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Reviews (8)

Wicked Diving - Similan Islands, Thailand

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Wicked Diving – Similan Islands (Khao Lak)

Wicked Diving are a burgeoning liveaboard specialist company based initially in Thailand but now slowly spreading throughout Indonesia. The company is aimed at the budget end of the market and appeals to divers looking for an environmentally conscious, fun, trip giving great value for money. At the time we travelled with them they operated 2 liveaboards and a number of speed boats out the the Similan Islands from the town of Khao Lak – roughly an hour or so north of Phuket on Thailand’s East Coast. They have now expanded bringing their budget offering to seasonal trips to Komodo & Raja Ampat in Indonesia using the same Phinisi-style schooner, MV Jaya, that I will be describing here. They have now also begun running ‘positioning’ safaris to out of the way destinations when moving the boat between destinations.

Designed and built by the legendary Bugis shipyards of South Sulawesi, the boat is 23 metres in length and accommodates 14 people in small but comfortable bunks underneath the forward part of the boat with 1 room underneath the saloon in the rear of the ship. The covered saloon at the rear is where meals are taken, dive briefings given and much relaxing carried out. A couple of benches and criminally comfortable bean bags make this the best area for hanging out while moving or on surface intervals. Forward of here there is a couple of metres drop down wide ladders to the Wheel house, which is always open to guests and forms a meeting place for those not wishing to get horizontal – or more to the point those not confident of their ability to get back up once ensconced in a bean bag. The Indonesian crew were always smiling and made anyone feel welcome to hang out while they were on duty. On top of the Wheel House is a small roof-top ‘sun lounge’, which does exactly as it says on the ton. Back up again and in front of the wheel house is where all the dive gear is set out around the inside of the gunwales. Diving was conducted straight off the boat or using the ship’s wooden tender.
The crew was rounded out by 2 Indonesian ladies cooking up a storm in the kitchen. The food was plentiful, if a little bland, in the style of Indonesian/Asian catered for westerners. There was plenty of meat & fish offered, with vegetables, fried noodles & rice. Fruit was also offered throughout the day.

The trip we took was for 4 day/5 nights., leaving Khao Lak in the late afternoon and steaming out to the islands during the course of the evening. This allowed plenty of time for introductions, detailed safety instructions and then plenty of time to have a drink and get to know the other divers. We were soon parked up behind Island #4 and out for the night. Due to a late arrival we picked up one of the more exposed moorings – this being my first night sleeping in a wooden hulled schooner I can definitely advise that it’s not for those who struggle to sleep at sea. The romance of bouncing from side to side in a creaky ship is certainly novel, but ensures a patchy night’s sleep. On later evenings we benefitted from much more protected anchorages and I was out like a light. From the next morning we started working our way up the Island chain before heading out North to more remote islands and finishing up at the well regarded Richelieu Rock – more information on the diving here is in my separate destination report on the Similan Islands.

The dive crew were a mixture of Belgian, German & Finnish and were great fun. Briefings were detailed and informative while the dives were arranged to ensure we were allowed as much freedom as possible on the sites. Our equipment was always ready for each dive with perfect air fills every single time. We just needed to eat, drink and be merry. My partner and I were very unwell for a 24 hour period and the crew were absolutely fantastic. They juggling running the boat and dives with ensuring we were looked after and couldn’t have been more helpful.

Finally, we took our own gear so I cannot recall what any rental equipment was like, though the dive shop was new and well stocked.

The whole process from contacting the company to enquire on prices to booking, paying and then the arrangements on arrival were as good as I’ve experienced and couldn’t have been made easier. I’d love to get out to Komodo or Raja Ampat and wouldn’t think twice about going with Wicked.

Visited on 12/2011 - Submitted on 03/02/2014

Australia

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REVIEW OF JULIAN ROCKS (BYRON BAY), NEW SOUTH WALES

Situated in Northern New South Wales (NSW), Byron Bay is the name of both a small town & Bay approximately 772 Kilometres North of the state capital of Sydney while only 165 Kilometres South of Brisbane, the capital of the state of Queensland (QLD). Cape Byron at the South Eastern end of the Bay is the Eastern most point of the Australian mainland. The whole surrounding area is part of the 'Tweed Volcano', a shield Volcano that was once over 100 Kilometres in diameter. The remains of this ancient volcano are plainly visible on any raised-relief map and have provided fertile soil, mountains & rainforests to both Southern QLD & Northern NSW.

