Walking down the wooden jetty into Semporna’s harbor, I couldn’t help thinking what a difference 180º can make. Behind us lay Semporna, a shantytown so grim and gritty, it can only be likened to an angry red inflammation on the otherwise flawless cheek that is the northern Borneo coastline. But with our faces turned to the Celebes Sea—stretched out on the horizon and that perfect shimmering shade of blue that is too rarely found in nature—it was hard to reconcile what we had just walked through with the beckoning paradise before us. Living in Semporna may not have many perks, but I’d wager that with its views, you’d be willing to put up with quite a lot.
Still, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when we were directed to a zippy white speedboat in the marina and soon found ourselves crashing through the waves and out to sea, Semporna’s slums rapidly receding to a blip we had to squint in order to spot. There was no denying the beautiful view from the city, but why stand at the edge of bliss when you can hurl yourself into it at the rate of 45 knots/hour?
And hurl ourselves we did, as our boat skimmed the surface of the waves with the velocity of an aquatic rocket. Our driver seemed intent on breaking the sound barrier, but as we spotted other boats similarly engaged, we realized his speed-demon ways were not a trait uniquely his own. By the looks of it, Malaysians appear to judge a boat (and its captain) not by the size or make of the vessel itself, but rather by the caliber of the engine and how fast they can gun it across the water. Even dinky little canoes had 80 horsepower engines strapped to them and roared through the surf with an unflagging need for speed, often times breaking free of the water and actually soaring through the air. We breezed by constellations of tiny floating fishing villages, nets fluttering in the breeze, children frolicking in the wake churned up from our boat… and then we were streaking off to the next one. Wind whipped our faces, its lashings bringing tears to our eyes, but we gazed for as long as we could without blinking so that we would miss as little as possible of the splendor that surrounded us.
Our high-octane boat ride was so exhilarating that it temporarily wiped from our minds the reason why we had embarked on the voyage in the first place. Fun as it was, the journey was in fact a means to an end, and we had speedily departed Semporna with a very specific destination in mind. As the boat began to decelerate, we spotted our endpoint up ahead. There, set in the middle of the sea on bright yellow pillars, was the towering oil rig where we would be spending the next four days.
Now, long-term travel definitely has its share of advantages, but if there’s one arena in which more often than not long-term travelers lose out to those on a standard vacation, it’s likely to be on the accommodation front. When you’ve only got one or two weeks to escape the trials and tribulations of your day-to-day life (and when you’ve got a steady income and a paycheck to go back to), finding the perfect place to stay on your holiday is often just as important as figuring out where you’re going in the first place. In contrast, when you find yourself moving cities every few days and hopping from one hotel/hostel/bungalow/apartment/tent to the next in rapid succession, you tend to look at lodging in a far more utilitarian manner. Although Asia certainly has its fair share of charming boutique hotels and offbeat accommodation, our stays in such places tend to be the exception rather than the rule simply because it is often cheaper for us to stay in places that are clean and get the job done but keep costs down by being strictly no-frills. I like to justify our humble living conditions by saying that they make our occasional splurges all the sweeter and that a life lived hopping from one five-star resort to the next might actually get a bit bland. Now, the latter half of that statement might just be wishful thinking on my part, but having spent the night on a picnic table, I can attest that it really teaches you to appreciate things like running water (if it’s hot, even better!) and having things like—oh, I don’t know—walls.
Still, just as a man cannot live by bread alone (although here in Asia, “rice” might be a more apt substitute), every so often a long-term traveler needs to indulge in a bit of luxury. And while being marooned on a modified oil rig might sound more like prison than paradise to you, to us it was heaven.
For you see, this was no ordinary rig. No, this was Seaventures, the world’s only dive rig. It stands just on the fringes of Sipadan, a protected marine park that routinely catapults to the top of lists naming the best dive spots in the world. It is a place that divers speak of with a mixture of reverence and excitement and it was with the aim of joining their ranks and diving Sipadan’s hallowed coral walls that we made the journey to Borneo at all. Stepping from the boat onto the platform that hoisted us up to the main deck where cold drinks were waiting for us on a silver platter, we both knew the next few days would be interesting to say the least.
I’ve never been on a cruise, but I have to think that our time at Seaventures is as close as you can get to one without actually being on a boat or technically going anywhere. Everything was organized for us, from the sumptuous buffet meals that were served three times a day and featured a diverse and international range of dishes, to our three dives daily, to our transportation to and from the rig. Pretty much all that was required of us was that we show up. After months of being on the road and having to orchestrate every activity and manage every element of our daily lives from where we would spend the night to where we would find food and what it would be, it was a huge relief to have a break from it all, turn our brains off, and simply let someone else worry about taking care of us for a little bit.
So, for the next three days, when we weren’t diving, we were either fueling up on delicious food, napping in our private cabin, or lounging about on the main deck, looking up the startling new species we had spotted on a previous dive, chatting with fellow divers, preparing ourselves for another incredible sunset or simply watching the sunlight dance and glint across the lapping waves of the sea. If we were really ambitious and energetic, we’d gather up some of our new diving buddies and descend for a self-guided tour of the Seaventures house reef. I won’t lie to you: even though diving is supposedly the lazy man’s sport, it takes a lot out of you and doing three dives per day multiple days in a row is actually really exhausting.
