Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nov.27-29 Following Jacques Cousteau's footsteps

We were tipped off to the wonders of Sipadan by my dive instructor Johann back in Phuket. On a scrap of paper he sketched out a map of the place and how to get to the little town of Semporna. And he warned us that the town’s not that nice – just go diving. He also recommended that we dive with Scuba Junkie. But that was a few years ago and I think it’s changed a bit.

Scuba Junkie review/rant first – skip down to the story below

There are other dive shops in town, and I wish I knew what they were like to dive with, but the Lonely Planet recommended Scuba Junkie and as a result their shop was packed and the others were vacant. Yet, reading other reviews (TripAdvisor and other blogs) and I’ll echo their opinions: don’t bother staying at the scuba junkie hostel. The dive shop and the hostel are apparently two different entities, and even though they’re across the street from one another, they don’t seem to communicate. We had booked our reservation via an email address we’d found on their website and had asked for their “VIP” room. When we got there they had given it away already and we were left with a standard one. Julie certainly wasn’t impressed with the conditions of the shared facilities, nor the fact that they just gave away our room because someone else showed up and paid for it first. What’s the point of a reservation?  They moved us into a better room for the second night, but after our day on the island we came back to find out that they’d done it again. Julie watched the kid type in our names into the correct room when we left, but when we came back it had somehow migrated into the dorm room column. We said goodbye and walked down the street and got a nice clean room in the Sipadan Inn for only a few ringgits more.  We also recommend eating at the Mabul Cafe on the main strip: it’s got a nice balcony overlooking the street and the food is pretty good.

First we dive Mabul, then we take Sipadan!

Man, were we ever SPOILED when diving in Phuket! wow. Big boats, buffet lunches, unlimited soft drinks, boat boys to handle your gear. Man, that was the life!  Here it’s a bit different. The Scuba Junkie dive masters are all here for the fun of diving everyday (I don’t think they really get paid, except for room & board) so it’s a lot more casual; for example on our first day we left a bit late since nobody really knew who was driving the boat. We had a pleasant fellow to guide us on our first day of dives at Mabul Island. Sure enough, do a back flip off the edge of the boat into the water and you’ll see sea turtles almost immediately. The turtles are the big drawcard for diving in this area.

Julie backflips off the boat into Mabul waters

Our first dive of the day was a wall dive at “Lobster Wall”, where you swim along an underwater wall at the edge of a reef that’s teeming with life.  Just stop for a moment and hover while you watch something extraordinary, like a crocodile fish, a turtle sleeping in a small cave, or position yourself for a close look at a small ornate ghost pipe fish. It’s all fantastic!

Second dive was the “AWAS” site which has some manmade reefs along a buoy line. This is Mabul macro diving at its best. The sand bottom hides all sorts of interesting creatures like a big cuttlefish getting cleaned by little banded boxer shrimp, scorpion fish, white-eyed eel, puffer fish, a dwarf lionfish tucked into a tangle of fishing line, and up towards the shore in the grasses we spotter these little tiny razor fish (so named because they look like silvery razor blades), black fin snake eel, anemone fish.

We broke for lunch on the jetty (pier/dock) to soak up some sun and rest a bit. We met a big German fellow who guided us across the island to show us the place he was staying at on the island. I had wanted to stay here instead of Semporna but Julie had misgivings about it. But after checking it out and being assured of the operating toilet, we booked ourselves in for the next night.

The most interesting creature was found in Froggy’s Lair: a big brown frog fish sat amongst some old metal and yes, I said “sat”. nudibranches It’s a fish with legs. Freakin’ weird. Also spotted some fancy nudibranches, which are like colourful snails but without a shell.

Really enjoyed the diving today, but both of us had troubles: Julie got cold (astounding given the 28 degree water), I had buoyancy issues (kept floating to the surface too soon) and both of us kept using up all of our air quite quickly.

Check out all of the pictures here:

Pictures of the marine life can be seen on the Scuba Junkie website.

Day 2 – life on the island is great, don’t mind the ants

We moved out of the sketchy SJ Hostel to the equally quirky Arung Hayat Lodge on Mabul Island today. Cost us extra for the boat since sunset over the Celebes Sea from our lodge we weren’t diving and had to pay them for the lift.

We spent the day lounging about until I felt something biting me while I was lying on our bed. I pulled back the sheets to find myriad parades of ants marching across the surface. So much for inspecting the place yesterday! Julie immediately got a can of ant killer from the young fellow minding the place, and after using up one can of spray he had to source down another in order for the rest of the guests to rid their rooms of the pests. One fellow that we got to know, Ted from Australia, had a rough night with the ants the night before and was showing the battle scars.

Some good snorkelling can be done just off the deck of the longhouse. We saw all sorts of little things, but went at low tide which made it hard to swim around. Just means you had to be careful of standing on something sharp (like a starfish, anemone or discarded metal). We snorkelled around the jetty on the other side of the island and saw loads more: eels (green & brown spotted), razor fish, bright coloured little orange fishes, a trumpet fish, anemone fish (it’s almost boring to find Nemo now!), a trigger fish bashing a rock (gives credence to the warning to stay away from these guys as they can knock you out) and some Moorish idols. Really neat.

Food’s all included here at the lodge, and it’s good. Fish every meal, but with a slightly different curry sauce each time - I’m liking it!

I almost forgot! The night dive with Uncle Chang’s. They’re the only operator on the island who’d take us out on a night dive without us having done the PADI night dive course. Julie was real eager to do a night dive and I’m glad I studied the book before going as it provided some confidence. We were given some small flashlights and then plunged into the darkness underwater. We dove the Tino’s Paradise location which is near the AWAS site from yesterday. Diving at night is a neat experience: a little stressful at first to get used to low visibility, but I thought it must be what diving in West Hawk Lake in Manitoba is like.

