The journey from Italy is quite long and exhausting: two stopovers up to Kuala Lumpur, a domestic flight to Tawau in Borneo, an hour by van to climb up the Sabah region to the port of Semporna where, awaiting for us, there’s a fast boat that after 45 minutes sailing leads us to our coveted goal. Mabul, a pulau, which in the local language means “island”, of a few hectares of fine white coral sand located in the Celebes Sea, about 25 miles away from the north-east coast of Malaysian Borneo.
The spirits of the group is high, even if, during the journey, we notice the negative effects on the natural environment originated by greed and lack of foresight of man, who is deforesting large areas of Borneo to replace one of the oldest rain forests of Asia with endless oil palm plantations. We find accommodation in one of the island resort, the Smart Resort, a delightful village of wooden bungalows, simple but clean, surrounded by lush vegetation of palm trees, tropical plants and flowers. The common areas, which are also immersed in a beautiful green frame right in front of the beach, are spacious and well equipped and will allow us to carry out, at the end of the day, comfortable debriefing to exchange impressions on underwater encounters and technical advice on equipment and photographs. A little farther on, on a small and creaky wooden jetty alternate from sunrise to sunset, with a firm and heavy step, men, locals and tourists, and carts full with tanks and equipment.
The Malaysians are living with their families in a small village located a few steps from the resort, in small and modest houses built of wood and palm leaves. Among the narrow streets, some children, dirty and barefoot, play soccer in a makeshift playground. A woman cradle her baby, while two little girls, with an intense gaze and a wild beauty, play with a small glass bottle under the warm light of sunset, hidden among the stilts under the houses. Women, their head covered, shrink back behind tiny stalls on which they are exposing for sale the most varied merchandise, fruit and dried fish, but also shells and whole shark jaws: witness of the massacre of protected species continuing relentlessly here as in any other part of the world. On the small beach of the village, between rickety wooden piers and stilts, some men are busy fixing small wooden boats, colorful and smelling of diesel fuel, after another hard day of fishing. Life unfolds in a simple way, marked by the rhythms of nature, in this pearl set in one of the seas with the highest biodiversity in the world, and the group’s expectations are high.
We expect effecting 3 to 4 dives a day in the warm waters around the islands of Mabul, Kapalai (a strip of emerging sand surrounded by an emerald lagoon bordered by a large coral reef), and, last but not least, Sipadan, located half an hour navigation from Mabul, declared marine protected area by the WWF in 1963 and where facilities have been completely dismantled in 2004.
Sipadan is an underwater paradise of coral and undisputed dominion for turtles and other pelagic species, but also sanctuary for many species of birds, from kingfisher to the frigate birds, and for terrestrial species, including monitor lizards. The day after our arrival, local guides, expert and helpful, are waiting for us at the Diving Center, where we prepare our diving equipment and cameras to go finally out to sea. Despite the visibility is never outstanding in these waters, due to the extraordinary wealth of plankton and a constant current more or less moderate, from the first dive the seabed appear teeming with life and perfect habitat for many endemic species, to the joy and the delight of macro-photography enthusiasts.
In Mabul, diving takes place along the reef surrounding the island to a limited depth, within 25/27 meters. Among sand and corals, we spot colorful nudibranchs, ghost shrimps and other tiny crustaceans, ghost pipefishes, blennies, scorpion fishes and lionfishes, trumpet fishes, frogfishes and crocodile fishes. Among the various dive sites in Mabul, “Eel Garden” deserves special mention: typical muck-dive whose bottom slopes gently to a plateau of sand and mud teeming with life and where, between organ-pipe sponges of a delicate violet shade, camouflages the beautiful, prehistoric-looking giant frogfish.
Also “Platform”, a small oil platform now used as a resort for scuba divers equipped with a strong spirit of adventure: angelfish, surgeonfish, huge groupers and batfish are hovering quietly between the pillars and structures lying on the sandy bottom of about 18 meters, which is completely colonized by colorful crinoids, tunicates and sponges of all kinds and sizes, including large elephant ear sponges.
In Kapalai, we made beautiful dives at Mandarin Valley where, from the sand at a depth of about 20 meters, leap out timidly tiny jaw fishes, among which we distinguish some with eggs in their mouths. Amongst the remains of obsolete structures already used by man for fishing and now home to tunicates, sponges and colorful crinoids, swim large groupers, snappers and a multitude of other reef fish. A little further on, where the seabed slopes gently, with a bit of luck but, above all, with the watchful eye and expert assistance of the local guides, you can see different specimen of mandarin fish peeping out of the corals, to then suddenly retreating to a minimum displacement of water produced by divers who attempt ambushes to immortalize them in a shot. This tiny tropical fish, beautiful by name and in fact, very shy and difficult to photograph, is in fact delight and torment of underwater macro photography enthusiasts, providing always exciting challenges.
The dives are continuing at a brisk pace and enthusiasm of the group reaches sidereal levels, due to the most evocative sightings in the waters of Sipadan. The reef around the island, which slopes toward the abyss with vertical walls alternating with small plateau, is rich in benthic fauna: from extensive colonies of corals and soft corals to large branches sea fans, from barrel sponges to colorful anemones where inhabit different species of clownfish, and a huge variety of fish and organisms of every shape, color and size. Worth mentioning the dive site called Coral Gardens, beautiful garden of extensive colonies of stony and soft corals, among which wander some solitary specimen of barracuda, along with several angelfish, surgeonfish and large schools of funny bumper-head fish, by the frontal “bump” eroded by the blows inflicted to the corals to break them and eat the polyps.
Another spectacular site is South Point, located at the extreme southern tip of the reef surrounding the island, where the most exciting encounter is definitely the one with immense schools of hundreds of jacks that, moving en-masse, create tunnels and carousels around the scuba divers, even at a few meters deep, with lights and reflections in contrast with the blue sea. However, the queens of Sipadan seabed even today, despite their presence has fallen sharply in recent years, are the turtles: at the site called Hanging Garden, the most beautiful and memorable, we met many juveniles and elders sleeping in their dens and on the balconies located on the walls, or swimming quietly, melting amid huge schools of batfish and silver trevally that open and close around divers who, stunned by the contrast of reflections and colors created by sudden movements of the schools, still try to immortalize in a shot the powerful and formidable spectacle of life they are lucky enough to attend.
When it’s time to leave to go back home our hearts are full of sadness, but the extraordinary emotions and images that these islands have been able to give us, remain with us and allow us to keep dreaming, at least until we can return to visit these remote and fascinating lands, evoking tales of pirates and adventures from Salgari stories.
WORDS by Ilaria Casciere and PICTURES by Sergio Riccardo