Heavy-laden with our bags and carrying a cup noodle for breakfast, we arrived at the Big John Scuba office at 8am. After the customary inexplicable delays, we departed for the palm-tree covered island of Mabul.
The sea was clear and shimmering, especially when the sun shone, revealing spotted star fish, seaweed, some small fish and the occasional graceful, huge green turtle.
The island perfection was sadly tainted by a fair amount of rubbish and the sad sight of kids in wooden boats; usually the big one paddling, the small one bailing water out, both dressed in rags or nothing, both begging for food. Apparently the island’s population is around 2000, with 50% being under 14! Various locals, further out to sea, searched with a floating bowl for fish and crustaceans to sell to the Chinese tourists who were more than happy to purchases items to supplement their meals. The new craze among the kids on the island was a bottle with holes cut into it, filled with sand on string!
On arrival, we were confused. Neither humans nor signs told us what to do or where to go for quite some time. Eventually we were given the key to room 5, a small, simple room in a long wooden row, set on stilts above the water. A hole in the bathroom floor emptied the shower into the sea and there was only electricity for a few hours each evening.
Rejoining the chaos, we ascertained that we would be going out for our first dive imminently. We were given appropriately sized buoyancy control devices (BCDs – the inflatable jacket you attach the oxygen tank to), wetsuits, fins, masks and weightbelts. Our dive master, Osman, introduced himself to us and we boarded the boat to the first dive site, House Reef. This being my first fun dive, I wasn’t feeling too confident but it was great to finally be able to dive with Dean as my buddy.
Unexpectedly, the equipment had been set up for us and we were forced to rush our buddy checks (using the acronym I learnt on Koh Tao: Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas = BCD, weights, releases, air, final OK!). I didn’t really feel I had time to perpare mentally or to remind myself of all I’d learnt a month previously. Before I knew it I was sitting on the side of the boat, BCD inflated, tank hanging over the sea, psyching myself up for my hurried first ever backwards roll entry into the water! In theory you know you will float once you resurface but it’s hard to tell yourself that when you’re wearing a heavy oxygen tank and 4 kilo weights strapped to your waist! So after some very deep breaths and a dose of mind-over-matter, float I did!
Then came my second first: descending without a bouyline to hold onto. I’d mentioned this to Osman on the boat so he stayed near me. Mask on, regulator in my mouth, I emptied the air from my BCD and began my descent. A combination of inexperience and probably a bit of panic, meant that shortly I stopped going down. Osman took an extra weight from his belt and put it in the pocket of my BCD and I was sorted. Equalising all the way, I was then able to join the rest of the group at about 12 metres.
Mabul is known for its muckdiving which isn’t as gross as it sounds: it just means there is a sandy bottom as opposed to rocks or coral. To encourage marine life, various items have been sunk to the seabed. Visibility wasn’t great but it was better than Koh Tao. I soon relaxed and was able to enjoy it all. I imagine diving feels a bit like floating in space but I don’t know! We went down as deep as 18m and saw loads of colourful reef fish, pipe fish, a blue spotted stingray, nudibranch and a small green turtle at the end.
We returned to base for some lunch then headed out for the second dive below the Seaventure rig which had a much calmer start and we saw a big moray eel sticking out of a pipe, some small camouflaged fish, some lionfish and an ornate ghost pipefish (4th picture). Our new underwater camera had its first outing which was fun but we need a bit more practise!
After some freshly cooked doughnuts, we headed to the Cleaning Station dive site off Kampali island. Mostly this was a fairly boring dive due to the visibility and also irritating as our dive companions were very inconsiderate and pushy. But for a few minutes it was an excellent dive because we saw 5 green turtles! One swimming at the start, then an absolutely huge one just grazing on the bottom, then three (small, medium and large) at the cleaning station being nibbled clean by little fish! They were amazing, so enormous and so serene! Sadly we didn’t have the camera this time!
Once back on the surface I experienced very intense pain in both my ears which I now think was something called reverse block. It was horrible and lasted a good 15 minutes before subsiding.
Several days later my ears still aren’t back to normal so I had to make the decision to forego my three dives for Tuesday. Instead we traded them, plus Dean’s three, for a permit for him to go diving at Sipadan, one of the world’s top 5 sites, on Wednesday. Usually you have to apply months in advance but one became available which was an opportunity to good to turn down.
So Tuesday was an uneventful day except we did go snorkelling with the camera, which we dropped and nearly lost for good! There were plenty of colourful fish and coral but the highlight was definitely finding a turtle!
Sipadan is famous for its clear waters, coral, turtles and reef sharks. The permit system means it has been kept in good condition too. Here are some photographs Dean took during his day there jumbled up with those taken by his buddy. I’ve seen the videos from the dive: it looked awesome! This was also the longest we’ve been apart since we’ve been married – almost 7 whole hours!
White-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks:
A colour-changing octopus!:
So despite my troubles, I enjoyed my first proper dive trip and can’t wait to try it again in the Philippines!