Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


Semporna/Pulau Sipadan, Sabah, Mayalsian Borneo

Posted on March 17th, 2005

After suffering through a five hour bus ride from Mount Kinabalu, I recovered from my two days of crippling climbing in the dirty and chaotic coastal town of Sandakan where I finally beat my flu-like symptoms and limped around like an 80 year-old with two new hips. Sandakan was objectionable and largely forgettable aside from the fantastically cheap and comfortable May Fair Hotel across from the fish market and the above average food options. The May Fair was handing out well-stocked, air conditioned, single rooms with private bathrooms for an astounding US$9 per night. The Chinese owners kept the place spotless and they had a huge VCD movie library that I delved into both nights. I spent the better part of my two days in Sandakan hiding in my room wishing that my lower extremities were detachable and doing all the writing and picture processing from the mountain. I stepped out three times a day to eat and buy writing inspiration in the form of the original Thai Red Bull “Krating Daeng,” three times as effective as the blue and silver European ca-ca that has taken over the world, a quarter of the price and twice as nasty tasting. I had been exposed to this stuff nearly 10 years earlier by my dad and his fellow athletes in the US and after enjoying a daily does of Krating Daeng for about two years, the FDA belated decided that they wanted to take a closer look at this concoction, pulled it off the market and banned imports. It hasn’t been seen in the U.S. since. But in free-wheeling, let-the-good-times-roll Malaysia, they don’t burden themselves with such nonsense and I got right back into my habit.

After two nights, I bounced to Semporna. There’s one direct bus from Sandakan to Semporna that leaves from Sandakan at 8:00AM from the long distance bus station which is inexplicably located four kilometers out of town. I was up late the night before shaving my head with a sub-standard Asian Gillette knock-off brand razor (“Gilleette” or something) and watching a VCD of “Big Fish,” one of the dozens of movies that I had missed over the past 20 months and I wasn’t going to fritter away the opportunity to see it just because it was midnight and my scalp was bleeding freely from nine different spots. Needless to say I didn’t get out of bed for the 8:00AM bus. I decided to sleep in and roll the dice with “Plan B.” Show up at the long distance bus station, jump into a private, over-crowded truck with no A/C that would leisurely meander to the town of Lahad Datu over the course of two hours, where I could jump into an infinitely more over-crowded truck with no A/C and have my spine realigned during a hellish three and a half hour pounding ride to Semporna where my date with my PADI open water SCUBA training was waiting for me.

I had been in touch with Ric from Scuba Junkie - a native of Edinburgh who had been in Semporna for three years - who had been a huge help in lining up my classes and decent local accommodations at Lee’s Rest House. I would be starting my classes the following day. First a full day of watching videos and taking a series of five multiple-choice tests, which heartened me to no end as I was still walking like I had fused knees, followed by two days in the water doing skills tests and some low-impact dives. A young Australian girl, Liz, was training with me and we made quick work of the videos and tests, getting perfect scores until the final when we both fell victim to several poorly worded, conflicting questions on subjects that weren’t covered in the videos. Bagging that unpleasantness, we headed out to the island of Mabul early the next morning.

Unlike many dive centers that utilize pools for their training, Dive Junkie holds it beginner skills tests in the shallow waters off the island of Mabul, a 30 minute boat ride from Semporna. Usually the waters off Mabul are calm, but true to form, God wanted to make sure I was wretchedly miserable and four of our five training dives off Mabul were accompanied by hair-raising rough conditions. Of course once you are below the waves, all is calm and relaxed, aside from the current sweeping you helplessly along at times, but getting into the water, getting your gear organized, not being bashed against the dock, not being run over by a boat and not drowning were unpleasant hurdles that had to be coped with before this reprieve.

The training videos repeatedly mentioned that drinking, taking drugs and smoking should not be done before a dive which was why I was very unsettled that each and every one of our dive masters, even the dive masters in training, all smoked vigorously all the way up until jumping into the water. According to Tino, the German half of the Scuba Junkie management duo, it was virtually required that all dive masters smoke. The smoking itself was forgivable, we were in an open boat after all, but the severe preoccupation with their cigarettes was always a cause for worry for me. Keeping their cigs dry, finding lighters that worked and of course the near impossible task of lighting up in a speeding boat with waves crashing over the side and drenching everything – hence no pictures from my phenomenally delicate Canon Powershot for this entry, apologies - took up far more of their attention than arguably more important details like checking the equipment or the time 10 people were suited up and waiting for them on the dock in the baking sun while they hunted for dry matches. As I would eventually come an eyelash away from two genuine drownings in one day due to questionable judgment and malfunctioning equipment respectively, I felt that perhaps their priorities could have used some readjustment. Despite their sloppy approach to everything non-cigarette related above the surface, Ric, Tino and the rest were clearly very accomplished and knowledgeable divers. When in and under the water they were all business and their presence was reassuring and calming.

