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Scuba Diving at Sipadan Island, Borneo
Dive Site: Turtle Cave
Location: Sipadan Island
Depth: 24 metres (79 feet)
Visibility: 25 metres (80 feet)
Turtle Cave is one of the highlights of diving in Sipadan. If the island actually needed something to make it even more unique, then this would be it. This dive normally needs special arrangement and an experienced guide as it is a true overhead environment cave penetration. We were lucky enough to have Neil from Borneo Divers, a veteran Sipadan diver with more than 20 years experience diving around Borneo. An English Ex-pat he moved here in the early 80's and has a wealth of experience and plenty of dive tales to tell. He provided a comprehensive brief, including a detailed diagram, drawn on a whiteboard, showing the entrance to the cave, tunnels, main cavern and bell shaped descent tunnel into the lower chamber. This dive site has been widely written about over the years in various dive publications and was visited and filmed by Jacques Costeau in the early 1980's. Its fame is derived not only from the incredible natural geology inside the cave system and the location just a few metres from shor e, but also because it houses the skeletal remains of turtles and dolphins. Originally it was thought that old turtles entered the cave during their final days and actually came here to die in peace. It seems more likely, however, that due to the amazing turtle numbers here that they simply enter the cave and become lost. Unable to find the exit these unlucky few drown and their remains float to the roof of the cave system as they decompose. Finally, once the natural gasses have escaped they settle on the sand floor of the chambers, their bones slowly decaying as the years pass.
It was with eager anticipation we prepared for this dive. Despite its location near to the beach we used a boat to ferry us the few metres around to the south of the main Sipadan island jetty and descended to 24m where Neil located the entrance at a depth of 22m. There is a large sign warning inexperienced divers not to enter without the appropriate equipment or experience. As we entered the main tunnel the cavern opened up to around 10 metres in width and the visibility because crystal clear. We slowly ascended to around 10m and explored the outer perimeter of the main chamber. There are lots of small tunnels, although Neil explained that none actually penetrate very far into the reef. In the Center of the large chamber is the first of the turtle skeletons marking a circular hole around 2 metres in width. It is here you enter and re-descend down a bell shaped vertical tunnel which opens up onto a white sand floor around 8 metres in diameter. We were careful not to disturb the sand, which could easily have reduced visibility to zero. Here there were several more turtle skeletons with fully intact shells and a skull (although the jaw bone had been removed). It really was an eerie sight, deep within the reef. As we spiralled up the bell shaped tomb, we stopped to investigate the incredible geological formations - of particular interest to my geologist buddy. It was here we saw the unique remains of a dolphin. A complete skeleton was lying along the sloping wall on a ledge - amazing. We spent around 40 minutes in the cave system and emerged with plenty of air. I could easily have spent twice as long here and returned time and time again to explore the other passages. As we left via the main entrance we ascended up the reef wall and saw several turtles cruising by - I wonder if they were heading into the cave. We headed north back to the beach, where we exited and walked the short distance back to Borneo Divers.
As mentioned earlier our dive guide Neil had plenty of experience and during our subsequent surface interval I quizzed him about his experiences. When asked what was the most amazing thing he had seen here, he grinned and settled back in his chair, flexing his shoulders he had the twinkle in his eye of someone who had plenty to tell.
And so his story began:
Back in the early 1980's Jacques Costeau came to visit Sipadan to make a documentary. This was extremely kit intensive and due to the uniqueness of the turtle cave this was to be the highlight of the documentary. During those weeks much time and effort was spent running huge power cables out over the reef top and down into the turtle cave to power huge underwater lights. These were to illuminate the two main chambers and aid in the visual effects. During the first few planning dives the visibility in the cave was unusually poor due to a large female turtle that had recently perished in the cave and floated to the cavern roof. Her decomposition was well underway and as a result the internal flesh and organs were seeping out into the surrounding cave significantly reducing the visibility in the usually crystal clear water. Much to Neil's amusement Mr. Costeau decided this simply would not do and after 2 weeks of ferrying equipment down to cave in ever decreasing visibility, he ordered the turtle car cass to be removed. During the operation, which proved extremely difficult due to the turtle's buoyant condition, Neil had been sitting on the beach watching the boats on the surface just a few metres away. As divers wrestled with the carcass towards and through the entrance the extreme buoyancy and forces of physics took over and ripped the turtle from their restraint straps. The resulting view from shore was a large turtle breaking the surface with the force of an exercet missile and launching itself some 20 feet into the air, at which point it exploded with an immense bang and showered the surrounding area, boats and support crew in rotting turtle flesh and fragments of shell. A few short minutes later the breeze brought the inevitable stench onto the beach - apparently quite an incredibly nauseating stench at that. "And so", said Neil, as he grinned and looked out towards the spot, "When people ask me what's the strangest or most amazing thing you've ever seen? I simply say an Exploding Turtle".
Rik Vercoe, BSAC Advanced Instructor
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