A life changing Experience. Scuba Diving in Borneo 6 Years ago. Part 2: (Cindy's Experience)

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

It all started back in 2011 when during our honeymoon Juan and I accumulated over 300 hours underwater in one of the most spectacular places on Earth. 

Here is an extract of what I had written back then. I have to say that our love for the ocean has only intensified after all these years. 

When Juan and I visited Sipadan on February 7th this year, I never imagined I would soon be guiding such an exciting dive destination!
We arrived in Mabul one afternoon after our four day stay in the jungles of Danum Valley. Mabul is the nearest island to Sipadan, and the base for anyone who wants to dive in this world famous marine park for which there is a long waiting list to even get permission to enter. Feeling slightly conscientious of splurging over our budget on a three day diving package, we had decided to give in anyway and visit this place we had only just heard about from other back packers along the way. 
Ever since Tio Luis introduced me to diving when I was about fourteen years old, I fell in love with it. Growing up in an ocean-loving family and only twenty minutes away from the warm beaches of Yucatan, being in the water has only been natural to me. I have dreams of waking up at the bottom of a cenote or a pool, watching the light filter through the surface and onto the walls, rippling brilliant, silent energy all around me, and suddenly realizing I’ve been there, underwater, observing and BREATHING!
Diving is like this dream to me. I enjoy it regardless of the site. I just love getting in the water and being a part of it; to descend into this liquid world and flow with it, feeling the changes in temperature, seeing the different shades of light at a depth, floating along with the current and just breathing peacefully as the dive goes on. 
When we first arrived to Sipadan, I was as excited as I would be about any other dive. I geared up, jumped in and enjoyed it as I would any dive site, and when we came upon a school of Bumphead Parrotfish and later a Devil Ray swam right up to us, the events seemed to me as beautiful as they did natural. I didn’t realize until later how special they really were!
Still, knowing how much I loved diving, during one of our walks around the back of Mabul island, Juan sensed that I might like to stay longer and easily convinced me to enroll in the Dive Master training program at Scuba Junkies (the dive company we were with), even if only for the experience and to get a little more diving into the trip. THIS WAS THE BEST DECISION we’ve made in a long time!
The idea of the Dive Master certification is to prepare divers to be able to not only become very skillful in their own diving techniques, but to also be fully capable of rescuing, guiding and helping out other certified divers under water and assist in training student divers in their courses. At Scuba Junkies the Dive Master Training program is both strict and fun, allowing trainees to soak in knowledge from the most qualified instructors and to gain experience with unlimited diving in Mabul island during the six week course, which ends with a very strenuous Stress Test, after which -believe me- you’re mentally prepared to react calm and assertively to pretty much any situation under water!
I never knew it possible, but during the course MY LOVE FOR DIVING GREW exponentially! Every single dive became to me even more natural, and at the same time tremendously exciting! As I learned more about the aquatic species of the area I started to appreciate the countless variety of life forms, to pay attention to the details and learn where to find them. More so though, after diving the same areas over and over three and four times a day, I realized the beauty of simply being still and letting life around me BE. Just like in my dream, to stay motionless and breathe softly watching the light touch all that is in this liquid space was what brought the most precious experiences. My favorite thing to do was to gear up and just jump off the jetty into AWAS, a sandy dive site famous in the area for large turtles and great muck diving. I would go there not for that but for the school of squid. Even as I write this blog my heart warms and beats at a different pace. I wish I could find the words to put into your heart just how magical it is to see them living right with you! Their diaphanous, ethereal fins rippling gently in the soft current, their tentacles stretching and curling in unison, their intelligent, knowing eyes appearing pair by pair through the planctonic mist, first suspicious, then curious, then comfortable as they decide I’m not a threat, that I’m a part of their world for a moment, and finally continuing their eternal dance, shifting from dark brown to white as they feel at ease, hovering in the cool particles of the salty water.
I remembered how to connect with nature the way that is most precious and real to me. A humble silence where I am equal to the creature I encounter, where we’re each a momentary transformation of ancient energy, part of the same matter and music. A life and a life.
