Friday, 28 March 2008

Sipadan day 3. If we must.......

21/3 - What will today have in stall for us??? The group is a good mix, the friendship has grown over the last few days and it is always a good fun atmosphere. Everyone helps me out. Yvonne runs around after me like I was her Grandad, Chuan keeps an eye on me and Richard loads me up on the boat before throwing me overboard, well it's really a voluntary back roll, sometimes with help. I am getting lorded over. If Richard is busy with someone else, Amir the dive guide or one of the boat crew help to get me into the water. It could be embarrassing, but everyone is so easy with it.
The team photo is starting from the back the old fella, Paul from Chorley, Catherine, David the Aussie, Apple, Yvonne, Fei, Foo, Richard, C Y and Chuan in the trunks at the front. Back to the blog.
We are off to Sipadan first thing today. Mid Reef is to be our first stop, but turns out to be our 3rd. On the way there some dolphins are spotted, so we power over and stop to watch a while. Then there fish spotted leaping out of the water and a flock of frigate birds above them. The guess is the fish, possibly tuna, are feeding on smaller fish that they have herded to the surface and the frigates are taking advantage of it. It is a really good sight. The diving has not started yet and the day is already a success.
We finally make it to Mid Reef after checking in with the Army/Marine post on Sipadan and the now very enjoyable with lots of banter back roll sees us above a beautiful coral garden. Down we go, over the edge to the wall and it's sharks and turtles all the way. At one point there are 6 to 8 reef sharks patrolling behind a big old tuna. It looks like they are stalking it, but I think they are waiting to pick up any scraps, like the frigate birds. I spotted one reef shark, but couldn't tell if it was a white tip as something had taken the tip off its dorsal fin. There's a big old Napoleon wrasse hanging around here too, there must be some fun or feed around here. At last I spot a scorpion fish, I have been looking every dive. For some reason these masters of camouflage attract me. I looked around to see if there was anyone around I could show it to. Only Richard is close enough. I signaled him and he heads over. I look back to point it out, where the bloody hell has it gone, I'd picked out a marker too. I found it in the end, chuffed with myself. Back to drifting along and a few yellowtail barracuda hover above, then a school of jacks appear as we round a corner, they are circling tornado like, this is nice to watch, so I did for a while. Then I drifted out from the wall a bit, into the blue to get a bigger picture view and it is even more impressive out here. This dive is as good as Barracuda Point. I hang around at the back of the group, checking out the anthias and just sauntering along doing my own thing. It is good to be confident enough to linger at the back and good for the ever watchful Richard to be happy with me there. He came along and complimented me on my buoyancy, which was a very nice boost. I guess he is a good teacher, No!! I know he is a good teacher. Another beautiful dive comes to the end of the air. The vis was brilliant, which goes a long way to making a dive even better.
Back on to the idillic Sipadan for our mid-morning snack and the obligatory break. Paul was on this island 23 years ago when it was possible to stay on it and there was only about 12 of them, the only people on the island. That would be a tremendous experience. I took a stroll along the beach for a few snaps and got talking to a smashing Irish lass, too smashing, I burned my napper as we stood there chatting. Back to the boat and the bitter sweet experience of another dive at Sipadan, but alas the last for a while. South Point the destination this time, the furthest away dive spot around the other side of the island. Over the side we go again. My pressure gauge has an air leak, I pointed it out to Richard, who signalled that it is only small. He's right, but for peace of mind, I set work fixing it. For the doubters in my family, I did too, whilst swimming along at about 15 metres down, so stick that in your pipes and smoke it.
The vis has dropped since the first dive, but it is still wonderful, plenty of turtles or sharks. I love trying to drift up or down to a cruising shark, but they tend not to hang around too long, unlike the friendly turtles. There are butterflyfish, angels, anthias in abundance. The butterflyfish include regals, emporers, banded, all sorts again. Paul demonstrates how to play Superman with the anthias by shooting his arms out towards them and they disappear in an instant into rocks and corals, only to reappear a longer instant later. This is up in the coral gardens about 5 metres, as this is the safety stop of our last Sipadan dive. Sad but brilliant. I have had a time of my life. I hope I get to dive here again. Time will tell. Yvonne invited me back in July, or asked Richard to, once she found out I was around this part of the world a while longer, but I should be in Australia by then. It's back to the rig for some dinner, with the only sighting on the way back the usual flying fish, still brilliant.