I had done a very brief “discovery dive” while out on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, so I had dealt with all of the gear before and knew what to expect of under water conditions. Unfortunately, due to the rough surface conditions and the overly-strenuous effort I put into getting prepared and swimming out to our dive site, I was so flustered and gasping for air that I couldn’t actually get enough oxygen from my regulator. I had to spend an extra few minutes on the surface with my Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) inflated to capacity to keep my head above the waves and try to calm down enough to go under. Once we were six meters (almost 20 feet) below the surface, all went well. Our training dives were very straight forward. We did our basic skills; filling up our masks half way and then fully with water and clearing them, taking our regulators out of our mouths, replacing and clearing them, taking our masks completely off, replacing and clearing them, practicing breathing with air rushing out of a “broken regulator,” practicing a total regulator failure, where we would have to breath using our buddy’s alternate regulator and so on. The second day we did a review and also practiced emergency surface ascents, both using our buddy’s alternate regulator and no regulator at all. At the end of each day we accompanied other divers on an open water dive a little further out from Mabul. With the rough weather the visibly of these dives was never too great, but we managed to find turtles, lion fish, eels, trumpet fish and false clown fish as well as having a swimming good time. Heh heh.

The second day is when I nearly died twice. The first time, while we were getting ready for a combination skills and fun dive the tide was way out and the water was rougher than usual. After Liz had scrambled into the water in full gear off the dock’s lower platform and gotten stuck in the shallows, Ric decided that it might be easier for me to climb off the platform with just my weight belt and fins, swim around to the front of the dock where the water was deeper and he would heave the rest my gear into the water so I could, in theory, put it all on with the advantage of deeper water to work in. I had seen this done before, but of course in much calmer water – it was a swimming pool actually - and it was an unmitigated disaster. My gear wanted to float upside-down and no amount of desperate fumbling could get it upright so I could wriggle into the harness. With the gear being upside-down, I also couldn’t reach the button to inflate my BCD so I could at least use the useless heap as a floatation device while I sorted out the problem. I was getting smacked in the face by waves every three seconds, choking on salt water and did I mention that I was wearing a five kilo (11.5 lbs.) weight belt? So I was kicking for my life to keep my head above water, clutching a jumble of useless gear and gulping down enough sea water to float the Sultan’s yacht. Liz saw I was in trouble and signaled Ric, who eventually (and it seemed like years, but it was probably only a minute) jumped in and helped me get my gear right-side-up, get me strapped in and calmed down.

On the very next dive, the final fun dive of the day, where we joined the other divers returning from diving at Pulau Sipadan, for no reason in particular Tino switched my BCD, giving me an as yet un-used one. When we were in the water and preparing to dive, I pointed out to Tino that my BCD was leaking a conspicuous amount of air. He assured me that it was just the over-inflate valve releasing air and that I had just pumped it up to far. This didn’t seem right as the BCD was not holding enough air to keep me comfortably above the water, but I assumed that the guy with over 7,000 dives under his weight belt would know better. Once below the surface, it went bad. In order to float around freely and swim and look at things with out plummeting to the bottom or popping to the surface like a cork, one has to establish neutral buoyancy. In order to do this, one must inflate their BCD to very a precise level so that they are not sinking nor ascending appreciably and can easily control themselves by just using their fins. My BCD was still not holding air, so I was always sinking. I had to pump it up about once a minute to keep from scraping along the bottom and gashing myself on coral, rock fish and sea urchins. Using so much air just to keep neutral, I emptied my tank in about a third of the time as the rest of the group. I pointed out my quickly dwindling air supply to Tino and he sent me to the surface, along with poor Liz, my buddy for the dive who still had bags of air, cutting our dive off after only 25 minutes. On the surface things got even worse. I was down to almost no air, my BCD wouldn’t stay inflated and I was going under each wave. Since we were on the surface about 20 minutes early, our boat wasn’t looking out for us and we were not supplied with whistles or any other signaling device. I was kicking furiously to keep my head above water and choking on successive waves. Liz monkied with my gear, but there was nothing that could be done. We were about 100 yards from shore and even though I was exhausted I felt my only chance was to drop my weight belt and make a swim for land. Suddenly Ric and the boat captain finally looked up from their cigarettes, saw us bobbing and came to my rescue.

