06.02.2012 - 26.06.2012
When Juan and I visited Sipadan on February 7th this year, I never imagined I would soon be guiding such an exciting dive destination!
We arrived in Mabul one afternoon after our four day stay in the jungles of Danum Valley. Mabul is the nearest island to Sipadan, and the base for anyone who wants to dive in this world famous marine park for which there is a long waiting list to even get permission to enter. Feeling slightly conscientious of splurging over our budget on a three day diving package, we had decided to give in anyway and visit this place we had only just heard about from other back packers along the way.
Ever since Tio Luis introduced me to diving when I was about fourteen years old, I fell in love with it. Growing up in an ocean-loving family and only twenty minutes away from the warm beaches of Yucatan, being in the water has only been natural to me. I have dreams of waking up at the bottom of a cenote or a pool, watching the light filter through the surface and onto the walls, rippling brilliant, silent energy all around me, and suddenly realizing I’ve been there, underwater, observing and BREATHING!
Diving is like this dream to me. I enjoy it regardless of the site. I just love getting in the water and being a part of it; to descend into this liquid world and flow with it, feeling the changes in temperature, seeing the different shades of light at a depth, floating along with the current and just breathing peacefully as the dive goes on.
When we first arrived to Sipadan, I was as excited as I would be about any other dive. I geared up, jumped in and enjoyed it as I would any dive site, and when we came upon a school of Bumphead Parrotfish and later a Devil Ray swam right up to us, the events seemed to me as beautiful as they did natural. I didn’t realize until later how special they really were!
Still, knowing how much I loved diving, during one of our walks around the back of Mabul island, Juan sensed that I might like to stay longer and easily convinced me to enroll in the Dive Master training program at Scuba Junkies (the dive company we were with), even if only for the experience and to get a little more diving into the trip. THIS WAS THE BEST DECISION we’ve made in a long time!
The idea of the Dive Master certification is to prepare divers to be able to not only become very skillful in their own diving techniques, but to also be fully capable of rescuing, guiding and helping out other certified divers under water and assist in training student divers in their courses. At Scuba Junkies the Dive Master Training program is both strict and fun, allowing trainees to soak in knowledge from the most qualified instructors and to gain experience with unlimited diving in Mabul island during the six week course, which ends with a very strenuous Stress Test, after which -believe me- you’re mentally prepared to react calm and assertively to pretty much any situation under water!
I never knew it possible, but during the course MY LOVE FOR DIVING GREW exponentially! Every single dive became to me even more natural, and at the same time tremendously exciting! As I learned more about the aquatic species of the area I started to appreciate the countless variety of life forms, to pay attention to the details and learn where to find them. More so though, after diving the same areas over and over three and four times a day, I realized the beauty of simply being still and letting life around me BE. Just like in my dream, to stay motionless and breathe softly watching the light touch all that is in this liquid space was what brought the most precious experiences. My favorite thing to do was to gear up and just jump off the jetty into AWAS, a sandy dive site famous in the area for large turtles and great muck diving. I would go there not for that but for the school of squid. Even as I write this blog my heart warms and beats at a different pace. I wish I could find the words to put into your heart just how magical it is to see them living right with you! Their diaphanous, ethereal fins rippling gently in the soft current, their tentacles stretching and curling in unison, their intelligent, knowing eyes appearing pair by pair through the planctonic mist, first suspicious, then curious, then comfortable as they decide I’m not a threat, that I’m a part of their world for a moment, and finally continuing their eternal dance, shifting from dark brown to white as they feel at ease, hovering in the cool particles of the salty water.
I remembered how to connect with nature the way that is most precious and real to me. A humble silence where I am equal to the creature I encounter, where we’re each a momentary transformation of ancient energy, part of the same matter and music. A life and a life.
