves over the bow. Then Omar let out a guttural whoop just before a really monstrous wave tipped us skyward. Another one hit, flooding out one of the two outboard motors, and for a sickening few seconds I thought we were going to capsize. Equipment careened around the boat's interior; something fell from the canvas canopy and whacked me on the head--a life jacket!

One doesn't quibble with providence; God knows his business. I strapped the jacket on while exhorting Omar to buckle down and get that starboard engine running, or our bloated bodies wouldn't be found until they surfed to shore in New Guinea.

Omar got the engine started. We banged along. Within the hour Sipadan Island slowly assembled form on the horizon: a wooded interior fringed by coconut palms and beach. There was a dock, some guest cottages built on stilts, and boats suspended along an abrupt color demarcation, violet banded around a bronze nucleus, that showed the island for what it is: a sea pinnacle rising from the abyss.

Thirteen thousand miles logged, luggage lost, near-death at sea, but when asked about this trip the first words out of my mouth will be: "You wouldn't believe the turtles."

This says something about Sipadan.

It says something about diving.

The drill on Sipadan is simple: Each newcomer is assigned a dive master, and each dive master has a fixed group (a maximum of ten divers) that he or she leads on three boat dives a day. All dives are confined to the island's reef fringe, so it's only a few minutes to Coral Gardens, White Tip Avenue, Turtle Reef, Hanging Gardens, or half a dozen other sites. Divers suit up with tanks in the dive hut, waddle across the beach to their boat, and once out on the reef, back-roll into the water, where the dive master leads the group to a preset maximum depth, usually 60 to 90 feet. All dives are drift dives, so the current, which can be very strong, mandates the direction the group swims. After about an hour, the last 15 minutes of which are spent at 20 feet, it's back to the island, where the hard-core are also allowed an unlimited number of shore dives. Again, the procedure and the rules are simple: Tanks are available between 7 A.M. and 9 P.M. at the dive hut; 60-minute surface intervals are required; you have to dive with a buddy.

In short, Sipadan is an efficient little dive factory--a description chosen advisedly, for I was surprised, upon arrival, at the number and variety of divers in residence. Along with Borneo Divers's Sipadan Dive Lodge, there are two other dive concessions on this otherwise uninhabited island: Pulau Sipadan Resort and Sipadan Dive Center. All bunched together on a few hundred feet of beach, the three attract a booming flow of enthusiasts from Asia, Europe, Britain, Australia, and the United States (the island's total capacity is approximately 130 divers). Activity on the island is steady and doesn't much vary--men and women in fluorescent wetsuits muling air tanks, adjusting BC vests, cleaning underwater cameras, testing regulators, futzing with wrist computers or other big-ticket gadgetry. Everyone is either preparing for the water or recovering from the water with a kind of blindered, high-test intensity that's in stark contrast to the kicked-back ambience of the thatch-roofed facilities.

On Sipadan, you come to dive.

For a time, Pua Yen Yen has been our dive master. She is 21 years old, half Australian, half Chinese. When she stops by the porch of our cottage to trade jokes, she wears a T-shirt that reads, FEEDING, FONDLING, OR SEXUALLY AROUSING THE ANIMALS IS STRICTLY ENCOURAGED. Every afternoon, different jokes, but the same T-shirt.

I like Yen. She has style, and she knows her stuff. The same goes for the rest of the staff. Eddie ("Fast Eddie") Balitaan is the public relations officer and chef. Each night in the lodge, Fast Eddie does amazing card tricks. He always finishes with a flourish, then hustles off before anyone can ask how he did them. Fast Eddie wants me to teach him how to juggle, but Sipadan is one of the few resort islands in the world where it's impossible to find tennis balls. And as I told Fast Eddie, "Coconuts are out. Too dangerous for a beginner."

