Monday, July 3, 2017

Semporna, Borneo, Malaysia – May 10th – 15th, 2017

The trip to Semporna, Borneo took 39 hours. We had 4 flights: Christchurch to Auckland, New Zealand, Auckland to Gold Coast, Australia, Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (KK), Borneo Malaysia, and finally KK to Tawau. Would you believe that the flight cost was around $250?! After much arguing with the locals trying to scam us (always fun after being awake for almost 2 days), we took a taxi followed by a public mini bus to Semporna, the hub for scuba diving around Sipadan Island. As the hub for some of the best diving in the world you would think that they would have tourism figured out. But no, the city was quite possibly the most disgusting place we have been to throughout our travels – it even rivaled parts of India, which is seriously saying something. At least in India you could always find decent food. In contrast, the edible food scene in Semporna was bleak. Surrounded by trash and sewage, your food options consisted of rice (or course), oily roti (bread), KFC, or half dead seafood kept alive in dirty tanks where each lived in a plastic bottle until it’s eminent demise via rude Chinese tourist. Like I said, it was bleak. The accommodation scene was no better. We stayed in a grungy 8-bed dormitory which provided little to no sleep most nights since our roommates thought it appropriate to stay up talking and drinking in the room until the wee hours of the morning. Not only is keeping up 5 people ridiculously rude, but Malaysia is a strict Muslim country where drinking is seriously frowned upon (which explains why they were drinking in the room and not in the common area). One night, Andy allowed his frustration to simmer until eventually exploding at them to shut up in an epic way – I had to keep myself from exploding with laughter.
Photos from around Semporna. The top right picture was taken at the market. The orange tarp on the ground on the right side of the photo has fish for sale among the spooge (at least they used a tarp I guess...). 
Food in Semporna. After 3 failed attempts, we settled on grocery store bread with peanut butter for every meal. In the top right photo the plastic bottles are full of squashed lobsters. Our meal consisted of runny fried tofu accompanied by oily, slimy vegetable noodles. 
Our hostel in Semporna. The free breakfast was typical: white toast, margarine, and jello-esque sugarfull jelly. 
Ok, so we’ve established that Semporna is a shit hole (which is an understatement), but the diving, the diving was INCREDIBLE!!!! We did 6 dives in 2 days – 3 inside the protected reserve around Sipadan Island and 3 outside. In contrast to Thailand which had incredible reefs and many small animals, the life around Sipadan was overflowing with some big stuff! Turtles, sharks, and massive fish were everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE! At one point, we were surrounded by more turtles than I could count – one of which was as big as a VW bug (no kidding, it was massive!). Most of the sharks were small (about 4 feet long) reef sharks, but we did spot a large grey reef shark about 20 meters down which was curious and swam right at me. For a brief second I thought it was a great white. Side note: reef sharks are harmless, but that doesn’t make them less scary looking. On the last dive, we got caught in a school of bump head parrot fish, which are about the size of a truck tire. We were completely in awe until I got shit on by one, decided I’d studied enough, and left school (hardy har har har). Although the reefs were not as visually stunning as some in Thailand, they were still gorgeous and inhabited by lots of moray eels, bat fish, barracuda, lion fish, crocodile fish, clown fish, squid, nudi branches, scorpion fish, crabs, etc. etc. etc.
Scuba diving around Sipadan Island.
Photos I borrowed from the web to show pooping bump head parrot fish (top left), a close-up of a bump head parrot fish, a turtle and bat fish at Sipadan, and a grey reef shark. 
All in all, the 3 dives around Sipadan were undoubtably the best diving we’ve done in our short diving careers. It’s unfortunate that your accommodation choices are living in squander in Semporna or whipping out the big bucks to stay on a nearby island which we’d heard is infested with rats and only marginally better concerning cleanliness and food options. When we questioned our local dive master about the conditions in Semporna, he said it was an uphill battle they have been fighting for decades. The locals and city administration don’t give two shits about sanitation (pun intended) and changing a culture has proved difficult, even for a city whose economy is based on tourism. The area has also been plagued by pirate kidnapping for ransom for more than a decade. Although the military security has improved the situation dramatically in the past few years, the threat still exists. We were shocked to hear that our dive master was among the first group of people kidnapped in 2000! Twenty-one people (including 10 tourists) were held for 6 months before the majority were released after a major Philippine military offensive. Although he spoke about that time in his life casually, being held captive in the jungle under thread of execution for 6 months, followed by being caught in gunfire, is unthinkable. Besides the military presence on most islands in the area, the slight threat that still exists today is unnoticeable.        


  1. So much plastic and trash. Don't they see it??? At least the nearby oceans are beautiful.

  2. Ya...about the oceans. They are littered with plastic. We had to stop several times and reverse the boat engines to clear the plastic that was sucked up. Sad to see... all that plastic has to end up somewhere.

  3. Such contrasts, beauty of creation vs human squalor..