Archive for July, 2007

Diving Trip to Sipadan (AmazingRace)

Sorry…I had been missing in action from my blog for nearly 4 weeks. It had been an adventurous time and I had been wanting to share it. Its one of those “like what you watch in cliche movies or cliche books” and yet it happens.

The “amazing race” started when i got a call from one of the diving mates in the morning of our departure. “&*%%& i just woke up!” were the words i uttered to him as i shot out of my bed (i usually take 1 hr snooze-time so you can imagine). I knew i was late. It didn’t help that i didnt sleep till 4am the night before. The Malaysian driver was waiting downstairs our apt since half hour ago and he’s gonna have to wait for another half or more as we still had wetsuits which we had forgotten to pack in. Plus we need to change our bags so that we can fit the wetsuits in.

The chartered van was supposed to pick up another 2 of our diving mates from their place before heading to the Causeway, then to Senai Airport where we will take a domestic flight to Tawau, Sabah. You see..the schedule was planned so tightly that we assume no margin of error. So we started making alternative plans over the phone as we were changing and packing up. Our diving mates suggested they take a cab and meet us just before the Causeway.

The van drove at breakneck speed and as we go across the causeway, we unloaded and dash across the immigration counter with our heavy dive bags and more bags. It felt like we were in a race, just that we were the only participants. Someone should reconfigure the way the Malaysian Immigration at the Causeway is laid out. We live in a rat race economy = low tolerance for inefficiency!!

Customs cleared. Reloaded into the van and prepare for the next destination: Senai Airport which was about an hour away.

Destination reached. Van door opens, we jumped out, dragged out bags out of the way, and headed for the Air Asia check-in queue. There were only 4 ahead of us but we waited long enough to finish 2 fish burgers and 1 large Vanilla Ice-Blended after queueing 20mins for the burgers at Mary Brown. Again, inefficiency.

Our turn to check-in. Excess baggage of 20kg chargeable even though the flight obviously has spare weight allowance we can use since we were the last to check in and there were passengers with no check-in luggages at all. Nevermind..that’s how they make money anyway. They took way to long to process the excess baggage bill and we had to again race to the gate which was already closing.

air asia

The Air Asia crew at the gate tore the boarding pass which was a thin, filmsy dotmatrix-printed (at least thats what it looked like) paper and returned us one part of it. We ran down the stairs, pass the gate and then to the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane. Phew…we made it! The next flight to Tawau was the day after. You can imagine the relief we felt.

On the plane…we waited for 45 mins and then an announcement came on. The only thing i could make out of it was that 4 passengers did not board the plane but their baggage were onboard. So they’re going to remove the baggage before taking off. You mean they were waiting 45 mins to see if the passengers turned up? I thought this was a budget airline? Who cares if the passenger turns up?

Anyway the whole ordeal wasted about an hour. The plane finally took off and the pilot triumphantly announced that he arrived half an hour before his projected time.

We arrived at Tawau airport. The quietest airport i have seen. We went to the baggage claim belt (the shortest i have seen) and waited patiently for our bags, debating whether they do a FIFO (first in first out) or LIFO (last in first out) system. Either way, our baggages were not in sight. The belt stopped. We waited for it to move again but a staff jumped out of the “tunnel” which the bags came out from and walked towards the exit as if to go for his smoke break after a flight’s work.

He waved his hands and said “no more”. YOU MEAN THERE’S NO MORE BAGGAGE?? What happened to ours? There were supposed to be 4 more!

The ground crew then brought us up to their office nonchalantly (as if this happens all the time) and we asked where our luggages went. He said there were no baggage tagged to our names and hence, no baggage followed us here. What the *^&%O(! What was the excess baggage charges for then? Our own body weight?

We showed them the receipt for our excess baggage charges and demanded that they find out what’s happening and how they’re going to send us back the baggage. They made some phone calls in Berhasa Malay and told us that our baggage were removed from the plane before it took off. So the bags removal announcement on the plane that we heard before the takeoff was for our bags!! How is that possible?

