Sipadan Island juts from the floor of the Celebes Sea like a sudden pulse of activity on a seismograph. An hour by boat from the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia, Sipadan is an innocuous island – lots of sand, lots of palm trees, the occasional lethargic monitor lizard. It can be circled in fifteen minutes on foot.
There’s little to suggest that below the surface lies one of Jacques Cousteau’s all-time favorite dive sites.
The island is the remnant of a submarine volcano that erupted on the edge of the Philippine Plate millions of years ago. After the magma subsided, coral polyps rapidly colonized the newly formed island. Sea levels soon fell, however, exposing and killing the coral. The dead coral formed limestone cliffs, as giant masses of calcium carbonate are wont to do, and time passed.
But as the Philippine plate subsided, Sipadan sunk with it, and soon those cliffs were underwater again. Coral repopulated the shrunken island, radiating outward to create a fringing reef about five kilometers in circumference. When viewed in complete profile, Sipadan now resembles a giant mushroom, with the reef forming the cap and the limestone cliffs forming the stem.
Sipadan is isolated from Borneo (for the region’s complete geologic history I recommend this excellent blog) by a channel. The channel is not very wide, but it is 900 meters deep – far deeper than the water that surrounds any other island in the area. And thanks to this channel, large, weird, pelagic creatures can approach the island.
In the days before we dove Sipadan, divers had sighted a thresher shark, a nocturnal denizen of the open ocean with tennis ball-sized eyes and an immense upper caudal (tail) lobe that it uses to herd and then bludgeon schools of fish. Thresher sharks are notoriously deep-dwelling and shy – they can only be reliably seen by divers in one tiny pocket of ocean in the Philippines – but the cold, nutrient-rich currents that swirl around the island had lured one from the depths, and it spent a few days hanging out at a dive site called South Point. That’s the kind of bizarre and spectacular animal you can see at Sipadan – no other island has such deep water so close to land.
As a result of the unusual geology described above, Sipadan features three distinct habitats: shallow coral gardens (the fringing reef); vertiginous rock walls (the erstwhile limestone cliffs); and the channel, a vast and disorienting blue expanse that’s liable to make a diver feel like a speck of phytoplankton.
These three discrete habitats produce an incredible panoply of life, and most dives visit all three zones. Each dive at Sipadan begins by dropping down the rock wall to a depth between 18 and 24 meters, and hooking up with the prevailing currents that sweep along the wall. Once you’re in the current’s grip, it’s hardly necessary to swim; you can simply fold your arms and legs, allow yourself to be blown along the rock face like a leaf, and enjoy the parade of sea life.
Floating with the current is known as drift diving, or, more technically, The Conveyor Belt of Awesomeness. Triggerfish, harlequin sweetlips, lionfish and other reef fishes abound; spiny lobsters wave their antenna cantankerously from their rocky refuges; longnose hawkfish camouflage themselves in the sea fans that bloom from the walls. The current prevents you from scrutinizing small organisms for more than a few seconds, but scrutinyisn’t really the point – the point is becoming a constituent of the gorgeous tableau instead of a disrupter, harmonizing with the elements instead of fighting them.
Even while indulging in the Conveyor Belt of Awesomeness, you keep one eye on the gaping, featureless blue, for this is where Sipadan’sbig-ticket items lurk. Each zone contains different species: spotted eagle rays flap phantasmically forty meters down; black-tipped reef sharks skulk past at eye level; green turtles float regally overhead accompanied by entourages of remoras and batfish. Seeing turtles and sharks is a rarity at most other dive sites; after a few days at Sipadan they elicit yawns.
After 45 minutes of drift diving, you’re running low on air and nudging your decompression limits. You rise to five meters and crest the limestone cliff like a climber pulling himself onto a mesa, and before you stretches an effulgent garden of hard and soft corals, softened to pastels by the particulate mist in the water. Above the coral swarm teeming, intricate fish communities. Large schools favor this ecosystem, including gleaming jacks, squadrons of midnight snapper, and shoals of fusiliers. Most iconic aquarium fish occupy this sector, too: Moorish idols, butterflyfish, clownfish, yellowtail surgeonfish (one peculiarity of fish identification is that the same species often goes by several different names – you might know the yellowtail surgeonfish as the blue surgeonfish, or the blue tang, or Dory).
The most striking contrast, though, is the light: emerging from the murk of the drift dive into the sun-drenched gardens is not only gorgeous, it produces surges of joy, the sort of internal beneficent upwelling that mothers get from their children, that effeminate British teenagers get from Coldplay. Not only does the radiant light lift spirits, but the abundance of life, the obvious health of the ecosystem in a region otherwise degraded by overfishing, is encouraging. No person has ever felt unhappy in a Sipadan coral garden; no person has ever felt anything short of ecstatic. I can’t prove that, but I’m nonetheless certain of it.
More about Sipadan’s ecology and conservation status pending…