Diving Kapalai Island …again and again and again

I’d heard divers talk about Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai in almost reverential terms. About the abundance of marine life. The beautiful macro critters you see on every dive. The cool and unusual species that are hard to find elsewhere – think frogfish, leaf scorpionfish and flamboyant cuttlefish. And the huge number of turtles. I‘d also heard about the rubbish littering the beaches making swimming impossible (or at least, very, very unpleasant).

Combine what I had heard with fairly high price we paid for staying and diving there and the poverty I saw in Semporna had me wondering what the next 10 days would hold.

My first glimpse of Mabul was less of the island and more of the rickety looking houses on even more rickety looking stilts that spread out into the sea. Dive companies and private homes merged together. Boats and canoes drifted slowly passed each other. Low wooden boats, filled with people, bobbed gently on the waves. And coconut palm trees towered over the houses in the middle of the island.

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Billabong Scuba (where we stayed) had many chalets stretching out to sea with a large dining area at the end. Our room was basic and mostly comfortable. Air con provided a welcome relief from the heat. The power was turned off for a few hours every day so we had to plan what batteries and electronics needed charging. Cracks in the walls and floor allowed mosquitoes in so repellant was as important to wear as clothes.

We started diving within an hour of our arrival. First stop, Kapalai Island house reef. I loved it! Keep reading or you can check out my video here

We descended and immediately found a metre long crocodile fish resting on the bottom. I think they are beautiful with their mottled, camouflage patterns, lacy eyelids and long flat mouth. A few meters further along, a cuttlefish warned us not to get too close, then calmed down and posed for a few photos.

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Closeup of the lacy eyelashes on a crocodile fish eye

But the best part of the dive was the large artificial village with huts, towers and boats, covered in corals, feather stars and a diverse range of encrusting organisms. Otto found us frogfish, ghost pipefish and an abundance of nudibranchs to film. Schools of yellow lined snapper, bright yellow sweeplips, striped eel catfish, barracuda, rays, eels and grouper sheltered in and around the huts. There was far too much to take in on one dive.

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Closeup of a frogfish face
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One of the more elaborate huts
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Striped eel catfish
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The main road in the underwater village
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Some of it’s inhabitants

Lucky for us, we ended up diving Kapalai five times so were able to explore the village and find lots of it’s inhabitants.

There were a couple of highlights on Kapalai for me. The first was seeing a green turtle sleeping on the top of one of the underwater towers, surrounded by colourful algaes and feather stars. The colours combined with the tower structure and blue-green water I thought looked pretty cool. (It’s at the end of this video)Sipadan-05.jpg

The other highlight was seeing leaf scopionfish for the first time. Two were sheltering under a rocky ledge and surrounded by glassfish. These fish look like a leaf and even mimic leaves, swaying gently in the current to confuse predators (and people).Sipadan 22032018-26.jpg

There were a lot more snorkellers than divers so we often had dive sites to ourselves. A huge bonus for me because I didn’t need to worry about other divers photo-bombing my shots. Or think about moving on so others could see what I was filming. I could take my time. I could think about the best angle. I could take my time getting close to rays and eels and gaining their trust. I could concentrate on getting my camera settings right. Here are some of the results… Mabul 160318-13

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