Here's an island that boasts 3,000 species of fish and sea tortoises inhabiting its clear waters. Sipadan is one of the smallest islands of the Indo-Pacific Islands immediately to the northeast off the coast of Borneo. Zafer Kizilkaya took photographs of this 12 hectare Malaysian island legendary among divers for its underwater beauties.
Clown anemone fish (Amphiprion ocellaris) owe their names to their white stripes that look like clown makeup. They can live with approximately ten different kinds of anemones and not be harmed by the anemones' poisonous tentacles thanks to a secretion that is similar to that of the anemone. The anemone can not distinguish the fish from its own tentacles. Research indicates that the anemone fish is genetically programmed to live inside an anemone. The anemone fish all complete their maturation as males and may then change their sex. The largest and most dominant female in the colony can trigger the sex change in the male fish.
Sipadan Island covers 12 hectares and boast 3,000 different kinds of marine life.
Sipadan Island is legendary among divers. The Island has trouble meeting global demand. It is home to some 3,000 kinds of fish. This island was formed by a volcano that rose out the ocean millions of years ago and is surrounded by a coral reef and deep waters. Sea snails are some of the most colorful examples of Sipadan's colorful marine underwater life.
The ocean orchid is tasteless and often poisonous. It warns its enemy with its bright colors.
Sea snails (nudi-branch) are known as ocean orchids. They can be found in Arctic waters as well as the tropics. They are usually poisonous and warn their foes with their bright colors. In this photograph, you see one in blue and white (Chromodoris bullacki). The animal breathes through the gills behind that look like a tassel.
An old anemone This orange anemone fish (Amphiprion sandaracinos) lives inside an anemone. This short tentacled anemone (Heteractis magnifica) is one of the largest of its kind. Anemones live well over one hundred years. The fact that scientists have never encountered young anemones have led them to believe that they breed with great difficulty. It is feared that this species might face extinction soon because it is indiscriminately harvested to be then sold for fishtanks in pet supply stores .
The barracuda storm One of the most memorable experiences on Sipadan island is to be able to swim alongside various schools of fish. Thousands of barracudas (Sypraena) circling make for a powerful image. They are mistakenly thought to be aggressive. Around Sipadan, they seem not to be bothered with humans sharing their waters.
No sir," said the pilot. "There is absolutely no way you can get on this plane with 95 kg. (210 lb.) of luggage!" I was stuck at the Tarakan Airport which connects Indonesian Borneo to Malaysian Borneo. "OK," I said, "I'll pay for the extra luggage" assured that this would do the trick. "The additional money you'll pay does not make the plane any larger, or the engines any stronger," the pilot replied.
I was obviously not aware that the plane was an eight seater that was only nine meters long. In order for my luggage to get on the plane, two passengers would have to get off. And that's exactly what happened. Thanks to the two passengers who stayed behind, I and my luggage took off towards Tawau. I finally understood just how serious the pilot was when they weighed all of us before we got on the plane. Actually, it is not difficult to get to the area. You can get there from Istanbul within the same day and you only have to change planes twice. If your itinerary takes you through Kalimantan, however, you must have strong nerves because there is no telling what will happen on the way.
I arrive at the Sipadan Island. This island is legendary among divers. I am excited about having reached tropical waters and absolutely amazed at how developed Malaysia is. Malaysian Airlines, which has been extremely helpful since I arrived at Sabah Borneo, continues to support my trip to Sipadan. We travel on land for two hours to get to a village named Semporna. Then we take a speed boat towards the numerous tropical islands. After about an hour, we catch a glimpse of Sipadan and its crystal waters, its dense vegetation, its snow white beaches and its tropical huts.
