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January 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sipadan Water Village, Borneo, Malaysia

orangutans in the jungle, orangutan crabs underwater

from the January, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

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Dear Fellow Diver:

There's nothing like surfacing from a world-class dive and sharing the moment with a bunch of exuberant Italians. Although I couldn't decipher their lingo, I could definitely appreciate what they were jabbering about at the end of a 50-minute drift dive at Barracuda Point on Sipadan, where we'd seen almost every endemic species except barracudas.

The Bungalows at Sipadan Water VillageIn 80-foot visibility, I had come across four mammoth green turtles lounging at a cleaning station atop a coral head, with others queued up like autos at a car wash. Nearby, I had spotted a giant trevally that appeared to have a distended jaw, until a cleaner wrasse swam out of one gill slit. At the Aquarium, hundreds of fearless footlong trevallys swam right up to my mask before gliding away. Later, I was entertained by two trumpetfish making beautiful music, with a couple of coronetfish sitting in. Ramil, our guide, used a magnifying glass to inspect a tiny chromodoris nudibranch, while six-foot-long whitetip reef sharks circled below. Ramil used an Etch-a-Sketch to identify critters in both English and Italian -- pretty impressive. Like most of my dives at Sipadan, we had ascended above 20 feet when the first diver reached 500 psi. There, in bright sunlight, it almost hurt my eyes to gaze at neon-colored anthias and other brilliant reef fish darting among the hard and soft corals.

Sipadan Water Village, Borneo, MalaysiaI had come to the tiny island of Sipadan (pronounced Sih-PAH-dahn), off Borneo's northeast coast, after a week of touring jungle lodges in search of pygmy elephants, hornbills and orangutans. It had been a grand adventure, but for a diver, nothing to compare with the reefs of Sipadan. This legendary dive destination has a turbulent past. On Easter Sunday in 2000, Abu Sayyaf militants (affiliates of al Qaeda from the southern Philippines) invaded a dive resort there, taking several guests and staff members hostage. Most were released by September, after mediation by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The last escaped in June 2003. In 2004, the Malaysian government evicted all dive operations from the island, to safeguard Sipadan's pristine environment above and below the water. So today, divers stay on nearby islands and travel to Sipadan's reefs by boat. The main tourism island is Mabul, home to Sipadan Water Village (SWV) and a number of other dive resorts. The government permits only 120 divers a day to visit Sipadan, and some dive operators dispense the permits to guests through lotteries....

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