Most of the time we’d use our surface intervals between dives to squeeze in a quick nap or just laze about in a glassy-eyed post-dive stupor, but with unlimited house reef dives being one the perks of staying at Seaventures, we mustered our energy to do a few tours of the artificial reef that now acts as home to a whole host of weird and wonderful fish. I’m glad we did because the biodiversity lurking underneath the rig was as good as what we found further afield. From prowling trumpet fish on the hunt, to sneaky camouflaged stone fish and crocodile fish, psychedelic patterned flatworms and flamboyant nudibranch, gaping jawed white-eye moray eels and darting, brightly colored juvenile trigger fish, we saw it all. The crème de la crème, however, was our very first cuttlefish sighting! Tony & I are huge fans of these canny and curious little cephalopods, and I let out a high-pitched squeal when we spotted this one. He (or she!) suffered our scrutiny and the manic rush of bubbles peeling from our regulators for about a minute before slowly beginning to shift color to an inky black, like pulling a cloak made from midnight around him, and pelting off at lightning speed into the murky blue.
As exceptional as the house reef was, most of our dives were done at the sandy shoals of neighboring Mabul and Kapalai islands, or the revered reefs of Sipadan. Though we’d never heard of it prior to our arrival, Mabul is home to some of the world’s best muck diving; one member of our diving party actually claimed to prefer its abundant and obscure macro life to the Technicolor riot of the coral reefs of Sipadan. At the former locations, green and hawksbill turtles were ubiquitous, and we never completed a single dive without spotting at least one of these behemoths (I know that water magnifies objects and wreaks havoc on perception, but I’d swear some of those turtles were the size of a compact car!). We also spotted, a variety of pipefish, our first seahorse (of the zebra-snout variety), massive moray eels (one was so large I’m not sure I could have wrapped my hands around it… not that I would want to or would ever try!), and followed the quivering skirted edge of an oscillated flounder. On what was probably our most exhilarating muck dive, we watched the striated black and white length of a sea snake undulate by us, peeked under anemone to spy on striped boxer shrimp and teeny tiny porcelain crabs, gawked at venomous scorpion and frog fish, and most exciting of all, briefly caught sight of a gorgeous and flamboyantly colored (but oh so timid) Mandarin fish lingering amongst the detritus of some lost cargo.
Since we traveled all this way to dive Sipadan, you might wonder why we spent all this time diving at all these other sites when the holy grail of diving was just a 20-minute high-speed boat ride away. Well, given Sipadan’s status as the ultimate dive location, one has to jump through a few hoops in order to actually dive it. Although we have become accustomed (some might say complacent…) to simply showing up and seeing what happens when we travel, this is a recipe for disaster—or at the very least, disappointment—with Sipadan: because of its immense popularity, only a limited number of permits are issued each day allowing access to Sipadan. So coveted are these slips of paper that many dive operators in the area will only guarantee you one day of Sipadan diving if you commit to diving a minimum number of days with them. Moreover, in order to secure the permits, you will generally need to book at least a few weeks in advance. In addition to the bragging rights involved in being able to say we had stayed on their bitchin’ rig, the unlimited house reef dives, and the high safety standards (we’re happy to cut corners in most areas, but when our safety’s on the line, we always pay whatever is required), another reason we elected to dive with Seaventures was because we had read that they tend to have the largest number of Sipadan permits in their possession. By booking a four-day package with Seaventures, we were guaranteed at least one day at Sipadan. Based on some recommendations I had read online, we decided to save our Sipadan dives for our penultimate day so that everything else wouldn’t pale in comparison. It was the right decision.
Because Sipadan is now a protected marine reserve, there are no lodging options on the island itself—the only time you set foot on the (gorgeous) island is during your extended surface interval, which also acts as a lunch break. Seaventures is the closest you can stay to the park, but rather than use that proximity to allow its divers some extra shut-eye, we were instead roused well before the sun so that we were amongst the first divers at the sites. By the time the sun had wiped the sleep from its own eyes and made its appearance, we were already cavorting 15 meters below the surface of the sea.
I’ve already admitted that I’m not exactly a morning person, but the things we saw at Sipadan were well worth getting out of bed bleary-eyed and plunging into tepid water for. Early morning is when bumphead parrotfish are most active and feed (on the delicious corral for which Sipadan is famous…), and we found ourselves smack dab in the midst of a roving herd of them. They were by far the coolest creatures I have ever encountered underwater—so massive and grotesque (straddling the cute-ugly line, I think), I honestly felt like I was gazing on dinosaurs that had been dredged from the primordial depths of the ocean. The biggest of these puppies was nearly the length of my own body, which might be small for a person, but is hella huge for a fish. I was seriously in awe and soaked in every minute that we got to just drift about in their midst as they ravenously tore into all the coral that they could.
I didn’t think that experience could be topped, but on our next dive, we got to swim through the midst of a swirling swarm of jackfish. With almost preternatural perception, the school would anticipate our every move and adjust in unison, spooling around us in a writhing piscine tornado. Our dive master pretty much had to drag me away from the jackfish because I was in utter heaven and never wanted to leave.
