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Malaysian Trip Report
April 2004
By Janet Czapski

Getting to Malaysia

Friday, April 9, 2004, saw all of us meeting at the World Gateway Terminal in Detroit, highly anticipating our upcoming adventure - first the flight from Detroit to Los Angeles and a layover there, then the long flight on Malaysian Airlines from Los Angeles to Taipei, Taiwan. Due to strong headwinds, we knew by the slower speeds indicated on the overhead monitors that making our connection in Taipei was going to be iffy. The Purser assured me that they would hold the flight for the group and much to everyone's surprise there was a MH representative, with a list of our names, who escorted us to our waiting plane! After a short delay (luggage transfer), we were off again! This time a much shorter flight, only 3-1/2 hours to Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of Sabah, the Malaysian state on Borneo that would host us during our visit. After another short layover in KK, there was a 45-minute flight across Borneo with fabulous views of Mt. Kinabalu into Tawau, on the southeastern coast of Borneo.

Tired travelers though we were, after an efficient luggage transfer (and NO lost baggage!) to the lorries, the group was escorted to waiting vans for an hour ride to Semporna, the port city that all boats bound for Mabul Island depart from. The road to Semporna from Tawau is a smooth, paved road bordered almost the whole way by palm oil plantations and small villages. The road traffic is mostly commercial to/from the plantations, but there were occasional waves from children and adults awaiting transportation. Semporna is a seaside town mostly consisting of fishermen. The floating fish market is adjacent to the pier where the Sipadan Water Village water taxis disembark, so your senses are fully exposed to the activities there! Everyone had a brief stop in the small market next to the pier so souvenir shopping could begin!

sailboatWe were escorted to our awaiting water taxis and the last part of our journey commenced! The sun was shining, the water was blue and the seas were calm. Tide was high so we could make good time between the various islands and floating fishing villages along the route. All the passing boats showered us with friendly smiles & waves of welcome. After a 30-minute boat ride, we were welcomed with the smiling faces of the welcoming committee at the Water Village. Cool honeydew melon drinks were served while everyone identified their baggage for transfer to their rooms and received their room keys. After we had an opportunity to examine our over-the-water cottages briefly, it was time for dinner!

All meals are served buffet-style in their large open-air restaurant. There's a "cold" table for bread, pastry, salads, fruit, juice, etc.. There's a "hot" bar with 4 to 6 choices of meat/fish/vegetables, etc, and always white rice. There are side settings for omelets in the morning, soup and meat and/or stir-fried vegetables for lunch/dinner. Dishes tend have an "Asian" flavor but everyone except the pickiest eaters will find something to satisfy their taste buds.

After dinner, Alex, the Dive Centre Manager, issued numbers for lockers and gear storage and gave everyone a briefing on SWV diving practices:

  • BC's and Reg's are stored on numbered posts in one room
  • Another room held lockers for mask, fins, etc, and racks w/hangars for your wet suit.
  • There are separate rinse tanks for 1) BC's and REG's, 2) mask/fins, etc, 3) cameras.
  • The staff assembles everyone's BC/Reg on the boats every morning and changes tanks in-between dives. You get your own mask, fins, etc.
  • You may elect to remove yourself from the boat diving roster simply by placing an "x" next to your name for the boat dives you wish to skip. The dive staff will then remove your gear from your assigned boat.
  • For shore dives, they will assist you suiting up on the dock, and will carry cameras, etc, to help you get in the water.
  • At the end of the day, they take all the gear off the tanks and you have to rinse your BC and REG and store it on your numbered rack.
  • Night shore dives are guided by a divemaster and limited to six divers. There's a sign-up sheet on the dive roster board and the guided night dives are something to experience! Frogfish, decorator crabs, stargazers, lionfish feeding, pipefish, octopus and mandarin fish are critters that are commonly seen on the night dives.
  • Shore diving can be experienced on either of the house reefs anytime during the day prior to 6:00 p.m. All divers (except for those on guided dives) are to be out of the water by 6:00 PM.
  • We went off to bed then - it had been a very long journey. By now it was Sunday evening April 11, we'd been traveling almost 36 hours, and were more than ready for a good night's sleep! Believe me though, the diving paradise waiting made the journey worth it!

    It's time to go diving!

    Monday morning dawned bright & sunny and EARLY for everyone! There's a 12-hour time difference so everyone woke up really early! After a great breakfast, we were off to the dive center! Our dive guide for the day, Leonard, explained SWV's checkout dive policy to the group. Everyone except repeat guests are required to do their first dive as a checkout dive on the house reef, Paradise 1. Mask clear and regulator recoveries are the two skills they want to see. Cameras are not permitted for new guest checkout dives.