Borneo is the largest island in the Indo-Pacific chain. Sipadan, the smallest in the same chain, is located to the northeast of Borneo. This island covers 12 hectares (30 acres) and rises like a column out of the Suwalesi Sea. Formed by a volcano that rose out of the ocean millions of years ago, it stands 1,000 meters (3,300 ft.) tall on the Borneo side and 2,000 (6,700 ft) on the side that faces the ocean. It is surrounded by coral reefs. What is most amazing about the island is that the waters that surround the island are home to some 3,000 species of fish. Compared with the 800 species in the Red Sea and 1,300 in the Great Barrier Reef, the diversity of marine life here is more than impressive. In 1988 Jacques Cousteau remarked: "Forty-five years ago, I saw places like this. But they are all gone now. I feel like I have discovered a masterpiece." The World Wild Life Fund concurs. "There is no other place on the planet that has a more fascinating marine life," it observes.
I am excited to see the white sand, not only because the beaches are incredibly beautiful but also because seeing them reminds me that the day has finally come to put my shoes aside and roam around barefoot. It is breathtaking to see the sun on the endless horizon of the rain forest. These waters were also home to pirates earlier, which has postponed the discovery of the island. Nowadays, Sipadan is known for its underwater tourism and research that is geared toward protecting marine life. There are five resorts on the island. I am hosted at the Borneo Divers, a resort that was built by the ones that first discovered the island some ten years ago.
I am first invited to the conference room. The manager of the resort briefs me on the resort and on the ecology of the island. He politely asks me not to disturb the tortoises. He tells me that you can see 20 to 30 of them each time you dive, that they are not frightened by humans. That's why it is prohibited to hold onto them while diving and to stroll around the island after 8 PM, which is when they come out of the water to lay their eggs. There are small signs in front of every nest with a date and a number. I continue listening to the briefing with the hope of being able to swim soon. Hearing about the rain forest and gorillas is great, but now I want to dive. I did the first test dive 15 meters (50 ft.) from the hut in which I was staying. The water is approximately 600 meters deep (300 fathoms). I saw eleven tortoises, many lion fish and many other kinds of tropical fish. It was almost unbelievable: the tortoises and the fish were not bothered by my presence at all. After the dive, I spent many hours trying to identify the different kinds in a book on tropical fish.
We went to the "barracuda point" for the second dive. While watching a shark that was resting on the corals, we suddenly saw a cloud approaching us underwater. This was a storm of barracudas swimming at breakneck speed. Soon, I was surrounded by thousands of barracudas that were over one meter long. Beneath me were jacks. I couldn't decide where to look. I never thought this could be possible: fish below, fish above. I was mystified. First the barracudas and then the jacks started circling, almost like a twister. When I looked around, I realized that I was inside this circle. They circled their way towards the surface and then circled their way back down. At times, we were closer than a meter to each other. I thought I heard something and held my breath. I was right. I realized that they were circling around me and their movement was creating a strange sound which wrapped around me. After a half hour, they left just as they had come.
I then turned my attention to the tortoises that were resting on the coral colony. One of them was trying to lift the corals and eat them. The striped angel fish was trying to get its share of the feast. Sharks that seemed to be undisturbed by our presence passed us by. We saw clown fish playing around the tentacles of a sea anemone. Then we saw a moray swim by. He lingered for a short while around the corals and continued swimming. Our leader, Mat, showed me a beautiful fish. It felt like all of this is part of a well-orchestrated show. I now know why many underwater photographers can't wait to return to Sipadan.
After the dive, Mat comments that the barracudas have not been this impressive in four months. I see the National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubilet's name on the list of divers. All excited, I ask whether he is on the island. The manager tells me that the list was dated and that Doubilet had left last week after spending six weeks on the island. Amazed, the manager explains to me that they had to book two rooms just for the photo equipment.
Towards the evening Mat calls me and shows me a coconut crab. This type of crab is the largest of the land-dwelling crab species. It also has the strongest claws. Coconut crabs are almost extinct. They can only be found on this island in Malaysia.
