4Seaventures operate a converted oil rig as a diving base. It makes for an interesting place to stay, and is located about 45 minutes by speedboat away from Semporna. The approach alone was great, as we got to see flying fish sailing out of the water as we sped past.
It's apparently run by someone who used to be a famous Malaysian TV star. I saw the guy (goes by the name of Sham) and he was in a perpetual mood. I'm not sure why, as he appears to spend his days sat behind a desk not doing a fat lot. Anyhow, we arrived on the rig and were greeted by very enthusiastic staff. We checked into our room, which had pretty much everything we'd need.
We then went for an orientation dive around the reef that the rig is sat on top of. The reef was almost as good as the Sipadan sites in terms of the variety of species we could see. It was accessible via a lift that took you down all the way to the water:
They have some interesting stuff down there, including what looks like a sunken adventure playground.
After this introductory dive, we had a trip out to Mabul and visited the Paradise 1 dive site. We saw cuttlefish, an octopus (which was hiding in some sort of jar), a chocolate chip starfish, and a snake eel which was buried in the sand and had only its head sticking straight up, a bit like a plant. There was also a really cool seahorse which may or may not have been an estuary seahorse. I'm glad that our "Fish identification" PADI course had such a big impact.
It would be hard to break down the following 3 days into any sort of interesting structural narrative, as we were basically on a diving rig and the primary purpose was to dive. So I'll share some of the highlights:
The food on the rig was excellent. I mean, truly superb. There was a decent variety which on a day-to-day basis included 3 meat dishes, a vegetable dish, a soup of the day (for those of you that, unlike me, can stomach the foul liquid), different breads, more rice than you could shake a scythe at, and 2 or 3 desserts in the chiller cabinet. And fruit on top. This changed between lunch and dinner, and was different again the following day. Basically, we didn't really have the exact same food for our entire 4 day stay, although there were variations on a theme. There were prawns, lots of different fishes, fried and non-fried chicken, beef in different sauces and, on occasion, tofu. I'm sure some people swear by tofu. I stand next to it and say "poo". It's like someone has taken something with the consistency of rubber, fried it until all possible taste has evaporated, and then chucked it in a sauce and called it a substitute for meat. I'd rather eat Quorn. Hell, I'd rather eat my flip-flops.
There is also a games room which has a pool table, tennis table, darts board and TV with DVD player. We were usually too knackered to make use of it, but visited a couple of times. I taught Gilly how to play 501 with a few variations to make it easier (as both of us were abysmal) and she promptly beat me. I got my own back at pool and table tennis.
We met a couple of Vancouverites during our stay: Carl and Caitlyn. They were great fun, and we hired out a camera between us to take on some dives. Looking forward to meeting up with them when we hit Canada in September, and having some beers. Speaking of which, alcohol prices in Malaysia are ridiculous. A small can of beer is the best part of £2. I guess that's what comes of being a Muslim country. On the plus side, it prepares us for Australia.
On to the main point of being on the rig: diving. On the second and third days, we got to go to Sipadan. For the uninitiated, and I include myself in this group, Sipadan is apparently one of the best places in the world to scuba dive. We had 6 dives there, in 5 different locations: Mid Reef (twice), Hanging Gardens, Turtle Cave, Whitetip Avenue and Barracuda Point.
We saw, amongst many, many other things, green turtles, whitetip reef sharks, lionfish, scorpionfish, nudibranches, moray eels, barracuda, schools of bumphead fish and jackfish, clown triggerfish, boxfish, pufferfish, frogfish, trumpetfish, crocodile fish, triggerfish, blue spotted rays, flamboyant cuttlefish, and a pygmy seahorse. Whilst there's clearly too many to go into detail about, there are so many highlights.
The pygmy seahorse was tiny, about half the size of my little finger. Moreover, it blended with the coral to such an extent that you couldn't actually tell it was there unless you poked it, and saw the "coral" move in response. Fascinating creature.
