Semporna’s Islands, Snorkelling and My First Dive!

Semporna’s Islands, Snorkelling and My First Dive!

Anyone with an interest in diving has probably heard of Sipidan off the southeastern coast of Sabah. It is world-famous as one of the best places in the world for diving. But the islands close by should not be dismissed. Especially because you don’t have to get the, annoying, Sipidan Permit. It’s RM120 per day just to enter the waters off Sipidan and you often have to book months in advance. The nearby Islands have just as good diving sites and it is much cheaper. The whole area is rich in marine life and is part of the Coral Triangle. A highly biodiverse region it encompasses much of Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines and, Papua New Guinea. The easiest access point to the islands is Semporna. So that’s where I headed even though I had never dived in my life.

Getting to Semporna is pretty straightforward. I got a bus from Sandakan for RM40, which took about 6 hours. The coach buses in Malaysia are pretty nice. The seats are comfortable and they also recline a lot, which is great if you have no one seated behind you. However, if you’re hoping to get a good sleep think again. The roads are extremely bumpy. I don’t suffer from motion sickness but by the end of six hours on this bus I felt like I’d been through a washing machine on spin cycle. This is ultimately why I chose to pay extra and fly back to Kota Kinabalu instead of getting the 10-hour overnight coach. Semporna is really small. Pretty much no matter where you are staying it is walking distance from the bus terminal so you can ignore the taxi drivers. To be honest I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t like Semporna. It’s dirty and it is not set up for tourism at all. The only exception to that is all the diving schools near the jetty. Semporna was also my first experience with beggar children. They follow you up the street or around shops asking for money. I’m not sure what the situation is in the area. Whether, like other parts of the world, children are taken out of school and made to do this by adults or if they are in genuine need. As much as it went against every fibre in my body I made myself keep walking. The ethics of giving to children on the street is a murky subject. I don’t have any photos of Semporna because I didn’t feel comfortable taking my camera out with me. It is somewhere that, while I didn’t exactly feel unsafe, I felt the need to exercise a little bit more caution and not flash around my wealth.

I checked into my hostel shortly after arriving. I had a little bit of trouble finding it thanks to Google Maps. You actually have to go around to the next street and enter from the back. I stayed at the Atine Semporna Backpackers and even though the area wasn’t good it was probably one of the better hostels I have stayed in. The owner is very welcoming and goes out of her way to help you. She even cooks you fried eggs or an omelet for the complimentary breakfast in the morning! Most places just put out a loaf of bread and some jam so this automatically put Atine Backpackers above every other hostel I’ve stayed in. The only real issue is the number of mosquitos in the dorms; nets on the beds would be a nice touch. After I had settled in I was in desperate need of after sun cream. I had managed to burn most of the front of my body while I was in the pool at the last resort. I was a red version of Ross from friends in The One with Ross’s Tan. The pharmacy happened to be near the jetty and Scuba Street so I decided to look at the prices for snorkelling and diving trips for my two days there. I settled on an all day snorkelling trip to Sibuan Island with Scuba Junkie for the next day. It was RM120 plus the RM10 jetty fee including transfer to and from the island, equipment hire, snorkelling at three sites around the island and lunch. I thought it was a pretty fair deal. So at 8am the next morning I rocked up to the shop in my swim suit and sarong ready to see what all the fuss is about.

It took about an hour to reach Sibuan including about 20 minutes waiting at the tourist jetty for our permits to be processed. As the boat approached the island my breath was taken away. Before me was one of the most stunning beaches I have ever seen. White sand and palm trees surrounded by waters in shades of turquoise scintillating under the morning sun. The island itself is so small that you would be able to walk the perimeter in under twenty minutes. There is only a small village of sea gypsies and a military bunker on the island. There is no tourism infrastructure at all so you need to bring all your own water, snacks, sunscreen and anything else you may need with you. You have to sign in when you reach the island. The authorities keep thorough records of who is on which island and when. This is largely to do with the history of pirate activity in the area. The most infamous incident happened last November when a resort on Sipidan Island was taken over by pirates and about twenty tourists and staff were kidnapped. The Philippine Navy has a good record of recovering the hostages of the various kidnappings. I’ll admit to a little bit of worry when I found out that my government had marked this area as an urgent travel only area but I went anyway. For the most part the pirates have been targeting Chinese tourists. Most likely their Government will pay the ransom for the return of a Chinese National. Australians, Canadians, Americans and Brits are basically worthless to the pirates because of our governments’ hardline attitude on funding terrorism. It is a little disconcerting being on the island with military personnel pointing rifles out to sea but it is for our safety.