Famed for its relaxed atmosphere, alternative lifestyle pursuits and particularly for the quality of the surfing, Byron Bay has become a renowned tourist destination and essential stop off on the 'backpacker circuit' of East Australia.
Originally named Cavvanbah, meaning 'meeting place' by the local Aboriginal tribe, Captain Cook was the first European to encounter the bay in 1770 which he then named after British naval officer Vice Admiral Officer.

The focus of the diving from Byron Bay is conducted on nearby Julian Rocks, a collection of sedimentary rocks that break the surface approximately 2.5 kilometres offshore from Cape Bryon. The Rocks are the remains of an ancient volcanic eruption and said to be a continuation of the mainland. The area was declared a part of the Julian Rocks Nature Reserve in 1961 with the immediate surrounds of the rocks being further progressed to a no-take sanctuary in 2006.
The waters around Julian Rocks host a meeting of tropical & temperate waters supporting a diverse mix of species allied to both. Life on the rocks follows two distinct seasons; Winter brings sub 20 degree temperatures, endangered Grey Nurse Sharks, migrating Humpback Whales and the odd Seal while in Summer the water warms to a maximum of 25 degrees and Leopard Sharks & Reef Mantas (Manta alfredi) are regularly encountered. Throughout the year you will find a cast of at least 2 types of Wobbegong, Green and Loggerhead Turtles; Schools of Red Snapper, Jew Fish (Mulloway) & hundreds of smaller fish. The substrate of the rocks host innumerable sessile species and amongst them an outstanding collection of invertebrates. Visibility tends to hover in the 8-15 Metre range with higher or lower possible but rare. The dive operators report clear visibility results in a lot of the fish life hiding from view and I can certainly offer a few anecdotes of Sharks and huge schools of fish suddenly appearing out of nowhere in low visibility. Best visibility is tide & swell dependant but a 'South Easterly' wind and swell is generally an indicator of good conditions. The local divers are rightly very proud of the environment in their backyard and host an invaluable website describing every possible species of life on the rocks -

http://www.julianrocks.net/index.php

The underwater environment is composed principally of rocky reef starting where the rock breaks the water line and gradually descending to a sandy floor of varying depths. The rock is laced through with dramatic canyons, trenches and boulders, all covered in a clover-like leaf - for which I cannot seem to find a name - and interspersed with any number of tunicates, corals, anemones & hydroids. As stated above, the meeting between tropical and temperate waters gives Julian Rocks a remarkably high level of diversity; I have seen it best described recently as a struggle in determining if it is a tropical location with touches of temperate life or vice versa.

Some of my favourite dives here are:

Hugo's Trench - a deep cut in a ridge of the rock that not only harbours an enormous school of 'Stripey', heaps of Pufferfish & the amusing, endemic, Pineapple Fish but also the most varied and populous collection of Nudibranchs I have witnessed anywhere. Yes, I am a Nudi tragic - guilty - and no, I have not had the pleasure of Anilao just yet, but I would say it even rivals Bali if you can convince the operator to leave you in the trench while they do the circuit of the sights on this particular dive. note: This is not how I like my diving to be carried out but it seems to be the prevalent way to lead a dive in Australia and is certainly necessary when the visibility is low.

Nursery - This site is on the North of the rocks and is shallower at an average of 10-15 metres. More about relaxing and watching than tearing through currents chasing fish or sharks, this site is where I've regularly encountered an enormous Loggerhead Turtle and is also home to some very large Snapper in mid-water.

Cod Hole - Best dived with current coming in from the South East I've always started this dive around the corner at depth. The sight when you do round the rock into the current is extraordinary; enormous schools of Jew Fish up to a metre in length, Snappers & all sorts of other large fish all pointing into the current. It was here, with visibility below 5 metres, that I suddenly came face to face with a charging 2 Metre+ Grey Nurse Shark while trying to work out where my group had gone. The side of a sharp rocky reef, facing the wrong way in the current, lost & only giant fish for company is unsettling at best. I've never had so much fun.

Dive trips are offered by a number of operators in the town. All trips are for 1 tank only and return back to base for surface interval if you are enjoying multiple dives in one day. The conditions in the bay are unsuitable to the construction of a permanent jetty with all operators using large RIB boats to launch out through a surf break at the East of 'Main Beach'. This involves launching the boat on the beach, diving into it and then firing a loud horn to scatter the surfers before powering through the surf. The surfers don't appreciate the interruption but it's great fun for us divers. I have encountered schools of Bottlenose Dolphins playing in less than 2 metres of water here, which is obviously a wonderful to start or end the trip. Once clear of the Cape the boat is immediately subjected to open ocean swells, and as such trips out can definitely be 'bouncy' though even in the worst conditions will not take longer that 25 minutes. There are great sites round the entirety of the rocks so regardless of the prevailing weather there is always a sheltered place to dive. Diving will rarely be cancelled, and only then when safety is endangered.

