Beneath the Blue Depths of Borneo

The slow current carries us along a coral wall off of Sipadan Island, allowing us to admire the bustling ecosystem with minimal kicking.

Our dive master swims out ahead of the four of us. After he turns a corner I notice him point away from the coral wall toward the open ocean. I follow the direction of his finger and see a tall, dark mass. It looks like a vertical column of coral suspended in the ocean, but it’s too far away for me to be sure. Our dive master starts swimming toward it and motions for us to follow his lead.

We swim through open ocean for five minutes.  There is nothing around me but an empty, endless blue void. The coral wall behind us retreats into the distance. But the dark mass is getting closer. As we approach I realize this is no reef. It’s moving.


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Since my first dive in Crete, Greece, and getting my Open Water Certification in Útila, Honduras, I’d been obsessed with seeking out my next scuba destination. After some extensive research (and sticker shock) I settled on Borneo, Malaysia. I found that it sits at the perfect crossroads of cost effectiveness and world class diving. So after saying goodbye to dad in Singapore, I set off on my own.

After a flight and hourlong taxi ride from the Tawau airport in Borneo, I reach my oceanside destination: Semporna.

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Outside of a couple lively markets, Semporna is largely a sleepy beach town. However, as a gateway to several choice diving destinations, a local economy has been built around accommodating divers.  Walking through the streets I notice a variety of dive centers, equipment shops, and hostels catering to scuba enthusiasts. I park myself at the Holiday Dive Inn and confirm my registration at Sipadan Scuba across the street.

My first few days of diving I spend with Tristan, a Kiwi (New Zealander), who would be the instructor for my Advanced Open Water course.

Working one-on-one with Tristan is great. Demonstrating the requisite skills was much more fluid without the hindrance of a large group. Over two days and six dives we get through the necessary sessions for my Advanced Certification:

  • Peak Performance Buoyancy: Learning how to better control my underwater movements such as suspending myself upside down
  • Underwater Navigation: Using a compass and kick cycles to track my path and positioning relative to the boat and/or natural landmarks.
  • Fish Identification: Pretty self explanatory. I had to keep track of fish we see then identify them via pictures when the dive was over

My last two sessions are a wreck dive and deep dive. The wreck dive had me exploring a shipwreck, weaving around a sunken boat and admiring the ecosystem it has created. I was perhaps the most nervous for the deep dive; being 30 meters under the water can elicit a varying physical response based on the diver’s body. Some get a “drunken” feeling that can impair senses and judgement and even induce panic attacks. So when I make the descent and feel only nominal weirdness, I’m relieved.

Typically we would have at least 20 minutes at the end of our sessions to explore the wondrous underwater world of such spots as Mataking, Mabul, and Pom Pom. Between dives I sit on the boat and hang out with Tristan, the other dive instructors, and scuba tourists, while admiring the beautiful tropical landscapes and crystal clear waters.

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Pom Pom dock.
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Tristan going for a post-dive swim. Possibly peeing in that very moment.
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Pristine waters definitely merit a thumbs up.

The landscapes are stunning and the water is the clearest I’ve seen. Malaysia has done its part to keep it that way. Extensive conservation efforts have helped preserve the habitats of marine life and curb the effects of climate change. There is also a permitting system in place to keep boat traffic at a minimum. Everyday before leaving the Semporna area we take the dive boat to a center which issues us a seafaring permit for the day. A couple times we are flagged down by impressive, military grade police boats, which patrol the high seas to catch anyone violating the permit system, dumping trash, or otherwise harming the biosphere.

This was another key factor in choosing Malaysian Borneo as a destination; they clearly take their conservation seriously. Efforts like these will be paramount as climate change continues to wreak havoc on our reefs and contribute to rising sea levels. Tristan has a funny take on the matter.

“Rising sea levels means more places underwater to explore. So climate change isn’t all bad for my job”

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After the end of our second day I am officially a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver and can dive up to 30 meters for life. The third day I am free to bring out my GoPro for three dives at the crown jewel of Malaysian Borneo: Sipadan Island.

Sipadan has a unique history that includes a land dispute at the International Court of Justice in 2002, which ultimately awarded it to Malaysia. In 2004, all resorts on the island were forced to shut down due to the previously mentioned conservation efforts. The permitting system was then made especially rigorous for Sipadan, only a very limited amount are issued every day.

Sipadan also frequents at the top of travel warning lists due to the prevalence of pirates in the Philippine islands just north of the island. In 2000, 21 tourists were captured by pirates and held for over a year. All survived and were incrementally ransomed off for millions of dollars, but it sounded like a horrific series of events. I keep this in mind as we approach the island, though I was calmed by the presence of police boats patrolling around, and knowing they are supported by the Malaysian and Philippine navies nearby.

Indeed, the only danger that posed us were the monitor lizards lurking around the island, but they mind their own business unless bothered.

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He was chill enough for a quick selfie.
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Sipadan Island dock.

After porting and showing our permits to the island authority, it was time for some incredible diving. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking!

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Massive schools of big-eye trevally are seen virtually everywhere.
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A hawksbill sea turtle. Whereas I would normally be thrilled to see a turtle in the wild, they are incredibly commonplace in and around Sipadan. Occasionally one would even cruise by during my trainings the prior two days.

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On the right, a reef shark cruising along the coral wall.

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A sea snake which I would later find out is poisonous. Potential crisis averted.
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More trevallys and yours truly.
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A lazy turtle.

Near the middle of our third and final dive is where I’ll pick up from the beginning of this post…

As we approach the black mass that we saw from a distance we discover it is not, in fact, a physical structure. It is a rotating tornado of long, sleek, sinister looking beasts…barracudas.

We swim up under the massive school, gazing upward at the absolute marvel unfolding above us. In perfect concert, they create a rhythmic turning cylinder, staying close together and blotting out the sun’s light. There must have been thousands of them.

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Ever so slowly we ascend into the middle of the school. The eye of the tornado, if you will. I am a combination of shock and awe as I look around me. I test their boundaries a bit, drifting closer to the rotating walls and seeing if they disperse. They are remarkably unfazed by our presence.

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As I swim along the school I accidentally end up in the thick of it and find myself coasting along with the horde for a few minutes, which is how I ended up with the shot at the top of this post. They adjust to my presence, none of them so much as graze me. Still I have to temper my racing heart and remind myself to stop breathing so damn much. It was intense and overwhelming and a bit rattling but endlessly worth it. Coolest scene in nature I’ve ever witnessed.

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One of the core tenets of PADI is that divers are the ambassadors between the ocean life and humanity. In that vein of thinking, after witnessing the wonders of Sipadan and all the efforts to preserve its incredible ecosystem, I implore you to join me in PADI’s conservation efforts.  One of PADI’s partners is Project AWARE, you can check them out here. If you want to help combat climate change, curb pollution, and protect our precious marine habitats, consider donating this year. I can certainly vouch for the work and their mission.

Preserving incredible and diverse biospheres like Sipadan, and elsewhere, is perhaps the most important thing we can do with our time on this earth. Together we can build a better planet for ourselves and our posterity.

If you want to see some footage of my dives in Sipadan, check out my compilation below. Featured are some animals that I didn’t include above like manta rays and an octopus, plus much more fish, turtles and sharks! Start at 5:10 for the barracuda tornado.

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