Our first site for snorkelling was Drop Off. Once you get in the water and take a look you can see where the name comes from. The coral garden does literally drop off into the deep. It is a beautiful location with quite a lot to see. It is a good spot for muck divers. I drifted between the blue and the shallow end of the reef. My confidence in swimming through the shallows took a hit when a Banded Sea Snake twisted itself out of a coral about a meter below me. I’ve since been informed that despite having absolutely deadly venom they’re pretty docile. But, that was still a bit closer than I’m comfortable with. I high-tailed it back to the group to watch it swim away from a distance. I was a bit disappointed with myself though. I had been filming with my Go Pro but I didn’t hang around to get any decent footage. Most of the video is of me legging it and you have to look very closely and know where to look to spot the snake. I stayed a little bit further away from the coral after that experience. After about an hour the boat picked us up for morning tea back at the beach. Most of the others hopped off the boat for a swim but in a small effort to stop my sunburn getting any worse I stayed on the boat in the shade. My efforts would ultimately be in vain. By the end of the day I had managed to burn the rest of my body. Including the back of my legs right up to my swimsuit. This is where I am thankful for a retro suit with full ass coverage. I can still wear underwear in relative comfort though sitting and sleeping is an ordeal. Silver lining; at least my tan is even now. No more Ross Tan.

Our next snorkeling spot was a bit further up the reef at Hawksbill and it’s where I saw my first sea turtle! I saw two or three from a distance. The closest I got was maybe 7 meters as one surfaced. They’re so graceful in the water. Swimming looks utterly effortless for them. I returned to swimming with the guide after that, I had followed the turtle a bit far out into the blue. He pointed out some cool stuff like squid, crocodile fish, a stingray and he also dislodged a notorious Crown of Thorns Sea Star from the reef. It’s the most conservationists can do since you can’t kill them. They are absolutely devastating to reef systems but they’re a part of them too. The second site was also where something, presumably a jellyfish, stung me. From that moment on I was a bit more paranoid about the things floating by me. Especially after lunch at the third site. By that time you could see a storm center heading down the coast of the mainland and while it didn’t rain on us the conditions had become a bit choppy. I didn’t really enjoy that one at all. Except for the fact that in some spots the water was almost hot and when we swam up to the beach it was like swimming in a big bath.


Obligatory underwater selfie

Obligatory underwater selfie

When we got back to the mainland I decided that I wanted to up the game for the next day and do some diving. It was my last day in Semporna so my only option as a first time diver was to do a Discover Scuba course. It was a full day course at Mabul Island including 3 dives and only cost me RM350. That seemed like a pretty good deal considering that a rival company was asking RM400 for just two dives. I was a bit nervous about diving. I’ve never been a terrific swimmer and being underwater is not something I would usually consider fun. But, I was in one of the best diving areas in the world. How could I pass up the opportunity? So again I got to the Scuba Junkie shop at 8am ready for the big day. It took a bit longer to get to Mabul than Sibuan but the boat trip was pleasant. Being on the water always reminds me of happy memories from my time in Golfo Dulce.

I met my instructor at the island jetty. He would be running through all the safety stuff with me and guiding me the whole time I was to be under the water. I would be doing my course with another young man that was staying on the island though he was only doing two dives rather than three like me. After we collected our equipment we were taken to the side for our briefing. Our instructors went through everything that would be expected of us on the dive including a couple of important skills like clearing our mask and regulator underwater, equalizing, how to recover the regulator if we drop it and hand signals that we would need for our safety. The Discover Scuba course doesn’t really count towards an Open Water course but it will give you a little bit more confidence when you have to do your confined dive again.

Putting on the equipment is a bit of a task the first time. It’s so heavy! Once it’s wet it’s even worse. The first time putting your head under the water and breathing through the regulator in earnest is a bit nerve-racking. I’m not going to romanticize it; it’s downright uncomfortable. Still on the jetty with our heads maybe a foot underwater it was time for us to try out the skills we had just been shown. First up was mask clearing; It took me a few tries to get the hang of it but I ended up using it quite a lot that day until I decided that the most convenient place to keep my hands during the dives was holding the sides of my mask against my face. It was just more convenient for equalizing plus I think the mask was a little loose, no matter how much I tightened it. Then it was time for the harder bit; clearing the regulator and recovering it. I had to do the clearing methods a few times before my instructor was happy with it. I definitely prefer the blast method of just blowing the water out. Using the purge button freaks me out a little. Once the instructor was happy with how we handled the skills it was time to leave the jetty and head to the bottom. Descending was a little freaky. It felt really fast but that’s probably just because we weren’t going down very far. Equalizing is no fun. I have trouble with the pressure on planes so you can bet my ears would give me issues doing this. I did manage to get to the bottom though where we then tried to figure out buoyancy. Mine sucks. I had to have additional weights but into my BCD pockets just to keep me on the bottom. We swam a little bit further to an area with sunken metal structures that now had fish and coral living on them. I got to see a Nemo up close for the first time! and there were two lion fish right next to the anemone. They’re beautiful but don’t get too close. They are poisonous. As we made our way to the next structure I started to notice pain in my left ear. Equalizing didn’t help. So I signaled my instructor who helped me ascend a few meters until I could equalize again. We attempted to descend again but the pain came back after a few meters. So up we went again. I’m not sure how long we tried this for but it seemed like a while of going one step forward two steps back. The dive was cut short at about 40 minutes because of me.