Finally, I cannot do justice to the broad topside options here. With the beauty of the rainforests inland, the wonderful food and the delightful accommodation options, Byron Bay is a genuine gem and a perennial favourite for locals and tourists. So much so that diving here is far from the primary reason to visit for the majority of visitors. Book a few extra days and stay to relax while you dry off.

Visited on 02/2013 - Submitted on 03/01/2014
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Lumba Lumba, Pulau Weh

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Lumba Lumba Dive Centre – Pulau Weh

Situated on Gapang Beach, a small bay on the inside of the Eastern arm of Pulau Weh; Lumba Lumba Dive Centre offers guided dives, equipment rental & affordable accommodation.

The dive shop itself is spread over 2 levels with a lower ‘wet’ level large enough to allow big groups of divers to kit up in plenty of space. Outside through large doors a raised tank station has been built up so divers can put their gear together and then step straight into their BCDs without the need to crouch around on ground level if diving the House Reef. Staff carry gear to the Bankas if boat diving, leaving an effortless wander 5 metres to the beach. There is a higher dry area with computers, Tea & Coffee station and comfortable outdoor seating for relaxing and working.
I took my own gear but noticed the rental equipment is modern and very well looked after.

The accommodation is built behind the dive centre with stand-alone bungalows and a block of rooms spaced over a gentle hill leading up to the forested hills. We stayed in a double room in the block; the room was spotlessly clean, the bed incredibly comfortable and the balcony looking over the trees towards the bay was both relaxing and a great place to hang various wet clothes and gear.

Operating 3 large Indonesian ‘Bankas’, the shop operates 2 main dives a day, returning to the shop after the first dive allowing a much more comfortable surface interval. Boats were kept in good condition, though can be a lot of fun to get back into when the swell is up, and guides were watchful while not being overbearing. The centre tries their hardest to ensure each diver is looked after and receives as much, or as little supervision as required.

The majority of the sites visited are situated in the Marine National Park encompassing the Northern part of the Island where commercial fishing is prohibited – interestingly enough, with Aceh Province being a majority Muslim area the spectre of Sharia Law is alleged to have contributed to this marine park having a much higher success rate than other protected areas in Asia. The mountainous shore is also protected and the heavily wooded slopes add to the pristine feeling.
The sharp, hilly terrain continues under the water with most dives featuring steep drops & boulders with a covering of coral. The Island is well known for its current with most dives featuring at least gentle water movement, regardless which part of the tide, and can go all the way up to ‘hold your mask to your face and crawl up the wall’ conditions. This current stimulates the flora and fauna which has produced some enormous Sea Fans as well as bringing in a wide variety of large fish. The National Park status ensures that there are plenty of predatory fish, Sharks & Rays around the place.

Memorable dives included ‘Batee Tokong’, famous for its proliferation of Moray Eels and large family of circling Giant Trevally & ‘Pante Peunateung’ further round the North point of the Island with a huge drop to 70 metres featuring brisk currents feeding huge Gorgonian Fans.

Visited on 12/2008 - Submitted on 02/25/2014

Pulau Weh

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Pulau Weh –

Weh Island (Pulau meaning ’Island’ in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia) is a Volcanic island situated 15kms off the Northern Tip of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. Separated from the mainland when the Volcano last erupted during the Pleistocene period, some 2,600 to 11,700 years ago, the island forms a rough horse-shoe facing out into the Indian Ocean and is characterised by verdant forests clinging to sharp hills with scattered low lands in the south.

The Volcanic topography of the island continues under water with the rugged nature defining the tone of the diving. The standout sites on Weh consist of steep, rocky walls washed with strong currents and habituated by very, very big fish. This is challenging but rewarding frontier diving. A few of the sites here feature as the most memorable dives I have been on:
‘Batee Tokong’ (Central Rock) is the Northern wall of a small Island where the current changed twice in 20 minutes and we spent the final 10 minutes and safety stop surging back and forth accompanying a group of no less than 5 enormous Giant Trevally hunting the rocky reef top. ‘Pantee Peunateung’ necessitates a boat journey around the very choppy Northern tip of Indonesia and then continuing down the backbone of the island. The currents here rocket straight out of the open ocean, up the steep wall and whistle through a boulder strewn plateau at 15-20 metres. This is epic stuff with a myriad of fish life amongst the rocks and huge fans hanging over the deep. Though we have heard tall tales of all sorts of wildlife witnessed in the deep we were skunked, but certainly not disappointed – this site is exactly how I would imagine diving the walls of Jurassic Park might be. Safe to say my inner child was excited out here!

