The H writes...
Spending a week on a live-aboard at Sipadan turns out to be every bit as awesome as it sounds, but also an exercise in utter frustration, largely with our fellow divers.
That isn’t to say that we haven’t wildly enjoyed our 20-odd dives; Sipadan is most certainly deserving of its reputation as one of the 10 best dive destinations in the world. Before Sipadan, we hadn’t really seen sharks, and turtles, cuttlefish, and octopus were a rare treat indeed. Here, we must have seen a dozen sharks on every dive, and so many turtles that occasionally we were worried one would swim into us. And if the daytime submarine activity was magnificent, the night diving was downright magical, with oodles of species and experiences we’ve never had before. Truly fantastic.
However, Sipadan, it turns out, also has a rather serious downside, and that is the self-selecting crowd of visitors who come here. To understand why, I must segue into a short description of how Sipadan works. It is, as mentioned, one of the premier dive destinations in the world – One small atoll surrounded by some of the most fantastic reefs and wildlife to be found anywhere. However, at some point the local government decided to turn it into a marine park, and aggressively police the access to divers and snorkelers. As I am writing this, the island issues 120 passes per day to dive or snorkel at Sipadan.
This reduction in the number of divers is undoubtedly a good thing, but as any good economist will tell you, scarcity does funny things; as supply goes down, demand goes up; The local dive resorts know this, and are shrewd operators. To take you to Sipadan (where most dive shops have 12-15 permits per day), they make you dive for 3-4 days in other locations. Of course, the islands close to Sipadan are also rather fabulous dive sites (we did all our night dives and a few of the day dives at Mabul, which turned out to be a fantastic place for a bit of variety; the sandy bottom and broken coral is home to all manner of amazing little creatures), but they ain’t Sipadan. Anyway – if you go the resort route, you sign up for a week worth of diving with a resort, and are able to dive Sipadan for perhaps two days, for a total of eight dives.
Given that Sipadan island is the jewel of the crown, this is where the idea of a liveaboard starts making sense. By operating what is, in essence, a floating hotel, MV Celebes Explorer, the only liveaboard boat that goes to Sipadan, can offer its guests extensive diving at the Sipadan island. The liveaboard operation gets 13 passes to Sipadan every day, but the boat holds 16 divers. As far as we can tell, the boatmasters grease the wheels a little (or simply fail to sign in all the divers), so everybody gets to dive at Sipadan, every day. Personally, I believe that diving the same 5 sites for 20 dives in a row may be a little bit excessive – we did get a little bit of Barracuda fatigue towards the end there – but I suppose if you take the plunge for the liveaboard, you want as much bang for the buck as you can get.
And a plunge it is… Diving with the MV Celebes Explorer is blindingly expensive (we paid around us$2,200 per person), marine park fees of $15 per day come in addition, and (inexplicably, for a liveaboard) Nitrox – the air replacement gas mix highly recommended when diving many dives in a short period of time – is not included in the price. If you want to dive on Nitrox to keep decompression sickness (“The Bends”) at bay, you’d pay another $350 per person. Most liveaboard boats either include Nitrox in the price, or simply give it away free of charge, to ensure a higher degree of safety for the divers. We decided to opt to dive on air and keep a very close eye on our dive computers instead.
The liveaboard option, then, is the easiest way to guarantee a large number of dives at Sipadan, but at a very steep cost. As it turns out, this attracts a certain kind of diver.
A quick segue on dive group sizes.
In our dive group, we were diving with a pair of two Germans, a group of three Hungarian gentlemen, and a lady from Hong Kong. There’s a couple of issues with this; For one thing, it is of course perfectly legal to dive with eight divers to a dive leader, but it’s a pretty crowded experience; At Scuba Junction in Koh Tao, we dove in groups of 4 max. At our previous liveaboard in the Similans (which was a fraction of the price of this one), the group size was four. In Bunaken and Lembeh, we dove just the Z and myself with a dive leader.
There are many reasons why having small diving groups is a good idea. It’s easier to spot wildlife; when a diveleader spots a particularly rare or see-worthy creature, having eight people queue up to look at the same beastie is at best a waste of everybody’s time. At worst, the first few divers scare the fish away, and rest of the dive group are left scratching their head, wondering what they ought to be looking for.
