Heart & Brain Underwater

Sabah 2009 (Dive Mabul, Sipadan & Layang Layang), 30 Apr – 12 May

3rd quarter 2008, budget airlines – Air Asia & Jetstar (& subsequently – Tiger Airways) announced that they were starting direct flights to Kota Kinabalu from March 2009 & a friend had bought Air Asia’s promo tickets for the long weekend of 1st May. Found out that 9th May is another holiday, so I started to plan for a long trip to Sabah, using both holidays & until my birthday (so that I didn’t have to work on my birthday). Priority was to dive the famous Sipadan. As we (I) researched & finalised our plans, priority somehow shifted to the famous & more exclusive Layang Layang http://www.avillionlayanglayang.com/ (only 1 resort there) because staying at Mataking, Kapalai etc would cost us nearly the same… As priority shifted, funds allocation also shifted, so decided to go budget for Sipadan area & chose Scuba Junkie http://scuba-junkie.com/.

To cut the long story shorter (I try), this was our itinerary:

  • 30 Apr: S’pore to Kota Kinabalu KK. on JetStar Afternoon river cruise
  • 1 May: KK to Tawau on Malaysia Air Services (MAS), Tawau to Semporna
  • 2 May: Semporna to Mabul (Dive Mabul 3 dives)
  • 3 & 4 May: Dive Sipadan (3 dives each day) & night Dive at Mabul on 4 May
  • 5 May: R&R at Mabul, 3pm transfer to Semporna
  • 6 May: Semporna to Tawau to KK (Air Asia)
  • 7 May: KK to Layang Layang on chartered MAS. (2 dives)
  • 8 – 10 May: Dive Layang Layang (3 boat dives + 1 dusk jetty dive a day)
  • 11 May: Layang Layang 1 Dive. Visited Bird Island. R&R rest of the day.
  • 12 May: MAS Layang Layang to KK to S’pore on JetStar. Reached S’pore b4 12noon.

This is the long story… (non dive day are highlighted in Orange & dive days in Blue)