There are 2 main Dive Centres on the Island, both on the Western ‘arm’ of the island facing across to the main city, Sabang, in the East. We stayed at Gapang Beach, a tiny village on a bay perched in between towering hills. Reached on a road from behind the bay, once the taxis leave the little village is wonderfully peaceful. The village consists of the dive centre, Lumba Lumba, and a couple of restaurants with the owners living behind. That’s it aside from the shy Monkeys living in the jungle behind and a large gang of cheeky but harmless Dogs. The Restaurant owners were fantastic fun and will run up a group feast if giving a day or so warning. Visitors should be warned that though the dive centre’s accommodation is modern, clean and great value the village is certainly ‘rustic’ and food here is generally of the Nasi Goreng, fried Chicken and veggies variety.
The House Reef on Gapang was great and we dived it at least once every single day of the 10 days we were here. When researching Gapang I read a lot about how a catastrophic bleaching event in 2009 had killed the majority of the coral on the house reef with a few people making very disparaging comments on the condition of it now. Though it was lacking in traditionally beautiful shallow coral it more than made up for it in the variety of macro opportunities. Beginning straight off the off the beach, the main action starts 25-30 metres out where the shallow coral sea bed drops to 8-10m depth with a sand bottom shelving slowly off to 18 metres. Isolated outcrops of coral attract small schools of snappers and abound in Nudibranchs. There are countless Lionfish here, particularly on the aptly named ‘Pride Rock’, which also features a remarkably curious Octopus. Other critters encountered include Peacock & Goliath Mantis Shrimp, Dragonets, Scorpionfish, Hunting Snowflake Moray Eels & even a resident Lacy Rhinopias Scorpionfish. It is a relaxing dive and a photographers dream.
The other dive centre, RubiahTirta in Ibioh Beach, is a further 15-20 minutes North of Gapang and also comes with great reviews. We passed their location on our way back from a couple of dives and it looks great, situated on a quiet beach facing the channel behind the Islet Pulau Rubiah. There are a couple of more exclusive resorts on the island that also offer diving, so as always, research is the key to the ideal trip.

To reach Weh we travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Banda Aceh on the Sumatran mainland with Air Asia. An overnight stay was necessary in the city, however note there is currently an earlier Air Asia flight that will get you there in time for the last ferry. Flights also operate from Penang in Malaysia and Jakarta & Medan in Indonesia. The fast ferry takes roughly 45 minutes and docks at Balohan Harbour on the South of the Island. A Taxi from here takes approximately 30 - 45 minutes depending on which centre you dive with, through scenic hills with fantastic views of the reefs around the island.

In addition to the diving on the island we stayed a further couple of days in Banda Aceh on the way back to off-gas. The city is most widely known as one of the most devastated areas following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of Boxing Day 2005. A large proportion of the city is built on marsh land at sea level and even now, 9 years on, you can find huge ships settled on top of buildings kilometers inland. The people here were wonderfully welcoming and a tour guide with motorbike tuk-tuk is an informative and moving way to get around the city – the 45 minute drive through the surrounding countryside to the airport is stunning and there is no better way to experience rural Asia than in an open air motorbike cart.

Visited on 12/2008 - Submitted on 02/24/2014

Best Diving in Thailand - Top 8

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Similan Islands, Thailand.

The Similan Island National Park ( Named for ‘Sembilan’, meaning nine in a local dialect of Malay) is made up of 9 islands arranged roughly 80kms North of the heaving holiday mecca of Phuket on the Eastern seaboard of the Isthmus of Thailand. The Islands of the main group are generally referred to as numbers 1-9 – though also have Thai names – with numbers 1,2 & 3 in the South closed for diving to allow for turtle hatching. Diving in the group is characterised by two distinct environments:

The East coast with slopes down to 30 metres, plenty of hard coral and gentle-to-no currents. Large bommies covered in soft coral and schools of small fish dot the sandy sea floor with some such as ‘Hin Muan Daew (Roll of film) on Anita’s Reef attracting celebrity status for exhausting diver’s entire roll of exposures back in the days of shooting film. It really was that good, too.

The West coast is exposed to the Indian Ocean and features dramatic piles of enormous granite boulders covered in healthy soft corals and giant fans tumbling down to the sea bed at 30-45 metres. These exposed sites experience regular currents and offer a more adventurous dive. The currents feed the oversized corals and bring in larger and more numerous schools of fish. In addition to huge schools of smaller fish expect pelagics from Tuna to Sharks.

