Semporna: Philippine children—homeless refugees—begging for food; too-loud karaoke machines; stray dogs in the streets, not all of them living; a fish-odored wet market; muslim women with heads hidden in scarves; monitor lizards lurking in the pond-cum-trash-dump out back the main street; and, of course, world class diving.
After nearly eight months of continuous travel both Kai and I felt it was time to take a break from constantly moving to new places and settle in one place for a while. Particularly, I wanted to find somewhere I could focus on diving and enroll in the PADI Divemaster course, something I had talked about doing since before leaving on this trip. Our dream was to find a nice bungalow along a quiet beach with world-class diving close by, high-speed wireless internet available, cheap massages, great food, and all for little money. Bali was close to this—it lacked the high speed internet—but it is currently the rainy season. We gave Thailand an honest look, but were too turned off by the rampant tourism resulting in over-pushy touts and jacked up prices. We considered the Philippines, but didn’t feel like dealing with the hassle of extending visas. Alas, we found ourselves considering Semporna, a place we had visited in July and remarked on leaving then what a shame it was that the town wasn’t nicer, otherwise it would be the perfect place spend a few months. But having searched fruitlessly, the appeal of Semporna began revealing itself.
First, Semporna is on the island of Borneo, the side owned by Malaysia. This means that, as Americans, we get a free three month visa on arrival, which can be renewed or extended quite easily (not that we plan on being here for a full three months.). Second, there is relatively high-speed wireless internet freely available, provided by Scuba Junkie, the dive shop we dove with last time we were here and who we’ll be doing the Divemaster course through this time around. Third, prices are cheap, extremely cheap, though more on that later. There are really only two downsides to Semporna: the town is about as appealing as a planter wart and the food is about as tasty.
To be fair, Semporna isn’t all that bad, it’s just that it’s not all that good either. As alluded to earlier, it has a few problems, none the least of which are begging children who make you feel like scum for coming to a third-world town only to spend your greenbacks on self-indulgent endeavors like diving rather than putting your money towards ending starvation or saving the rainforests. One day of diving here costs 300RM, which is roughly the average monthly wage here. The dogs are particularly rampant and particularly mangy. The monitor lizards—well, the monitor lizards can actually be quite comical.
In all actuality, there isn’t much to Semporna. A few main streets with the usual Asian shops selling miscellaneous gadgets, cell phones, clothes, hardware, and restaurants with all more or less the same menu: fried rice, fried noodles, curry, etc. Besides the main street, there is one largish outside market selling various fruits and vegetables, as well as a wet-portion that regrettably sells blue-spotted stingrays and blacktip sharks along with the usual cod-like fish. There’s one mosque in town, lest we forget that Malaysia is a decidedly Muslim country.
The one and only reason we are back in Semporna is because of the diving. To put it simply: One bad day of diving here is better than all the diving I have done in Bali, Thailand, Hawaii, and California.
Pulau Sipadan is the most noteworthy and well known, offering some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring diving in the world. Sipadan is a volcanic island in the middle of the Celebes sea. It’s top is the only part of the volcano sticking out of the ocean. Indeed, you can walk the entirety of the island in less than fifteen minutes. Step off it’s shores however, kick out a few meters and look down, and you’ll realize the walls of the volcano drop six hundred meters straight down below you. Currents push in from all sides of Sipadan bringing in plankton, which act as the the fertilizer for an overwhelming diversity of sealife, going all the way up the food chain: hard and soft corals; nudibranchs; crabs and shrimp; reef fish of every variety; tornadoes of thousands of barracuda; large schools of bumphead parrotfish; trevally and tuna; blacktip and whitetip sharks; grey reef sharks; leopard sharks; hammerheads lurking at 40 meters and deeper; whale sharks in January and February. Did I mention Sipadan is a turtle nesting ground? Green and Hawksbill turtles come here in thousands to lay eggs. On our first dive back in Sipadan, the Divemaster, Sarah, promised the entire dive group a round of beers if we didn’t see at least twenty turtles on each dive. There’s little reason to wonder why Sipadan makes it on nearly every top-ten-places-to-dive-in-the-world list.
As if Sipadan weren’t enough, there are other islands slightly less dramatic in topography but equally fascinating in sealife: Mabul, where the term “muck” diving was invented by Jacques Cousteau Sibuan, where you can find dozens of nudibranchs and almost always spot rare frogfish; Kapalai where small sunken boats have created an artificial reef teaming with weird things like crocodile fish and scorpion fish; Mantabuan with it’s black coral. The list goes on but the point is simple: the diving at Sipadan is as good as it gets…
...which is exactly what I wanted in choosing a place to do my Divemaster course. If I’m going to bother, why bother with anything but the best?
Choosing a dive shop was easy; I went straight back to Scuba Junkie. We talked about Scuba Junkie before, but to reiterate the main points, Scuba Junkie is the only PADI licensed and insured dive operator in Semporna. The company was started by Ric, who is from Scotland, and Tino, who is from Germany. Both Ric and Tino are PADI certified instructors and extremely experienced divers—Tino has more than 3,500 logged dives here alone—despite the fact that they are both only in their 20s. In addition to Ric and Tino, there are several other instructors, all of whom we will be learning under, as well as a handful of Divemasters and other Divemaster students such as ourselves.
The Divemaster course at Scuba Junkie is what is called an internship program. Basically, they cut the rate of the course to 1,800RM ($500US, compared to more than $1000US most other places) in exchange for help in running the shop. This includes helping customers get fitted for equipment, setting up the boats in the morning and, the best part, guiding customers on dives once you’ve been properly trained. The beauty of the Scuba Junkie course is that for one price, you can quite literally dive as long and as often as you like, whereas many other places put a time limit on the course. Most people doing the course at Scuba Junkie take 1-3 months to complete it, racking up 200 or more dives in the process.
Kai couldn’t stand the thought of hanging in Semporna while I did my Divemaster course, so even though he hadn’t planned on doing it originally, he has gone ahead and joined me in the class. Now, everyday, we wake up together at 6AM, arrive at the dive shop by 7AM, get the boats setup by 8AM, and then set off for one of the many islands for a day of diving. We don’t get to guide at Sipadan yet—the shop only allows more experienced Divemaster there due to the dangerous currents—but we’ve been doing a lot of diving at the other islands. We’ve already done more than twenty dives a piece and we’ve only been here for a week. That will pretty much be our life for the next month or so.
Our New House
Ric from Scuba Junkie helped set us up with a bit longer term housing for our stay in Semporna. He introduced us to a lovely woman from the Philippines named Ping Ping, who has a house within walking distance to the dive shop. The house is beautiful with tile and hardwood floors and grounds containing fruit trees ripe for the picking, beautiful orchids, and any number of other tropical plants. Ping Ping is extremely sweet, always cooking for us and sending us off each morning with fresh fruit for the boat. She even does our laundry. We’ve got our own room in the house—air-conditioned—and share a bathroom with one guy, an instructor from South Africa who also works at Scuba Junkie. Oh. The price? 300RM per month, or about $80US.
Best of all for me is the fact that I now have access to a kitchen. One of the things I have missed most while traveling is cooking. Now I have access to a market with all kinds of fruit and vegetables, as well as a kitchen to play in. I’ve already made ceviche as well as some home-style pasta. That ought to help a bit with the food situation. Since July, Scuba Junkie has opened a restaurant with surprisingly good pizza and they do a chicken-roast every Sunday night for those missing home.