    Completing those, you're off for your first taste of why their house reefs are called Paradise 1 and Paradise 2! Let's see, what did we see on that first dive? Schools of razorfish and polka dot cardinal fish make the jetty their permanent home so they're right at your fin-tips when you enter the water. Lots of lionfish cruise around the jetty looking for food. Out into the sand Leonard pointed out anemones filled with anemonefish, shrimp, crabs and baby lionfish tucked underneath them. Three thorny seahorses were spotted in the turtle grass along with numerous long-nose stick pipefish. A huge stonefish was spotted hiding in a tire and there were cleaner shrimp everywhere! Schools of fish cruised in and out of view and it was a great first dive for everyone!

    After an hour's surface interval, the boat diving program began.

    The usual boat diving schedule is three one-tank boat dives per day (8, 10, and 2 pm) one each at Mabul, Kapalai & Sipadan Islands. Mabul and Kapalai are short rides and Sipadan is a 45 min ride. Requests can be made for 2-tank dives to Sipadan Island (starting at 7:15a.m.) for those wishing to experience more of the wall diving/bigger creatures that Sipadan is famous for. Our group did nine days of boat dives; four of the days we did morning 2-tanks at Sipadan.

    Sipadan is famous for their turtles – both big & small – .in prolific numbers! You will see more turtles ON ONE DIVE THERE than you've seen in your total diving career thus far! It was not uncommon to see between 25-50 turtles per dive! They cruise in out of the blue constantly, rest in the caves along the various walls, sun & sleep in the coral heads on top of the reefs and are generally unfazed by divers! We watched them gorging themselves on sponges, nibbling at corals and sleeping in soft coral bushes along the walls! They swim right past you without blinking an eye and often the divers are forced to move out of their way, because divers are prohibited from touching any turtles so it's move or get touched by a turtle! They use the giant coral heads on top of the reefs for sun protection and for backscratchers. It was hysterical to watch a huge turtle cozying up to a coral head and scratch away. They also use the top of the reef as cleaning stations and it's great fun to watch the cleaning fish grooming a turtle! Dive sites at Sipadan are also famous for the hard & soft corals off the wall and for healthy, vibrant reefs loaded with marine life. It's a wide-angle photographer's dream come true.

    White-tip sharks also abound at Sipadan as well as a school of Napoleon wrasse. We were able to see the wrasse several times as they circumnavigated the island daily in their food forays. Sharks are always cruising in and out of the reefs and along the wall. One day we were fortunate to see a giant manta cruising in the blue off the wall. A day or two later, we were really fortunate to see the manta breech while we were readying our gear for our entry!

    Dives off Mabul & Kapalai Islands are famous for their critters and so-called "muck diving" because the visibility isn't as good as over at Sipadan and you're mostly diving coral slopes and rubble looking for the "good" stuff! Common fishsightings are various blennies, gobys, blue ribbon eels, lots and lots of various sized frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish, shrimp and crustaceans everywhere and lots and lots and lots of fish! Big fish, little fish and all sizes in between. We commonly saw octopus out in the open, scorpion and huge stonefish just sitting in the rubble, camouflaging themselves! Crocodile fish were also common as well as nudibranchs galore! It's thought that the nudibranch's vibrant colors are warning signals to their predators that the taste of them is toxic, but they sure make fantastic photographic subjects. They either don't move at all, or move very slowly so pictures are easily obtained. Another favorite photographic subject is anemones and their clownfish –..hundreds of photos were taken of the various varieties of clownfish, always striving for the perfect shot!

    All in all, nine diving days were not enough! Everyone experienced most of what the destination has to offer, but there's always something left on everyone's wish list still to be seen! One of the top items on my wish list was a flamboyant cuttlefish and Bob & I were invited to dive one afternoon with Jimmy, one of the divemasters sent out to look for a purported sighing of a flamboyant on Paradise 1. After much searching, we were unable to find the pesky critter so we continued along on our dive. Much to our surprise, 30 minutes later Jimmy found us farther out the reef and indicated he'd finally located a flamboyant! Unfortunately by the time we got to see it, my camera battery had given out for the day! But we were able to visually identify this tiny creature, a juvenile maybe a half-inch long! Cross one critter off the wish list, I thought!