Visibility is superb on both sides of the islands with up to 30-45 metre on my trip, and though you will be regularly gazing out into the blue do not forget to look closer at the reef: the macro life here is fantastic with Frogfish, Harlequin Shrimp & a stunning array of Nudibranchs to found amongst a host of other critters, particularly on the Eastern sites.

No review of the Similans would be fair without mentioning the topside experience, which is what really sets off the whole trip. The weather in the diving season is generally warm, calm & sunny. My entire trip was bathed in sun with just the right amount of breeze for cooling down in the afternoon. And the beaches. It’d be fair to say these are some of the finest beaches I’ve seen in my time; go and sit at your computer and enter ‘Similans beaches’ into a search engine. Yep. Stunning.

Longer trips to the area will usually focus on the islands of the Similans and then move North to 2 Islands, Koh Bon & Koh Tachai and then the area’s masterpiece, Richelieu Rock. The former are highly regarded for more dramatic boulder diving and the chance of Oceanic Manta Rays. Richelieu Rock, closer to the mainland, is a photographer’s lens choice nightmare. Though the proximity to land and current up-wellings reduces the visibility somewhat this horse-shoe shaped reef, draped in soft corals and packed with great macro subjects, is famous for its Whale Shark encounters.

The area is best explored by one of the numerous liveaboards operating out of Khao Lak, though can also be visited as a day trip on enormous, over-powered speedboats from the mainland. I have read reports of accidents with these boats due to overconfidence in rough weather and heard first hand reports of long and uncomfortable journeys, though I imagine it would be great fun in fine weather.

In season there is a glut of operators offering liveaboards from cheap & cheerful through to all expenses paid luxury, anywhere from overnight trips up to a whole week. I was on a 5 night, 4 day cruise and would definitely pick this length of trip again. Any shorter would rob you of time in either the Similans or the Islands further North, while I feel any longer would have resulted in spending too long for the variety on offer.

Finally, though probably not superior to some of the trips I have taken further south in the ‘Coral Triangle’, you cannot look past Thailand for relaxing and enjoyable topside experience. I travelled from Koh Tao, on the East Coast of Thailand, and thoroughly enjoyed every second of the journey; particularly as the last 60-100kms travel through the stunning hills of the Khao Sok National Park.

Visited on 12/2011 - Submitted on 02/20/2014
Read all Best Diving in Thailand - Top 8 Dive Travel reviews

Australia

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Far Northern Great Barrier Reef, North of Cairns – Day Trips from Port Douglas & Liveaboards to the Ribbon Reefs

I have made this review to look at a few of the aspects of this area that I feel are glossed over in trip reports and other reviews that I have read. A quick google search will tell you all you could need to know about specific sites and the diving in general.

GREAT BARRIER REEF: PORT DOUGLAS AND SURROUNDING AREAS

The city of Cairns in Far North Queensland may be the most well know dive spot on the GBR and a prominent fixture on the East Coast backpacker circuit. The diving here is affordable by Australian standards and gives a fair indication of what the Barrier Reef has to offer while great rates for Open Water tickets ensure that more new divers are educated than nearly any other part of the globe. The reefs visited, however, are often chosen more for their suitability for these new divers & snorkelers and are closer to shore to keep the trip times down.

For the more experienced diver a trip North of this area will really pay dividends and show what the Barrier Reef is famous for. Isolated Pinnacles swathed in glorious hard coral, bountiful pelagics, enormous fish & even Whale encounters in season. Every trip here will take you to the very outer edge of the reef with the majority of the top dives being conducted on pinnacles between slivers of reef called the Ribbon Reefs. Starting with Agincourt Reef (more on this below) in the south of the area, these long, thin reefs are roughly orientated on a North-South axis and mark where the edge of the Australian continent shelves off into abyssal depths. The proximity to the open ocean water of the Coral Sea ensures reasonably reliable visibility & fantastic encounters with some incredible wildlife.

Be advised that the diving here is expensive. A 7 day liveaboard here is comparable with a week on a mid to top level boat in Komodo or Raja Ampat, and a 3 tank day trip will set you back close to US$300. As a disclosure of my experiences here I should advise that all my diving was done as a volunteer on various boats, working for free dives – in the case of the day trips from Port Douglas I was able to dive the sites numerous times in different moon phases and experience them in every type of weather & current. I was here over ‘the wet’ – Australia’s summer – where the conditions can be less than ideal, though I was rarely left in port due to inclement weather and never experienced a bad dive. The boats used here are sturdy, comfortable and most have stabilising features; however even so, those prone to debilitating seasickness would be well advised to keep a good eye on the conditions.