Anyway we demanded for compensation as we were stranded without our bags. The earliest we could get our bags was the next day because that was the only flight for the day and our bags missed it. The staff defended that it was a technical problem (their system showed no bags attached to us) and that it wasn’t their fault so they’re not giving any compensation.

“It’s stated in our Terms & Conditions, we’re only responsible for your baggage from point to point.”, says the staff with a frown. But we’re not even getting our baggage at the point of disembarkation!

We spent a good 1 hr at the office trying to get them to do a simple task of filing a report (for insurance purposes) and telling us exactly how they’re going to ensure that our baggage arrives the next day. And by the way, we’re supposed to stay over for the night at a hotel near the pier and then take the morning boat (only one a day) to Mabul island the next day. The flight next day is not going to be early enough for us to collect the baggage before we leave for the island.

Can it get any more complicated?!

To cut the long story short, we made do with what we had and headed to SeaFest Hotel in Semporna which we were supposed to stay the night. Fantastic…they were not able to retrieve our booking coz it wasn’t booked under our name for some reason. The only booking they had were for 4 pax. They had to check and we needed food. So we went out to find dinner and hopefully a convenient store.

Guardian Pharmacy

Our eyes lighted up when we saw the sign Guardian Pharmacy. We had never been so happy to see Guardian Pharmacy and it was a gem in this backward town. We bought toiletries (toothbrush, paste, contact lens solutions etc) and headed back to the hotel. Unfortunately they don’t sell clothes. The hotel finally confirmed that the booking was for us and we checked in.

The next morning at 6:30am, clad in the same smelly clothes we checked out. We were supposed to be greeted by someone from the resort who will bring us to the island. But they only came 2 hrs later! A further test of our patience?

Things started to get better as we reach Sipadan Water Village. It’s BEAUTIFUL! We had proper welcome greetings, drinks and wet towels, and a brief introduction about the resort and some housekeeping.

SWV1

The water villas
Our first checkout dive was supposed to be right upon our arrival. But because we didn’t have our baggage and dive equipment with us, they couldn’t slot us in because they were out of BCs (buoyancy compensator). So we had to miss one dive and we did our checkout dive in the afternoon.

We had to loan the equipment and gears. Grimy masks with unremovable algae stains, fins which didn’t fit well, wet suits that were 2 sizes too big it gives an overhang at the crotch and butt area. Thank god they sell bikini at their souvenir shop. How i miss my own dive gears now.

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House reefs sites
Nick was our dive master for this dive. He is British and speaks with nice accent. It was considered a shore dive as didn’t have to take a boat out. The site was called Paradise 1. It was nice and relaxing and we saw a huge greenback turtle scratching its back by rubbing itself against some rocks. Then Nick had shrimps crawling into his mouth eating his left over lunch (with his regulator removed of course).

The dive could have been nicer if it was done in the comfort and familiarity your own equipment.

We made a call to check on our baggage. The flight that our baggage was supposed to take was delayed! It will only arrive at 10:30pm (originally 3pm). And because it is arriving late, it will miss the boat ride to the island. We checked with the resort and their policy is not to have boats go out at night. We begged the resort manager to do something about it and he managed to come up with a solution. He got connected with one of the neighbouring resort who had guests on this flight. The only thing was that the guests were supposed to stay in Semporna for one night and then take the boat into the resort the next morning, just like what we did. So the bags can only arrive next morning!

We had to come to terms with having the baggage delayed for one more day. It’s beginning to sound depressing and we weren’t even sure if there will be more problems getting our baggage since we do not have direct control over it.

Longing… we had the most appropriate experience to describe the word.

The next morning we woke up at 5am, longing for our bags to arrive safely (I see them as taking human form after they were removed from the plane). Our dive was 7am and it was supposed to be our first dive in Sipadan. A boat will take us to Sipadan for two dives and we will only come back during lunchtime.