By the time the training program ended I was so enamoured of life under the sea and of the great friends I had made at Scuba Junkies that I could not help but stay and work for a while, and with my enthusiasm it was easy to persuade Juan to do the same and also enroll in the Dive Master program! These have been some of the happiest months of my life, guiding people under water who share the same love for the ocean as I do, being able to help new divers acchieve better diving skills and sharing exciting adventures with people from all over the world, but one of my most exciting moments was when I was chosen to guide Sipadan. This was completely unexpected for me since Scuba Junkies is very selective about their guides, but I was ecstatic to find out I had made the cut!
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Borneo, a volcanic mount that breaks the surface of the sea, rising from depths of up to two thousand meters! One of its dive sites, Barracuda Point, constantly features among the top dive sites in the world, and in the last article by CNNGO, it appears as number one! In Sipadan you find ancient coral gardens, dozens and dozens of Green Turtles, Hawksbill turtles, huge Dog Tooth Tuna, a school of over one hundred Bumphead Parrot Fish as big as myself, hundreds of Chevron Barracuda tornadoeing all around you, thousands of Big Eyed Trevally in a cloud you can swim through and lose orientation from the intensity of their number, Giant Trevally hunting in silver bolts of power, enormous Grey Reef sharks and graceful White Tip Reef sharks swimming up to cleaning stations where a myriad of colorful reef fish nibble off impurities and light up the impressive topography in bright blues, yellows, oranges... all glistening under the light of thirty meter and plus visibility.
My first day guiding there I realized how much I had changed as a diver. The ocean expanded before me! Once down there I was not only enjoying the breathing and the sight of the fish, but I appreciated the immensity of the island. I was aware of my depth, of the time, of my nitrogen build up, of the diver I was guiding, his skill and comfort in this new environment, of the dark abyss and monstrous wall I was floating along... I cracked up at the sight of my diver fully concentrated in taking a picture of a turtle while a white tip shark about his size hovered curious only half a meter above him. I automatically took mental notes of the topography for orientation, pointed out interesting creatures (although there's really no need to since they're swimming all around you), and all the while I was completely relaxed and having a marvellous dive!
One of the most attractive features of Sipadan is not only the vast amount, sizes and variety of marine life forms you see, but also the probability of spotting unusual creatures who inhabit the area at different depths and sometimes visit the island. Among these are Pilot Whales, Marlins, different kinds of dolphins and -my favorite, my dream, the ONE animal I had on my life's wish list to see- the HAMMERHEAD SHARK! There are nine species of hammerheads in the world, and two can be seen in Sipadan occasionally: the Scalloped and the Great hammerhead. 
Opposite to Mabul, as you guide Sipadan you pay less attention to the detail of the beautiful coral gardens and more so keep an eye out for the bigger things that swim by in the blue, which can be anything from huge turtles to different kinds of rays to bigger sharks. Actually one of the typical dives during a day tour to the island is what we call a "blue dive", where we guide our divers ten minutes off the wall to a point where there is no point of reference: just blue above, blue all around and blue until the deepest depths. I imagine it to be the closest thing to being suspended in space, with even fluorescent scales of plancton to resemble the stars. This is where I saw it: My first hammerhead!
Kevin was ahead of me that day with the first group, and we had been swimming into the blue for several minutes without having seen anything but jellyfish to that point. Afraid my open water divers might become uneasy after so much time with no visual reference, I was looking at my compass deciding to head back to the wall when all of a sudden I heard Kevin's tank banger going crazy! We rarely use our tank bangers at all, so I knew he had seen something special and with no hesitation I turned to my divers and effusively urged them to race behind my furious finning! It took us no time at all to reach the other group, and as I frantically searched in the dark blue waters for the object of their excitement, I saw with a swollen, abruptly slowed heart the mystical shape of my shark: the graceful movement of his long tail moving slowly from side to side, the smooth grey-brown back reflecting ever so little light at thirty meters' depth, and the iconic flattened hammer-like head with an eye on each extreme, watching us cautiously as it swam, knowing what only sharks know in their world. 
My whole being swells with love and longing when I think of the time spent in my home undersea, and I hope with all my heart you can plunge into this world of water and life, in Mabul or wherever you are and learn to see it for all the wonder that it is.