The turtles were magnificent. Incredibly graceful, gentle creatures, some of them were happy for us to get close and stayed in their nooks whilst we shoved our faces up close. Others detached themselves and glided off through the sea, apparently unconcerned but preferring to stay out of the way of the nosey divers. I swam with one as he flapped around the water, but he moved surprisingly quickly.
The whitetip sharks stayed at a distance. They are fairly small and don't bother humans to my knowledge. We were told that they "were vegetarian sharks". I'm no oceanographer, but I suspect this may not have been completely true.
The flamboyant cuttlefish was a revelation to me. Its entire body shimmered and changed colour as it moved along the ocean floor, like it was wearing some sort of sophisticated LED suit. I got close to it, and it squirted out a jet of ink and propelled itself forward. I guess it must have run out of ink in the initial blast as it didn't blast any more out when I got close the second time even though it still darted forward in the same way. I loved the "big" stuff, but this little fish was one of the coolest small things I've seen underwater.
The crocodilefish was a flat fish that looked like a crocodile. 'Nuff said. There was also a scorpionfish which blended in perfectly with the coral on the hut it was hiding in. Pretty cool.
We took a load of photos between us. Most of them didn't come out too well due to a) us being rubbish underwater photographers and b) the Canon Ixus camera being fairly naff. One of the other divers we were with had a Canon Powershot and took some cracking photos with it. Both of the cameras were compacts but Powershots are clearly the better kit for taking decent shots. I had a bad experience with the last Canon I used (the infamous E18 error) so it would take a LOT of persuasion for me to move back to them from my Panasonic Lumix.
Here are a selection of the better shots we took.
Lesser spotted Rob and Gilly:
Rob chasing a whitetip shark:
Chocolate chip starfish:
Couple of rays:
Sipadan was definitely a better dive spot than Mabul and Kapalai, and was by far the best place I've ever dived in my short time doing so. The sites were teeming with different life and at times you felt like you were in an aquarium, with huge colourful reefs filled with coral and tropical fish all interacting. We saw some clown fish hiding in anemone peeking out, and a yellow blenny who hid in pipes in the underwater huts, and came half out to have a look at us. At Kapalai we dived at Mandarin Valley (saw no mandarin fish) and at Mabul we went to Lobster Wall (saw no lobsters) - both were micro dive sites, so the things we saw were a lot smaller - nudibranches, and so on. If I knew what we were looking at it would have made things even more interesting, but as it was I resorted to thinking "ooooh, colourful!" and "wow, look at the odd shape of that!" without actually knowing what was swimming by. It didn't lessen the experience by any stretch, and when we got back to the rig, we looked up the fish we'd seen in the many books available, and were able to identify quite a few from memory.
Sipadan only allows 130 divers per day to dive there, and requires a permit each day of RM40 (£8). As such the island is practically untouched and protected by the government:
Video of a green turtle:
The best Sipadan site for me was Hanging Garden. We saw a shark as soon as we entered the water, and then a whole host of turtles, the most relaxed of which had obviously come into contact with humans before as it had been tagged. Turtle Cave wasn't the greatest; you can only go inside the cave a short way - for good reason, as a number of divers had died there along with many turtles, as they went in too deep and couldn't get out.
The four days flew by, and I can honestly say that the experience, whilst pricey, was worth it. So much so, that I'm a little apprehensive of diving the Barrier Reef in Australia. By all accounts, the place is so over-dived that the majority of coral at the main sites is pretty much dead, and it simply doesn't compare to a strictly regulated location like Sipadan.
(If anyone reading this has dived the GBR, please let me know in the comments section if there are specific sites that are worth visiting!)
After our last two dives on our last day, we packed up our gear and took a boat back to Semporna for another night. We decided to pay a little more and stay at Sipadan Inn, which turned out to be a great idea as the hotel (and it was actually a hotel, with most amenities) was spotless and comfortable. Something we were grateful for - the next morning we were taking a bus to Sandakan, the gateway town to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.