There is Mac Bajerai, who likes to stand on the beach at sunset and comb her Polynesian hair. There's Ahmad Ibrahim, who is a pretty good guitarist, and Wesley Wong, who is always smiling. At unexpected times, Wesley will glide up noiselessly behind me, clap me on the shoulder, and give me a friendly shake. "Nice day!" he'll grin as I try to catch my breath.

Agill Bajerai is the resort manager. Even in a Speedo swimsuit, Agill has a lot of dignity, and he's just as friendly as Wesley. Not a sour personality in the bunch. That's true of everyone I've met in Malaysia, and I am including cops and airline baggage personnel--who after five days still haven't located my luggage, by the way. Indeed, if there are brighter, kinder, more accommodating people in the world, I have yet to find them.

Yen has been our dive master for a time, but now we are assigned to Ahmad. I like Ahmad. In the boat he doesn't lecture, and he doesn't wear his ego on his sleeve. Like Yen, he knows his stuff. But unlike Yen, he is not tinggi and he is not menawan. When Ahmad stops by to trade jokes, I do not look at his T-shirt and think of katil.

If you want those words translated, call up someone who speaks Malay, and go to Sipadan and ask for Yen.

My dive buddy has accompanied me from the States, a cardiac surgeon who, upon hearing that I was off to Borneo, insisted, "Those tropical climes can be murderous. You'll require a personal physician." For the record, though, he's the only one who has suffered any physical indisposition on this trip. I suspect he ate some bad bean curd in Kota Kinabalu, because at night his stomach gurgles like fermenting yeast. Otherwise, he is an ideal partner, for our approaches to the sport are similar. Scuba divers span demographics, yet they can still be divided into two broad groups. There are divers who are dedicated students of the craft. They read the journals, own the latest high-tech equipage, and race from one exotic dive hot spot to the next. T-shirts from places like Palau, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Solomon Islands are considered badges of conquest and a measure of their own proficiency.

The second type of diver is less attractive in every way. These people are dabblers, the sport's dilettantes. Their enthusiasm for scuba may have flamed brightly for a time, but for reasons known only to them, it has waned. Now, if they dive at all, it's supplemental to what they consider more interesting objectives, or when there's nothing else to do.

Of the two groups, my partner and I would prefer to be associated with the former but in fact are archetypes of the latter--a truth we'd like to keep hidden from our fellow divers, but the odds aren't good. For one thing, I'm the only diver on the island who doesn't have a wetsuit. I've been blaming it on my lost luggage, but if my bag ever does arrive, my underwater apparel won't change: running shorts, a T-shirt, and a bandanna to keep my head warm. True, in Sipadan's 80-degree water, I'm perfectly comfortable, but I'm also painfully aware that, en route to dive sites, everyone else appears dressed for space flight, while I look as if I'm headed for gym class. In scuba, as in skiing, style points count, and I am running up a big deficit on this little island.

Discourse with the other guests is also telling. About 40 divers are staying at the Borneo Divers lodge, and I've already met most of them. The informal meeting place is the dining pavilion, where, beneath ceiling fans and wood beams, divers sit around munching snacks and trading stories until it's time to go back into the water. In principle, scuba diving is not a competitive sport, but in practice it often is--a competition that takes place ashore in the thrust and parry of conversation. Not that I've met many scuba snobs on Sipadan, but with the few we have met, my partner and I haven't fared well.

Them: "So what kind of computer are you recommending to novices these days?"

Partner: "Uh...hum...well. I defer to Randy on those matters. I'm a surgeon, you understand..."

Me: "Computer? Uh...Macintosh has got a little clicker, so you don't even have to read the directions..."

Them: "Dive computer."

Me: "Oh! Ah! Well, opinions vary. Yes. There are so many on the market now. Not like the old days."

Them: "That's certainly true!"

Me: "But generally speaking, I recommend the waterproof variety. Yes, I strongly recommend that."

