From Kota Kinabalu, we boarded a 12 hour bus crossing Sabah, bound for Semporna. This small town near the border with the Indonesian side of Borneo is the launching point for the world famous islands and underwater adventures found in the Celebes Sea.
Most divers come here to dive Sipadan, a small island filled with turtles, sharks, sea horses, and other abundant marine life. Jacques Cousteau himself considered this place to be some of the best diving in the world, remarking, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”
With an endorsement like that, there was no way we could pass this up.
We arrived in Semporna hungry and tired, but excited about the adventures that lay ahead. Since we heard Semporna is a dump (it is), we decided to stay outside the city, in a very unique place. Singamata Adventures and Reef Resort, built a couple miles out from Semporna on a reef in the middle of the ocean.
This old fish farm facility has been converted into a budget-friendly hostel, allowing guests to sleep in huts built on stilts right over the water.
We boarded a small boat from Semporna for the quick 10-minute ride to the resort. Since it was nighttime and already dark, it was hard to appreciate the full beauty of the place, but feeling the cool ocean breezes and listening to the lap of water under us already had us excited.
The next morning, we peaked out our window, greeted by one of the most magnificent views on the planet.
Life at Singamata was nice and peaceful. We entertained ourselves reading books under the thatched huts, snorkeling right around the resort’s stilts and walkways, and soaking in the glorious sunsets.
One underwater area was even circled off with netting – an area they called “the aquarium” – with a collection of interesting local fish. Snorkeling in the aquarium was very exciting, especially with some of the larger fish including a Leopard Shark, Tuna, Napoleon Wrasse, and huge Grouper. One of the Marbled Grouper was absolutely massive, weighing in at 80kg (175 lbs)!
Being in the aquarium during feeding time was even more exciting – watching these guys clamp down on fish heads with their big jaws just inches away from us.
Sadly, man’s negative impact on the environment is obvious here in Borneo. Dynamite fishing, shark finning, and pollution are rapidly taking their toll on this natural wonderland. We were horrified to learn of these practices and see the effects with our own eyes.
Sea Gypsies are common in this area. This extremely poor indigenous group – also called Bajau Laut – hunt and fish the oceans, spending their entire lives at sea living on small wooden boats and huts built on stilts over the water. They can be found trying to eek out an existence in waters around Borneo, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Commercial overfishing and the sad state of the world’s oceans now threaten their way of life.
Sadly, there were a lot of people wanting to dive Sipadan (most of which had made reservations far in advance), and I was unable to secure one of the coveted permits to dive this world-famous island. Instead, we joined a trip with Singamata to another stunning island in the area – Mataking.
I signed on for three dives and Heather joined some snorkelers. While I’m sure it’s no substitute for Sipadan, it was amazing nonetheless. We were thrilled to see dozens of green sea turtles throughout the day. There were so many we lost count! There was a fairly strong current around the island, making it ideal for “drift diving” where the boat drops you off in one place and picks you up later wherever the current takes you. On one of the dives it felt like we had traveled halfway to China; I was very relieved to surface and see the dive boat racing over to pick us up again.
We enjoyed our time living out over the ocean and even extended our stay at Singamata, but eventually it was time to return to land again and head on to our next destination. I made a last ditch attempt to search for a Sipadan permit around Semporna, hoping there had been a cancellation and a spot had magically opened up for me. Sadly, every place was fully booked (with long standby lists), and it appeared diving Sipadan would not be in the cards.
Provided this beautiful corner of the planet can beat back the threats posed by man and remain “an untouched piece of art” as Jacques Costeau put it, one day I intend to return.