Port Douglas Day Trips:

Port Douglas is an old fishing village cum glitzy resort town on a spit of land protruding out from the area’s rainforest clad mountains. The vast majority of the accommodation here is in big name resorts and can be reasonably affordable for those wishing to live the pampered life for a week. There is also a large backpacker/dive themed hostel there for the more adventurous travellers who want to get away from the (admittedly so much fun that it should be illegal) Cairns hostel world. There are regular busses from Cairns and some of the operators will pick you up in their own company coaches. The price is only marginally more expensive than the Cairns boats and I would really advise everyone to head up here.

The Operators here tend to either visit the Agincourt complex of reefs, which are more numerous and in my opinion feature more varied and superior quality diving or Opel Reef to the south – though my favourite ever Barrier Reef dive, Split Bommie, is on Opel Reef but was unfortunately rarely visited in my time there. The moorings are privately registered with the QLD government and though a couple of the operators have agreements on shared usage of sites they do not swap reefs. A cursory glance on each companies’ website will confirm which reef they visit.

Most of the boats will feature a mix of snorkelers & divers and will visit 2 or 3 different sites in a day with both groups exploring the same site. One of the largest companies out there, Quicksilver Cruises, has a different approach; they maintain a static, floating pontoon to which the majority of the snorkelers and families are taken while a separate boat ‘Silverswift’ goes out with divers and more adventurous snorkelers and visits a selection of sites. All boats provide buffet lunches and are large enough for everyone to be able to sit comfortably at a table throughout the day when not in the water.

The sites in the Agincourt group are largely based around big bommies in the lee of the reef with slack currents and a few drift dives when water movement allows. You can expect to encounter plenty of Grey Reef Sharks, large predatory Groupers & Trevally and what I think of as one of the best aspect of diving in Australia: edible fish. Having spent a lot of time diving in Asia I love to come back to Australia and regularly dive with animals that are non-existent elsewhere. This is particularly true of the Agincourt Reefs; Napoleon Wrasse, Spanish Mackerel, Tunas, Giant Trevally, Barramundi Cod & more Coral Trout than you can shake a stick at. It is only once you have spent time on a truly healthy reef that you realise how much even the finest sites in most of Asia lack these animals.

By contrast, Opel reef is a separate large oval reef. Dives here are what I consider to be classic Barrier Reef dives; along the edge of the reef from 20 metres depth working up to the reef flat. It has great hard coral cover and looks fantastic in the shallows with the sun out. The aforementioned ‘Split Bommie’ site is set back slightly from the reef proper and features two large pinnacles joined at the base in around 30 metres of water. Being more irregular that the main reef the bommies feature plenty of nooks and hiding holes for a variety of creatures including two of the largest Cuttlefish I have ever seen. I’ve also heard talk of visits from Hammerhead sharks from time to time.

GREAT BARRIER REEF: RIBBON REEFS

Liveaboard Trips to the Ribbon Reefs:

This is where the real magic happens. There are currently 3 operators regularly offering 3 day, 4 day & 7 day trips up to the famous ‘Cod Hole’ based at Ribbon Reef #9, off-shore from Lizard Island with the 4 & 7 day trips then heading out to the open ocean to visit the very sharky Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. The more pricey companies will fly you either to or from Lizard island for the 3 day & 4 day trips where the 7 day ones will start and finish at Cairns. I’m not in possession of the required robustness of bank account to have visited Osprey Reef but I can wax lyrical all day about the Ribbon Reef portion of the trips. You can expect anything and everything to turn up on these trips if your luck is in. Additionally, I think I enjoyed the feeling of travelling through and diving reefs that see very little action as enjoyable as the dives themselves.

The sites are similar to those mentioned above but are deeper, the water clearer, the predatory fish bigger, schools of fish larger and feature far more of the little creatures than further south. My personal favourites are ‘Steve’s Bommie’ – though I think this is everyone’s favourite - and ‘Pixie Pinnacle’. Both are huge pillars of coral set back in the blue in between gaps in the Ribbon Reefs. Whilst on Steve’s Bommie I looked up from admiring a Frogfish & a couple of Stonefish to see the biggest Grey Reef shark I’ve ever witnessed swimming past. A special mention for night dives here – with the floodlights on at the rear of the boat night dives turn into carnage with bait fish attracted to the light and then brutally slaughtered by Giant & Black trevally and the odd shark. I was lucky enough to see a couple of enormous free swimming Moray Eels join the fun at one point too. All this with weather so bad we couldn’t even make it up to the Cod Hole.

