World class diving….Sipadan Island & Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia

 One month in Borneo. And then its over. After 275 days in Asia, we will be flying back to Zurich. It’s nice to have an end date – gives us more structure, but having talked to many people on similar trips, it will be weird to leave. Reverse culture shock we think it’s called. And then what? Good question. We’re taking suggestions.

We flew from Singapore to Borneo, arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia late evening. We checked into our hotel and then went in search of food at the waterfront night market. But first, we were summoned to a Carlsberg beer festival of some sort, where we watched a lady in skimpy clothes sing at the top of her lungs under flashing lights and lasers. Not exactly how we expected to find Borneo, a rather conservative place.

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We spent the next few days holed up in the Hyatt, taking advantage of the free cocktail hour and breakfast spread, as well as the bathtub. Why so excited about a bathtub? Well, we haven’t even seen a bathtub since December. And they make it infinitely more easy to wash our backpacks. Riki’s backpack in particular had become quite foul-smelling. After a long soak, and probably some strange comments from the cleaning crew, we were smelling fresh and ready for our next stop, Semporna, to do some diving on the famous Sipadan Island. Sort of a Clampett’s moment.

Amazing cheesecake bc yes, its kind of our honey moon
Fishing boat in KK
Kota Kinabalu

(You’ll notice there’s not much info on Kota Kinabalu. Because there’s not much to do. I got my hair cut. We did a little shopping. But mostly we went to the hotel gym and pool, and watched movies. It was nice not to be moving around for a few days. Oh, and they called us Sir Richard and Miss Catherine – they get confused by middle names everywhere we go – it was lovely.)

We took an hour flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau for $21.89 (for both of us). Plus $7.50 for a bag. So much better than the 12+ hours we would have endured on the bus. Tawau is about an hour and a half from Semporna, the gateway to Sipadan Island. We ended up in a shared car with a speed demon driver. The drive was primarily through palm oil plantations, which this area is full of. Unfortunately, it is very detrimental to the wildlife and rather unnerving to see just miles and miles of palm trees in straight lines.

Palm plantations as far as the eye can see
More palms

We had scheduled a buffer day in before our dives, as we had to book a package deal with a company that has a very strict “no refund” policy. We didn’t want our cheap flight being delayed to cost us a whole day of diving. I woke up with a bad headache anyway, so luckily we had a whole day to explore Semporna and blog.

Semporna fish market
Massive fish fresh off the boat

Semporna is a s**thole. Sorry, no other way to put it. It is dirty, crowded and dismal. And not just because it rained. There’s a couple of restaurants near the port, which were ok. Most people who come to dive the islands don’t stay more than night before catching a boat out. We opted to save a lot of money and dive from town, avoiding the all-inclusive packages we found on the islands. Plus, we were gone all day diving and didn’t have to spend much time in the town.  We had to book ahead to secure a permit for Sipadan, as only 120 people can snorkel or dive each day and each company only gets a certain amount of permits. We were lucky enough to get permits for both days we wanted to dive.

Our first day, we rented a camera from the dive shop so we have some great pictures of numerous sharks, turtles and a plethora of other fish we spotted. Riki took all the photos, of course. GoPro cameras seem to be the popular choice among divers, but we have not jumped on that bandwagon. Our underwater camera is a few years old and only goes to 10 meters. So renting for a day was a great option.

We saw too many things to list, but the highlights included a brief encounter with a hammerhead shark (not pictured as he was too fast and the visibility wasn’t great), tons of reef sharks, white & black tipped sharks, green turtles, puffer fish, school of large barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and a giant clam.

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Trigger fish which later terrorized members of our group

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Our surface intervals were spent on Sipadan Island, watching monitor lizards. There is no accommodation on the island anymore – it is protected, and the permit system keeps the number of visitors down. To dive here, you must be an advanced diver or completed 20 dives. I don’t think that’s because the area is difficult to dive, but to keep people from messing with the coral. Though we did see someone standing on the coral, oblivious to the woman yelling obscenities at them to get off it.

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As much as I love having pictures, I am glad we only took the camera for one day. I prefer my dive buddy to be close to me rather than chasing sharks off into the distance for the perfect shot. I’m still pretty nervous in the water and the equipment wasn’t in the best shape. I am very glad we were able to get 6 dives in on Sipadan. It is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world. The visibility wasn’t great and the water was sometimes very chilly, but the amount of fauna we spotted was amazing. It was like: oh a shark (turn head) and a turtle (turn head) shark, turtle, turtle, shark, puffer fish, shark, and so on and so on.

Next stop: Sukau to see orang utans in the wild.

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