I can't believe it's our last day diving. It may be a good thing, to allow all the experiences to sink in. They can become mixed together with the dives coming so fast. I log sighting in the wrong dive, if I don't do my log the same day and still then sometimes.
2 more dives this afternoon, around Pulau Mabul close to the rig. The first at Lobster Bay, or some similar name. This turns out to be the most exciting of the trip. I spotted a red fire goby early doors, then Amir finds a stonefish, even more of a camouflage expert than the scorpion fish I spotted earlier and more venomous. Paul had us do a group concentrate on the boat to try and make an eagle ray appear, but we only see blue spotted rays. Yvonne got the blame because she didn't know what an eagle ray looks like, so must have had the wrong thoughts. There were a couple of moray eels and a lot of nudi branches. You had to be quick to spot them as the current picked up as the dive went on, so the drift became a good old pace and very enjoyable, unless you wanted to stop and look at something. It is a great feeling to drift along as if motorised, suspended in the water. We started to go up above 10 metres and now the current was ripping through. The only way to stop was to grab a boulder. I grabbed one and it came away. Chuan gave me a nudge into the current and I grabbed another and hung on flying like Superman as the current lifted me up, but I had a good grip. Just as well as C.Y. came heading my way. I grabbed her leg and she grabbed a rock. Eventually we were all there, like 10 Supermen or Superwomen hanging onto rocks. It was a real buzz. I could feel my regulator shuddering in my mouth with the current ripping through. This was a different safety stop, hanging onto a rock, checking out the coral garden and its inhabitants. For grabbing C.Y., I got a mention in her log as a drawing. She has the most original dive log I have seen. She logs highlights of dives by drawing them. Thanks for the mention C.Y. I am honoured. After the 3 minute safety stop we let go of our rocks and drift up to the surface, where it is flat calm. I don't understand that, it is beyond me. That's probably no surprise to you.
Back to the rig for a brew and biscuits. The boatcrew and Amir are hard at it swapping gear while we have the easy life. So to another bittersweet moment, the last dive. Yvonne and C.Y. do some leaping of the hoist, they are the big kids of the group, then it is over to Paradise 1, where we met the current the other day. It now seems a mere ripple after the earlier dive. There is no current today as we drop over the side and head down to be met by a horned cowfish. I'm sure it's the one me and Chuan saw the other day. I picked out a couple of banded pipefish hidden under a coral and then a waspfish that looks like a piece of seaweed. It is bigger than the one we saw on the night dive, but these are good spots for me, I'm not the best at spotting the small stuff. The leaders find 3 ornate ghost pipefish, then David an octopus. I spotted a big old turtle out in the murk, so set off to check it out, but he was having none of it and buggered off. Then a cuttlefish, they are nice to watch, shimmering and changing camouflage as they hover. The vis is getting decidedly soupy as our last dive draws to a close. Sad, but just what the doctor ordered.

Thanks Richard, for the invite and the tender loving care. You not only made me feel like Superman, this time I looked like him at one point. You are passionate about your diving and caring about your divers. I hope your life is always as happy as mine. CHEERS!!

There was talk of a night dive, but it has been substituted by a visit to Mabul after the dive is over, before we head back to the rig. It was good to walk around and see the villagers. There are a lot of kids there and they all seem to be having fun. Richard came to rescue me from some of them after a handout, but I had it under control, being a Grandad, I have that scowl that travels the world, it means "that's enough. Pack it in." A bit of shopping in the local shop/huts and it's back to the rig for the last time. Tonight is barbecue night and it is held on the sundeck. What a beautiful place to eat, we should have been up here every night. The weather is great, the company perfect and I even had a few beers. Richard gave an end of jaunt speech and I got a special presentation of a PADI T-shirt. A very happy moment. I am Richard's oldest student, at 54. He is very proud of me and I am chuffed to bits at the presentation.
One of the staff is giving it rice on the guitar. He has a great repertoire and must have played for hours. Paul moved over to assist and greatly amused our group with his singing and dancing, we were well impressed.
People started to drift away, so I found a deckchair, faced into the wind and chilled watching the stars. I sent some texts to the kids and sat a very happy man.