I was still recovering from my near drowning when I thought I heard a faint whistle. Mentioning this, Ric and the others scanned the sea and saw a single head bobbing about 500 yards away from the Seadventure diving resort, an unattractive, tiny, rusting platform which may have once been used for oil drilling, about half a mile out from the island. We raced over and scooped her up. She had no buddy, they had been separated somehow, and her dive master was gone. As soon as she was onboard, she urged us to look for a couple from her team that were floating around somewhere. After a few minutes we found them in full panic. The man was alternating from being terrified to being pissed off. Not only had their dive master abandoned them in a bad current, but their boat was nowhere in sight. Just as we were about to pull them out of the water their boat guy, who apparently was on the dock on Mabul socializing, came motoring out to pick them up. So, while I maintain that the Dive Junkie people could benefit from checking equipment more thoroughly and taking the concerns of their divers more seriously, at least they never totally disappeared on us in bad conditions.

We unloaded our victims just in time to motor out and find our other eight divers bobbing around and wondering where the hell we were. We rocketed back to Semporna, bouncing around so violently on the rough sea that the women actually had to hold their breasts down. As we jiggled into the harbor I fell in to a reverie. The sun was setting behind the backdrop of the lush jungle hills, tiny fish boats swarmed around stilt houses that dotted the harbor, some in the most unlikely, remote spots, and there I was stupidly happy as Tino with a dry lighter, despite sunburn, two near-death experiences, being half-stoned on compressed air and with a PADI open water certificate in my hot little hand - not literally, of course, it was waiting for me back at the dive shop, but I could already feel the temporary card bulging in my pocket. I’d have to eventually send in a form and a passport photo to get the permanent license from Australia. Good for life. Kick ass.

My nights in Semporna were subdued. I was usually too sunburned and exhausted to hang out at the dive shop, which it appeared was about the only stimulating nightlife to be had in the city. Semporna, like Sandakan, was a dirty, chaotic backwater town with no redeeming qualities which all but shut down by 9:00PM. I’d go out, take care of cyber business, eat at a different hawker stall each night and be unconscious by 10:30. Despite the higher than average number of Pinkies rolling through Semporna on dive trips, the amount of staring and random questions by the locals was by far the most intense I have experienced in SE Asia so far. I ate at one hawker stall two nights in a row just to talk to the cute, sweet girl who, when she wasn’t translating our orders to her mother, would stand and ask us a myriad of questions about where we were from, where we were going and how long we had been in Sabah. She’d start every conversation by inquiring “Please can I ask you questions?” like it was the first time we’d met. She was 19, but she looked about 12, diminutive, scarved of course and as curious and innocent as someone who’d spent their brief adult life in a dirty, chaotic, backwater town with no redeeming qualities that all but shuts down at 9:00PM. Everyone else on the street was the same, but they had to jam in their questions as they ran along beside me (I was usually either rushing to the dive shop, limping to the hotel, sprinting for the Internet café 20 minutes before closing or staggering sun-stroked and starving to dinner).

My little room at Lee’s Resthouse was clean and air conditioned, but the toilet leaked (out the end you don’t want a leak from) and there was a never ending stream of mosquitoes invading from an entry point that I never identified. Each night I would hunt and squish about nine of the little bastards before I felt safe enough to lie down and sleep. It was very quiet however and a little privacy always goes a long way in my book, so I was content.

The next day was the moment of truth. The reason I was there. I was taking my very first fun dive at Pulau Sipadan, one of the best dive sights in the world. I was an old pro at the Scuba Junkie routine now. I showed up at the dive shop 15 minutes early to raid the free coffee and eat some pastries acquired from the grocery along the way, served by the giggling, scarved teenaged girls at the bakery. As I ate I watched the first timers try on wet suits and boots like a confident grizzled veteran, even offering suggestions about fitting and coaching a few German guys who had somehow earned their open water certificates without learning how to fasten their alternate regulator to their vests for quick, easy access.

Ten of us piled into the boat and after waiting 10 minutes for Ric to run out and buy cigarettes we were off. After the 30 minute ride to Mabul to drop off the beginners, we turned around and jetted to Pulau Sipadan another 30 minutes away. Sipadan is an itty bitty island, just a tuft of jungle hiding a handful of compact resorts that can house up to 100 people per night. If you’re a news hound, you may remember back in 2000 when a boat of Philippine Abu Sayyaf goons invaded the island, dispatched the solitary cop and escaped with 20 workers and tourists. Back in the Philippines they marched the hostages through the jungles for three months to stay ahead of the authorities. This is why I was staying back in safe, largely goon-free Semporna. Oh yeah, and it was much cheaper as well.

Pulau Sipadan actually sits on the apex of a gigantic, under-sea mass of limestone. Just 25 meters to the east of the island there’s an unholy near-vertical drop off that plunges 600 meters (1,968 feet) into the abyss. This was our objective. Unfortunately it was also the objective of about six other boats that morning who all committed the cardinal sin of invading our immediate vicinity once we’d gotten situated over the prime location. Tino made the decision to pull back and dive somewhere else first, then return to the desired site later on while everyone was at lunch.