  • 30 Apr:
  • Morning: S’pore to Kota Kinabalu (KK) by Jetstar S$192 each (Jetstar cancelled the 1st May flight, so need to take leave for 1 more day). Coincidentally, Terence’s army friend & his friends were also taking the same flight, their flight on the 29 Apr was also cancelled! They only found out at the airport, as nobody reconfirmed the flight. Embarrassed
  • Afternoon: Reached KK in the late morning, checked into Daya Hotel KK (booked through Nemo Travel – who handled our Layang Layang booking). The room was very comfortable, although a little on the small side. Had an early lunch at the Kopitiam (coffeshop) at the next block. Only In Borneo http://www.oibtours.com/ picked us from Daya around 1:30pm for the Proboscis Monkey & Firefly River Cruise MYR180 (booked through River Junkie http://www.river-junkie.com/proboscis-monkey/) We were transferred from a van to a bus at a hotel at the outskirts of town. From there, it was a 2+hrs drive to Garama River, or so we were told… We were 1+hr into our journey, when the bus stopped at the roadside due to problems with the brakes, abt 12 of us had wait to join another bus & 1 family of 5 continued their journey in a van.
  • Upon reaching Garama, we walked for 5mins on the boardwalk through a marshy area (reminded me of the boardwalk in Pulau Ubin) to the rest area aptly called Monkey Cafe. A gang of long tail macaques were foraging for food in the marsh. Tea-break was served – Tea/Coffee, some yummy snacks (goreng pisang & glutinous rice cakes). We rented a powerful binoculars equaled by its size & weight & boarded a fiberglass speedboat for the cruise. We started the cruise abt 4pm. The river & the surrounding forest was peaceful, only to be disrupted by the roar of the boats’ engines. It was not a comfortable cruise (it was more like a longgg boat ride), we were sitting on the hard fiberglass with not much of stretching space for 2hrs (do get your bladder emptied before boarding), luckily near the end of the cruise, we managed to spot a family of abt 10 proboscis monkeys foraging on a tall leafy tree (Terence & I were the 1st ones to spot them!). We watched them for awhile & were making our way back, when another smaller group was spotted! They were nearer to the river but the evening was wearing on & it was getting too dark to observe & photograph them. The cruise ended in near darkness. After having a nice & simple buffet dinner, we went back onto the boat again, this time to see fireflies! We did see some twinkling in the forest, it was quite nice but the twinkling was quite weak & some Asian tourists were flashing their cameras away & dazzling (blinding) us! Was glad that the cruise ended soon after. We were dropped at the village’s jetty, it was a nice walk back to the bus, passing by the villagers’ houses & mosque. We reached Daya around 11pm & were dead tired!
  • 1st May. Had a late breakfast at Daya, packed & checked out. Transfer did not show up, so we took a cab to the airport., 20 MYR. Quick browse around the new KK airport & then boarded the relatively empty MAS flight MYR106 ea (w 20kg of baggage). Mt Kinabalu looked majestic & near. Scuba Junkie (SJ) arranged pickup at Tawau airport, there were only 2 of us in the van so MYR 80, it was an hour plus drive to Semporna. We checked into 1 of SJ Backpackers’ maroon coloured ensuite rooms for the night MYR 60, with breakfast for 2 & free internet. It was an ok room, except we could hear rats (or something) running on the roof (scared us initially, we got used to it gradually, only hope that none fall onto the bed) & the roof was leaking when it rained heavily in the middle of the night… We had very nice no brand chicken burgers (MYR 2 each) at the corner stall at the end of the block of SJBK. Until today, Terence still misses the burgers dearly.  In the evening we had dinner 1 of the coffee-shops  near the circle, the bbq chicken wings were quite nice but our clothes reeked of bbq smell after that.
  • 2nd May. Assembled at SJ dive shop at 8am, there were 3 boats of abt 30 divers going out that morning, 2 to Mabul/Kapalai, 1 going to Sipadan, it was quite chaotic. We had to get our own luggage to the boat. Hey, no frills ya… Abt 40mins bumpy, high-speed boat ride later, we arrived at Mabul. SJ’s Mabul Beach Resort MBR looked wonderful & inviting. And we met pretty Nana again! She was diving with us for 2 days. After a mad rush to get ready our gear & such, we were off to the boat again. There were abt 18 divers, led by 3 DMs. Our 1st dive was at Manta Point which was 5mins away, with our DM of the day – Jenny. Max Depth MD: 30.9m, Time In TI: Bottom Time BT: 50mins Viz: 20m. Very nice wall dive, anemone with shrimps, blue nudi w white edge, 2 nudis – 1  abt 10cm “big”, the other s half the size, a 30cm big crocodilefish! Longfin batfish, a large green sea turtle scuffled  by, just no manta. 2nd dive was at Sting Ray Alley also abt 5mins away, TI: 12:51pm, BT: 64mins, MD: 31.9m Viz: 20m. It was a beautiful wall dive similar with Manta Point with a splendid reef top. There was nice nudi Phyllidiopsis pipeki, I spotted a small skirmish scorpionfish & the name-sake of this site sting-ray (blue-spotted), Jenny spotted a bigger crocodilefish abt 50cm! A lovely green sea-turtle swam towards us & then zoomed into the blue when it noticed us. There was a small school of longfin batfish. After a late lunch, not very worth mentioning, we went diving at the Sea Ventures Rig, just directly outside the MBR jetty. TI: 3:39mins, BT: 52mins, MD: 17.7m Viz 12m. Surface surge & current was quite strong but it was a nice muck dive, really enjoyed it! Jenny wanted to show us a pygmy seahorse which they saw yesterday but we were not as fortunate. We did get to see a blue ribbon eel, a cute blenny which made his home in a pipe, network pipefish, peacock mantis shrimp, a small white mantis shrimp, beautiful nudis – a Halgera carlsoni & 2 Chromodoris wallini (quite alot of them at Sipadan too), trumpetfish, many-spotted sweetlips, a large scopionfish near the line, small school of barracudas & a very friendly batfish.
