I arrived in Semporna at 2pm. I only had one night there before heading out to Mabul Island in the morning, and after 2 early mornings of sunrise river cruises I needed somewhere to really relax. I checked into Best Bunk Beds, which is newish but had great reviews online. The hostel is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in. The girls dorm is spacious with 8 bunkbeds in a massive room. The attached communal bathroom is modern, and the dorm has floor to ceiling windows facing the water. There’s a communal space and big kitchen with a lot of Asian condiments to choose from, although I didn’t cook there. It cost $13, which is a lot, but other than a really crappy hostel this was the next cheapest. I was the only non-Chinese backpacker staying there but for my night of relaxing that was perfect.
I walked around the town, grabbed lunch at Restoran Bismillah, an Indian spot. I had a roti and a vegetable soup, which were both tasteless. I ended up pouring the roti dipping curry into the soup.
I then went to my dive shop to pay. I signed up for Sipidan two months ago. Only 120 divers are allowed per day and there’s a long wait list to be able to dive there. I signed up with Billabong, the cheapest company to dive with. I paid $330 total for 3 days/ 2 nights, which included diving, equipment, accommodation and meals. I got 6 dives: 3 Sipidan, 2 Mabul, 1 Kapelai. Billabong was far from horrific; however, it’s definitely a backpacker place and not somewhere I would stay if I was on holiday. It was also full of big groups or Chinese tourists who were loud, and Muslim Malay’s; so that put a damper on the mood.
The one terrible thing about diving in South East Asia is all the Chinese divers. Every single one I came across should never have been given a license. They’re incredibly disrespectful of the nature and of other divers around. I got kicked and pushed repeatedly and more often than not it was so they could take a picture. They also touched and kicked all the coral and sea life, which is a no-no. It’s not safe to have divers like that around and I actually had my first under water panic attack because of it.
In the morning I had breakfast in my hostel then headed to the dive shop and then the shuttle ferry. The ride to Mabul Island took an hour. As we approached be island we slowed down and took a mandatory scenic route along the water hotels until we got to ours. Almost all the dive resorts are housed on stilts on the water. The fancy resorts look just like the glamorous pictures we see back home, and the cheap resorts look run down but still pretty incredible in the sense that they’re on the water. Billabong is a lilac color towards one end of the resorts; it was actually a great spot.
When we arrived at the resort there were local gypsies selling crabs and shrimps on the deck. The crabs came in a chain, 4 for 20 rm (approx. $6,) and the shrimps were extra large in plastic bottles. I got crab with a Malaysian brother and sister who I shared the ferry with.
I checked into my own private room which had an attached bathroom. The toilet didn’t have a seat and the shower was a mandy shower- a bucket and ladle. I actually like this method because it’s better than a shower than slowly drips water. There were two twin beds and a fan. The electricity on the whole island only works from 6pm-6am so each morning at 6am I woke up sweating from the heat.
I settled in then headed out for my first dive of the day, which was at Kapelai House Reef off Kapelai Island. The site had bunches of man-made structures that looked like skeletons of houses. They were covered in moss and full of fish. On the dive I saw big turtles, the face of a moray eel hiding under a structure, trumpet fish, hornet fish, lion fish and stone fish, which look like a rock. The dive was 21 meters deep.
Sometime when I’m diving I kick with my fins together, like a fish, because I can get places faster. During this dive I lost my hair tie and apparently when I did my fish kick I looked like a mermaid. I was then nicknamed the mermaid.
The second dive that day was Panglima Reef off Mabul Island. There was a slight current at the end of the dive and the visibility throughout was bad. Here I saw lion fish, nudibranch, stone fish, trigger fish, and big colorful cuttlefish. The cuttlefish looked like massive colorful caterpillars with black tentacles coming out of one end. The dive was 22 meters deep.
After diving I walked around the island with a few girls who were on holiday from Kuala Lumpur. The entire walk took us about 45 minutes but that’s only because we stopped a few times. There are two really nice resorts, one of which we stopped at for Magnum’s. Then there are some local shops and a big local village area before the cheaper dive resorts start-up again.
When we got back to the resort I did the initiation and jumped off the resort bridge into the water. For over an hour guests (the non-Chinese,) dive masters and locals jumped and swam around our area. The sun set in the clouds but the colors were still incredible with the water village setting.
That night was a bunch of people’s last night and we all drank local rum and listened to music on the bridge. I called it an early night because I wanted to be fresh for Sipadan; however, I ended up being wide awake for a few hours in the middle of the night listening to the rats on the ceiling.
In the morning I had breakfast then we left for Sipadan for the day. The boat was me, an English boy, a young unfriendly Russian couple, two Chinese men, and Otto and Oneal, the two dive masters. Since the British boy was only open water Otto was my dive buddy, which was awesome because he regularly took my GoPro and filmed for me.
First we went onto Sipadan Island to register for our permits. The island is incredibly small and while it used to have two resorts now those are gone and all that is there is a registration shack and a wooden shelter with a picnic table for each dive resort. When we arrived there was a big group of Chinese divers ahead of us. They had two flags and were doing karate poses and large group pictures in the check-in area.
