By Alya B. Honsasan

23 – 25 June  2009

N4 07.051 E118 37.655

I SHOULD have gotten the hint when I did my check-out dive the afternoon I arrived at the Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART) on Mabul Island, one of the two islands within view of Sipadan. On that relaxed 40-minute dive in Paradise 2 and 3, two famous sites near the adjacent Sipadan Water Village, I counted 15—yes, 15—turtles. There were big ones and small ones, swimming ones and sleeping ones, one feeding on the reef and one snoozing away, lodged in a crevice. As we swam towards a huge green turtle (Chelonia mydas) chilling beside a sponge, a small hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) darted in front of us. It didn’t hurt too that SMART had lovely chalets, an excellent staff (with quite a few Filipinos), and hearty meals (even for non-meat eaters like me). It was a wonderful welcome.

The WWF Coral Triangle Photographic Expedition team complete in Pulau Sipadan

The WWF Coral Triangle Photographic Expedition team complete in Pulau Sipadan

I joined Yogi and Stella Freund on the Malaysian leg of the Coral Triangle Photo Expedition, and by the time I arrived, the tireless two were already in turtle heaven. Sipadan, a small island rising 600 meters from the bed of the Celebes Sea, on the northeastern tip of Sabah, is a stunning ecosystem, one of the world’s top dive sites, and a known habitat of marine turtles.

Turtles so used to obnoxious divers, they don't budge even when you come this close

Turtles so used to obnoxious divers, they don’t budge even when you come this close

Turtle surfacing to check out the squall

Male green turtle surfacing to check out the squall

Green turtle choosing a nice background of schooling jacks for his profile shot

Green turtle choosing a nice background of schooling jacks for her profile shot

It provided a great opportunity to get close to these enigmatic, gentle creatures, vanguards of the marine world, and long acknowledged indicators of reef health that have been increasingly confronted with a slew of threats, from aggressive fishing (they often perish as trawler by-catch) and pollution (they mistake lethal plastic for their favorite food, jellyfish) to turtle egg collection and plain and simple slaughter for their meat and shells.

I had been to Sipadan once before, before the resorts on the island itself were asked to relocate, and before the current quota of 120 divers a day that was imposed in 2004. We did hear stories of visitors who had to wait in line to experience Sipadan in the high season, when the resorts are brimming with people. Somehow, we got lucky, though; there wasn’t much of a crowd, and I was privileged to get to dive the precious island for two days.

Coral reef in Sipadan seems to have improved tremendously within 8 years since our last visit

Coral reef in Sipadan seems to have improved tremendously, eight years after our last visit

Beautiful and wonderful Sipadan

Beautiful and wonderful Sipadan above and underwater

The corals had improved dramatically since my first visit, with large formations growing in shallows and slopes that used to be barren resting places for resting white tips. We also did early morning trips from Kapalai, where we were staying then, to Sipadan to see the endearing bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) that hung out at the break of day.

Hundreds of massive bumphead parrotfish in the shallows of Barracuda Point

Hundreds of massive bumphead parrotfish in the shallows of Barracuda Point

Schooling Bumphead parrotfish against schooling jacks. How happy do you think our happy level was?

Schooling bumphead parrotfish against schooling jacks. How happy do you think our happy level was?

This time, I didn’t have to lose any sleep, as we caught them at legendary Barracuda Point on an afternoon dive, a school of about a hundred of them, healthy, friendly, and noisily chomping on the corals, oblivious to our presence.

Stella in and out of schooling jacks that never left their location in Barracuda Point

Stella in and out of schooling jacks that never left their location in Barracuda Point

Stella the ham with a big schooling batfish

Stella the ham with a big school of batfish

There were the usual attractions, of course, the sharks, the huge walls of chevron barracuda and circling jacks, elegant batfish, even the occasional shy gray reef shark. But like old friends, the turtles were never very far away.

The half hour chase of the horny male green turtle

The half hour chase of the horny male green turtle

On one dive, Yogi hit the jackpot: after some 30 years of photographing turtles all over the world, he had yet to capture them mating. We were at about five meters in Sipadan’s White Tip Alley, 41 minutes into a relaxed dive, when two green turtles, a male and a bigger female, practically slammed into each other. They were soon joined by a second male, and a frenzied, extended, suspenseful dance took place just beneath the water’s surface. After about 10 minutes one male gave up, but the remaining one was relentless, even if the female wasn’t quite ready. He pursued her doggedly, swimming away before launching another surprise attack, nipping her neck, embracing her; on two occasions, we thought he had succeeded, only to see her break free as he tried to mount her. Yogi was in the middle of the action for 31 minutes as Stella and I watched from a respectful distance, transfixed, until the female swam away, the male in quiet pursuit. We surfaced after 72 minutes in the water, tired, excited—and hoping that the fellow did eventually get his way.

Deadly venomous blue ring octopus walking the sand. Just in case you think it's all big stuff in Sipadan, there are amazing small stuff in Mabul and Kapalai as well.

Deadly venomous blue-ringed octopus walking the sandy bottom. Just in case you think it’s all big stuff in Sipadan, there are amazing small stuff in neighboring Mabul and Kapalai as well.