Monday, May 12, 2008

Diving: Can't Get Enough

I'm sitting next to a window in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The sky is completely grey and it's about to rain. The breeze is a welcomed change from the typical 35C weather. I just finished four cups of chai masala. I originally ordered double so that Eric could share with me, but he went to use the internet instead. So I accidentally got to drink four cups. An awesome accident.

Before I write more about India, I need to finish Malaysia as well as Thailand and Cambodia. Here we go...

Mabul Island (Mar. 15 - Mar. 17)
Can't say much more about diving at Sipadan than: amazing. I flew to Tawau, in the eastern part of Sabah, on a Saturday morning. Then bused to Semporna and took a boat to Mabul Island. Mabul Island has about 3 really nice resorts and one local village. The island is tiny and would only take about 30 minutes to walk its entire perimeter. I stayed in the village with a local family that had built additional rooms for tourists. I orignally booked only 3 dives, but that quickly changed.

Immediately after I had settled into my room I met a Dutch couple that currently live in Costa Rica and run a dive shop there. They told me they were about to leave for a late afternoon dive around Mabul Island so I too went along. The visibility was a bit murky, but everything else was beautiful. There was a ridge of beautiful hard and soft coral hosting tiny pygmy seahorses, and I mean tiny (about 1 inch long), colorful nudibranchs, and we ended the dive in the presence of a massive sea turtle - she was at least as long as I am tall.

There was a group of about 18 Malaysians diving with the same company as me. They were wonderfully friendly and I even met up with one of the guy's (Sam) when I was back in Kuala Lumpur. After grabbing a coffee in the mall below the Petronas Towers and giving me a DVD full of underwater pictures from the Sipadan dive trip, Sam gave me a tour of KL in his company van. Unfortunately it was pouring, so the tour was largely conducted from inside the van. The roads were flooded and at one point a car drove past us and blinded us with water. A scary moment considering how people drive in KL (however, after being in India, driving in KL is like driving through State College, PA). That was a bit off topic, back to Mabul Island:

The next day: 4 more dives. We left at 5:30AM for Pulau (island) Sipadan. Sipadan is one of top diving destinations in the world and until recently, the island used to be populated with resorts and tourists. A couple years ago, in the interest of conserving the rapidly declining reefs around the island, the Malaysian government closed all of the resorts. Now only 120 people can dive around Sipadan per day. Our first dive was along a steep wall. We went down to about 30 meters, and even from that depth we couldn't see the bottom. The coral really wasn't that impressive, but the visibility was amazing and we saw at least 6 reef sharks.

The second dive was at a site called Coral Garden and was absolutely spectacular. We entered the water over a densely covered reef flat. We swam over all different types and colors of coral until the reef opened into a seemingly bottomless abyss. We descended, surrounded on three sides by walls of coral and then began swimming along one of the walls. I could see forever in front of me, forever below me, and the sky above. I could have stayed underwater forever. The wall was so densely covered with coral and as we swam closer we could see that it was teeming with much smaller life: sea stars, nudibranchs, sea squirts, sea cucumbers, huge sea turtles nestled into coves within the wall... It was amazing. We ended the dive back on the reef flat in the company of at least 3 sea turtles. Minutes before we ascended we heard what sounded like one of our air tanks crashing into the coral below. It was a bomb, probably about 40 miles away. Dynamite fishing is illegal, but apparently still practiced by fisherman. It's sad that such a destructive method of fishing is still in use, especially in an area hosting some of highest marine diversity in the world.

I had an amazing weekend. Although the diving was the best I've ever done, the experience wouldn't have been quite the same without the people I met, the dive masters with whom I dove, the company of the local villagers, and the traditional Malay meals. It's so nice to be part of a community as opposed to observing it from the luxury of a resort.

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