  • 3rd May. The boat came from Semporna, picked us up around 9+am, 20+mins later, we reached Sipadan at last. It was a gloomy morning & our DM of the day was Paul. Our 1st dive was at South Point. TI: 10:27am, BT: 51mins, MD: 27.3m, Viz: 30m. We were dropped onto the reef-top, then descended down the 45deg wall, it was quite colourful. I spotted a moray eel, a green sea turtle swam above us. Paul spotted a white-tip reef shark resting at about 40m, then a couple more white-tips at shallower depth.  We saw several large unicornfish was having a bubble-bath provided by the Czech & a large green sea turtle was “harassed” by the other group of divers. Next dive was at the most famous Sipadan site – Barracuda Point! TI: 12:38m, BT: 53mins, MD: 23.5m, Viz 17m. We were greeting by a large pickle-handle barracuda, when we descended. We also saw a green sea turtle. At the channel, there were several white-tips resting on the sandy bottom, they were quite tolerant of divers. Then we met the famous barracudas cyclone – very nice! Our surface interval was on Sipadan! I wanted to get some fresh water for the camera & ventured into the flooded toilet complex, yeeks… After a barely edible lunch of 3/4 cooked rice, 3/4 cooked noodles, watery potato+chicken curry & very little veggies, the only nice thing was the bananas! (The noodles & rice were a little better on the next day) Had a walk around the nice white sand beach & a dip in the sea. Only a small area of the beach around the jetty & rest area, was accessible. 3rd dive was at Lobster Lair, maybe there used to be lobsters at this site… TI: 3pm, BT: 61mins, MD 20.4m, Viz: 20m. Colourful wall dive, lots of Chromodoris Wallani & Chromodoris, usually in threes, they were on brown sponges. The Czech lady spotted a large green sea turtle on a ledge looking at us with its large shiny eyes, very cool! We also saw several white-tips swimming below us. Nice dive! When we got back to Mabul, Nana had to rush around to get her things to the boat & we bade her farewell, she had enjoyed the Mabul/Sipadan part of her trip.
  • 4th May. Our DM at Sipadan was Rosie. She was to exhaust herself, taking care of some newly certified AOW & OW divers, was glad that she was really steady & those divers were pretty well-behaved & opened to instructions! & we also made some new friends, including European – Imants & S’porean – Fay, they also joined us for the night dive. Like the previous day, we had to sign in at the Sipadan jetty, get the flag before we can dive. There was some commotion at the jetty that morning – a napolean wrasse was spotted! The water was so shallow & we could see it clearly! Our 1st dive was at the beautiful Turtle Patch – we did indeed encountered several turtles & was close to 1! There were also several white-tips & grey reef! Nice! Altho it was a little choatic in the beginning, the good dive more than made up for it.TI: 10:39am, BT: 57mins, MD: 24.8m The next dive at the colourful Hanging Garden was also very nice! TI: 12:45pm, BT: 60mins, Viz 20m. We were much more organised & had another close encounter with a fearless green sea turtle, met several white-tips & grey reefs (so many that we stopped notifying each other, after the initial few…) Rosie even led us into the blue, in search of hammerheads! None seen, else we can cancel the Layang Layang trip. Wink She had encountered hammerheads in Dec 08! At the colourful reef top, there was a school of mid-night snappers, a white-tip & a small tuna, both scuffled off fast. We had lunch on the beach, the rice & noodles was cooked. Next dive, Barracuda Point! TI:3:08pm, BT: 50mins, Viz: 17m. As soon as we descended, we saw a large school of travellies! There were so many of them, many divers were watching them, it was hard to leave them. Then a large grey reef cruised by a school of red tooth triggerfish & bannerfish. We went into the channel & the large school of barracudas was at a distance. There was a white-tip & many other reef-fishes – titan trigger-fish, unicornfish & other surgeonfish & also a very friendly green sea turtle. Rosie spotted a large hunting moray eel abt 2m long & a white leaft scorpionfish! Excellent!
  • Video of turtles http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=91734843051#/video/video.php?v=91400808051
  • Video of Sharks http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=91734843051#/video/video.php?v=91507443051