So our first dive was not at the legendary wall of limestone, but instead a little further around the island where it wasn’t quite so dramatic, the visibility was crap, the fierce under current was carrying us around at a shocking velocity, but we still managed to locate a fantastic amount of sea life, including a family of reef sharks and the sucker fish stuck to them for the ride, a variety of turtles as big as dinning room tables, puffer fish, bat fish, spotted porcupine fish and clown trigger fish. And, the best part, I got through the entire dive without nearly dying! Woo hoo!

Between dives I had a urgent bladder need. I was coached to just jump over the side, and let fly. I did this, but with no small amount of effort. Peeing with your swimsuit on and immersed in water was a lot more difficult than I had imagined. The old muscles simply would not relax and let flow. I spent about three minutes willing myself to pee and about a minute peeing before getting back onto the boat to applause.

After the requisite amount of rest time between dives to allow the built up nitrogen in our bodies to dissipate, we went back down at the drop-off. It was amazing. The endless depths were flabbergasting. It felt like I was skydiving again, except in slow motion and the bottom just dropped into absolute darkness. Visibility was clear for tens of meters in all directions, allowing us to ogle the limestone wall which was covered in bright and gnarly coral. We dropped down to 30 meters (98 feet), though if anyone asks, it was only 28 meters because I’m not allowed to go any deeper without an advanced certificate. Those Dive Junkie guys are so naughty! The inept German guys were really getting on my nerves by this point. They were the world’s most selfish and unaware divers. If Tino was pointing for us to look at something they would both bulldoze right to whatever it was, pushing people out of the way and kicking them in the face in the process. One of them still hadn’t mastered neutral buoyancy and so he was always shooting up to the surface uncontrollably or having to be held down by his buddy. They had rented an underwater digital camera and devoted far more concentration to getting their pictures taken than concentrating on not hooking people’s air hoses. Eventually I took a permanent position above the pair to keep an eye on them, so if anyone was going to push or kick anyone, it would be me.

After hovering around the wall for a long time, we turned a corner and got caught in the low visibility current again and were carried away to the regular old sea bottom area which was less exciting, but full of much more sea life. We saw some big eyed trevally, red snapper, tiger fish, yellow finned barracuda, garden eels, teira batfish, white and gray reef sharks, redtooth trigger fish and yet more turtles. Many of us gasped through our air and had to surface after 40 minutes but Tino and a guest dive master from England stayed down another 15 minutes as they still had a heap of air left with their calm and controlled breathing techniques.

We ate lunch on the boat as we raced back to Mabul to meet up with the rest of our group. There we picked up a few people and headed over to the dreaded Seadventure Resort platform for our final dive of the day. The area directly below Seadventure is disappointingly strewn with industrial debris, but what was a shame environmentally made for a fascinating dive. There were rusted out living modules that had simply been dropped off the platform into the sea, cages, tires, coils of leg-thick steel rope and a barrage of other garbage and wreckage. The sea creatures had taken up residence in all of this crap and it was like exploring a shipwreck. We saw crocodile fish, yellow frogfish, yellow stripped snapper, star puffer fish, spot faced moray eels, a wide eyed moray eel, flute fish and of course a lot of trash.

Having observed Timo and being infinitely more comfortable on this dive I was able to control my breathing and stay down with six others after we sent half the group to the surface. When we were all hovering at about ¼ of a tank we ascended to a depth of five meters to drift for five minutes and allow our bodies to acclimate, as you do when you dive at serious depth. The thing was at five meters there was the most fantastic current swooping by. We all had to swim violently for one of the platform ropes and hang on for dear life as we counted down our five minutes. It was a dramatic sight actually. I was the highest up the rope, allowing for a full view of the other six divers as the water rushed by at a low roar. The current was sweeping us all horizontally, as if in hurricane wind. There were five of us were staggered up the rope, Tino was hanging onto the fins of one of the divers and the guest dive master was clutching Tino’s air tank, the three of them forming a long human windsock. I would have given anything for a picture. When our five minutes were up, we all let go and were carried away as we ascended the last five meters to the surface.

As we were ferried back to Semporna, with Ric and Tino impossibly napping in the back of the boat (they do work from 8:00AM to 11:00PM every day after all), I was taken with the sight and experiences of the day and all of my experiences in Borneo. I was getting on a plane bound for loud, crowed, Pinkie-filled Kuala Lumpur first thing the next morning where I would formulate a plan of action and get into character for Thailand. I was also hatching a plot for a quick jaunt into Myanmar for a look at what a country is like when it is reeling and recovering from decades under an iron fisted, half-witted government regime. Borneo was a special place for me; I planned to stay two weeks and ended up hanging around for a month. Although untold numbers of new special places waited for me, I knew nothing would be quite the same as the people, the food, the sights, the heat and the raging humidity of Borneo.

Back to the travelogue index


©Leif Pettersen 2012