We do better in the game of geographical name-dropping. While we are scuba dilettantes, we are at least well-traveled ones and can assemble quite a list. My partner has dived the Keys, the Caymans, and Cay Sal, southeast of Florida, and I have dived such esoteric places as Central America, Cuba's Isle of Pines, Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay in Western Australia, Fiji, and Tahiti--if you count skin diving, which I do, and to great effect.

But we haven't had to spend much time on this verbal fencing, for most of the people here are as unaffected as the surroundings. To name a few, we've met Walda from Saudi Arabia, Careen from the Netherlands, Christine from Switzerland, Bert and Mary from China via Kenya, Kevin from England, Peter and Michelle from Germany, and Peggy and Gary from the United States.

Scuba divers get around. As Walda says, "It's an international language."

Sometimes a dive hot spot is like a fishing hot spot. Because conditions vary, people are quick to say, "you should have been there yesterday." That's how it is on Sipadan.

Today's dives include West Ridge, South Point, and White Tip Avenue, where, according to a joke circulating around the lodge, there is no avenue and there are no sharks.

Off the island's eastern shore, White Tip Avenue is a five-minute boat ride away. There we follow Ahmad down to 80 feet, then drift the wall, gradually ascending during the next hour to surface level. During the course of the dive, visibility deteriorates from 60 feet to less than 30 feet, which may be why we see so few fish. I do spot one small white-tip shark, but he spooks at our approach, and only two or three snappers and groupers of any size. There's a plethora of small tropicals, however, as well as lionfish and, of course, sea turtles.

West Ridge isn't any better, but at South Point visibility is a consistent 50 to 60 feet. There, hundreds of big jacks are in a formation so solid that they block the sun, their shadows creating an eerie dusk.

Even so, back in the boat, reviews from members of my group are less than enthusiastic. One man says West Ridge will go down as one of the worst dives he's ever logged, and the general feeling is that Sipadan isn't equal to the glowing accounts they've read in dive magazines. Not that they hate the place--it's good, just not great.

I'm less quick to pass judgment, not because I doubt the magazine stories (I haven't read them), but because I realize that in a wilderness situation, wildlife can't be programmed to perform like some Epcot exhibit. The ocean has no bars; pelagic fish come and go; visibility changes with the currents. The great hammerheads and giant manta rays that have been seen and photographed off Sipadan may have been hanging just beyond the scrim of sight, or they may have preceded us by minutes. Still, it's hard not to join in the speculation that the island's fish population is reacting to the 14-hour dive days and the heavy census of divers. What I find most disappointing is the paucity of big reef fish, such as snappers and groupers, that are also prized table fare. When I took up scuba diving in 1970, schools of these fish that had not been terrorized by spearfishermen could still be found; I think my interest in the sport faded with them. But Sipadan is a national preserve, where fishing is not allowed. So why have I seen so few big fish?

When I question one of the staff, he says, "You should have been here last month. And last year was even better!"

On Sipadan, life at two atmospheres may be vagarious by nature, but life at one atmosphere is, by nature, fun. I like the routine, I love the food, and I'm fascinated by the island. We are up at first light and pad barefooted down the beach to breakfast. After the two morning dives, we meet at the lodge for lunch, then dive again in the afternoon. At 6 P.M. it's time for dinner, served family style: fried fish, goat curry, sweet and sour pork, bok choy, mustard greens, native fruits, beef in satay sauce, rice, fried chicken, potatoes, and other good things, a strange and wonderful mixture of food that seems mostly Asian, but with an unexpected dash of the American South. Afterward we sit around exchanging stories over Tiger beer or stroll out onto the dock and watch sea turtles thrash in the water, copulating in a green spray of bioluminescence. At bedtime we retreat to our bare-bones cottages-on-stilts, where the island's generator keeps the ceiling fans whirring and the reading lights bright.

Sometimes, if we don't feel like reading, we'll stay and have a pesta--that means "party" in Malay.