Our first dive was at South Point. I saw an eagle ray, barracuda, white tip shark, black tip shark, gray reef shark, and turtles. We went 40 meters here. I had my first panic attack ever on this dive. I had been having trouble with my mask and it was continuously fogged even after cleaning it. We were in the blue at 40 meters and working with a slight current that was pushing me down and out. I was exhausted from continuously kicking, I couldn’t see a thing and all of a sudden one of the Chinese guys kicked me in the head because he wasn’t paying attention. Luckily I have my rescue training and did not completely panic but I did grab my dive master and we went up to 10 meters where I was able to breath again. I knew I’d be fine since I know what to do but it was terrifying being in darkness and not being able to breath in the moment.
I came up from the dive with a terrible headache from the depth and lack of oxygen. I’ve done that depth before but not in years. We relaxed for an hour in between dives and I put myself back together.
Our next dive was at Barracuda Point, ranked one of the top dive sites in the world, and it did not disappoint. It was the best dive of my life. We saw huge Napolean fish, schools of humpheads (large fish,) massive schools of jack fish in tornado form (from the currents,) big turtles, and white tip sharks. Otto took my camera and filmed almost the whole time which gave me the chance to fully enjoy the dive. We went 21 meters but most of the dive was near the surface which also meant the light was amazing. I did the signature Sipadan move and swam inside the tornado of jackfish which was surreal. The fish move if you come near and they will reform around you. Otto shot a great five minute film which captures everything the dive offered.
The most shocking and yet not so shocking part of the dive was seeing all the Chinese divers underwater with their massive cameras. I’m talking huge professional cameras with two large arms for flashing. The divers were standing on the sandy bottom of the water holding their cameras like walking sticks. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in a long time.
We were all all smiles after that dive. We had lunch and I rested on the beach and I still couldn’t stop smiling. For the last dive we went to Hanging Garden, a wall dive. Here we saw gray reef sharks, white tip sharks, big turtles and most amazingly a leopard shark. Otto found it sleeping in an alcove and called me over to come next to it. I was almost there when all of a sudden one of the Chinese guys pushed past me with his huge camera knocking me into the coral. For the first time the dive master took charge and signaled at the Chinese guy to get back and let me through. We were about a foot away when it woke-up and swam around us to escape. Another incredible experience.
I went 40 meters on this dive too and although my breathing was affected I practiced on controlling it. Halfway through the dive I was hit by jellyfish particles and got stung on my legs, arms and face.
Almost all the guests had left while we were in Sipadan. The only westerners left were me, a British girl who I had become friendly with, and two Danish girls who I kept thinking were Spanish. The British girl and I took a walk around the island. We stopped for chocolate strawberry Magnum’s and ate them on the fancy resort porch. We then went to a local shop so that I could buy a seashell chandelier I had seen the day before- I hope it survives the journey.
It was a quite night of staring at stars on the bridge and listening to a local play the guitar. The next morning I slept in and then went snorkeling at 10:30am with the Brit. I only lasted about five minutes in the water. I was stung by sea-lice and bored; it’s hard to snorkel the day after diving at Sipadan. I relaxed on the boat for the rest of the time and watched all the Chinese snorkel, which was like watching the tv show were Chinese do obstacles and people laugh when they get hurt.
There were five snorkel boats in the area and me and the Brit were the only non-Chinese and the only ones not wearing bright orange life jackets, or matching striped snorkel wetsuits. They all can’t swim, or at least think they can’t, plus are terrified of the water. Two women on my boat refused to let go of the ladder, and one boy refused to let go of the safety ring even though he also had a jacket on. One family held onto two rings and ropes while they all kicked to the coral area where they then proceeded to stand and walk around on the coral. Some of the them were walking on the coral under the resorts in their snorkel gear. I’m not entirely sure why the workers don’t stop them from doing this but it’s terrible how they are ruining the natural habitat. To top it off on the boat ride back one of the Chinese reached into the water and grabbed a starfish and all of a sudden a bunch of cameras were out. A few of us started screaming for them to drop the fish and they did, however, they did not understand why.
When we got back to the resort I checked out of my room, had lunch, and chilled out until 3pm
when the ferry came. Brit and I went down the road to pick-up pastries from a local bakery, a window in her home. We bought four pastries for 50 cent rm each, about $.15.
The ferry back was an hour, then we took a shuttle to the airport which was another hour and cost 30 rm each. I then waited at the airport for 3 hours until my flight to Kota Kinabalu. The flight was 30 minutes. When I got to the terminal I found a money exchange place to covert my Malaysia ringgit to Philippine Pesos. The lady at the counter asked me what airline I was flying before doing the exchange. After it was done she informs me that the terminal my flight is leaving from is actually a 15 minute (30 ringgit) taxi ride away that is not walkable. Cebu now flys from Terminal 1. I then had to exchange back pesos for ringgit. She tricked me so that I would have to pay the exchange rate and agent fee twice.
When I got to Terminal 1 I went to check-in to my Manila flight and I was told that I needed to show proof of a flight leaving the Philippines. I had not yet booked my flight home and was waiting for early week for prices to drop but now I had no choice. I booked the cheapest flight home, which is a day later than I wanted and over $100 more than it will be in a few days.
My flight to Palawan left at 7:25am, and landed at 8:30am. I then waited for almost an hour at a restaurant nearby the airport for a shuttle bus to leave for El Nido. It was a 6 hour roller coaster journey north, part of which the driver had a friend sitting on his lap.