We begin searching for the other diving spots on the island on the following day. I no longer keep count of the tortoises I see. Undisturbed, sharks swim all around me. I see four different kinds during a single dive. A grupper, which is almost my size, approaches me, accompanied by scavenging fish. The shark lets its friends clean its teeth and disappears into the distance. I went for a walk after the dive. I ran into a baby blue spotted stingray on the beach. It was almost out of the water. I approached it and it let me. After I return to my hut, I saw a giant monitor lizard on my doorsteps. It was approximately two meters (6 feet) long. It returned my perplexed gaze. I was told that there were lizards on this island but never thought I would run into one this big. It ignored me and walked away. I was told later that his name was Morris and that he roamed about the resort as he wished. He exhibits the same indifference towards humans as many other species on this island. I met him again the next day as I was swimming. This time he whipped the water with his tail as if to warn me to stay away.
Sipadan is famous for the variety of marine life in its ecosystem. Nonetheless, the first thing that one associates it with are tortoises. The waters around this island are home to many Hawksbill and Green tortoises. They appear to have grown used to the divers during the last ten years. They are not scared away easily. Sipadan is regarded to be the best spot worldwide to observe tortoises under water. Our experience concurs: we saw at least 20 tortoises each time we dove. We observed the Hawksbill tortoises (approximately 1 meter long) and the Green tortoises (approximately two meters long) as they fed, as they swam alongside us and as they rested on the coral reef. I was convinced that each new tortoise I saw was even cuter than the one before. They have an unbelievable innocent gaze which is very impressive.
We finally leave to dive in the Skeleton Cave. I know about the fame of this cave from books and photographs. This cave, which is right below the resort, is full of tortoise skeletons. We see some porpoise and swordfish skeletons further down. Apparently, the tortoises that come into the cave to sleep never find their way out. At least, that was the answer when we asked why the animals came in here only to die. I somehow don't want to believe that. It does not seem plausible that these animals, who can find the beach where they lay their eggs from thousands of miles away, would be trapped in this cave. It may sound romantic, but I would rather believe that -- just like the story of the elephant cemetery in Africa -- the tortoises come to this cave to die. But what about the porpoises and the swordfish? They never go into caves. As these thoughts go through my head, a leopard shark dashes from behind the rocks and swims past. I leave my questions and the darkness behind and we start moving towards sunlight. As if to create and intentional contrast with the cave, it is very lively outside. I look towards the surface. One of the tortoises swims gracefully above and its body partially blocks the sunlight.
The sun sets towards Borneo in the evening. As this was happening, thousands of baby tortoises that have hatched only a short while ago begin racing towards the sea. Those that made it to the water in the evening sun disappeared in the oftentimes cruel bosom of nature. I could do little more than to wish them luck. Their chances of survival are very slim. It is highly likely that none of them will return to this beach to lay their own eggs. It is fact of life on this island that thousands of glimmers of hope rush out to the sea every day at dusk.
That night, Mat asked me if I liked these little creatures. I told him that would be an understatement. He then told me that he had another surprise for me the following day. Despite my insistence, he told me only that he would take me somewhere special.
We loaded the boat with oxygen tanks the next morning and went to Mabul island which is situated approximately 15 miles to the north. This island is covered with coconut palms. The water around the island is very shallow, possibly no deeper than 10 meters (30 ft.). The area where the corals give way to the sand is full of remarkable creatures. During a single dive we were able to see many kinds of sea snails that are refereed to as nudi-branch. There were many varieties of shrimp, anemones and fish. This must be paradise.
Our second dive begins right in front of our resort. The semi-muddy bottom is four meters below. Large coconut leaves are tied to buoys, forming an underwater reef. Some baby and young lion fish have taken shelter underneath a leaf which is approximately 3-4 meters (10-13 ft.) long. The sand keeps offering other surprises. Just as I was getting ready to end the dive, I saw a marvelous blue anemone and four clown fish that were swimming among the anemone's tentacles. I have never been so mystified by any creature during any dive in my entire life, including those on Sipadan.
Sipadan is now having a difficult time meeting global demand on its riches. I am among those who have already begun wondering when they can come back even before they have left. Sipadan is a wonder that is a must for all nature afficionados. It is a natural fortress in the Suwalesi sea, complete with incredible marine life and unimaginable natural beauties. It is extremely well-preserved. Our only hope is that future generations will be as lucky to enjoy what Sipadan has to offer.