Though the experience of these trips is very weather dependent and the financial outlay considerable I would still suggest a visit to anyone who appreciates witnessing a healthy reef system complete with all the top predators, coral in great condition and the feeling of diving somewhere remote.

Visited on 12/2009 - Submitted on 02/19/2014
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Seaventures Dive Rig Resort

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Accommodation & dive service providers for Sipadan/Mabul fall into 2 categories; those based off-shore on the small islands of Mabul & Kapalai and the more budget friendly operations based on the mainland in the transit town of Semporna. Though more expensive, staying out at the islands offers the much more relaxing & cultural experience of sleeping off-shore sharing a coral cay with the local sea gypsies.

Seaventures is based on a converted oil rig that has been re-positioned 200 metres off-shore from the popular Paradise 1 & 2 dive spots of Mabul Island and occupies the position as the sole affordable, no-nonsense accommodation offering at the islands. Though it lacks the ‘Castaway’ glamour of the Water Bungalows at the pricier resorts, the Utilitarian rig fosters a great team spirit amongst staff & guests with a real focus on the essentials; stuffing you with plentiful food in between providing great dives. A welcome bonus of the off-shoring positioning is that while the guests in the expensive bungalows look out over a conspicuous bright blue & yellow oil rig, you will enjoy your evening beer watching twilight fade over an idyllic tropical island on one side and uninterrupted views of the distant mountains of mainland Borneo on the other.

All divers are met punctually from their flight by a company mini-van and whisked straight off on the hour’s drive to the harbour town of Semporna where paperwork is completed in their office. Here you are given plenty of time to unwind from your flight, check all your gear and visit the well-stocked local supermarket for last minute supplies before being taken to the comfortable and mercifully dry speedboat. Heading out through the mangroves & water gypsy villages made famous by BBC’s ‘Oceans’ documentary, the transfer can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour or so depending on the tide level, though with fantastic scenery and photo opportunities everywhere I consider this to be one of my favourite parts of the experience.

Arrival at the rig for the first time is great fun as you get your first experience of ‘the lift’. A solid wooden platform that is lowered from the main rig deck to the water level for entry onto boats, the lift will also submerge a metre or so to allow a simple flop down into the water for house reef dives. Definitely unique and always fantastic fun.

Accommodation:

The rooms here are basic, but comfortable. The rig is definitely aimed squarely at those who want to dive without too many extra frills, though in saying that I have always been able to have a piping hot shower and the air con was reliable; pretty much everything you could need. I have always stayed in a double room but there are also dorm rooms with shared facilities on offer & a couple of more ‘deluxe’ rooms, though I haven’t seen the inside of them.
The main deck is split roughly into half with the dive deck and cold showers at one end with the bar and eating area occupying the other. There is also a sun deck on the top level which was being fitted out with wooden decking when I was there in May 2013. The view from either of these is fantastic at night with giant schools of bait fish hanging out in the floodlights of the rig, mingling with batfish & desperately trying to avoid marauding Barracuda.

Food:

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner are catered on the rig along with some mid-morning and afternoon sweet snacks. The food is a mixture of ‘westernised’ Asian dishes presented in Bain Maries with plenty to go around. Lots of Chicken & Beef dishes, plenty of Vegetables & a lot of Fish – I don’t eat Fish but I’m informed it was always really nice. The food is catered for the whole rig and can get a bit bland but if you recall where you are and the cheaper price point over the over resorts then you really can’t ask for more.

Diving:

Diving starts EARLY for Sipadan if you’re lucky enough to snag a pass (I have had a 100% success ratio over 10 days of diving, though both were in the off-season). 3 dives are conducted at Sipadan over the course of the morning with breakfast, snacks & drinks supplied during the surface intervals on the island. You are usually back at the island by around 13.00 in plenty of time to relax and in my case get in a couple of house reef dives. The journey out to the island and back takes around 20 minutes and while being windy due to the speed of the dive boats is not uncomfortable.

Those that do not go to Sipadan – in the case of my last trip we chose to go to the local islands for most of our stay – have 2 dives in the morning at Mabul & Kapalai with surface intervals back on the rig and then another after lunch. The farthest site on Mabul is a maximum of 2 minutes away by boat & Kapalai just 10 minutes. The added bonus of diving the local islands is you usually get into the lunch before the Sipadan boat(s) return.

The rig has 3 large, comfortable dive boats each equipped with sufficient horses on the back to convey anywhere up to 10 guests & staff quickly & comfortably. Note the boats are never over crowded so you will always have plenty of personal space to gear up without bashing each other and the guides/boat guys ensure kitting up is as painless and amusing as possible.

