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Cindy's hard core Stress Test!!!!!

Last requirement before becoming a Dive Master...

Objective: To switch each part of your scuba gear with your buddy's (mask, fins, bcd, tank).

Rules:
1. The task has to be achieved while "buddy breathing", which means sharing the air from one tank, breathing from the same regulator which is passed between buddies every two or so breaths.
2. The switched gear has to be perfectly fit and secured to dive in on the person it's been switched to. That means nothing tangled, unplugged, lose or missing.
3. If a diver breaks the surface, the test starts over.
4. If a diver breathes from a regulator other than the one shared with the buddy, the test starts over.
5. The instructors are allowed to try make everything above seem impossible to you by tearing off your mask, throwing sand in your face, tangling your regulators, detaching your tank, blowing bubbles up your wetsuit, unbuckling your weight belt, inflating your BCD so float to the surface and -well- pretty much by doing anything they can think of to mess with you!
We had a great time!

Posted by juan y Cindy 04:55 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Mabul, my little ocean home

Cindy and cuttlefish in AWAS

Cindy and cuttlefish in AWAS

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.

Cindy and Juan on a surface date

Cindy and Juan on a surface date

Cindy and Juan on an underwater <br />date

Cindy and Juan on an underwater
date

Mabul Lucha Libre

Mabul Lucha Libre

Tire pushing: one of the most popular games

Tire pushing: one of the most popular games

Spiny Devil Fish

Spiny Devil Fish

Batfish following Green Turtles

Batfish following Green Turtles

Sand boats

Sand boats

Frog Fish

Frog Fish

Pink Frog Fish in Kapalai House Reef

Pink Frog Fish in Kapalai House Reef

Red Frog Fish in Smart's Artificial Reef

Red Frog Fish in Smart's Artificial Reef

Yellow Frog Fish in Scuba Junkie's side of AWAS

Yellow Frog Fish in Scuba Junkie's side of AWAS

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

Nudi branch

My magical squid!

My magical squid!

Squid meet fish

Squid meet fish

Flamboyant cuttlefish

Flamboyant cuttlefish

Blue Ringed Octopus: One of the most beautiful and deadly creatures on Earth!

Blue Ringed Octopus: One of the most beautiful and deadly creatures on Earth!

Black Finned Snake Eel

Black Finned Snake Eel

Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish

Sponge crab

Sponge crab

Decorator Spider Crab

Decorator Spider Crab

Hermit crabs with anemones and debris attached to their shells

Hermit crabs with anemones and debris attached to their shells

Mantis shrimp in its bottle home

Mantis shrimp in its bottle home

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Ornate Ghost Pipefish

Spotfin Lionfish

Spotfin Lionfish

Common Lionfish

Common Lionfish

Zebra Lionfish

Zebra Lionfish

Scorpion Fish

Scorpion Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Mandarin Fish

Blue Spotted Ribbon Tail Ray

Blue Spotted Ribbon Tail Ray

Blue Striped Snappers

Blue Striped Snappers

Two Spot Snappers

Two Spot Snappers

Juvenile striped catfish

Juvenile striped catfish

Spiny Stone Fish

Spiny Stone Fish

Spot Face Morray Eel

Spot Face Morray Eel

Giant Morray Eel (this is Elvis at Kapalai House Reef)

Giant Morray Eel (this is Elvis at Kapalai House Reef)

Great Barracuda in AWAS

Great Barracuda in AWAS

Cow Fish

Cow Fish

Seahorse in Semporna night dive

Seahorse in Semporna night dive

Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish

Posted by juan y Cindy 21:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (5)