A life changing Experience. Scuba Diving in Borneo 6 years ago. 


Never in a million years would I have guessed I would own a dive shop. It all started back in 2011 when during our honeymoon Cindy and I accumulated over 300 hours underwater in one of the most spectacular places on Earth. 

Here is an extract of what I had written back then. I have to say that our love for the ocean has only intensified after all these years. 

After several days of diving I started to feel comfortable enough to forget about the technicalities and just purely enjoy the marvellous underwater world around me, gliding effortlessly through small schools of striped catfish and spotting one of the many frog fish species in the area which sits completely still on top of coral relying on its perfect camouflage and unlikely form to disappear without even moving. If you stare long enough, your brain can decipher the hidden riddle and the creature appears in front of your eyes. Not unlike the revelation one experiences when the 3D image finally pops out of the hologram, the frog fish's shape appears and the coral or the seaweed you had been staring at is no longer inanimate, giving way to a perfectly camouflaged creature. A world where beautiful seahorses attached to corals by their tails stare at you with their fixed expressions, blue spotted rays dash out to a new hiding place under gardens of corals, five different species of Lion Fish roam the area and occasionally all puffed up and very sure of themselves pass by you with not a drop of hesitation. Cuttlefish, squid and octopi are frequently encountered and their mysterious eyes engage your attention while waves of changing colors run down their bodies as their chromatophores expand and contract to crazy effects. Yellow trumpet fish stay still before capturing their small prey and red false clowns hide in the myriad of protective arms of the anemones; threatening jaws of morray eels peep out from crevices every now and then, and turtles and their ever-following bat fish swim passively by, ignoring your presence. On one dive a huge grouper bigger than myself came to check me out in a very awkward and nerve-trenching role reversal, following me troughout the dive and even rubbing up against my stomach twice! Sharks lay on the bottom of the ocean floor, were the many starfish move ever so slowly. A school of several hundred Big Eye Trevally engulfed me, leaving nothing for me to see but an endless display of interchanging metallic scales, black round eyes and mouths. Observing the irregular shape of a juvenile Rock Mover Wreasse makes you wonder how it's possible that the juvenile forms of many species resemble in no way, neither in color nor in form, that of their parents, making such dramatic changes (almost comparable to a butterfly's metamorphosis) that there is no way you could suspect them of belonging to the same specie. Hundreds of colorful fish and other forms of life remain anonymous as my knowledge of marine species is quite limited.

A trip to a healthy coral reef will put in evidence why it's been described as the most productive ecosystem in the world. This is a world that most of us have seen in the form of amazing documentaries, but to live it first hand is a completely different experience. 
In my case, I'm often more sensitive and prone to meditation (not the "ohmmm" type but just personal questioning and reflecting) after having an intense connection experience with nature, so sitting on a chair at the beach after a dive I recapitulated. I had always eaten fish, in fact I love the taste of it, I had no problem going into a restaurant and ordering a big fresh piece of mahi mahi, snapper, tuna... yet there was no way that I would be able to kill one of the amazing animals I just described before just for the mere fact of satisfying my meal choice of the day. I was thinking that, if I were given the option every time I sat down in a restaurant, I would rather have the beautiful creature live than to have it killed for a meal. This was not always the case. As a kid I loved fishing: getting ready early in the morning, the nerve-recking minutes before making it over the large Costa Rican shore waves with the boat before heading into the sea, and of course the adrenaline rush you get when you suddenly feel your rod pull and the noise of the reel going on as you are losing line; the intense fight and the uncertainty of your opponents identity, and the gratifying feeling of getting home with a good catch and a great dinner. I used to love to fish, but then I had decided that I liked to see the fish more underwater, in their natural behaviour than to catch them. I had no objection on humans consuming fish and even though I could no longer bring myself to killing one, I did enjoy the taste of it often. That right there might sound like a contradiction, but not necessarily. I have never been a vegetarian, and the use of animal protein in our diet seems to me to be logical; it certainly is in the natural world. Although the act of killing is something that goes completely against my nature, I have absolutely no issue with someone slaughtering a pig in the correct manner and hopefully a pig that has lived a dignifed life, to be killed and consumed, yet I cannot kill it myself. This goes even further: there are circumstances where killing is actually the only logical solution and the humane thing to do (when an animal is suffering intensely and has no hope of survival, for example). And even on the few occasions when I've encountered such a circumstance I've not been able to kill, even if all my reasoning and brain tells me it's the right thing to do. I cannot bring myself to do it. So I had figured that was that, and left it there, I would not kill fish but would enjoy their meat anyway.

