Sipadan diving, a dream come true, or a living nightmare?

“Welcome to paradise” we greet each other when the boat docks at the pier on Sipadan Island. Before we are allowed into the blue, we have to sign in with the local authorities. This way only people with permits are allowed to dive here. Is it worth all the fuss? Absolutely. Was it a dream come true? With the right company, absolutely. Did I go with the wrong company? You bet. For two days I had bugged the people in the reception at Scuba Junkies, to call other companies for me, because my phone was out of credit. After repeatedly being that annoying girl, begging them to call again and again, I finally scored a permit with Billabong. I squealed and jumped up and down, bursting with happiness. Billabong is another dive company on the other side of the island Mabul. Whatever the price, I would gladly pay it for a chance to dive with sharks, jack fish, giant schools of barracudas and hopefully some rays. Every divers dream. This dream not so much, more like a divers nightmare that could have gone very bad. I was told to meet at Billabong at 7.30 am for breakfast before heading out. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was too excited and woke up 6.00 am by myself, before my alarm went off. Checked some emails, updated Instagram and the whole shebang. By the time I was leaving Scuba Junkies the rain came down, hard. I didn’t bring an umbrella, I was completely soaked when I reached Billabong. Me and the other divers started chatting, and one of the girls, Jasmina explained this company is very unorganised. The first sign that this would not go 100% as expected, but hey we are going to Sipadan, and we are gonna see sharks!

After about one hour we finally head out, we had to gear everything up ourselves which I do prefer. When you pay 960 ringit for only 3 dives, you expect to get a full 200 bar tank or even more. Especially when there is people in your group who consume air like it’s a helium balloon. Second flag was when I checked almost all tanks, and they were all down to 180-190 bar. If you breathe a normal amount, that will leave you about 45-60 minutes dive time, to explain in normal words. When you breathe a lot, the air will not be enough for that long aka you need bigger tanks. With those prices, you should not accept any less than 50 minutes dive time. The boat ride takes about 30 minutes from Mabul, and like I explained in the beginning of this post, you have to sign in before you’re allowed into the waters. Apparently Billabong had messed up somehow, the guy in the group, his name wasn’t on the list. He had paid and everything, he had to use a false name. What? How? The island itself is breathtaking, a lot of trash everywhere like most islands here, but none the less beautiful. Now it’s time to start diving. Our first dive site was South point. I did find it strange that we didn’t do any buddy checks, and they let me get into the water first. I should’ve done the buddy checks, because my dive buddy didn’t have her air supply on when she jumped in. We can only blame ourselves for that, but she should have checked herself that she could actually breathe before jumping in. Shortly after the rest of the group were in, and down we went. First thing we see is big schools of fish, sharks and turtles. Victory! For some reason we kept going down, down, down. All the way down to 30 meters, probably even deeper. The instructor didn’t say anything, just swam on. Mid dive our instructor left us because he wasn’t feeling too good. We continued on with the dive master. On this dive I got lost from the group while I was filming a turtle, and I swear not even a minute later they were gone. I turned around to let the others have their turn filming, but poof they were gone. I was probably only 5 meters below surface, so I did a 360 degree turn, waited a minute and swam to the surface making as many bubbles as possible like they taught us in training. All I could see was another group and lots of boats. 5 minutes later my group resurfaced about 20 meters away. I felt a little embarrassed but couldn’t figure out how they could swim away so fast? We get back up on the boat, and the instructor is lying on the floor sleeping, headache apparently. More like hungover if you ask me. We drive back to mainland, which is only 50 meters away to have a quick lunch before dive nr 2.

Seeing our first sharks we were all excited to get back in, but because of the deco time we had to wait one hour before the next dive. This time the instructor stayed put, strange but fair enough, at least he won’t leave us again. We jump in with our dive master. And this is when things got really bad. Only 5 minutes of amazement of the giant school of jackfish, surrounding a shark resting in the sand, we dive down to 25-30 meters. None of us had dived in Sipadan before, little did we know that you are supposed to stay above 10-15 meters. There is nothing to see below except the occasional sharks and some smaller fish. You do not come to Sipadan to see small fish. The DM is in the lead, not paying attention to any of us. He is swimming like it’s a race, leaving us behind 3 times because he swam so fast, none of us could catch up. We tried to tell him to slow down but there he goes, having a underwater marathon. And kicking corals to pieces. We were all shocked at how unaware of his environment he was. None of us was diving with a dive computer, we were way below his level so he had no control of our deco time. I quickly realised that he wasn’t asking any of us how much air we had, I knew two in the group consumed a lot, therefore I took it upon myself to check, this way we knew somewhat how we were doing. The DM didn’t ask until Jasmina was on 50 bars, that’s when you are supposed to start ascending to the surface. He brought us up from 25 meters to 6 meters in 6 minutes. While doing safety stops we were going up. Up, up, up instead of staying at the same level. When his deco time was done, he made the sign to go up, but he didn’t inflate the safety sausage on the surface to let boats know people are down here. A boat could’ve smashed our heads while we were coming up. It’s safe to say that as soon as we breached surface I was pissed, and I did let him know how pissed I was by pointing out how fucked up this whole thing was. It felt like they were playing with my life. You guys diving is amazing, it’s so fun and easy. But it’s serious business, and reckless diving can lead to death. By the time of our last dive I demanded to use my instructors dive computer, because I didn’t trust the DM at all. I’m not even sure he was a DM. I was right not to trust him, because once again the instructor left us mid dive. The DM let everyone go as deep as they wanted to. Because I had the dive computer I knew what depth we were at. In our group we had a couple, who for some reason preferred to stay way down at the bottom. When they decided to chase a shark when we were at 27 meters, I had to swim down and get them back up. 33 meters.. I’m only certified for 30 meters. This time I ended up leading the group. Everyone was following me wherever I was swimming, and staying at my level. Thanks for the confidence guys, but I am not a DM. I am not capable of leading a dive, I do not have the training to lead one. With 20 dives I should not be leading anyone. Nor do I know where to swim to see the interesting stuff. On average we had 36 minutes of bottom time on each dive. And neither the instructor or the DM pointed out any of the cool stuff. On the last dive the instructor saw a barracuda, but couldn’t be bothered to tell us about it until after the dive. “Why” we asked, “You guys were down there”. Well gee thanks, you could’ve just banged that friggin tank, made the barracuda sign and we would’ve come up to check it out. So do I recommend Billabong? Excuse my french, but HELL NO. I don’t think I need to write a summary of why I don’t recommend them, I think by reading this post you fully understand why. What did I learn from this experience?

  1. Thank you Scotty for that excellent training you gave me while teaching me to dive. It really came handy while dealing with this madness
  2. Get my own dive computer
  3. I’m doing my DM next year so I don’t have to follow twats like that
  4. Go with Scuba junkies. You get 4 dives, it’s a bit cheaper and they will not leave you, nor forget to ask for air, they will point out cool stuff and you will have a grand time, all while feeling safe
  5. I don’t regret going with Billabong, because that’s what I wanted. But next time, I will butter myself up with more patience

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2 thoughts on “Sipadan diving, a dream come true, or a living nightmare?

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