Jun 28, 2013

Sulu sea, Kapalai, Mabul and Sipadan

It was just over a year ago that the White Manta team confirmed a ‘special’ trip to the Sulu sea would take place in June 2013. Since the announcement most of the dive crew have been like kids waiting for Christmas, hardly believing that the chance to dive in one of the most famous destinations in the world could be described as ‘work.’ After a fantastic Thailand season, and a brief but rewarding few months in Layang Layang; finally! June 1st arrived and all the crew of White Manta were ready and eager to welcome aboard some familiar faces and new friends.

In the small port town of Sandakan on the North Eastern coast of Borneo, Malaysia our guests settled into their cabins and began to prepare dive equipment for the dive safari of a lifetime. First to arrive, the ‘three musketeers,’ Tony Goldsmith, Mike Hammond, and John Richardson; Tony and Mike needed no introduction to the boat, it’s becoming almost a second home to these guys and we are always happy to welcome them back aboard (especially as Tony always brings along a new pot of marmite to keep the British contingent of the crew happy!).

Also arriving on the first flight was Angela Meade, a regular friend and customer from Singapore. We were especially pleased to have Angela aboard on this trip as she will very soon be leaving Singapore to return home to Australia, so this trip would give us a great opportunity to wish Angela a long goodbye! We were also able to welcome back Ole Mogensen from Denmark, who had previously joined us on a Similan safari, in Thailand, and was now preparing to continue his diving adventures with us in one of the worlds top diving destinations! Along with these ‘old friends’ we also had the pleasure to welcome aboard Andrey and Andrei from St Petersburg, Russia, who immediately toasted their arrival with Tequila and apple juice! Surprisingly tasty!

Next to arrive were two more regular White Manta guests, whose obvious love of diving is matched only by their love of fine wines, cheese and cuban cigars! Cameron Jones and Simon Cool. Arriving with the two Australians were yet more friends of White Manta! Elisa Geok has been diving with us for a long time and has completed many Singapore weekend trips with us and this trip introduced us to Lee Un Su; a new diver, already bursting with passion for the underwater world!

The last arrivals were a group from Singapore: Sherwin Ting, Amelia Goh, their respective mothers; Julia and Patricia, and friends; Wilson and Marisa. Some of them had previously joined our sister ship, ‘KM Black Manta’ on trips in Indonesia, however it was their first trip aboard the new MV White Manta, and we were hoping that this trip the diving would compete with the quality of dives they had experienced with us in Raja Ampat, Komodo and the Banda Sea! 

To add to the sense of a family reunion, we were also joined by long serving Dive Masters, Michael and Melanie Smith, who always make the boat a happier place to be (especially when Mel has baked some of her famous cookies!). Kim Wolfley a long standing member and supporter of White Manta Diving came, all the way from the US to experience the magic of Sipadan.....again!

Finally, everyone was onboard, and as the ship set sail for our first destination, everyone settled in for an overnight sail, either chatting on the sundeck, watching a movie in the saloon, or simply getting an early night and catching up on some sleep, the sense of anticipation was high as a week of adventure and new diving experiences awaited us! 

From day one, the diving did not disappoint! After a relaxing check out dive at Pom Pom island we enjoyed two incredible dives at Mantabuan; a divesite named ‘Aquarium’ delighted us all with it’s incredibly vibrant coral garden. Turtles coasted along in the shallow waters, sweetlips and snapper formed picturesque schools along the reef. Special finds; leaf scorpionfish, chromodoris and nembrotha nudibranchs, kept the photographers busy, but it was the pair of coleman shrimp nestled amongst the spines of a fire urchin that stole the show! A great start to what would prove to be a great trip!

The next day we sailed to Mataking and dived the house reef. A powder white sand slope, littered with coral bommies and man made reef structures hid a plethora of interesting macro life. More leaf scorpionfish could be found in amongst the branching hard corals, nudibranchs and all manner of crustaceans were spotted in almost every crack and crevice! Turtles cruised by overhead and big-eye reef squid gave those divers who wanted to drift with the mild current some larger life to enjoy! The end of the dive proved to be one of the highlights of the trip as a hungry group of blue fin trevallies corralled and hunted a huge ball of sardines under the resort jetty. The clear blue waters gave us a great view as the turbo charged trevallies flew at speed into this massive ball of fleeing fish.

Bohayan was next up; with very little information to go on, me, Chris and Heikki decided to go on a recce to find the best place to start the dive; jumping in different areas of the reef to see if we could discover a ‘sweet spot.’ All three of us reported the same thing: a pretty nice reef; with literally hundreds of turtles...if nothing else it seemed we could guarantee our guests the opportunity to have an encounter with a large number of these popular marine animals. On my check out dive I spotted six large individuals in only a minute under water. Chris was so confident that the turtles would greet our divers in large numbers that he asserted that if any diver didn’t see a turtle on the dive he would eat his hat. It’s a good job Chris doesn’t own a hat because most of us saw no turtles through the entire dive! They all must have fled! Maybe they had moved on to Sipadan and were planning to meet us there!

The next few days were spent enjoying the macro havens of Kapalai and Mabul along with the contrasting majesty of the pelagic playground of Sipadan. Both Kapalai and Mabul lived up to their billing amongst the worlds' top destinations for ‘muck diving.’ There was so much to find here amongst the sandy plateaus, rocky reef slopes, man-made underwater playgrounds and even the support structures of a converted oil rig! Frog fish, nudibranchs, stonefish, octopuses, seahorses, crocodile fish, pipefish, catfish, squat lobsters, and so much more; just waiting to be discovered here! My personal favourite find was a flambuoyant cuttlefish; a creature I have been hoping to find, myself, for years! It turned up on our first dive at the Kapalai house reef and treated us to a display of hunting and colour change that kept me fascinated for more than twenty minutes!

In contrast to the muck diving and macro hunting grounds of Kapalai and Mabul; Sipadan provided it’s highlights in the form of hard to miss, big pelagic action!!! The schools of barracudas and jacks here are simply astonishing to witness; and it is easy to lose yourself amongst the towering mass of silvery fish which engulf the passing diver.

These huge balls of fish are joined by a very healthy population of white-tip sharks, some of which were kind enough to show us exactly how they maintain this healthy population with a rather shameless display of mating! Turtles are literally EVERYWHERE, and they are HUGE! We were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a manta ray cruising by the wall of barracuda point!

It is simply an amazing destination and one which everyone onboard agreed they want to return to! As we made our way back to Tawau; our final port of call, everyone agreed that this was simply a magnificent trip to be a part of. Chris summed it up well in his final briefing when he thanked Vincent for giving us the opportunity to dive such an amazing destination and all of our guests for joining us and making the trip so special. It truly was a trip I will never forget.. great company, amazing diving and life long memories!