Danum Valley

Sabah's last natural stronghold

Bornean Flying frog Ranchophorus nigropalmatum

Bornean Flying frog Ranchophorus nigropalmatum

Juan and Cindy on top of tree platform

Juan and Cindy on top of tree platform

Straight after the mixed emotions we had in the Kinabatangan river, with its fascinating wildlife trapped in such a thin stretch of forest, we entered an entirely different scenario.
Danum Valley is an enormous area of untouched jungle with trees that reach over eighty meters in height and the strangest-looking creatures lurking around every corner. The feeling of being in such a pristine natural environment is something we cannot wish enough of for you.
We think especially of our younger cousins who, although are exposed more than we were to some degree of environmental education, are growing up in a world ever more detached from nature.
In Danum Valley we sensed the connection with eternity, that feeling of peace and humility you get when you take the time to sit by the sea and contemplate its vastness in silence, just breathing in the breeze, the salt and the sound of the waves against the sand. Here we had it by the cool river under centennial trees, and the difference was we knew the feeling was shared with millions of unseen individual forest inhabitants. They were there under rocks, on tall branches, behind our beds. A perfect temporary product of a never-ending evolutionary sequence, resulting in colors, shapes and habits we're only beginning to discover and will always have more to learn from and admire.
Here are some of the pictures =).

Welcome to Danum Valley: The king of the jungle watches us from a huge tree.

Welcome to Danum Valley: The king of the jungle watches us from a huge tree.

Cindy climbing down a forty meter ladder.

Cindy climbing down a forty meter ladder.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Snake

Snake

Ancient burial site at Danum Valley

Ancient burial site at Danum Valley

Pot in burial site

Pot in burial site

Red Langur

Red Langur

Whiskered treeswift

Whiskered treeswift

Cindy on scientist's bridge

Cindy on scientist's bridge

Leeches!!!!!!!!

Leeches!!!!!!!!

Posted by juan y Cindy 03:41 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)

Sungai Kinabatangan

Home to the Orang Sungai (people of the river)

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The misty and slightly chilly forests surrounding Mount Kinabalu ( Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site) were a lovely place to spend a few nights , hiking the trails during the day and cuddling up under blankets in our sleeping bags at night after a warm cup of Sabah tea. It was here we finally were able to see the world’s largest flower: the rafflesia, which reaches up to one meter in diameter and only blooms for a maximum of seven days. What's the strangest thing is that the rafflesia is not a visible plant! It's actually a microscopic plant that depends on a type of vine to live in, and only becomes visible when it starts to bloom. That makes sightings even more special so local people have the very convenient custom -for tourists- to set up signs on the road indicating when there's a rafflesia in bloom in their property. This is how we found this one!

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From Kinabalu we headed to the lower Kinabatangan area in search for wildlife.
Deforestation and the ever-growing palm plantations are a well-known threat for Borneo’s unique wildlife, but even though you know it’s coming you can help feeling your heart shrink in anguish when the last three hours of your bus ride there is nothing to be seen other than an endless sea of palm oil cultivation.
In the 1950s the period of intensive logging in Sabah was just beginning, and in the last twenty years, 80% of Sabah’s forest habitat has been destroyed. In the 1980s over-logged forests were re-designated for permanent conversion to agriculture and palm oil plantations soon became dominant. Malaysia is constantly disputing the #1 oil palm producer title against Indonesia, and just the small state of Sabah has 1,400,000 hectares planted.

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Agriculture is a necessity and oil palm sustains major economies and livelihoods, but when you see the plantations reaching all the way to the river bank of one of the most biologically important places on Earth you feel the frustration, anger and despair of witnessing big companies not trying even a bit to make things better! The mighty Kinabatangan is being left with just small pockets of forests throughout its 560 km; too small to maintain viable populations of the animals and isolating one from the other. You would think that leaving a margin of natural forest between the plantation and the river would be the very least the government would enforce in such a unique environment, but to our sad surprise it is not happening, at least in many areas of the Kinabatangan.
However, oil palm plantations are not to be satanized per se. All monocultures have their environmental impacts and oil palm plantations may be a lot better than most of the other crops we are familiarized with. In fact, oil palm is biologically superior to other oil seed crops in terms of efficiency in the land use and productivity. But companies with no environmental consciousness eliminate this partial advantage by extending their crops over an excessive territory, and especially by removing important, beautiful and unique ecosystems to put in lines and lines of palm. Something to think about is that a lot of that palm oil will be used for the growing bio-fuel market! You may not be so happy to pour your biodiesel in your car if you knew where it came from...
In properly designated areas for agriculture palm oil plantations could very well be cultivated in relative low-impact to nature, but even then when Malaysia is getting close to the 5 million hectares the mere volume is sure to have some serious consequences on the environment.