Smaller groups is safer, too; the diveleader has at least a fighting chance to ensure that the whole group is still there. With the limited visibility we had on some dives, there is no way that the dive leader was able to count all the divers in their group, let alone ensure they weren’t flailing around in some blind panic. Given that the dive-leader tends to be an experienced rescue diver, it stands to reason that it would be useful that they could reach a struggling diver within seconds.
Finally, smaller groups means that the dive-master has an opportunity to personalise the experience to the group. If half the group of eight wants to see small stuff like nudibranches and shrimp, whilst the other half wants to gawk at barracuda and sharks, it’s very difficult to be a dive leader; combing through a sea-fan on the look-out for a 1 cm tall pygmy sea horse is a very different prospect than peering into the blue for 16 meter whale sharks.
Anyway, that was not to be; our group varied between four and eight divers, depending on who decided to sit out on a dive or two here and there.
Our dive group.
In fairness, before I unsheathe my wand of bile and pestilence, I should add that the diver from Hong Kong was an exemplary diver; if we could, we’d merrily clone her and have a few of her as our dive group.
The others, not so much.
The German couple confided in us that they had had more than 200 dives in total. That may be true, but they were such nervous and woeful divers that they were borderline dangerous to themselves. However, as clueless as they were, at least they tended to float three to five meters above us – I don’t really know what they got out of the dives without getting close to the stuff what they were looking at, but at least they weren’t directly destroying the dive environment.
Sadly, that was not the case with our Hungarian friends. All three of them carried cameras. Gentleman number 1 was in his fifties, dangerously obese. ‘Dangerously’ both on a general health level, and specifically to diving; Fatty tissue has a very different nitrogen uptake and release rate than other tissue types, a phenomenon which most dive computers do not take into account, which could give unpredictable results when doing deep, multi-day dives, as we were. For more information on why that might be dangerous, plug ‘decompression sickness’ into your favourite search engine. Diver #1 had exactly one thought in his mind: Get to the fish and film it. This thought was not punctuated with logic, common sense, or courtesy in any way. No “… but only if there are no other divers between me and the fish”. No “… but only if I can do so without scaring away the sharks so none of the other divers get to see them”. No “… and I will try to avoid crashing into the coral in the process.”
Whilst having a large fellow with a video camera swimming straight through you to get somewhere was painful and aggrieving, the latter of those grievances was a huge source of rage to us. Coral is relatively slow growing and rather fragile stuff, to boot. If you kick over or break a piece of hard coral, chances are that you’ve not only killed that piece of coral, but also set that part of the reef back by a dozen years of growth. And if hard coral is fragile, soft coral is even worse; As you may have been able to guess from the name, soft coral is soft, and whilst it does tend to grow slightly faster than the hard corals, it is much, much easier to damage.
Another of our our Hungarian friends (younger, slightly more obese, with a persistent habit of not wearing t-shirts at mealtimes) was using a GoPro Hero 3 camera, so at least the camera was much smaller. To his credit, he did seem to be aware of the possibility of breaking stuff and kicking other divers, but what he had in awareness, he lacked in simple diving skills. He kicked me more times than all other divers combined in my dive history. It appears that his number two favourite kicking target was fragile coral, followed closely after that by my regulator (he kicked it out of my mouth twice, leaving me without an air source. Lovely.) Of course, he never tucked away any of his equipment, leaving his Octo (the spare second-stage regulator), console (with depth and pressure gauges), and everything else dragging across the sea bottom, damaging both his equipment (which I couldn’t care less about if I tried) and the corals and creatures below him. Diver #2′s saving grace was that he at least seemed slightly embarrassed and vaguely apologetic whenever he noticed that he had kicked something he shouldn’t have. Again. Not enough to do anything about it, though, unfortunately.
When the third Hungarian arrived a few days into the trip, our hopes were raised; Perhaps this guy was at least passably could redeem our impression of Hungarian divers, and mayhaps he would be useful with a regulator and a set of fins. ‘Twas not to be: Our hopes were quashed before he even entered the water. Specifically, we knew he was going to be a waste of air as soon as we spotted him pulling on a pair of knee pads over his wet-suit. In other words; Not only did he not care about kicking stuff (ref diver #1), or did so out of ignorance (#2), he actually planned for the event of crash-landing on whatever was below him in order to get his photographs, and cared more about the wellbeing of his knees than anything else in the process.