The boat from Semporna arrived at 6:30am. We dashed to the jetty hoping to catch a glimpse of our bags on the boat. I saw it. My red bag!! We were so overjoyed we joined the resort staff in welcoming the guests (actually more like welcoming our bags) and then helped them unload our bags. The feeling was undescribeable! We managed to get our own equipment in time for our long-awaited Sipadan dives!!

First stop, Turtle Cavern drift dive to Barracuda Point.

We dropped off from the boat at Turtle Cavern. The visibility was about 10m as it had been raining. Not fantastic for a first dive in Sipadan though we saw many white-tip and black-tip reef sharks and turtles of course, in all sizes and interesting-looking leaf scorpionfish which looked so well camourflaged amidst the corals. One good thing about diving with this dive centre is that they avoid strong currents. So it was a very peaceful and pleasant dive with one dive master to our group of 4 divers, occasionally 6/7 divers.

shark1shark2

shark3

We then drifted slowly with the mild current to Barracuda Point which was just next to Turtle Cavern. As the name suggests, its Barracuda to look out for. It wasn’t the circling school of barracudas you watch in documentaries. But it was a school of them nonetheless.

After the dive, the boat took us to Sipadan island for our surface interval. Its a small “station” where the police and the island conservation “wardens” are based. So there isn’t much of a beach there. Just huts, damaged boats which are used as resting seats, and tables and chairs for resting. We had our tea-break in our wetsuits as the weather was rather gloomy (no chance for getting a tan in between dives). One of the dive master from another boat started building sand castles. More like a sand shark, sand turtle and sand whale shark.

We took off for the next dive at Staghorn Crest. The visibility was much better at about 20m. Again more sharks. I’ve never seen so many sharks so easily. The corals were nice with some colourful fish residing amidst them. Fire dartfish, nudibranchs, boxfish etc.

In the afernoon we went to Ribbon Valley II at Mabul Island. The site is so lively with juvenile ribbon eel, orang utan crab, boxfish, garden eel, yellow moray eel, anemone shrimp, lionfish etc. After 30 mins of diving, our dive master ran out of air. His tank probably wasn’t full when he descended coz i still had about 150 bar when I saw the DM and 2 other divers in our group sharing air with each other, ascending at the same time. I panicked for a while as I wasn’t sure what was happening. I signalled to the other diver in our group and asked him if he knew what was happening. Surprisingly, he doesn’t even give a damn and he just gave me a shrug and continued shooting away with his camera. Fine… I’ll just continue my dive until someone tells me to ascend.

2 minutes later, a DM from another group swam towards us and wrote on his writing board that our DM went out of air and signalled that we can continue diving at that same spot till we reach our 45th min and we can ascend at the same spot. I gave an OK sign and before i could turn around, our DM appeared from being the other DM like it was some super hero who completed the mission.

So he continued to head the dive till it was time to ascend for us. I then found out that he only had 10 bars of air left when he checked. That’s when he shared air with the other 2 divers and ascended together. He said he usually trust the boatman to change the tank for him but this time it wasn’t changed. He actually went down with a used tank! Thank god it was his tank and not mine. I would have panicked.

We managed to squeeze in a sunset dive on the same day. The sunset dives are done at their house reefs area named Paradise I and Paradise II. They usually limit to 6 divers for sunset dives guided by DMs. As the other 2 divers were participants of the annual photo week competition which was held in Sipadan Water Village at the same period of our trip, the DM had to ask if they are fine with us joining their dive.

The highlight of this sunset dive was to watch the Mandarin fish mate (Paradise II). They usually do it at sunset and it is said to be an awesome experience watching that. We were told that we might even have to wait up to an hour for that to happen. True enough, our dive lasted 79mins. But we didn’t get to see them mate. Well…almost. One got on top of the other but nothing happened beyond that. I guess they were shy with 7 divers glueing our eyes on them. The uneventful wait was compensated by the rest of the dive which we saw a huge Flying Gurnard.

flying-gurard.jpg

We had a fairly satisfactory dive day saved by being able to retrieve our gears and equipment in time. The dinner tasted better as we totally relieved ourselves of the stress of the missing baggage. After dinner, they played the video of the day’s selected dives on the 42-inch flat screen in the lounge.

