Turtle Island
Borneo 2003

The glaring white sand was so hot underfoot, it forced me to hop from foot to foot on the beach. The inviting wash of cool water was just a few skips away, but I hesitated. The last time I had put my feet in the sea had been in England, Babbacombe bay, in early April that year, and the shock of that water (11 degrees C) had been enough seemingly to bring on a heart attack. Then, I had been required to take that dip, in order to complete my ‘open water’ scuba diving training. My wife Maggie had spent many months in a swimming pool laboriously learning the skills that I had picked up in moments, as if I were born with a breathing regulator in my mouth. But now it had been me, who, at the first shock of the icy Devon sea water, had cried :
‘I can’t do this!’
Standing in the shallows, Maggie had urged
“Come on, it’s not that cold!” and I took the plunge, wading into the cruel cold English channel with gritted teeth and shivering limbs. That day, only the two of us passed. One by one the other trainees succumbed to the numbing cold and trailed away seeking hot chocolate. We were determined to swim with turtles however, and somehow held on in there.

Now, on that hot tropical beach, my wife used the same words again. She was already in the water. Once again I held my breath, and stepped into the water....I looked up into my wife’s grinning, mischievous face. The water was incredibly warm (30 degrees C). Even the sand over which the waves washed was warm. I realised that I was going to like this.

After a chaotic and endless minibus journey across the wilds of Borneo, and a high speed boat ride to get here, I finally relaxed into the moment. Paddling about in the shallows, I had time to take in the scenery. To the left and right, the narrow sandy shoreline wriggled around fallen trees and a single wooden jetty. Nestled amongst the palm trees were wooden cabins, serving the islands only occupants- a few dozen tourists, their guides, other support personnel, and in one place, a park ranger station. The horizon was hidden in a heat haze. Closer in, the deep blue of the ocean turned suddenly to pale milky blue, marking the underwater edge of the island, and the drop-off point into the briny depths.  A Malaysian navy patrol boat lay heaved to several hundred metres out. I was standing on tiny Sipadan island, several miles off the shores of Sabah province, Borneo. This island is literally a slender column rising  600m from the ocean floor, with only the top 6m above the almost tide-less South China sea.  A tiny insignificant speck of a desert island, less than half a mile long.

We were there to dive with turtles. That first afternoon however, we were too late arriving to be given a ‘check dive’ by the dive guide, who with good reason eyed our paltry number of sea dives to date with some suspicion. Getting it wrong when the quarry bottom is 5m down is one thing, getting it wrong when there is nothing but deep blue sea under you for 600m is something else. So we were to go snorkelling.

Sliding down into the warm water, the snorkel in my mouth seemed incredibly light and insubstantial after the security of a diving regulator, and swimming in a T-Shirt was just WRONG, however, after a few seconds the strangeness faded, and checking that my wife Maggie was with me, we began finning lazily out to the reef edge, and our first sight of that spectacular underwater drop-off point. Two clear markers indicated its location- the sudden darkening of the water, and a thick band of fish stretching out of sight in both directions, in one long strip, like some alien undersea highway. I approached the sheer edge of the reef cautiously, amazed at the fantastic riot of soft and hard corals which grew in such profusion there, all imperceptibly struggling to get their fair share of the sunlight which streaked down through the warm clear water. A spectacular underwater jungle, heavily populated with the small forms of flitting and zipping fish.

Suddenly, the fish over the reef parted, revealing a single dark passage out to sea, through which slowly cruised the lean grey shape of a reef shark. It rolled one eye at me, clearly aware of my presence. At over six feet long, the creature appeared huge, the slow side to side sweep of his tail exuding the confidence of a lean mean predator on his home turf. I glanced behind and to one side, to check the location of my wife. Wide eyes inside a diving mask stared back at me. Back to the shark. We were on an intersection course. I spread my arms wide, halting my forward progress, and held my breath. At the same moment, with a twist of his body, the shark adjusted his course, and slid away from our presence, following the reef down into the deep blue depths. I turned and gave the OK signal to Maggie. She grinned and enthusiastically OK’ed back. I was relieved. Persuading a nervous wife out on such an adventurous holiday, just the third foreign holiday of our lives (and our first diving holiday ever), was enough of a deal, without the appearance of a shark coming within metres of us as soon as we stepped into the water. For me, I had read up on this possible Sipadan encounter, and I knew that the white tipped reef shark was totally harmless. It was nice however, to see theory proven in practice. We appeared to that shark to be a bigger and bulkier predator than him, and discretion ruled the day.

The dive briefing that night did not go well. Only qualified to dive to 18m, we discovered that most dives would begin at nearly twice that depth, only moving up to 18m and less after several minutes. My wife was naturally perturbed by this news, and my persuasive arguments about there being little difference between 18m in UK waters, at the bottom of a freezing, dark quarry, and 25m in the clear, bright warm waters of Sipidan did not convince her. She was worried, and likely to forgo the dives. Later, gloomily, I supped my cold Guinness (yes, Guinness!), as the tropical night fell swiftly, and looked out upon the water, watching the ghostly underwater lights of a party of divers as they worked along the drop-off on a night dive. Much later, in the steamy heat of the tropical night, under a whirling ceiling fan, I slept fitfully.