With some very rare and specific exceptions, as a diver, touching the bottom is essentially unnecessary at any point. From your very first dive course, the basic principles of buoyancy are explained, and as you complete further training, having good control of where and how you move underwater becomes a key objective. Moving underwater isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take some skills and a lot of practice. Perfect buoyancy is a fine ballet of streamlining your equipment (i.e. tucking away the bits dangling from your Scuba unit), carrying as little ballast weights as possible, having the appropriate amount of air in your Buoyancy Compensator, and using a good finning technique. A decent diver is able to hover a couple of feet off the sea bottom in pretty much any orientation – rightside-up, upside-down, face down, sitting in the ‘buddah’ position, etc. A good diver has the same level of control about their position in the water, but can do the same thing whilst swimming, manoeuvring themselves through tiny gaps without touching the bottom, sides, or top of an obstacle, and without kicking up sand as they propel themselves forward with careful fin-kicks.
As a photographer, great buoyancy is doubly important; You may have a tank-banger (an aluminium stick about the thickness of a magic marker, around 40cm in length) to place on a piece of rock for stability, but even when taking photos or video, there’s no real reason to ever touch the coral or the sea-bed with your knees or fins. However, you do need to manoeuvre yourself to an exact position, be able to hover in perfect stillness, and have the skills required to hold still for long enough to capture the shot. It’s a fine exercise in multi-tasking; Underwater photography and precision diving both take a lot of attention and skill, and doing both at the same time is undeniably a challenge. But it’s not an unovercomeable challenge…
So, it made me die a little inside when our rotund flotilla of Hungarian friends were bulldozing their way through the reef; I lost track of the number of times I saw them (and especially diver #3) simply plop down on top of corals, breaking off pieces, or killing the anemone homes of some very distressed clownfish (poor Nemo…), all in the name of getting a photograph or two. At one point, we had enough, and Z and I spent a dive physically lifting the other divers off the soft corals, and pointing out the damage they were doing. At the boat at the end of the dive, they were thankful for us pointing out what they had done, and apologetic. Nonetheless, the very next dive our glimmer of hope was extinguished, when they were back to their coral-destroying ways.
What to do?
With divers like these, it’s understandable that Sipadan has been forced to reduce diving to 120 permits per day – but frankly, I think these particular specimens of underwater elephants-in-a-china-store should have been banned from diving altogether. To draw a parallel: if we had been in a rainforest, they did the equivalent of stomping through the breeding grounds of fragile butterflies, nudging over birds nests, and smashing down trees in the efforts of photographing a monkey or two. A forest ranger wouldn’t have stood for it. Under water, however, it appears that this somehow is ‘acceptable’ behaviour.
It’s really hard to figure out what to do with divers like these; Of course, we can see our fellow divers destroy the reef, one fin-kick at a time. It’s not our place to say something, but we did. Not that it helped the situation any.
We spoke to our divemaster one evening, and asked whether this was a particularly hapless group of divers. The really depressing answer was that it wasn’t; He said that they frequently get divers who are utterly clueless. Next, we spoke at length about what could be done about it. Interestingly, the divemaster mused that perhaps an outright ban on photography might be a good idea, or perhaps some sort of a licence. The problem with the latter is that it’s pretty much impossible to enforce. Much like when you drive a car, all divers already need to be certified to be allowed to dive. But, just like in traffic, having a piece of plastic that allows you to take to the roads, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a competent driver. “Besides”, the divemaster added, “we get open-water divers through here who are very good divers. And some times we get dive masters and dive instructors who can’t dive for shit”.
I’m sure there are economics at play as well; once the dive boat has taken the money, can they send a diver packing, or insist they do additional dive training before they’re allowed to dive at Sipadan? Perhaps it would be a solution, but I can’t realistically see that happening. It would be bad for business, and I suspect that even the most eco-friendly of Malaysian dive operators would still choose to take the money over saving a tiny slice of coral reef.
For us personaly, the next challenge is going to be to find out how we can ensure that we only dive in groups where we’re either diving only with competent divers, or with groups of two – just the two of us and a divemaster. It wouldn’t do much to save the reef, of course, but I think my enjoyment of each individual dive would be a lot higher if I didn’t constantly have to suppress the urge to turn off other divers’ air supplies for being clueless, reef-wrecking brutes.