Finally, the house reef. As one of the finest features of the Seaventures rig I feel a thorough description is definitely warranted in this review. The area directly under the rig is a flat and sandy floor at approximately 16 metres depth with a selection of cages, boats and even a western style toilet lying around. Perfect conditions for a whole host of Nudibranchs, various Scorpionfish, Stonefish, Crocodilefish & all sorts of other invertibrates. Away from the edges of the rig’s 6 legs the seabed raises a few metres and is studded with small bommies; careful searching in this area will bring up yet more Nudibranchs and assorted critters in addition to quite a few isolated Sea fans – a recent discovery of a Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse on one of these fans had me searching all over the place. A school of small Barracuda regularly patrols this area too, especially when there’s low vis so it pay to always keep an eye above you. Fish fans also have reason to be happy under the rig with a couple of large schools of Striped Snapper, plenty of Batfish, innumerable other small fish & a couple of monster Groupers. Be aware of the currents under here, but time it right and with nice vis and a manageable current you’d be forgiven for thinking you were flying.

Visited on 04/2013 - Submitted on 02/18/2014
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Sipadan

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Sipadan has been a world class performer for decades and offers the best chance of red-hot blue water action without the need to spend a small fortune or trek for days out to the likes of Layang Layang, Tubbataha in the Philippines or Rangiroa out in Pacific. Results do vary but even in the off-season we experienced large numbers of White-Tip & Grey Reef Sharks, schools of Chevron & the odd small group Giant Barracuda, large Napoleon Wrasse and schools of thousands of Oceanic Triggerfish & Bannerfish all set against breath taking drop-offs. We even heard reports of everything from reasonably regular groups of Hammerheads deep on the South side to Sailfish, Tiger Sharks & even Killer Whales. Always worth keeping an eye out to the Blue.
The remains of an ancient Volcano situated far off the continental shelf of Borneo, Sipadan sits in around 600m of clear Oceanic water with a sloping wall of hard corals on the North of the reef & sheer, soft coral draped drops on the south. Dives always start sedately on the reef flat amongst the stunning hard table corals before plunging off down the drop-offs to the pre-determined depths. Currents range from non-existent to raging with tricky down-currents reported off the back of the reef though I did not encounter any problems while diving on the North & South walls. Intervals between dives are spent on the island proper with tables & toilet facilities provided.
I was last there in May 2013 shortly after incursions from Filipino ‘bandits’ on the mainland though we always felt safe both in town and out at the islands. A force of Malaysian Navy is stationed at Sipadan and regular patrols are carried out throughout the area.

I first encountered Mabul during a 10 week dive trip through SE Asia. The availability of Sipadan passes was so good that we didn’t have a spare day to dive Mabul, though one check out dive there at ‘Paradise 2’ on the first day was enough to entice us back the following year. Most divers come here for the stunning drop-offs and big-fish action of Sipadan and talk down Mabul as a poor substitute when you lose in the ‘Sipadan pass lottery’, however macro fans will love it and new converts to diving couldn’t find a better practice area before tackling the currents & excitement of the glittering island off-shore.
Although known for its sedate sand dives populated with all the classic weird and wonderful critters found in SE Asia - We found Pygmy Seahorses, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Nudibranchs aplenty, various different shrimp species and a multitude of lionfish big & small being just a start – Mabul is in possession of some wonderful shallow coral and features fantastic drop offs of its own right on the edge of the continental shelf.

As a final thought, the transit town of Semporna on the mainland is certainly an experience and I enjoyed my stay there for a day & night once on my way back , though you would do well to avoid it if you have not spent much time in Asian towns. It is also a much cheaper alternative to staying on Mabul, Kapalai or the Seaventures Rig though most will find the 1 hour + boat journey out to Sipadan to be prohibitive.

Flights: Prior to the advent of Air Asia most divers flew to Kota Kinabalu on the North coast of Sabah and then took an onward flight though with the arrival of Air Asia it is possible to take a direct 3 hour flight to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur – a 1 hour bus transfer from Semporna. This is a simple journey from KL though the ‘Cattle shed’ KL LCCT is certainly not an A+ International Airport. As always, it’s part of the experience and will soon be replaced by a custom made terminal that is current in construction elsewhere in the airport.

WARNING: Of countless Air Asia flights I have taken, the return journey from Tawau to KL is the only one for which I have had my carry on weighed. Twice. If like me you are carting a large amount of gear in your carry-on be prepared to be forced to check a lot of it. Extra baggage is affordable on Air Asia but the decision of which of your delicate gear goes into the hold is a difficult one.

Visited on 05/2013 - Submitted on 02/17/2014
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