Humiliatingly, the next morning, we knelt in 3m of water, on the sandy shelf of the reef, and executed simple safety routines in front of the Dive master (lost regulator, flooded mask, basic buoyancy). I silently cursed my wife for painting such a bleak picture of our competency. Everyone else had gone on ahead in the dive boat to begin their Sipadan adventures. We were still in Kindergarten. Eventually satisfied, the dive Master allowed us to lift off the bottom, and fin slowly over the dramatic drop-off, where 5m under us suddenly became 600m of gloomy dark ocean depths. I drifted down to the planned dive depth of 10m and looked up. Maggie, accompanied by the Dive Master was still at 4m or so. I watched them, drifting lazily in the water, as Maggie went through what I now know to be her familiar first-dive-of-the-holiday ‘can’t get down’ routine.

Suddenly, the Dive Master made a hand signal in my direction. I could not understand what he was indicating, and began to fin towards them. Maggie also gestured- she was pointing below me. I glanced down. Lit by the gleaming shafts of light streaming down from the ever shifting surface, an adult Hawksbill turtle was rising from the stygian depths.

green on surface

I spread myself star shaped, pausing all movement, and hardly daring to breathe through the noisy, bubbling regulator, I drank in the moment. Her huge teardrop shaped shell was iridescent with coloured patterns which flickered and danced in the rippling sunlight pouring down from above. Rear feet tucked in, front fins spread wide the enormous turtle sculled lazily upwards and towards us, the slight movement of those front legs enough to propel her bulk effortlessly through the water. She slid up between us, and then hovered just below the surface, demonstrating perfect buoyancy, before gently raising her head on its long neck to momentarily kiss the surface for a breath. She then drifted for a moment, allowing her front to dip downwards, before spreading those huge finned legs once again, and with  slow motion strokes, moved effortlessly away from us, back down into the depths. I watched until she faded from sight, and then looked up to my wife. She gave the ‘OK’ signal. I numbly reciprocated. One thing was for sure, I decided. You don’t see many of those at the bottom of a flooded Leicestershire quarry!

We passed our inspection by the dive master. Despite our lack of sea diving, we had spent many hours in the gloomy cold waters of various quarry dive sites, after passing our ‘open water’, where we had undertaken the additional and fairly rigorous ‘peak performance buoyancy’ practical exam. This specifically trains a diver for ‘bottomless’ diving. Knowing our holiday destination we had considered it essential. Now, hanging effortlessly in the water, 10m down and 10m from the vertical reef (with 590m of water below), calm and collected, our buoyancy steady, watching that turtle, it was clear that we  were not going to be a liability for anyone.

The trip to Sipadan was just a few days of ‘bolted on diving’ to a fortnight’s jungle holiday on Borneo. We did no more than a dozen dives there, including a spectacular night dive along that vertical coral reef. Sipadan is one of the best dive destinations in the world if you wish to see turtles. I have been on diving holidays when you saw a turtle nearly every dive. Off Sipadan, turtles are rarely out of sight at any one moment of every dive. There is so much else to see there from sharks to seaslugs and seahorses, that you almost become blasé to their presence. I carried a little compact 35mm underwater camera with me, and found I had always used up the film before the end of the dive.

As you can imagine, there was not a lot to do at night on Sipadan.  After the equatorial sun had dipped suddenly below the horizon, not long after 6.00pm, the evenings were long and quiet.

 One attraction however was to slip a park ranger $5 to be guided out along the beach and around the island. Walking on the beach at night alone was not permitted. The object was to see turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Guarded by the park rangers, these turtles had their eggs collected, and incubated behind predator proof wire. Technology mad, I was equipped with the very latest night vision equipment, which I hoped would obtain night pictures of laying turtles, without disturbing them with torchlight. This consisted of a ‘Night Owl’ low light image intensifier lens fitted to my SLR camera, and infra red lenses attached to our Maglight torches. The result of all this would be to illuminate the scene invisibly with infra-red using the torches, whilst being able to see this illuminated scene through the camera’s lens (and subsequently to photograph it). Through the green haze of this lens, I could see the female turtles swimming up and down the shallows, ghostly shadows beyond the gentle surf. The hope was that one would come ashore, and once concerned with egg laying, it could be approached for some disturbance proof image intensified photography. We walked all the way around the island (not much of a boast), but, disappointingly, only came across one digging female, who clearly needed more privacy. Despite keeping our distance, after a while she abandoned her nesting efforts, and slid back into the sea.

Coming to the end of our last dive on Sipadan, I floated reluctantly up and away from yet another photo opportunity with an obliging turtle. I blew my buoyancy jacket as I reached the surface, turning it into a lifejacket, and as it tightened around my chest, I literally gave out a sob of disappointment at having to leave. I vowed to return for a longer period. I deserved it. Sipadan deserved it. As always however, ‘going back’ is not always recommended. We did return to the area in 2005, but not to Sipadan. That patrol vessel off Sipadan in 2003 was in response to an incident a few years earlier when  tourists had been kidnapped from the island by Indonesian rebels. By 2005, the dark clouds of terrorism and the ransoming of western tourists were growing industries in the seas off Borneo and Indonesia. The isolated Sipadan island was abandoned, except for its ranger station, and all those wonderful log cabins nestling in between the palm trees were dismantled, and removed. The sea around the island had been made a marine park reserve, with dives limited to mornings only, travelling from the much larger and permanently inhabited island of Mabul. There we stayed, in a spectacular water village, newly built and achingly beautiful. It was however, not the same, and even though my camera equipment had been upgraded to digital video from that little snap camera, it is those first grainy pictures taken by the little point and shoot which still have the power to take me back in an instant to that hot beach, and those turtle rich seas.