Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea, off Borneo’s eastern coast. A conical spit of land breaking an otherwise endless blue, it rises from an otherwise flat sea bed nearly 600 metres, standing solitary and defiant against the horizon. Only a limited number of permits are issued each day for those who have travelled across Borneo, one of the few wild places left on Earth, drawn to the island by tales of wonders beyond belief. Nutrients washed in from the sea have only the small barrier of Sipadan standing in their way, making the marine habitat rich in food for the smaller fish, making it rich in food for the bigger fish.
We set off early from the port of Semporna, in the southeast of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region and, with only one break-down en route caused by a stray plastic bag, the going was good. The sea was calm, the sky blue, the temperature rising by the minute. Eventually, the island came in to view, barely piercing the water, only the trees rising more than a couple of metres from sea level. The sand was a grainy white, the shallows a transparent turquoise swarming with life and colourful coral – it truly was an untouched piece of art.
We stood on the warming sand, awaiting our official registration, gazing whistfully into the entrancing water. Dozens of angelfish and bannerfish scattered themselves amongst the coral, to the left a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose under a rock seeking food, and only four or five metres from the shore a whitetip reef shark waited patiently, passing the day until the night time hunt. We were soon informed that our first dive site of the day would be “South Point”, at the other side of the island, the side facing the open ocean. Back in the small boat, we admired the 30+ metre visibility of the water below us as we raced to the rear of the island, keen to arrive before others.
Under now intense sun, still in the early morning, we donned our equipment and strode out into the unknown. The water was teeming with activity. The coral in the first 5 metres was exceptionally pristine, creating a garden of colour unlike any on land; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, purples in all imaginable shapes, textures and sizes. The smattering of butterflyfish now became a swarm, not one but six reef sharks swam gracefully before us. The sillouette of a green turtle floated peacefully and effortlessly towards the surface in the distance for a breath. The world was silent and majestic, a rare impression of peace in a restless world.
Suddenly, a shadow cast itself over us. It seemed to shift and change shape frantically, there was an unfamiliar noise in the water. I turned, and if I could have gasped I would, as within metres of me whirled a tornado of hundreds of great barracuda, swimming wildly around one another, razor teeth gnashing at the end of sleek, silver bodies. The storm grew and grew, ten metres wide and twice as deep, barrelling across the reef and out towards the ocean. I was gulping down air at an alarming rate, not scared but thrilled, in wonderment at the inconceivable sight. It suddenly tore away out into the blue, leaving us staring at one another in disbelief. In these more remote parts of the World, it seems, life exists on a whole new scale. Sipadan island, barely a speck in the waters of Earth, had played host to one of the most unforgettable encounters of a lifetime, and that was just the first dive…