Monday, March 21, 2005

Sipadan-Mabul Resort

SMART is a very efficiently run resort, with a capacity of 90 in about 45 chalets of varying comfort levels, not counting the deluxe water-bungalows, of which more are under construction.

We got upgraded from the standard twin-share chalet we'd booked to a stand-alone chalet just like that, probably because of the length of our stay and having booked directly. A very nice gesture indeed, worth 300 USD or so, which we've appreciated a lot, now having a private hut in stead of a shared one in the back.

The hut, it doesn't look like much more than that from the outside, is pretty nice indeed and has both fan & AC, ensuite bathroom and a private terrace overlooking the gently waving palm trees and the sea.

A lazy stroll away, the large buffet style dining hall serves excellent Asian food 3 times a day. Coffee, tea & water are availale all day and included in the full-board price, while soft-drinks, beer & alcohol can be bought at the pool-, jetty- or dining room bar, where e.g. a can of soda costs 1 USD.

While the resort maintains a high standard despite the number of tourists, the dive operation suffers a bit from its emphasis on quantity in stead of quality. Though they've got plenty of powerful twin engine dive boats, they still cram as many as 10-12 divers in a single boat. Another thing that struck me, is that several boats will drop their divers at the same time at the same site, in stead of choosing another site or waiting 5-10'. Three of our dives were basically ruined by the sheer number of divers in the water at the same time, reminding of similar situations in the Red Sea around Hurghada, where the sea periodically turns into a giant jaccuzi of exhalation bubbles.

Some of the dive masters seem burnt out by their factory style working conditions. It's hard to care and remain personal when you get exposed to too many new faces every day. Breefings covered the bare minimum and no extra information was ever volunteered unless explicitely asked for.

SMART offers full service, meaning that gear is carried to and from the boats, set-up and rinsed afterwards, without you having to do anything. A service I'd rather do without, as I prefer to handle my gear myself. But that isn't quite an option. Unfortunately some of the (non-diving) staff doesn't quite know how to properly handle & set-up gear, and the rinsing isn't much more than a quick dip in a tub. Another problem is the state of the tanks. Too many are leaking, sometimes in a disturbingly noisy way. And several times we had minor problems with the outboard engines on the way to or from Sipadan. Clearly indicating that it's not only the dive masters that are overworked.

In theory you can dive with nitrox if you want to, but in practice it's not that easy to obtain and at 35 RM per tank very expensive indeed. Considering the number of divers, they should have a dedicated nitrox fill station and offer it for free. Now, that would be a service I'd appreciate!

The diving however is great, even though visibility was rather poor, varying between 10-15m around Sipadan and rarely exceeding 5m around Mabul. Turtles are still abounding on many dives and cruising or resting white-tips are a regular sight. We didn't get to see the large circling school of barracudas, but this time I did get two glimpses of an investigative hammerhead. Muck diving is in, and though the term is slightly misused here, critters can be found: harlequin file fish, flamboyant cuttlefish, clown frogfish, leaffish, devil scorpionfish, real and false stonefish, etc

Sipadan island has been closed off since january this year and the old resorts are slowly being broken up, in order to restore a semblance of natural peace, the island being an important nesting ground for the turtles it became famous for.

Only armed marine guards are now allowed to overnight on the island, to protect the precious source of income that well-to-do visitors are, rather than the turtles, whose eggs they now can dig up and sell without annoying witnesses. During the day their main pass time is watching the 100s of tourist divers crowding one of the old resort piers during the in-between-dives break, and making sure they don't wander off too far. All these divers now come from neighboring islands like Mabul & Kapalai, and even from Semporna on day trips or live-aboards. So I doubt the ecological impact of too many divers will be lessened in any way by the closure of the old resorts on Sipadan.

The island has definitely become much more accessible than 10 years ago. Resulting in more and more divers now crowding the place and feeling like great adventurers... but under water they're just clumsy humans trashing into the corals without a care. A sad sight. Despite explicit warnings that divers not respecting the fragile environment will be forbidden to dive, I never saw a dive master admonish anybody.

On several occasions during our stay, I heard muffled blasts while diving around Sipadan, as if something heavy had been dropped in the water above me. Once it unmistakenly felt like an explosion. Pretty near. But then, shock waves travel long distances under water. According to our guide they're caused by dynamite fishing in the Philippines. Not a very pleasant thought. I've previously seen the ghastly desolation of coral reefs totally destroyed by dynamite fishing in Indonesia. A sight I imagine one can compare with the utter devastation of an atomic bomb dropped upon a vast city.

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