After many years of not fishing (but enjoying sea food meals very often) I had a very interesting conversation with a very interesting man -to say the least-. He was arguing that we should not serve meat in our restaurant at the lodge I managed. He was all against fishing even for sport (tag and release) and was talking of the psychological damage some of these fish might suffer. I listened to the conversation and made some impassionate points about it; Hitesh was after all a vegan, eating absolutely nothing that contained animal products (he did not even eat honey because it means stealing all of the bees' hard work). As much as I respect people's decisions (and especially this kind where the intent is to respect and honor animals and life in general) it was not a belief I shared. But at the end of our conversation he said something that lingered in my head for a long time: "FISHING IS JUST HUNTING UNDER WATER".

"Fish is food, not wildlife". This is the concept most people have of fish! If I had fallen for it, I, who am known by all friends and family to be crazy about wildlife and conservation, then what about most people that do not feel nearly so passionate about the subject? As the manager of an ecolodge that I was proud to work for I constantly had all sorts of conversations tyring to get people to understand the importance of wildlife and pristine ecosystems. Never in a million years would I dare hook and iguana, a macaw or a baby monkey by the mouth, drag it until it's bleeding and squirming like crazy before I threw it in a bucket of water until it drowned. I wouldn't do it and certainly I would beat the crap out of anyone if I saw him doing anything like this. Yet when done to a fish, as beautiful or rare as it might be, our reaction is not nearly as dramatic and is very familiar. No one minds. It's what you're supposed to do with fish: it's called fishing.

The ocean seems to suffer from a misconception, one that is realistically threatening its balance. Humans think of the ocean as an endless provider of goods. We take and take and then we take some more. When the fisheries crash and fish become scarce, we develop better technology and move even farther, or deeper until we catch some more. Ignoring the hundreds of scientifically proven realities, we have managed to deplete important fisheries, and place many of these to the brink of no recovery. Today humans take out about ninety million tons of wild harvest every year! Even with the disastrous decline of fisheries the quotas get larger and larger.

Apex predator is a term used for predators that sit on the very top of the food chain, and whose adults lack any predators themselves. Adult jaguars, grizzly bears, crocodiles, blue fin tuna and big sharks are all considered as such. Their roll has direct effects on the health of the entire ecosystem in ways most people can't begin to understand. That without them dangerous changes occur, jeopardizing the health of the ecosystem and potentially collapsing it is a fact, no doubt about it. And because they sit at the very top, eating away, their own populations are naturally small, otherwise they would eat everything. So nature's own way to control them is a series of characteristics that naturally limit their numbers in a healthy ecosystem, for example: they reach sexual maturity late and the number of offspring are low (or in case of the tuna the survival rate of the young is low). That works out fine in a pristine environment, as it has for millions of years, but these same characteristics make it very hard for them to survive once their numbers a very low due to brutal exploitation by humans, making a comeback for the species a very, VERY difficult occurrence even under the best management.

