Ocean trash – bad for #scuba destinations

The garbage haul. From near Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Taken during one 50 minute dive.

The garbage haul. From near Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Taken during one 50 minute dive. Wasn’t able to pick up the tin cans and bottles.

I get asked questions about my scuba diving destinations a lot. Where’s the best place to dive?

My criteria is based on a number of factors – especially what I see and don’t see.

There are lots of places I really like and will continue to visit, such as Cozumel, Mexico and Roatan, Honduras (if they get their west end noise problem resolved). They’re reasonably easy to get to from Vancouver. Both places offer a diving experience akin to swimming in an aquarium.

They’re also mostly free of garbage in the water. If a divemaster or a diver (like myself) sees garbage, she/he picks it up. I’ve stuffed countless chocolate bar wrappers into the sleeve of my wetsuit.

I want to patronize dive destinations where people care about the ocean.

Don't like to see this.

Don’t like to see this.

The places I’ve been with lots of garbage in the water are the east coast of Bali near Padang Bai; Cuba, near Varadero and Bay of Pigs; and Kota Kinabalu, Indonesia. Beautiful places, but my diving experiences were diminished because of the trash.

I’m visiting Cuba next week and won’t be diving. Not interested in hauling my scuba gear thousands of miles to dive in ocean trash.

What I’d like to see is what’s done in Roatan, Puerto Vallarta and Cozumel – more divers and their guides picking up garbage when they see it. My plan for the future is to carry a mesh bag where trash can be stuffed during a dive. I hope others in the diving community will follow suit.

Machine Guns in Paradise – #scuba #diving Sipadan

Gorgeous. White sand. Turquoise water. No guns in sight.

Gorgeous. White sand. Turquoise water. That’s barbed wire on the left. No pics of the soldiers. Feared they might shoot me!

Wasn’t sure what to make of the scowling military guys with machine guns. Later, I was told they were there for my protection.

When I saw them playing with Sipadan Island’s friendlier stray cats, I knew they were good guys.

Sipadan is in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia. It almost always makes scuba diving top ten lists. Jacques Cousteau, back in the day, gave it a thumbs up.

Tank gives it two thumbs up.

Plane, bus, boat, SCUBA

Plane from Kuala Lumpur, bus, boat, SCUBA

It is, bar none, the best place I’ve ever scuba dived. Shark-infested waters (white tip, non-aggressive), giant schools of fish and turtles galore. Warm water. Gorgeous beach on which to relax between dives.

The downside of Sipadan is also its upside. Malaysia restricts the number of divers to 120 per day, which means it’s relatively uncrowded and the marine environment is being protected.

The 120 permits have been divvied up among dive shops and resorts. They sell to each other when they have spares. Getting a permit – beyond the guarantee you may get with your hotel or diving reservation – isn’t easy or cheap.

Which means you can travel a long way, like from Canada, to only be guaranteed one day of Sipadan diving. That was my guarantee. In order to get that, I had to book at least five nights in a fairly swish cabin at the SMART Resort on nearby Mabul Island. (Roughly a 45 minute boat ride away.)

Some of the 120 daily divers arrive. We left our resort at 6:00 am to get in the water by 7:00 am.

Some of the 120 daily divers arrive. We left our resort at 6:00 am to get in the water and diving by 7:00 am.

I booked seven nights and dove six days. I dove Sipadan on four of those days.

Yup. I hit the jackpot. I asked to buy extra Sipadan permits, if they became available. On three occasions, other divers at the resort elected to not dive Sipadan. (Insane??) So, I was offered the spare permits. The extra several hundred dollars I paid was well worth the expense. I may never get the chance to return. These memories are priceless.

The rules. Every diver at Sipadan must sign in. No walking around the island either. Tourists are restricted to a small beach area.

The rules. Every diver at Sipadan must sign in. No walking around the island either. Tourists are restricted to a small beach area.

So, what’s up with the machine guns?

In 2000, 21 people were kidnapped from Sipadan by a terrorist group – 10 tourists from Europe and the Middle East, and 11 resort workers. They were taken, at gunpoint, to the Philippines. Most were released within five months after an offensive by the Philippine government.

The military presence on Sipadan is meant to prevent a hostage taking like the one in 2000 from happening again.

Orangs + crocs: Myne Resort, Malaysia

Sundown in the jungle. Kinabatangan River.

Sunset in the jungle. Kinabatangan River.

I love big wildlife. Elephants, giraffes and all kinds of monkeys. Anything my deteriorating (aging) eyesight allows me to still see.

When I went to Malaysian Borneo to scuba dive in August, I knew I had to spend a few days in the jungle observing land creatures. Too far to travel to NOT do this. A once in a lifetime experience.

Off to the Myne Resort.

Off to the Myne Resort.