    The next morning Bob & I and Bill & Susan opted out of the boat dive. Armed with a fresh camera battery and recharged strobe batteries, we embarked on Paradise 1 to look for the tiny creature! Mind you, this is an endless stretch of sand, poor visibility and small patches of turtle grassˇ.after searching minutely in the region where we had the sighting the previous afternoon, I was just aimlessly cruising about 6 inches above the sand, examining every tiny particle of grass, debris, you name it. I crossed over into the edge of the turtle grass and almost immediately spotted an adult flamboyant! This one was almost three inches long –..MUCH larger than the juvenile we'd seen the afternoon before, and much easier to photograph. Well, that certainly made my day and my dive and it was only 8:00 a.m. Lots and lots of photographs and video were taken, and high fives were exchanged! This is the reason divers dive, to seek out and find new, exciting and beautiful creatures.

    The trip home

    Our ten nights at Sipadan Water Village soon came to an end. JoJo and George in the dining room along with the other dining room staff made our last "famous pineapple crumble" for us; we washed our gear and ate our last Magnum ice cream bar from the mini-mart and purchased our last SWV souvenir! Soon it was Wednesday morning and time to shake everyone's hand and be escorted to our awaiting water taxi by the resort staff – and waves abounded as we departed for the remaining part of our adventure, but assurances were given to the wonderful staff that "we'll be back soon.

    After the boat ride back to Semporna and the van ride back to Tawau, we flew to Kota Kinabalu. Our destination in KK was the Shangri-La Tanjun Aru Resort located 10 minutes from the KK airport on the banks of the South China Sea. Our luxurious accommodations, fabulous restaurants, beautiful pool and magnificent spa appointments awaited us! Lunch beside the pool, pretty drinks with umbrellas, herbal massages were the order of the remainder of that day and Friday, our last day in Malaysia. Everyone took great advantage of the wonderful facilities at the Tanjun Aru Resort to relax and refresh before our long flight home on Saturday.

    On Wednesday evening we scheduled a Night Tour of KK, which included a night market to shop for more souvenirs, a seafood dinner with dancers representing the various ethnic Malaysian cultures and an overlook view of the city by night « fabulous city lights and beautiful stars from the lookout area.

    Thursday morning we woke early for our flight to Sandakan and our adventure to Sepilok to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre there. After a brief orientation by our guide, Junior, we were escorted out to the viewing platform to await the 10:00 a.m. feeding of the orangs. The Rehabilitation Centre is located inside 4,300 hectares of rainforest and serves as the drop off location for injured and displaced orang utans whose natural habitat has been destroyed by the creation of palm oil plantations. Once the orang utans have been "graduated" into Phase 4 of their rehabilitation, they're released into the rainforest and are free to move about and be readied to be released back into protected rainforests in various parts of Malaysia. However, twice a day at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. the rangers take bananas and milk to a feeding platform. There is not enough food to sustain the "free" orang population and thus they are encouraged to forage in the wild and become more adapted to their natural lifestyle, but enough to bring a small number of them back for viewing by the tourists! On the day we went to the Centre, seven orangs including one of the larger males, Mr. G, came to the platform. It was fun to watch them interact with one another and await the Rangers' appearance. Mr. G, we're told, just comes to the platform to watch the ladies! But he's a great photographic subject and lots of rolls of film and digital memory cards recorded fantastic photographs of all of them. Watching the "kids" was great fun also.

    After a short video explaining how the Centre came about and what they're doing to try and halt the destruction of their natural habitat and the efforts of the center to care for the displaced orangs, we boarded our coach for lunch at a seaside seafood restaurant. Another fabulous meal was experienced, then a city tour of Sandakan, their wet & dry market and a local Buddhist temple. Lastly we were able to tour the Sandakan Memorial Park, which honors both the Malaysian and Australian prisoners-of-water that were incarcerated in that area by the Japanese during World War II. It's a beautiful monument donated by the Australian government to thank the residents of Sandakan for caring for their prisoners and to remember those whose lives were lost there. Then we returned to the airport for our flight back to KK.

    Well, Saturday, April 24, marked the end of this adventure and we embarked on our journey back home. It was somewhat shorter than the outbound trip because we had great tailwinds but it's still a long way to travel. Everyone managed to catch a few hours sleep during the journey, but a mostly-safe return back to Detroit was marred by a couple of lost dive bags. That's what trip insurance is for, I guess. Everyone had a fantastic time. Pictures are being processed, printed and organized in anticipation of the end-of-the trip picture party soon to come!

    Plans are being made to return to Sipadan Water Village over Christmas, 2005! Why don't you join us and make some great memories of your own?

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