We saw some really neat things here in the dark. A parrot fish blows a bubble of mucous around itself to sleep in; the inert bubble keeping it from being sniffed out by predators. Some bright red hermit crabs scuttled away from our lights. Somehow our guide spotted a baby octopus in the sand, a big moray eel tucked into a crevice and a crocodile fish buried into the sand. At night it feels like you’re sneaking around in someone’s house, looking at their things, trying not to disturb anything. I hid my light for a bit and swished my arm through the water. Sure enough, a sparkling blue wake was formed by the phosphorescent plankton. Uber cool.

Day 3 - Pulau Sipadan

Sipadan is on the Canadian Government’s watch list. We got an email saying not to go here due to threat of pirates. In response to past attacks, the Malaysian government kicked everyone off of the island and stationed their army in the abandoned resorts. Sweet gig for those fellows! Either way, countless people flock here for the excellent diving. Sipadan’s trademark feature is that its reef wall drops off dramatically, plunging nearly 2000m straight down to the ocean floor. Warm currents of the Celebes Sea provide optimal habitats for sea life, and the lack of human disturbance on the island keeps it that way (diver numbers are limited per day).

Johann suggested we dive the South Point, North Point, Barracuda Point and Turtle Cave. Unfortunately our guide had done those points yesterday and didn’t want to do them again.

The Mid-Reef site was quite good and provided lots to see. So many green seat turtles, a couple white-tipped sharks, little nudibranches, scorpion fish, a big bat fish and a monstrous napoleon wrass.

Everybody who comes here will hope to be caught in the swirling tornado of a massive school of barracuda. We didn’t. But Barracuda Point provided us with a good opportunity to observe a giant  pharaoh cuttlefish resting on the bottom. It’s amazing to see these creatures change colour so quickly as they move overtop of varying surfaces.

marine life at Hanging GardenOur last dive at Hanging Garden I think was my favourite here. It’s an easy drifting dive along a big wall and there are so many things to see tucked into the wall. I nearly ran right into a crocodile fish hidden in the wall!

This diving trip was a great way to end our stay in Borneo. It’s such an amazing place: so much wildlife and diversity, friendly people, loads of good seafood, and it’s still pretty cheap to visit!

Tomorrow night we’ll be Singapore!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nov.24-26 Sabah Adventure Day 9-11

Our destination today is Kudat up on the NE corner of the state. Driving north from KK you go up through mountains and then back down into plains where I saw *gasp!* an actual combine harvesting rice, so obviously Malaysia is better off than Thailand or Vietnam where the harvest is still done by hand. For my brother Dave's curiosity, it was a New Holland 1545.

Further north we found a Rungus village longhouse and stopped in for a bit. Luckily we ended up at the homestay that Julie had found for us to stay. The fellow Jimis showed us around, cut us a coconut to drink and also some Tabu grass to munch on. I like the tabu - tastes sweet as you chew the juice out (don't eat the grass itself) and I would best describe the taste as the juice out of a young stem of wheat.

We booked a room for the following night and scooted off to catch the sunset at Tip of Borneo. Got there just in time to watch it, and it Click for today's picture slideshow was splendid! Then the little cafeteria shut down on us before we could order any food. The 2 old security guards couldn't speak any English but the sign for the homestay had a phone number on it. New phone to the rescue! We got a hold of the lady and she came right over (entire family and all) to open up a chalet and cook us some food. [After failing at getting Julie’s phone to work with foreign SIM cards I finally broke down and bought a cell phone for Rm90 on the HotLink network. Malaysia is really cheap for cell service and I am blown away by how many stores sell phones – there’s one every 20m it seems. With the phone I also surprised my mom with my first call home.]

Accommodation was basic (bamboo hut with mattress and mosquito net) but at least we didn't have to drive around in the dark searching for a place. Cost us Rm124 for the room, supper, beer and drinks. Bargain!

Julie decided it was about time to drink the bottle of wine we've been carrying around for a week, so under the spectacular starry sky we enjoyed the wine and our time alone on the point watching the fishing boats on the horizon. It was a magical moment.

After leaving the Sempang Mengayau we stopped at the beach nearby. Save for a few kids far away we were the only ones on the km of white sand. The waves were just right for a little body surfing and not bad enough to warrant the "Beware - Rip Tides" warning posted. It was a fantastic experience; being in the ocean so far away from anything, catching a wave and riding it in, and overall being so secluded. But then the rain came and spoiled our fun...

Due to the dreary weather today we just went to Kudat to see if we could find a cafe near the water. We ended up at an esplanade that wasn't busy at all but a vendor was open so we had some Tenom coffee. It's strong stuff: brewed in a bag (like tea) and mixed with condensed milk to sweeten it. [We ended up getting hooked on the stuff and sent a package of it home.] Julie played ball/catch with the little kids and we sort of got to know the couple who was running the place. We snacked on some fresh seafood rice before heading off.

Back at the Rungus longhouse was a neat experience. We had the place to ourselves and Jimis' mother-in-law took care of us: our dinner was satisfying (mostly vegetables for a change) and the room in the longhouse was OK. The longhouse is exactly what it sounds like: a long house with rooms running along one wall and a common materials used in the longhouse area running along the other half of the building. It's all made out of materials from the jungle - split bamboo flooring, bark walls and palm leaf thatched roof. Jimis arrived in time to describe the cultural show that was to take place. The dance they did and the attire they wore are very similar to N.American native peoples. And they even got us involved in the dance, hopping and twirling around. Highlight of the day was getting our own traditional scarf knitted by Jimis' mother that was quite beautiful (and a whopping 10 ringgits!).