So here we are, cruising down the Kinabatangan, a knot on our throats, looking at the plantations peek out along the riverside or behind the very thin line of forest that attempts to hide them, when the impressive array of wildlife starts to emerge from the remaining jungle.
The first we saw were hornbills flying above us. Borneo has eight species of them, and all can be found in the Kinabatangan. We spotted six of them while here. Above all the Oriental Pied is the most commonly seen, and the Rhinocerous Hornbill one of the most striking and largest (over one meter long!).

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Then our guide Arshad spotted a reticulated python curled up in a tree resting. This beautiful snake reminds you of the boas at home but can grow a lot larger, with historical records reaching the ten meter mark!!!! Please try to picture that by taking a few meter steps wherever you are right now and you won't believe the dimension.

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We then spotted a female orangutan with her baby! She was pretty high up and it was pretty dark by then but the sighting really made us happy, and then just as we were to arrive to the lodge we heard our guide Arshad mumble through a grin "you guys are so lucky", and take us straight to this big male eating ripe figs on a very low branch overhanging the river!
The experience of watching a completely wild orang-utan in his normal behavior, almost completely ignoring us except for a few glances down at us, visibly knowing his superiority in terms of strength and skill in the forest should he have to use them against us is something we will never forget. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and a small part of Sumatra, and at one-hundred kilograms make them the largest tree-dwelling animal in the world. These extremely intelligent, magnificent cousins of ours make a new nest up in a tree each evening where they spend the night, and are also the only great ape outside of Africa. Sadly because of loss of habitat the orangutan population has droped from 180- thousand to under 30 thousand in the last ten years!!!!!!!!!!! We are losing them way too fast.

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But not all is lost. Twenty six thousand hectares in the lower Kinabatangan have been set aside for conservation by the Malay government and WWF is working together with all the stakeholders on a project called Kinabatangan Corridor of Life, in an attempt to reclaim the river banks and linking existing protected blotches. Wild life tourism has skyrocketed in recent years and awareness of the situation is spreading.

So after a very impressive first ride down the river we finally made it to the lodge, where we immediately decided we would spend an added thirteen days in addition to the mere two we had originally planned on. We're posting this blog on our last day here, having experienced a couple of weeks we will always remember thanks to the wonderful new friends we made in the staff (Arshad, Risiman, Adika, Nana, Diana, Amy Vanessa, Ping, Joel, City, Lida, Rosita, Marcell...), fellow travelers on their own adventures, the joint peace and excitement of being in the jungle and of course, the spectacular wildlife! Let us share some pictures of the creatures we encountered throughout our stay.

Salt Water crocodile known more from Australia than Borneo inhabits this river. This is the biggest crocodile in the world reaching sometimes more than seven meters from nostrils to tail!

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The Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borniensis), previously thought to have been introduced from the main land as a gift to the Sultan of Brunei, is now a recognized subspecies as genetic evidence suggests they have been isolated for thousands of years. These huge beasts are the smallest elephants in Asia, and travel along the riverside forests. They are somewhat shy creatures and sometimes are not seen by the guides for months at a time. We were extremely lucky and spotted them on a few different occasions. Sometimes we would hear a very loud noise, much like a gunshot but louder: it's the locals firing bamboo cannons into the air to scare away the elephants and prevent them from raiding the crops! Our own lodge actually also has to take safety precautions by setting an electric fence around the cabins to prevent people from getting trampled over in unexpected encounters between humans and elephants. Not far from here an Australian was killed two months ago by a bull elephant while she was photographing it.

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The western tarsier is a primate and one of the most unique looking creatures we can think of. The guides had told us they were around but not seen often. We were very lucky and were able to see this guy in two different occasions during our hikes at night. This is the mammal with the biggest eyes and longest legs in the world (in relationship with its size)!

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Slow Loris is actually a primate also and could be considered POISONUS! It secrets enzymes from its armpits that when mixed with its saliva create a noxious substance for its predators. In fact there has been a report of a human death from an anaphylactic shock after being bit by a Slow Loris. This nocturnal arboreal mammal moves very deliberately and slow as its name suggests. Cindy spotted this one!