  • What a fantastic night dive we had! TI: 6:43pm, BT: 81mins, MD: 11.6m. We geared up & jumped in from the SJ’s Mabul jetty. Oked to descend, we released the air fr our BCs & then descended & when I wanted to equalise my ears, suddenly realised that I forgot to put in the reg into my mouth, totally panicked & finned up to the surface as fast as I could! EmbarrassedEmbarrassed So embarassing! Jenny followed me up but I didn’t tell her what had just happened… The day before, Imants was asking her if there were any funny dive incidents she had encountered for her 350+ dives, she didn’t recall any… Haha, anyway, that was the only stupidity that happened on that dive, everything else rocked! Except my camera battery went dead towards the end & I don’t have photos of the bright blue spiny lobster (abt 8cm long) & a damn cute squid which was hiding among the sea urchin & a large sea-hare. The star find of the day was a cute juvenile brownish colour cockatoo waspfish! It was abt 2-inches long & swaying with the current! I spotted a cute 2-inch cuttlefish, a green flatworm, a shrimp & a sleeping green sea turtle & Fay spotted another bigger one when we were heading back to the jetty – the carapace was more than a metre! He also spotted a large cuttlefish which was annoyed by us & squirted ink at us! There was of course the usual night dive critters like lionfishes & hermit crabs (1 spotted by Terence). The drama didn’t end there, it was low tide when we surfaced & the jetty platform was so high. The very fit & very heroic Fay climbed up the slippery wooden planks overgrown with barnacles, with his gear still on his back & then he helped the rest of us up. I had helped from Imants who literally had to drag me up, cos the barnacles were cutting into my fingers. Wonderful guys! Wonderful dive to end our Mabul leg of the trip!
  • 5th May. Didn’t do much, spent almost the whole morning packing, then went “exploring” the rest of Mabul. 1st stop was our neighbouring village, then SWV etc. We ended with lunch at a local coffeshop which served delicious food! Terence ordered the Mabul Chicken Rice, it was yummy. At last we had a good lunch on Mabul. We got transferred back to Semporna abt 4pm, when we reached SJBP, reception informed us that there was water problem affecting most of Semporna & we might not have running water in the MYR70 VIP room, oh well, luckily we were only there for the night. Terence went to settle the bill (total: MYR 2880 –  while I snoozed. To play safe, we decided to have dinner at the more “upmarket” cafe – Mabul Internet Cafe. Food was quite nice & not awfully more expensive than the coffeshops. We had a nice chat with Switzerland/ Canada based Iranian – Shahram… There seemed to be less rats running around that night.
  • 6th May. We loaded our bags onto the van & went to get a quick breakfast & was on our way! Shahram was also on the same flight. As there were 5 of us in the van, the transfer was MYR 20 each. We were overweighted for the Air Asia flight (air ticket MYR 32) eventhough we had bought supersize baggage 15+ 20kg (MYR 48 – more exp than the actual air ticket!) “Sorry, Air Asia does not give free check-in” the excess charges for 3kg was MYR30. The pre-ordered Air Asia food – fried rice set & foccacia was quite good MYR7 each. Upon checking in to Daya KK, we took a long nap & went walking around the KK waterfront area & had some food at the open air market, then went shopping in the air-con shopping centre & Terence had a craving for the mee goreng at the waterfront open air market, so we went back. 1 big plate of mee goreng for MYR3 but it turned out to be the most expensive mee goreng I would ever have! When we crossed the road to head back to hotel, I realised that the less than 3 mths “old” Samsung F480 was missing from my bermuda’s back pocket! We spent the next 2 hours frantically searching for the phone which was still ringing, without any success… Duh, could only blame my own carelessness & laziness – could have brought a bag out… We went back to our room to find a message left by Vicky of LL, she had called me on my hp… Crying Anyway, she wanted to tell us that our morning transfer was at 4:45am & flight at 6:30am! On our voucher, the transfer was at 6:30am, anyway, she had called Wildlife Expeditions to arrange. Angus checked into Daya slightly before 12am, all of us crashed out after conversing. The Layang Layang package was from Nemo Travel – Per divers $1732/-. 5D 4N packages = $1055/-, Additional one night = $245/-, Domestic Flight = $382/-, 3 way airport transfer and 1 night stay at Kota Kinabalu = $50/-
  • 7th May. All of us managed to wake up in time! Haha, the allure of diving… Daya’s front office was so wonderful! They got the kitchen to prepare 3 sets of packed breakfast for us – an apple, a hard-boiled egg & tuna sandwiches! while waiting to be checked in, I had all the 3 eggs, as I no longer eat tuna… We waited around & the boarding board didn’t show our flight, nobody knows which row we should check in at, we had to “run around” ourselves. Anyway, we managed to check-in to the chartered MAS flight S$382 on time, get our baggage & ourselves weighed & be on our way! We had to walk to the small 18 seater plane from the terminal. It was the 1st time we were so close to the pilot & the 1st officer! Slightly more than an hr later, we landed smoothly on Layang Layang. From the air, LL looked exactly like a Maldivian atoll. At LL, we filled up some diving & check-in forms, got briefed by dive manager Christy (who was also our DM for this trip) & then hotel manager Alex & got to know the rest of our dive group – Marcus (also on SB) & his friends – Lenard, Mey, Jennifer, & then checked into our comfortable room! We even managed to catch a wink before our 1st dive at 11am to Middle Reef. TI: 11:31am, BT: 48mins, MD: 34.9m. There were many large barrel sponges at this site, lots of soft corals too. We also saw a white-tip & turtle. After having a nice sumptous lunch, we had a short nap before the afternoon dive at Gorgonian Forest. TI: 3:41pm, BT: 53mins, MD 24.2m. It was a very colourful wall, besides the normal reef fishes, a feeding turtle, we saw 5 pygmy devil rays & 1 of them stuck around for a couple of minutes!
  • Towards the light! Layang Layang Dolphin