Paul came over and we sat and did the chinwag bit, it was a great night. We called it a day at midnight and left the crew still singing away, but now in Philipino.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Another day diving. How boring. I think not.

20/1 - Up for a repeat of yesterdays serious breakfast. I need the energy and it is lovely.
Off to Ribbon Reef first today, just of Pulau Mabul. This is a long lazy dive, a good start to the day. I'm surprised how many turtles there are cruising by. One has 3 remoras cleaning it up, big remoras, so the turtle must have been big too. The remoras look like fish from outer space, weird. There was a beautiful, juvenile batfish, chocolate brown with a red trim. A good job the ladies never saw it, they'd have scoffed it. This is a good dive to practice buoyancy. Once you get this right, gliding through the water is such a great feeling. Just a gentle kick and you glide along floating through the water, no fighting going up or down, as you glide if you want to glide over an approaching fan coral, just breath in and you drift up as your lungs fill. If you want to drop to check what is under the huge table top coral below, just breath out and down you go. You will have to do it to understand how great it feels. This dive is over after a long hour of gliding.
NEXT... after a brew and a snack, Froggy lair. Guess what we saw??? Close !!! A frogfish, my first and bright yellow/green, only a small lad, but nevertheless my first and good to see. This is another enjoyable dive. There's lots of scaffolding, frames and a boat to float around, scrutinising for whatever may be there. I didn't have to do much scrutinising for the shoal of jacks patrolling inside one of the frames. They were circling around inside the framework, very impressive. As usual, there are plenty of soft corals and I never get fed up of watching the anenome/clown fish, Nemos, protecting their hideaway. They are as cute and as fun as Nemo and very brave too. The water got a bit murky towards the end of the dive and the group was split in two, but Fei saved the day, he had spotted which way the other went. We had become distracted by a Spanish dancer Amir, the dive guide, had found. They are flatworms, very colourful, this one was black with a red trim. When lifted up through the water, they ripple as they dance their way back to their resting place. Seeing it is better than the description. Anyway, time is up again, so back to the rig and some dinner before trip 2 to Sipadan. The journey is about 20 minutes to Sipadan and there are always flying fish, gurnards along the way and I am sure I spotted some dolphins, but there were more doubters than believers. At Sipadan this time it was another drift along the wall from West Point before we are landed at a deserted beach for tea, butty and cake. I thought it was only allowed to land at the army base. Shows how much I know. I was really impressed this morning how the diving had improved my knee. I should have known better. I went over getting off the boat, so now I have a bruised backside too. I must have been rushing for the cake. It was a bit of a jolt, but I went for a float in the water and then the next 2 dives put me back on track. The diving really does clear it up. It looks like I shall have to have a life of diving. The next Sipadan dive is Turtle Cavern. This is a bit of a cave complex in the wall where some turtles have gone in and not been able to find there way out in the dark, so there are some turtle skeletons in here. 2 Japanese divers were found in here, also dead, lost like the turtles. DON'T WORRY, we have a guide and with my sense of direction, how could we get lost???? There was 7 of us went in and 7 came out, so that can't be bad. Not the same 7, but hey, you can't have everything.
Cave diving is not my thing. There's not a lot to see, at least not in this one. We saw the turtle skeleton, but no Japanese. Once the bottom gets disturbed the vis becomes bad and disorientating and in pitch black, it must be very disorientating. I would like one more go, with less of us, so the bottom doesn't get disturbed. I had a peak over the wall behind the turtle skeleton and it opened out into what looked like a cavern. It would have been nice to have a quick look, but there were too many of us. Paul said coming out with divers silhouetted in the light of the mouth was a good sight. No arguments here, it was. Once out we drifted along the wall again. It may sound boring, all this drifting along the wall, but only if you didn't want to be down here. Perhaps a comparison is driving through the Scottish Highlands and not noticing the mountains, blue skies, eagles soaring. There is a wonderful experience to be had if you are open to it. There's the expectancy of looking out into the blue and spotting a whale shark, manta or eagle ray. They didn't appear, but you never know, so keep glancing to the blue. Besides, if I get bored I can always do my turtle imitations. They just waft their flippers and go miles and fast, if they wish. They look cumbersome and sometimes are, but who cares when you live in an armoured car. They always manage to get to the piece of coral they want to munch and just glide into the small cutouts on the wall for a kip.