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Banded Linsang is one of the Civets. Civets are cat/ferret- like creatures and the Banded Linsang one of the least encountered. One of the guides here had never seen one and the other just once before after years of working in the forest! This very special and elusive civet has a very long tail, a long neck and retractable claws just like cats (the only civet with this characteristic), and has a coloration similar to the ocelots and margays in Costa Rica and Mexico. We can’t believe we actually have a picture of a Spotted Linsang!!!!! Wooohoooooo!

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Hiking at night yielded some amazing animals. The kingfishers in Borneo are just outstanding and we spotted several species sleeping during these hikes.

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Pittas are also beautiful birds that we encountered during the nightwalks.

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But the animal we encountered every single time we went out was not necessarily the most loved. Checking yourself for leeches every few minutes was indispensable, and flicking them away may sometimes present a challenge. But they are painless and not known to transmit any disease, and after a while you start to tolerate these interesting creatures. Cindy even began to think they were cute (as long as they were on a leaf and not sucking her blood).

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And we will never get tired of seeing the Proboscis Monkeys! They are so beautifull and interesting to watch and hear. Adult males can weigh up to 22 kg, making them one of the largest monkeys in the world!

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Believe it or not we actually saw many more animals, but we can't post everything. What we do know is that surely the Kinabatangan will be one of the highlights of our trip.

From here we move on to Danum Valley, an amazing primary forest with a serious research station and then going to the world famous Sipadan for what promises to be one of the best diving of our lives.

Keep checking our blog and we'd love to get your comments!

Un abrazo!

Juan y Cindy

Posted by juan y Cindy 18:26 Archived in Malaysia Comments (10)

Borneo!

Bako National Park.

So we finally made it to Borneo, a wild land Juan had always dreamed of visiting, and the dream did come true as soon as we arrived to Bako National Park. As soon as we arrived to Kutching in Sarawak (southern Borneo) we went at our first chance to Bako, without reservations but with a firm decision and managed to stay for three nights.

We rode a boat that would take us down this beautiful river through the mangroves, with very graphic and disturbing signs warning tourists of the dangerous estuary crocodile (the largest in the world!). As soon as we got off the boat to this lush coastline a troop of Silver Leaf Langours welcomed us. I (Juan) was so exited I couldn't control myself. We checked in and headed for the trails, not twenty minutes had passed and we spotted the Proboscis monkeys!!!! Remember nowhere else in the world but Borneo is home to this peculiar species.

Adult Male Proboscis Monkey

Adult Male Proboscis Monkey

I was taking pictures of this beauty when they called me that a boatman had spotted a snake! I ran as fast as I could to find a beautiful Waglers Pitviper!

Female Waglers Pit viper.

Female Waglers Pit viper.

The Bearded Pigs (which can reach to up to 120 kilos!) walked in and out of the forest with their offspring.

Bearded Pig

Bearded Pig

Dung Beetle.

Dung Beetle.

As we hiked Dung Beetles worked arduously carrying their babies' provision somewhere safe.

Male (small) and female (large) Waglers pitviper

Male (small) and female (large) Waglers pitviper


And as if it weren't enough we spotted another Pitviper. The next morning when we woke up and went straight to check if she was still there I find the surprise that a male had come to visit her. He actually stayed on top of her for the next three days!

Rock Hopper

Rock Hopper

Walking by the shore hundreds of Rock Hoppers ran back to the water as we aproached them! I had never seen this amazing fish and was just fascinated by them. Cindy had her first encounter with them in Fiji andwas equally fascinated.

Adult Male Probosis Monkey

Adult Male Probosis Monkey

Believe it or not in all the excitment I left my charger for the camera back at the hostel so my battery ran out early thge second day... So Cindy and I went on a seven hour hike walking through the jungle hoping to see some magnificent animal like the King Cobra. We spoted a Gliding Lizard but couldn't catch it and because I had no camera we couldn't photograph the many species of native Pitcher plants that call Bako their home.

Bako was just amazing! And Sabah is supposed to be the real thing when it comes to wildlife so we are here today in Kota Kinabalu, planning our way into the heart of Sabah! We will keep you posted on our next sightings.

Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove.

Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove.

Posted by juan y Cindy 07:11 Archived in Malaysia Comments (4)

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