Malaysia is no third world country. Over the past decade the pace of progress has accelerated, and the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is truly a city of the twenty-first century. It has become a major center for electronics manufacturing and now boasts the worldís tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers, a glitzy new international airport and shopping centers that rival Rodeo Drive.
The Cement Wreck, off Labuan, was carrying a load of cement for the Sultan of Brunei when it hit the reef.
Diving has expanded and matured as well, particularly on the island of Borneo. Although Sipadan remains the most renowned dive site, others such as Mabul, Layang Layang and Labuan are becoming well-known. As word about these places spreads and they became more developed, I wondered how the diving would be affected. So when an opportunity arose to return, I jumped on a Malaysian Airlines 747 and headed west.
Starting my journey in Labuan saved one travel day more than going directly to Sipadan. This island city north of Brunei Bay has been targeted by the Malaysian government as an offshore financial center; 80 banks already line its streets. Itís also a free port and an oil town, so people come to wheel, deal and relax. You can stay in a comfortable hotel, eat at your choice of restaurants, enjoy shopping and other amenities.
Labuan is also the shipwreck capital of Malaysia. Four wrecks await in 80 to 100 feet of water, two of them dating back to World War II. The Salute was an American minesweeper that sunk in 1945 ironically after hitting a mine. She is broken in half, the bow section split open and the stern intact. Munitions and supplies can still be found inside, with depth charges ready in their launchers.
The Aussie Wreck had several incarnations. Originally a Dutch passenger ship, she was converted into a troop transport during the war and was scuttled when the Japanese attacked Borneo. Salvaged and renovated as the Imbaru Maru, she served as a Japanese freighter until hitting a mine and sinking in 1944. The wooden deck is long gone, revealing the insides of the ship and a rugged construction that dates back 100 years.
Two recent shipwrecks lie farther out in the bay: the Cement Wreck and the Blue Water Wreck. Visibility is better and marine growth more profuse on these wrecks. For photography, the Cement Wreck is one of the best Iíve seen. The Tun Huang from Taiwan was carrying a load of cement to Brunei for the sultanís new palace when it hit a reef in 1980. It lies upright in 80 feet, every surface covered with spectacular sponges, gorgonians and soft corals. Deck stairways and lifeboat davits are gardens of color. The forward mast forms a huge cross, swarmed by water column fishes. This is a wreck the way it ought to be, totally alive and colorful. And the best of it is shallower than 60 feet.
Every day this school of Bumphead Parrotfish eats its way around the island of Sipadan.
I got into the barracudas again after running out of film, but had a pretty productive photo dive up until then. The late morning light was streaming down over the wall, and I worked on schools of snappers silhouetted by sun rays. But it was time to get disciplined and save some film. I had been in that barracuda school three times now, with only one frame to show for it.
In truth the best diving is near the surface, and although there are some pelagics, the main attraction is reef life. Sipadan is near the center of the Indo-Pacific realm, where the diversity of fishes and invertebrate life is the greatest on the globe. Reef fishes range from Clown Triggers to Mandarin Gobies, frogfishes to Whitetip Sharks. In the water column are enormous schools of barracuda, batfish and jacks. If there is a better place to encounter and photograph turtles, I havenít found it. They are totally fearless of divers. One diver remarked that he had to push the turtles out of the way to see the scenery.
The entire life cycle of turtles is on display, from conception to death and beyond. Itís not unusual to encounter mating aggregations, sometimes with several males chasing a female and fighting over their turn. At night, females come ashore to lay their eggs, which were once collected and sold for food. Now theyíve established a hatchery on the island, and several times a week visitors can watch babies being released on the beach and heading for the water.
Underneath the island is a cavern with a narrow passageway, leading to a hidden cave. Turtles occasionally wander in there, lose their way and drown. Itís called Turtle Tomb and may be visited only by qualified divers accompanied by a cave-certified guide. Inside are more than 30 skeletons in various stages of decay. One had died recently, rotten meat still hanging from the bones, giving rise to a cloudy layer under the otherwise pristine water. Lying in the shell were dozens of eggs that will never hatch. Despite thousands of dives in my logbook, I always feel like a beginner inside a cave, totally dependent upon my guide.
Turtle Tomb, off Sipadanóthe entire life cycle of a sea turtle can be encountered at this island.
Recently, the Malaysian government stepped in and imposed strict environmental controls on Sipadan. There is now a limit of 80 divers and 40 staff, divided among five resorts. Desalinators are used for drinking water, and a sewage treatment plant has been built.
The resorts are separated by jungle foliage. At the end of an old pier is the Dropoff Cafť, a bar that becomes the social center of Sipadan at night. Borneo Diversí original huts are long gone, replaced by two-story buildings with four rooms each, that are basic but comfortable. Boats go out three times a day for diving; beach diving is available at any time.
How have the reefs held up after ten years? Much better than expected. Most of the underwater topography consists of sheer walls, which are resistant to inadvertent damage from diversí fins. Animals are easier to approach than on my two previous trips. Every day a school of giant Bumphead Parrotfish used to eat their way around the island, munching coral and defecating sand. But at that time I never got within 20 feet of the school. On one morning dive this year, I watched them gather from their sleeping places and literally joined the school as they paused momentarily to be serviced by cleaner wrasses.
Circling barracudas have an uncanny habit of showing up just after youíve run out of film.
A half-hour boat ride away is the island of Mabul, a mecca for muck-diving macro photographers. Unlike Sipadan, Mabul is on the continental shelf so its reefs slope gently to a maximum of 60 feet. The treasures here are tiny and sometimes well-hidden. But patient and observant divers may find ghost pipefish, cuttlefish, Mantis Shrimps, juvenile sweetlips and several species of nudibranchs.
Mabul is also an answer to the housing shortage on Sipadan. Itís a larger island with more room for resorts, so divers can stay there and make it a base for occasional trips to the nearby islands.
Labuan, Sipadan and Mabul offer vastly different diving experiences: wrecks, walls and muck diving. What they have in common is the richness and diversity of their marine life.
Last Dive at Sipadan
I finally shot the barracuda school. Rashid, the dive guide, pointed toward the reef top, and there were the big guys. I moved underneath them and shot whatever I could, stopping only to take readings and adjust settings. Finally realizing they werenít going anywhere, I calmed down enough to compose the last dozen shots. They circled overhead, forming a ring around the sun. As they swirled around me, a turtle swam into their midst, and I nailed a couple of shots. After the earlier disappointments, it was as if the barracuda were giving me a final chance on my last dive at Sipadan.