Into the Wild Biru Yonder
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Outside magazine, January 1994
Into the Wild Biru Yonder
On the Sipadan side of the world, diving is more soaring than descending
Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia
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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.