As it was the PhotoWeek, they had the Scubazoo folks to do videography of dive groups at selected dive sites (eg: Barracuda point, South point etc) and then the dive groups can decide if they wanna buy the video.

The next day, the videographer followed our group to Barracuda Point. 2 Brits and a caucasian couple joined formed the other half of our dive group. We set out in the morning and met another dive boat at the Sipadan Park Reserve station. It was a Thai group and they were babbling in excitement about their citing of Hammerhead sharks at Staghorn Crest. Hammerheads?? We were there yesterday and we see no Hammerheads.

Thai Group -hammerheads

We headed on to Barracuda Point after the DM submitted the names to the park warden. It’s strange having to be more conscious about how we look gearing up now that we have the videoman on board. And you know the video is going to be played at the lounge the same night.

This dive turned out better than the one yesterday at the same site. We saw a huge school of barracuda, we swam aside them and it was an awesome sight. The videographer followed the school and managed to catch a good video of them circling above him.

barracudas 1barracudas2

The other interesting site we went to was the Sea Venture Oil Rig. The now-defunct oil rig was built by Singapore years ago. I wish I had more info on the history of it but no ones seems to know exactly. The oil rig has been converted to a dive resort called Sea Venture Dive Resort and you can actually do a live-aboard there. I heard the divers from the resort are taken down to the sea by a sea-lift, almost like a cage which lets you drop off when you reach the surface.

seaventure oil rig1 oilrig2

I was a bit fearful when I descended. I had always had a phobia for structures in the sea, their giant firm legs that are covered by algae. The visibility there was not bad, 15-20m and there were some interesting creatures we spotted. Amidst the otherwise dull-coloured corals were the brightest nudibranchs you can find. And in many different varieties.

nudibranch1nudibranch2nudibranch3

The highlight at this site was the pigmy seahorse. It’s so tiny that it’s almost impossible for anyone to spot it with the naked eye. The DM spotted the pigmy seahorse like he knew that was the seahorse’s home. It resides on a red sea fan which spans almost a metre wide.

pigmy seahorse

Another interesting creature – Frogfish (it looks like a freak actually)

frogfish

The rest of the dives for the trip were quite interesting. One of the fish that I’ve seen for the first time is the crocodile fish. As the name suggests, it looks just like a crocodile.

crocofish

And the best dive of the entire trip was the very last dive. Jay the DM brought us to the entrance of a cave which was rather spooky as they said at the deeper end of the cave, it’s actually a turtle tomb. And there were also sightings of dolphin bones. There were signs at the entrance to warn divers not to go in. It actually felt quite spooky.

cave entrance

cave

After the cave, we saw a leopard shark lazing by a wall ledge, a huge turtle, a massive school of giant bumphead parrotfish which kept on excreting sand, their bugteeth looked like they seriously need braces desperately. And last but not least, HAMMERHEADS!!

leopard shark

Not a very good picture of the leopard shark above.

turtlebumphead1bumphead2

That was an intimidating sight getting caught in the middle of a school of bumphead parrotfish! Unfortunately we didn’t managed to get a good photo of the hammerheads. But I will never forget the thrill of sighting them.

It was quite sad having to leave the resort after you get comfortable living there and familiar with the faces. And it certainly was quite an adventure for us. Thinking back, it wasn’t so bad losing our baggage for a moment after all. That is what makes up an unusual and unforgettable trip.

That leaves me with a line that I always ask after each dive trip, “When and where will our next dive trip be?”.

July 15, 2007 at 3:20 pm Leave a comment


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