Alas, another dive and another day at Sipadan is over, so clamber back onboard and back to the rig, looking for the flying gurnards, or anything else you may spot, who knows perhaps that illusive manta ray.
A night dive is in the offing. Sitting at breakfast this morning the thought was "There's no way I'm doing 5 dives today, especially the last one, being a night dive. It's infectious though. It is like our Mandy opening a bottle of wine and saying she is only going to have one glass. I get up in the morning with aches and stiff, but after one dive, I feel like a million dollars. This is no bull, no aches after one dive. I don't know if its the effects of the water pressure or the adrenaline buzz, who knows. I should start every day with a dive. If only!!! Anyway, in case you haven't guessed, with some gentle persuasion from Paul and the loan of Chuan's torch I went and it was brilliant. The first night dive I have really enjoyed and my second frogfish and this one was a monster. It got a bit crowded around it, so after everyone moved on, I went back for a 2nd peek. This is a wonderful world down here, we saw all sorts again, but it is safety stop time again.
Last night from the rig main deck, we were watching a big school of rainbow runners, a very big school, with a few barracudas on the outside. Tonight they came to check us out at the safety stop, thousands of them, so a few of us drifted out to them, like Mr Barracuda last night. This was a smashing experience and completely unexpected, a great way to end the dive. Getting out at the rig is made easy too. The hoist lad lowers it into the water, so we just swim on and stand up, a bonus for me and the others too, they are pleased. Up for dinner, fill the dive log in and bed for this well and truely knackered, happy lad. If only we could feel this good when we come in knackered from work.
The adventure just continues on.

Sipadan for real today and in at Barracuda point.

19/3 - Up and feeling good, a quick splash and down for breakfast. I gave the noodles a miss for breakfast, but demolished an omlette, toast, coco crunch, juice and fruit. Hey, it's going to be busy day. The coco crunch are great, I fell in love with them when I worked here. It was raining when I came down, but is starting to brighten up, which is good for vis underwater. The rain here is warm, so nice.
A quick dive briefing and on the boat to Mandarin valley, Pulau (island) Kapalai, about 10 minutes away. The sun is out when we roll back into the water and it shows the colour of the corals up great. I'm already thinking it is a beautiful world down here. There are a few small wrecks and an old house frame, put here to make an artificial reef and attract the fish. One of the wrecks has the biggest snapper I have ever seen in it. You'd get a few fish and chips out of him. It is good maneuvering around the artificial reef, some of the objects are big enough to swim in. There's loads to see down here and it is a good relaxing start to the day. Back to the boat and onboard no problem. I even enjoy just bobbing by the boat waiting to get out. I suppose it is the sunshine and the excitement of what is to come on the next dives. You can dive the same spot several times, but the dives are never the same. Conditions and what you spot make each one different. Back to the boat for a brew and quick snack. One thing about diving, you can eat for fun and it gets burned off, within reason. Another dive brief and we are off to Pulau Mabul, just over the way, to Paradise Reef 1. Richard the trip organiser and the instructor who put me through the first dive course I did, tells us this is a nice easy, relaxing dive. Back on the boat, meanwhile the lads have changed the air bottles and sorted us all out. Roll back into the water, we all gather together, lots of OK signs and we are on our way down again, INTO THE BLOOMING CURRENT. I got over the initial surprise and produced my secret weapon from my BCD. A pair of gloves with webbed fingers. The old legs find it hard going into this current, but with the aid of these gloves, it's loads easier. My buddy, Chuan, was so enthralled he almost missed the horned cow fish we ran into, until I drew his attention to it, we milked it for a while and moved on (Mick joke). The current starts to ease and get behind us as we head for the reef and the hard work was worth it. This must be where Richard's easy, relaxed dive starts and it was a real treat, we just drifted along. There were a couple of crocodile fish, a shoal of jacks, cuttlefish, lobster, loads of nudi branches, which are little colourful, fancy, slugs that come in all colours. Some divers get well into them and spend most of the dive looking for them, they even have their own website, where new finds can be published, but I have not caught that bug yet, they are interesting enough, but I like the big in your face stuff. We passed a big old turtle, just hanging around on the reef and I mean big. There was a banded moray eel easing around the rocks below the turtle. This is a smashing dive, but air is getting low, so it is up for a safety stop and up to the surface, where there was a general winge about the current, which was a nice boost for me, everyone found it hard going. Apple was digging her hands into the sand and dragging herself along at one point. Not recommended, but funny. After the winge came loads of praise for how good the dive was and we haven't been to the main attraction, Sipadan, yet. That's to come after a spot of dinner.