Dive two was on the other side of the jetty where there is a coral reef. I didn’t have such a hard time with my ears this time. We saw so much once we got up close. Crocodile fish, bright blue and bright orange nudibranches, massive batfish, moray eels, lots of different corals and so much more. Mabul is a famous spot for muck diving. My highlight of the second dive was getting up close to a Hawksbill Sea Turtle. They’re so much bigger than you think by looking at photos. He was probably about a meter long from tip to tail. I was close enough that I could have touched him if I wanted to. Touching any marine animal is always ill-advised. Don’t do it. You never know if you’re going to hurt them or if there is something that could hurt you. I was probably in the minority of scuba students. I just wanted to keep my distance from the corals and the animals there. The day before’s experience with the snake was on my mind. When my instructor took me closer than a meter to the corals my instinct was to put more distance between them and me. Unfortunately my fins did connect a couple of times when he took me up close. He was holding my tank the whole time guiding me and pointing at interesting things for me to look at (I don’t think he grasped the concept that to me, since it was my first dive, it was all interesting). But being that close is a bit of an issue when you’re between the coral bed and the instructor. As much as I tried to keep my legs pointed away sometimes I couldn’t avoid brushing the coral.

The third dive after lunch was more of the same but in a different spot of the reef called Paradise. This one was too far to reach from the jetty so we had to go by boat. That meant there was only one way to get into the water. I had to do a backward roll off the side of the boat. I was apprehensive. I can’t even dive into a swimming pool. The idea of landing in the water upside down with a bunch of heavy equipment on me was just a little terrifying. I couldn’t sort my nerves out enough to do it for myself. I didn’t have time anyway. I just got pushed off… This last dive was probably the best of the three. It’s not called Paradise for nothing. The highlight was probably the four or five Green Sea Turtles I saw. Got right up close to one. They don’t really even care they’re so used to people. This one had also been tagged for research. We saw a lot, even a huge lobster in his little cavern under the coral. Two different species of lion fish right next to eat other and batfish chasing each other. I saw a porcupine fish inflate itself at the encouragement of my instructor (point to it with the stick and it will notice). It was a good dive but I’m still not comfortable getting too close.

Overall it was a good experience. I was very disappointed that I wasn’t able to take my GoPro on the dives, especially for the photo ops with the turtles, but I still have the memories. I wasn’t dazzled like so many people describe though. I think that I am far too conscious of myself and of the possible dangers associated with the ocean while I’m under the water. The sea and I have never had an amazing relationship. I have been re-thinking my goal of getting my open water qualification when I get to Thailand. I’m just not that comfortable under the water and a few hours after I got back from the dive I noticed that my left arm felt weird. It was achy, like when you get dead leg, and my fingers were tingling. Of course a Google search of whether this is normal ensued.

They are symptoms of Decompression Illness. Great.

DCI is where, during lowering of pressure, nitrogen is released in the form of bubbles into the tissues or the blood stream, more commonly known as The Bends. I wasn’t about to diagnose myself over the net so I decided to ask the friend I met in KL who is now doing her Diving Instructor internship in Kota Kinabalu if she knew of a doctor I could see when I got back to KK the next day. She gave me a recommendation so as soon as I landed (Flying probably wasn’t the smartest move with suspected DCI, even flying the day after just diving isn’t recommended. Something the company probably should have told me when I was making my bookings. Going back I would have swapped the days around and done the diving first.) and had checked myself into the hostel I headed to the clinic.

My experience at the clinic was pretty easy. Everyone spoke English so there were no communication issues. The doctor did diagnose me with DCI and gave me a course of steroids to take for the next three days. I have to take 8 tablets after breakfast everyday. He didn’t seem concerned that I had a flight back to KL in less than 48 hours so I took that as reassurance that my case wasn’t serious. I have to keep an eye on it and if it doesn’t resolve with the steroids or it gets worse I need to go and see a doctor in KL for oxygen therapy. Hopefully it won’t come to that. DCI is potentially very serious so if you have been diving and experience any of the symptoms afterwards go and get checked. The sooner the better. And never dive without insurance. I’m not going to use mine on just the one clinic visit but on the off-chance it doesn’t get better I’m going to be very thankful for it. There is no way to predict decompression sickness and it is possible, very unlikely, but possible to get it even at shallow depths. There are probably a few factors that contributed to me experiencing it. Not being able to equalize on the first dive and ascending and descending several times, being very dehydrated and quite likely not breathing how I’m meant to (occasionally caught myself holding my breath a little which you’re not meant to do ever when you’re diving.) was probably the cause for me. It seems like a mild case but time will tell. How unlucky do you have to be to get a bend the first time you dive? Wonder if I’m the first…

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