Those two attractions alone would have made our trip to Sipadan a success in my book, but happily, there were even more underwater delights to seal the deal. Nearly every dive we did featured turtles and so many white & black tip reef sharks (our first! And a bit scary at first until we realized how shy they are.) that we eventually stopped signaling them. Instead we focused on the giant trevally, lion fish, clown trigger fish, striated frogfish, and barracuda. And of course, in every direction, as far as we could see (which, given the visibility at times, wasn’t always very far…) swaths of colorful and beautifully intact coral. At Sipadan, I discovered my fierce love for the wall dive, as the feeling of hovering at 20 meters and looking down and just seeing the world drop out below you, knowing how much father down the reef goes gives me a giddy thrill. Just on the fringes of the blue, with water every direction you look, that is when I feel most like I am flying rather than floating.
After our first day diving Sipadan, I exited the water with a massive diver’s high and spluttering that if we could get permits for the next day, I wanted them. If there was one disappointment to our dives, it was that the visibility really was quite poor—averaging around 9-12 meters—something we chalked up to the fact that it had rained a few days previously. I hoped that if the weather held up that maybe the water would be less turbid. We were lucky enough to get the chance to dive Sipadan the next morning before leaving the rig, but unfortunately our luck was only so good and the visibility continued to be rather lacking… that doesn’t mean the dives were any less fun or any less spectacular (even if it made underwater photography—already quite tricky—even more difficult).
Before diving Sipadan, Tony and I only had 16 previous dives under our weight belts. We were diving newbies who would have likely been bowled over and blown away by anything we saw anywhere on the planet. Maybe we should have worked our way up to Sipadan rather than barreling in while we were still so inexperienced and impressionable, because I’ve no doubt that Sipadan totally ruined us for most other dive experiences. If you had told me there would come a time when I’d be blasé about witnessing a turtle or shark in the wild, I would have said you were crazy… but Sipadan definitely spoiled us. Although we weren’t blessed with the rumored vertigo-inducing 40-meter visibility that other divers have raved about, we had so many incredible animal encounters, even with the rather poor visibility, it’s tough to imagine how anywhere else could compete.
As you might guess, staying on a marooned oil rig that has been born anew as a premiere dive resort ain’t cheap and as perennial penny pinchers, staying at Seaventures most definitely constituted a splurge. At $280US per person a day (all-in, including permits and dive gear), it’s a place where you definitely pay for the privilege, but I strongly believe that every dollar we spent paid for itself several times over. Although I’m fairly certain we spent nearly as much time in the water as we did on the rig, even as someone who would happily trade her lungs for gills, I have to say that our stay at Seaventures made even our time above the underwater gulleys of Sipadan a real delight. You can pretty much consider a stay a Seaventures to be akin to staying at an all-inclusive resort, because once you’re on the boat, there’s very little that you need to shell out extra for: alcohol isn’t included and neither (annoyingly) is your dive gear, but everything else is covered (even the incredibly unreliable WiFi). Moreover all the staff who work at Sipadan are experienced and professional and we felt that the quality of the service and the experience we received justified the splurge. Our friend Alan, who we met while diving Sipadan and who blew our minds with the number of dives he has done and the places he has been (pretty much if you can dive there, he’s done it!) told us this was his third time diving Sipadan and every time he does, he stays at Seaventures because it’s one of the best resorts he’s ever dived with. He’ll certainly get no arguments from us.
For the budget-conscious amongst you, never fear: despite being one of the best dive sites on the planet, diving Sipadan doesn’t have to break the bank. If you’re willing to put up with lengthy commutes in the morning and staying just a step up from squalor, those on extremely limited budgets can base themselves in Semporna. Loosen those purse strings a little more and you might instead choose to go with one of the dive operators based on Mabul island. Normally we like to pick our dive centers and shops in person so that we can judge the quality and professionalism of the operation with our own two eyes, but given the restrictions in place for diving at Sipadan, this isn’t really an option. Because many of the dive operators we read about on Mabul had mixed reports of poor equipment and other warning signs that made us worry, we decided that we would pay a little more and hopefully have a worry-free dive experience. We certainly got that, and so much more.
After just four days of pampering at Seaventures and a total of 12 dives in the area, it was with heavy hearts that we boarded the jet boat (if that’s not already a thing, I have decided the ones in Borneo certainly qualify) back to Semporna. With the growl of the engine roaring in my ears and the yellow beacon of Seaventures shrinking with every passing second, I remembered a quote by legendary ocean lover Jacques Cousteau that I had read just after learning to dive but whose truth I had finally unlocked:
From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.
Once you’ve tasted freedom, it’s a hard thing to give up, and the freedom we experienced while diving Sipadan was truly like none other. But as I turned my head once again, this time to face the wild jungles of Borneo, our little boat racing towards them with a vengeance and the sky so big, so wide, so blue, I felt the weight of the world lift just a little bit, because I knew that when I set foot on land, it would be in pursuit of the next unknown, the next adventure. And so we tumbled into the blue once more.