Now we are on our way to the famous and infamous Sipadan and straight into the most famous of its dive sites "Barracuda Point". Diving is great, but diving places like this cannot be beaten in my book, even though we don't see the barracuda. There are reef sharks, turtles, thousands upon thousands of tropical fish, butterfly, damsel, angels, anthias, triggers. There are too many to try and remember them for checking out in the books back onshore, or onrig, it is too confusing. This is probably the best dive site I have been to, but perhaps I am just over excited. It is like swimming in a huge aquarium. When diving at Sipadan it is always a let down to have to surface, but air is getting low, so we have to go up. Everyone is raving about this dive, even the most cynical. To keep the mood going we land on the gleaming white sand of Sipadan for a brew, sandwich and (they knew I was coming), a piece of cake. Some go for a swim in the clear turquoise water off the beach, it is like a paradise island. There is a round of photos, a bit of a relax, then on board for our 2nd Sipadan dive, this time at Hanging Gardens. Again the lads have changed the bottles over.
It is hard to match Barracuda Point, but this site does its best. The wall that is underwater Sipadan is a huge magnificent, rugged, landscape, full of huge spaced out corals, fish roaming everywhere they please, beautiful fish and it drops to at least 600 metres. I have heard different depths up to 1500 metres, but suffice it to say, the bottom is out of sight and I'm not going looking for it. There are small cutouts, that seem to be a favoured resting place for turtles, every so often you come across one crashed in there, bored with the sight of these humans swimming by. Other times glancing out into the deep blue, a turtle glides past and the same below or above. Initially, it is difficult to take your eyes off the wall. The corals on the wall may be sparse, but they are big, some of the fans are huge. Diving here is a great sensation, but air is getting low again, so we start to ascend. The safety stop is a 3 minute hover or swim at 5 metres, it helps release some of the nitrogen built up in the blood. At Sipadan the safety stops are great. The coral gardens start above 10 metres. These are magnificent collections of colourful corals, teaming with fish. This really is aquarium time. Like Paul mentions, when the sun is out you could do with sunglasses, it is so bright and beautiful. Back to the top now and the wind has gotten up making getting onto the boat more exciting, but there is more than enough help and they are getting used to me now. The lads realise I am OK in the water once I have handed my gear up and they are stopping worrying so much.
Well that was the first Sipadan visit. I doubt you can get a bad dive at Sipadan, but I am probably wrong. This is hell of a place and we have 2 more visits yet.
Back to the rig, a quick brew and then it is showered for the evening meal, more delicious Malaysian food and the pineapple is as good as that in Thailand. Fill in the logs and everyone is getting sleepy, so goodnight all.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Sipadan here I come.

18/3 - 4.30 taxi to the airport. The driver who brought me here, gave me his number, so he is taking me back too. He's a good man and he didn't try to fleece me, unlike the barber I went to yesterday.
Checked in, once more and waiting for the rest of the divers. I paniced a bit when the flight started to board and they had not shown up, so I rang Richard. The problem was that is was Tiban's mobile number, but he was very good about the early call. Tiban is another good Malay friend. The others turned up anyway and we boarded. I slept for about 2 of the 2.25 hours. We got into Tawau airport and through customs, which was weird seeing as how this is the same country we left from. Apparently it is to stop an influx of Malays from the mainland to Borneo Malaysia. I was tail end Charlie again and went outside to see nobody from the group. Luckily David had sent Richard back for me. I was headed in the right direction anyway. The bus to Semporna, where the boat leaves from, took about 40 minutes and it was palm oil plantations all the way, interspersed with small villages of houses on stilts, some of them pretty big, with flash cars parked underneath in the shade. I was glad to get into Semporna, the leg room was not the best. After a short break, during which I spotted "Backpacking Divers Hostel" and made a mental note, we were on the boat to the gas rig off Pulau Mabul. It is a lot closer than I remembered. There are lots of houses on stilts on the way to the rig and they are not close to shore, although it is obviously not deep. I bet they don't have cable TV. I wonder if they have electricity. Probably not. It makes you wonder how people would adapt to no TV again.