Manta Ray at Layang Layang

  • 8th May to 10th May Our days at Layang Layang started with a light breakfast, 1st dive briefing around 8am, sometimes earlier at 7:30am, dive, have full breakfast, 2nd dive at around 11am, have buffet lunch, nap, 3nd dive around 3pm, tea-break, jetty dive around 5:30~6pm, have buffet dinner (pool side bbq dinner on Sat – yummy!), sleep.
  • SOP (std operating procedure) on dives, go into the blue to 30+m in search of the elusive hammer-heads for 15mins, during which we try to stick together as a group to “fool” the hammerheads to think that are a large school of large fish, then spend the rest of the dive at the reef-top (at certain areas, depth was about 20m & looked deceivingly shallow, watch your non deco-time!)
  • The dive sites we went to: the Valley 2x (8th May: a hawksbill turtle – the 1 w a chip off its shell (spotted by Terence), trevallies, 3 giant trevallies. 10th May, I had to sit out diving due to flu, the rest saw a lone hammerhead!) Shark Cave I (Napolean Wrasse! & moray eel (spotted by Christy) White-tip & giant travelly on the ledge, blue spotted sting-ray, large yellow lobsters, 2 nudis, the same hawksbill!). Shark Cave (we saw a large pod of dolphins but they were still only interested to play at the boat’s bow. A large white-tip in the cave, 2 large grey reefs in the depths, a large school of giant travellies at the wall but quite deep). Crack Reef (turtle on the ledge, yellow pygmy sea-horse! (spotted by Boris – a new-found friend very handy at spotting small stuff), small gobies, shrimps that tried to clean me, peacock flounder on table coral (spotted by Angus), Flabellina sp (spotted by Jennifer), a turtle in the distant. We went to The Point for 4x. 8th May – magical encounter with 2 friendly manta rays & a school 17 devil rays! It was a lifelong dream coming true! 10th May & 11th May – large schools of pygmy devil rays. http://www.facebook.com/v/91519593051
  • Jetty 3x. Small school of juvenile batfishes, spinecheek anemonefish, 2 banded pipefishes, 1 network pipefish, school of baby catfishes, a big pufferfish, small crabs hiding in corals, octopus, mating nudibranches, porcupinefish, numerous juvenile lionfish, a huge spotted moray eel. It was good to have sharp-eyed Angus & Boris to do the spotting! (that was provided they didn’t ditch us… :p )
  • We encounter large pod of dolphins 3x. 9th & 10th May – the sea was flat as a lake & we were on the way to The Point & Shark Cave I. The dolphins were only interested to play with the boat, although we did went into the water, they didn’t want to come close to us. 10th May – Johnny the captain gave me a private fantastic dolphins tour when the others met the hammerhead! I wouldn’t trade the dolphins for the hammerheads, they were so close that they would spray water on me (from their blow-hole) when they breathed! Lovely mammals! http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=91734843051#/video/video.php?v=91734843051

It was a quite a long trip, we had slightly more than 7 dive days, doing mostly wall dives, all together 22 dives (Terence had 2 more). Rustic Mabul was wonderful for macro stuff – especially at night, charming Sipadan had its whitetips & green sea turtles, beautiful Layang Layang casted its magical spell with dolphins, manta rays, pygmy devil rays & hawksbill turtles. Most of the dives were very good and the company was lively throughout – hopefully we will get to dive together soon!!!

Photos of Mabul & Sipadan


07 March 2011: Just read that Scuba  Junkie’s Mabul Beach Resort MBR had been destroyed by fire… Quite sad… My memories of SJ’s MBR were…

Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort

Our Room at MBR


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