We were at Sipadan Island – the first dive of the day. It was about 6:45 AM and the sun was hardly above the horizon – not that you could see it – a rain squall was coming through so we decided to dive the sheltered western side.
Being volcanic in origin, Sipadan is a pinnacle that stands beside the continental shelf in 600 m of water. As its sides sloping more steeply than the angle of the sun, we were in twilight in 20 m of water. But its location – in the open ocean – is precisely what makes Sipadan so special: it gives you a glimpse of pelagics – oceangoing creatures – like the big sharks and rays.
The rest of our group was no longer on the reef wall, they were out in the blue and I mean way out in the blue. The visibility must have been 50 or 60 m and they were hanging vertically like marionettes on their little vertical strings of bubbles. But as I watched the angle of the divers changed and so did the angle of the bubbles: like the smoke of a steam train the angle between the bubble stream and the divers became more acute. I could see that they were finning very quickly – they were either in pursuit (or being pursued!?) by something that was definitely worth seeing.
I plotted a course about 50m ahead of them and set off at a pace into the blue. When I caught up I looked searchingly into their eyes – what is it? Then I saw it, a grey streak close by. And gone. Then again, a grey blur, a bit further away. It kept disappearing into the blue then reappearing slightly further away and moving more slowly. I followed it, slowly, straining my eyes against the blueness. And like the Pied Piper it enticed me further and further away from the group. Then I was all alone in the blue… Well not exactly alone.
The next time it came close enough for me to recognise it as a hammerhead shark, but not close enough or for long enough for my camera to get a fix on. So I hung there in the blue. I quickly checked air, depth and deco – I had time. And then it appeared again, this time close enough for me to see it was a scalloped hammerhead.
The result of 400,000,000 years of evolution, it is perfectly in tune with its environment. Still – kinda funny looking. And as he looked at me through an eye mounted on the edge of its aqua-dynamically shaped head it was probably thinking exactly the same thing. I felt privileged to be sharing its part of the ocean.
Yet these rare and beautiful creatures we slaughter in their hundreds of thousands every year for the single fin on their back and dump them alive back into the ocean to drown.
It allowed me one photograph as a memento of our meeting of species. I hope to God it won’t be the last.
The dive was pretty much over after that. We finned slowly and steadily back to the reef wall. It was still raining when we surfaced and we headed to the island for breakfast.
On Sipadan, there is a large covered area and facilities behind the beach next to the jetty. The rest of the island is uninhabited. A decision was taken in 2001 to make it a marine reserve and the resorts were relocated to water villages adjacent the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai which are on the continental shelf. The impact of humans was too high and within another decade or so it would no longer be that special place. Corals were being damaged by the many inexperienced fins, man’s plastic by-products were finding their way into the water and inquisitive tourists were disturbing the 300 or so turtle nests that dot the island’s periphery. Now only 120 divers per day are permitted to visit Sipadan under close supervision and on condition that they leave it exactly as they found it.
The reef is recovering. Fish numbers are up, coral is slowly rebuilding, the pelagics continue to visit and turtles return to lay their eggs on their ancestral island birthplace.
On subsequent dives we saw numerous sharks of all types resting in the sand; encountered turtles, schools of barracuda as big as a barn and witnessed a train of bison-like Bumphead Parrotfish steaming through the underwater landscape.
Sipadan is a success story. It shows you can stop the clock and even start to wind it back. But it requires bold decisions and commitment. It also requires funds.
If you want to go we will be featuring dive centres shortly who can get you there. But you can do your own research: find operators with green credentials and book at least six months in advance. Aim to be an advanced diver with peak buoyancy skills (that will help all the reefs – not just Sipadan).
What else can you do?
Stay abreast of what’s happening in the oceans, subscribe to organisations like Project AWARE, and select dive operators on the basis of their green credentials using sites such as Green Fins. You can even volunteer for marine conservation and further your diving career with Global Vision International.
And as far as shark finning goes sign every petition you can, lobby every politician you can; and if you are ever offered shark fin soup be sure to decline it and tell everyone who doesn’t how it ends for the shark.