The sea is beautiful and calm, it looks really inviting, which is just as well as we'll be in there soon.
The group seem a happy bunch, mostly Chinese Malay, with an Aussie and another Brit. I'm struggling a bit with the power and flexibility, it is probably the early start. The rig looks to be a bit of an adventure and thank heavens there's a hoist from sea level to the main deck. The rig is just across from the Water Village where I stayed last time. Happy memories. We are met by a few of the staff with a glass of orange juice as we step off the hoist. I suppose it is a lift, but there are only rails on the sides, not front and back, but if you fall off it will be a soft landing. Lunch has started, so we get stuck in too. Good Malay food, lots of fruit and soft drink. There are loads of fish just looking over the side of the rig. A bit of a relax then take the gear up to the room. We are on the 2nd floor. I wish I had understood the floor numbering before I got to the sundeck on the 4th floor. My pack enjoyed the ride. Someone did offer to take it, but ......... Macho man.
A quick change and we are off for a dive around the artificial reefs under the rig. A shakedown dive. It shook me down. I don't know if it was the murky water or the intermittent current, but the confidence was not high. A quick break for a brew and a biscuit or 6 and we are off to Paradise reef, Mabul for another dive. This dive has me back on song. There are a few turtles, cuttlefish, morays, trumpet fish, all sorts. I got the mickey taken because nobody could understand when I said cuttlefish and we weren't underwater. I had to use a Malay accent, I think.
There's a night dive going down, but I opted out. I am not a fan of night dives. Perhaps it was a good one to miss too, as there was some current around, plus I am knackered, but I hung around to socialise a bit. They are a good bunch. Catherine did a year in Newcastle studying and my room mate, Paul, is from Chorley. He used to live down the road from Kelly.
Off to bed to recharge the batteries. Hopefully it will be Sipadan tomorrow.

A day doing what I like near KL.

17/3 - Up after a good kip and did a bit of sink dhobi, to try and keep ahead. Out for breakfast. There's a McD's opposite, but I think not. There's a Chinese food court on the corner. They are like mobile food stalls gathered around a load of tables. I am not back in the Malay mode after being spoiled by Henk and Jinna, but went in anyway and tried to get some fresh fruit, but gave up as my Malay and Chinese dialects are more that lacking. I ordered a pineapple juice and remembered black tea is Teh O, but forgot they lace it with sugar. Not to worry, while I waited for them I spotted the Nasi Lemak stall, which rang bells, so I wandered over and came back with rice, boiled egg in a curry sauce, fried egg; no runny yolk; cold potatoes, in a different curry sauce, peanuts, dried anchovies and cucumber, which went very nicely with the sugary teh O. If you have not tried Nasi Lemak, I recommend it. The only thing left on my plate was the banana leaf.
Full, I set off back to the Sunway Pyramid shopping mall. I needed to stock up on the immodium, you never know and I have filled my log book. Pills and stationary are a lot cheaper out here, but novels are really expensive. Just thought I'd throw that titbit in.
This shopping Mall is a huge, as well as the ice rink, there is a waterpark out the back, a serious waterpark. I think I have done enough shopping for about 3 weeks, well shop walking, so it is off to Starbucks for the obligatories, in priority, cake, people watching and updating the log. And here I am and very nice the cake is too.
Not anymore. I am back and packed for an early start tomorrow. I was on another hot date with Juliana, but she is poorly, which is a shame as she is only back here on a visit from the Netherlands. She is a special lady and a good friend, so we will meet up when we are back in Europe. If I find my way back to Chorley.
I have a confession to make. I was knackered after all that shopping and couldn't be bothered to wander, so went to McD's for some ayam goreng (fried chicken). It is partly Malay, it was very spicey. They should sell it back home. Another confession, I enjoyed it. I sat outside, which was a good move, the chocolate milkshake softens faster outside. Lekkere.
Quick blog and bed.