There are never any guarantees with wildlife. When, on the eve of my jungle journey, a fellow traveller told me seeing an orangutan in the wild was indeed rare, I was disappointed.

My cabin at Myne Resort

My cabin at Myne Resort

Still, I had some hope when I arrived at the Myne Resort on the Kinabatangan River, about two hours south of Sandakan. Four days and three nights filled with jungle hikes and riverboat tours.

The boat tours left at 6:00 am, 4:00 pm and about 7:30 pm. Each timeslot offered different things to see. I had a private guide, Dozi, a walking wildlife encyclopedia.

To my delight, I saw several orangutans, lots macaques, proboscis monkeys, a bunch of pretty birds and crocodiles. It was terrific to watch a huge herd of pigmy elephants one night. Truly unexpected as we’d been told they’d left the area weeks before.

The river.

The river.

I’m so glad I did this. I’ll carry these wonderful memories with me for the rest of my life. I’ve hung several pictures on my walls at work. The trip was worth the $800 CDN cost. (That also paid for excursions to an orang rehab centre, a cave, plus of tour of Sandakan and lunch. Ground transportation too).

The Myne Resort was excellent. Loved my room with the river view and the food. All the guides, serving and desk staff were wonderful. I highly recommend Myne. There are shorter, more economical packages to be had at the resort than mine. This was a splurge.

Life experiences like this trump designer shoes and handbags, party dresses, jewellery, expensive restaurant meals and other silly purchases.

A sweaty me on the observation platform. Dozi dragged my sorry ass up the side of a mountain to get me here. And I thought I was in shape!!

A sweaty me on the observation platform. Dozi dragged my sorry ass up the side of a mountain to get me here. And I thought I was in shape!!

Like leech socks. Didn’t need them. Anyone wanna buy a pair of unused leech socks?

Tank versus bat poo

Harvesting the edible birds' nests. Hard dangerous work

Harvesting the edible birds’ nests. Hard, dangerous work.

The promo material was hilarious.

It promised a sickening smell, ten feet of guano (aka poo) deposited by millions of bats, plus beetles, cockroaches, centipedes and scorpions.

Who wouldn’t want to visit Gomantong Cave near Sandakan, Malaysia? With a sales pitch like that, I wanna be first in line.

What’s remarkable about the place, besides being big and smelly and full of bats, is the harvesting of edible bird nests. Mostly for export to China. The harvesting is carried out three times a year and I was lucky to be there during one of the harvesting periods.

Workers in the cave.

Workers in the cave.

I have no desire to eat a bird nest bound together by feathers and bird saliva. It was, however, fascinating to watch the workers climb along the ropes, extended high up, to gather the delicacy. Dangerous work. High paying too, I was told. But in exchange, workers were forced to sign away any right to sue their employer if they became injured on the job.

Smell aside, the walkway was slippery. Covered in the advertised bat poo. My kind and considerate guide, Dozi, produced a hardhat from the back of his van for me. No guano was getting in this gal’s hair.

Those are bats. They were everywhere.

Those are bats. They were everywhere.

Not sure I would have requested this excursion if it hadn’t been offered as part of my jungle package to the Kinabatangan River.

Glad I went though. Especially as there was a wild organutan feasting in the trees near the entrance.

The cave is about 90 minutes by car from Sandakan, which can be accessed via plane or bus from Kota Kinabalu or Tawau.

A wild organ enjoying a meal of leaves.

A wild orang enjoying a meal of leaves.

Here’s a gallery of some of the pics I took inside.

Idiot #scuba divers with #GoPros on a stick

I wish for the quick extinction of this noxious underwater species – the scuba diver with a GoPro on a stick.

The owner of this GoPro is a jerk.

The owner of this GoPro is a jerk.

They’re a scourge. As bad as lionfish in non-native waters. Or manspreading on a packed dive boat.

Here’s the problem. Many, but not all, GoPro divers I’ve encountered have NO manners. (And don’t bother defending these clowns in the comments section. I’ve never seen an underwater photographer with a honking big still camera behave this way.)

There’s a etiquette around scuba divers with cameras. Everyone takes her/his turn, one by one, being careful to not scare the subject so that it swims off, not kick up silt and not to hog the subject preventing others from getting their shot before the divemaster and group move on.

What I’m seeing from some GoPro on a stick divers is despicable. No consideration for etiquette or respect for other photographers in the group.

IMG_1307

When the divemaster signals a subject worthy of a photograph, all the GoPros on a stick go charging in. Jockeying for position while unable to hold their buoyancy. Kicking up silt. Bumping into all and sundry. Ensuring no one gets a decent image.

Barbarians.

Thanks a bunch.

Perhaps time for dive shops to make an etiquette pep talk part of their dive briefing.