By the time the training program ended I was so enamoured of life under the sea and of the great friends I had made at Scuba Junkies that I could not help but stay and work for a while, and with my enthusiasm it was easy to persuade Juan to do the same and also enroll in the Dive Master program! These have been some of the happiest months of my life, guiding people under water who share the same love for the ocean as I do, being able to help new divers acchieve better diving skills and sharing exciting adventures with people from all over the world, but one of my most exciting moments was when I was chosen to guide Sipadan. This was completely unexpected for me since Scuba Junkies is very selective about their guides, but I was ecstatic to find out I had made the cut!
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Borneo, a volcanic mount that breaks the surface of the sea, rising from depths of up to two thousand meters! One of its dive sites, Barracuda Point, constantly features among the top dive sites in the world, and in the last article by CNNGO, it appears as number one! In Sipadan you find ancient coral gardens, dozens and dozens of Green Turtles frequently more than two meters long, Hawksbill turtles, huge Dog Tooth Tuna, a school of over one hundred Bumphead Parrot Fish as big as myself, hundreds of Chevron Barracuda tornadoeing all around you, thousands of Big Eyed Trevally in a cloud you can swim through and lose orientation from the intensity of their number, Giant Trevally hunting in silver bolts of power, enormous Grey Reef sharks and graceful White Tip Reef sharks swimming up to cleaning stations where a myriad of colorful reef fish nibble off impurities and light up the impressive topography in bright blues, yellows, oranges... all glistening under the light of thirty meter and plus visibility.
My first day guiding there I realized how much I had changed as a diver. The ocean expanded before me! Once down there I was not only enjoying the breathing and the sight of the fish, but I appreciated the immensity of the island. I was aware of my depth, of the time, of my nitrogen build up, of the diver I was guiding, his skill and comfort in this new environment, of the dark abyss and monstrous wall I was floating along... I cracked up at the sight of my diver fully concentrated in taking a picture of a turtle while a white tip shark about his size hovered curious only half a meter above him. I automatically took mental notes of the topography for orientation, pointed out interesting creatures (although there's really no need to since they're swimming all around you), and all the while I was completely relaxed and having a marvellous dive!
One of the most attractive features of Sipadan is not only the vast amount, sizes and variety of marine life forms you see, but also the probability of spotting unusual creatures who inhabit the area at different depths and sometimes visit the island. Among these are Pilot Whales, Marlins, different kinds of dolphins and -my favorite, my dream, the ONE animal I had on my life's wish list to see- the HAMMERHEAD SHARK! There are nine species of hammerheads in the world, and two can be seen in Sipadan occasionally: the Scalloped and the Great hammerhead.
Opposite to Mabul, as you guide Sipadan you pay less attention to the detail of the beautiful coral gardens and more so keep an eye out for the bigger things that swim by in the blue, which can be anything from huge turtles to different kinds of rays to bigger sharks. Actually one of the typical dives during a day tour to the island is what we call a "blue dive", where we guide our divers ten minutes off the wall to a point where there is no point of reference: just blue above, blue all around and blue until the deepest depths. I imagine it to be the closest thing to being suspended in space, with even fluorescent scales of plancton to resemble the stars. This is where I saw it: My first hammerhead!
Kevin was ahead of me that day with the first group, and we had been swimming into the blue for several minutes without having seen anything but jellyfish to that point. Afraid my open water divers might become uneasy after so much time with no visual reference, I was looking at my compass deciding to head back to the wall when all of a sudden I heard Kevin's tank banger going crazy! We rarely use our tank bangers at all, so I knew he had seen something special and with no hesitation I turned to my divers and effusively urged them to race behind my furious finning! It took us no time at all to reach the other group, and as I frantically searched in the dark blue waters for the object of their excitement, I saw with a swollen, abruptly slowed heart the mystical shape of my shark: the graceful movement of his long tail moving slowly from side to side, the smooth grey-brown back reflecting ever so little light at thirty meters' depth, and the iconic flattened hammer-like head with an eye on each extreme, watching us cautiously as it swam, knowing what only sharks know in their world.
My whole being swells with love and longing when I think of the time spent in my home undersea, and I hope with all my heart you can plunge into this world of water and life, in Mabul or wherever you are and learn to see it for all the wonder that it is.