All in all, not a bad life, but this afternoon I break the routine by skipping the 3 P.M. dive so that I can hike into the jungle interior. It doesn't take long--I can jog around the whole island in ten minutes--yet the contrast between the vista of blue and the vista of green is striking and, frankly, a relief after so much time underwater looking at coral. Only a few yards from the beach, the great hardwood trees and rainforest vines take over. There are strange palms and strangler figs and waist-high ferns. Back on the Borneo mainland I had been told that in earlier times fishermen avoided Sipadan because they believed a giant octopus lived in a sea cavern at the center of the island, its tentacles long enough to wrestle people into its lair--a ridiculous story when heard on a city street, yet spooky when one is alone in the heart of such a place. But I see no octopus, only purple-tailed anoles, a few land crabs, and a flock of imperial pigeons.

Naturally, at dinner, members of my group tell me that I missed the best dive so far. They saw a lot of small white-tip sharks and a few barracuda. "But it wasn't great," one man tells me. "The visibility was only fair." Not that the mood is gloomy--it never is in the lodge. Bert tells wonderful stories about his travels in Africa, Peter lectures on the superiority of Nuremberg beer ("American beer is poop! All those chemicals!"), and Peggy describes her life in the Pacific Northwest ("in Oregon, a woman can't be too skinny, too rich, or own too much duct tape").

I don't keep a dive log, but my morning notebook entry reads, "Barracuda Point. Best dive of the week. Visibility: 70 feet. Dropped down on a school of giant bumphead parrot fish, some to 80 pounds. Then a whole shoal of barracuda, thousands of them, like a curtain of saber blades. Put myself in the middle of them and drifted through. Maybe two dozen white-tip sharks cruised the perimeter. Current so strong that it was similar to being swept along by a mountain river. There were moments when I was out of control, had no hope of stopping myself. Not that I minded."

One of our group minded. He told me later that he had felt we were being pushed out to sea and that he had almost panicked. I'm glad he confided in me, because truth is I lied in my notebook. I had been scared. Still, it was a great dive. One of my best ever--not that I keep score, though a lot of divers do.

Tonight some of the divers in the lodge are comparing scores. Under discussion are the best dive spots in the world. After a lot of beer and some mild arguments, they come up with the top five: (1) the Maldive Islands, (2) Palau, (3) the Red Sea, (4) Australia's Great Barrier Reef, (5) Sangalakki, off Borneo (just opened to divers, Sangalakki is being called "the new Sipadan").

Human nature being what it is, Sipadan doesn't have a shot of breaking into the lineup. It is the only spot everyone has in common, so even if they feel it's the best, no one will risk admitting it. Also, there's talk that there are too many divers in the water to enjoy any sense of isolation. And visibility just hasn't been good.

But why worry so much about the visibility? As I tell one of my fellow divers, "It's not like we have to land an airplane down there."

In Malay, the phrase tidak apa means "it just doesn't matter."

This business of ranking dive spots is silly. I think about it as I circumnavigate the island (it takes me 43 minutes), alternately swimming hard and then slowing to peruse the colors of the shallows. Here's just one example of why it is silly: Last night, after the Best Dives forum, Vasiliki, a beautiful Greek actress, softened the mood when she sat down and sang torch songs accompanied by Ahmad on his guitar. Listening to someone like her sing, with a South China Sea breeze blowing through the palms, is a peerless way to spend an evening. Like Yen, Vasiliki is extremely menawan. She's a gifted vocalist, too.

And it got better. Fast Eddie did a few card tricks. Then the lodge staff performed, and an impromptu pesta blossomed and gathered strength. Around 10 P.M. I learned a new word and jotted it in my notebook: mabuk. It means "beer happy." Even those who weren't drinking seemed a little mabuk. We had a fine time.

Randy Wayne White is Outside's Out There columnist. His latest novel, The Man Who Invented Florida, has just been published by St. Martin's Press.

See also:

Access & Resources: The Schlepp to Sipadan

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