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The saga of Sipadan '96 - the invasion of Borneo

by Ken Sullivan

Reproduced from in focus 58 (September 1996)

Borneo, (Malaysia)

The Dive Quest trip to Sipadan in May was called many things: Sipadan II; a trip to paradise; the trip of a thousand dives and, of course, the Martin Edge Photo trip

For me Sipadan is the underwater photographers' ultimate dive site. It offers sun, clear water (most of the time) and more photogenic subjects than you can take in a month let alone eleven days.

What makes Sipadan so special for photographers is that you can plan your photo shoot before you go (using the information in Mike Wong's book), knowing that once you are there you can see and plan the subjects day by day and still be gob-smacked by the wonderful surprises the island reveals on each dive.

Artistic lighting

Sun rise and sun set are very special times, with lighting to satisfy even the most artistic photographer - colours, sun's rays, dappled light, Snell's window. All you have to do is add the subject.

Going to Sipadan with a big group -there were 31 of us - brought added benefits. Not just the complementary meals and the extra free day's diving.

The interchange between the group was brilliant. Help was always at hand whether it was a photographic question, a flood, a breakage or an upset tummy. Yes, we even had our own travelling doctor - Liz Wood-Walker - and though she was 'off duty' a number of the group appreciated the medication she provided.

Our other hero was Andy Hurst, he of flexible arm fame. He 'rescued' two flooded Nik V's during our stay and completely stripped, cleaned and reassembled a 15 mm Nikonos tens which, fortunately, the photographer was then able to continue using for the rest of the trip on his spare Nik III body.

On-site asset

Having an on-site film processing laboratory was a big plus as minor equipment problems could be evaluated by getting a film developed.

It also helped to see some of the early results and retake the shots which didn't work or you felt could be improved.

Another major benefit of a large group was the exchange of information on the various dive sites and subjects.

Throughout the stay, members of the group would come back from a dive and tell us about the subjects which they had found and how we could also find them. This was particularly useful along the drop-off because it was accessible all day and a very easy repeat dive.

'Macro City'

One such site was named 'Macro City' because of its profusion of macro subjects: gobies, crabs, shrimps, small fans, nudibranches, coral (patterns), featherstars, etc. It also had a cave which provided an extremely creative setting to allow experimentation with lighting and diferent subject setups.

Diving procedures were flexible because all the group had the required level of experience. It seems they do not take novices on the island. However, once the dive leader - ours was called 'Arnie' bless him - had checked you out, you could dive as you liked within the normal rules. As it turned out, we developed a new method of diving which is particularly suited to underwater photographers who, it has been said, occasionally indulge in solo diving.

Group diving

We called it Group Diving. It's simple - you just dive in a group with a selection of nearby buddies, depending upon how many there are in the water and, of course, how near they are in case you need help or advice or even a model for a particular shot.

It works with two or more, with eight being the ideal number on a large reef. This method enabled some to complete 50 dives in the eleven days we were there! The positive points of the trip are almost too many to mention without nan-ting names.

The organisation by Dive Quest was the best I have experienced in my 30 something years of diving, including ten years as our club expeditions officer.

Useful tuition

The photo tuition, both above and below the water, was excellent and judging by the interest in Sipadan Ill I am not the only person who thinks this.

The film development facility was an asset. It helped in the many ways mentioned earlier.
I enjoyed the group, the help, the fun, the interchange of ideas and the chatter.

The accommodation was clean and well appointed. The food was plentiful and good, so were the evening cocktails.

Magical mornings

I also loved the early morning dives even though I had to serve my buddy tea in bed to get him up at 5.30am!

Underwater, the shoals of barracuda, jacks, fusiliers and bumphead parrot fish seemed to be even bigger than last year.

The smaller shoals of bat fish, grunts and even a couple of manta rays added to the profusion of turtles, reef fish and white tip sharks that you can see on every dive. I even bumped into a large jellyfish which was worth 36 shots!

The negatives were the sand-flies and the tiny mosquitoes which loved to bite at dawn and dusk. The sandy floor in the dive centre was also a problem. It seemed to pervade every orifice - human, camera and diving equipment.

Top tips

If I were asked for some basic advice before a visit to Sipadan I would offer the following:

1. Go with a group - the bigger the better.

2. Take lots of film - minimum 45 rolls of 36 for ten days.

3. Double check all equipment - and take spares!

4. Take two different mosquito sprays.

5. Take at least one day off coming home - in Kuala Lumpar or Singapore

6. Take your camera gear into the cabin on all your flights.

7. Plan, plan and plan - the first three days are the worstl

After that it's PARADISE all the way.

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