There are hundreds of alarming, scientifically documented, cases of specific species dropping to red numbers. Blue fin tuna has been fished to the brink of extinction. There are some that consider that even if we stopped their fishing altogether there is just not enough genetic material in the pool to keep the population viable. Forty years of overfishing have plummeted their numbers by a devastating 97% of its abundance in the 60's. That means that in the last 40 to 50 years we have managed to hunt them out so effectively that now only a pathetic 3% of their original number continues to survive, yet we continue to sistematically fish for them despite the overwhelming evidence that they're about to become extinct. Blue fin tuna has been the case for much propaganda and yet the demand for it has grown: the rarer it gets the better it's priced. This year the record was broken again for the most expensive fish in the world: the 269 kilogram fish (the biggest from 274 individual tunas shipped from around the world) was sold in Tokyo's Tsukiji market's first auction of the year for the outrageous price of $736,600 USD! Yes, that's no mistake, it's $1,241 per pound, with single slices in a sashimi or sushi restaurant going for $24 USD. Please, by all means google it if you're having a hard time believing this (as I surely did). With a price of three quarters of a million dollars on their head, it would seem they don't stand a chance, and unless drastic mesures are put in place rather soon, we might be seeing the last of this magnificent animal. 

That's one example but there are housands... Sharks in general have had a devastating toll. Cindy and I witnessed a presentation at our diving lodge that left us just about crying. With the theme "400 million years to perfect, 30 to almost destroy" the presentation exposed sharks' current situation: Between 70 and 100 million sharks are fished every year, mostly for their sought-after fins in Asia. The fins are tastless and with close to no nutritional value. In fact they serve just to add texture to a very bland chicken or beef stew. So is it possible that we're exterminating these magnificent, irreplaceable animals for a simple bowl of soup? Sadly this soup is regarded as a status statement and with many Asian economies growing, the demand has also increased in many of the coutries. It may seem to be a remote problem confined to Asia, but even if the demand is by the vast mayority Asian, an alarming chunk of the supply comes from the USA, Mexico, Spain, and Central America being the top suppliers of shark fins! This uncontrolled slaughter has left abot 1/3 of the shark species on the brink of extinction. 90% of the population of large sharks have been wiped out in the last three decades. Again, remember apex predators whose roll in mantaining the health of the ecosystem, are invaluable.

These are two shocking examples, but sadly most are in close resemblance: salmon, bass and cod represent the bulk of the consumption and all of them have suffered critical blows.

With wild fish we have chosen time after time to ignore the fundamental limits the law of nature placed on the ecosystems, and have constantly removed more fish than can be replaced by the natural process. These are multibillion dollar businesses, and somehow it seems to be the reason for generation by generation to find reason amid the irrational destruction of the greatest natural system on Earth.

The fact is most people don't like to think much about these problems. Kids starving in Africa, devastating wars, animals going extinct... it's an overload of information that seems so distant and so fatalistic that we feel helpless and hopeless, so it's only natural that most people place those thoughts in the back of our minds to be able to cope with our more immediate realities and continue with our contempt lives... but as the famous quote goes: "Those who have the privilege to know have the responsibility to act." And those of us who have the opportunity to get a better understanding of our world's most critical matters should by no means stand in self-chosen ignorance. 

We cannot simply decide to forget, eat what we want and hope for the best. We eat more and more every year without really bothering to learn what any of those fish look like, how they behave or how many remain... Having a fine dining experience on account of a blue fin tuna is no longer acceptable, in fact it's downright deplorable. Giving in to a cultural exchange by trying a shark fin soup is no longer justifiable. With seven billion humans inhabiting our planet the need for every individual to do their part is ever important. Even if only by good consumer choices as a driver of change you would be doing something grand. As small as it may seem, the more people show that those values count for their purchase decision, the more corporations and governments will act accordingly. Oh, and don't be shy or lazy to explain to the waiter or the owner of the restaurant or the shop why you refuse to eat there on account of the endangered species on their menu. Take a stance. Educate. It's your duty.

FISH ARE WILDLIFE. If we hunt them and eat them, we must hunt them with care and eat them with fullness of our appreciation. We must come to understand that eating the last wild food is above all a privilege.

If we are comitted to make things better these are four ways to get started and by being interested and supporting any effort arround these areas you would be making a difference. 

1. A profound reduction in fishing effort: The United Nations estimate that the fishing fleet is twice s large as the oceans can support. 

2. The convertion of significant portions of ocean ecosystems to no-catch areas: key fish breeding grounds and nursery habitat must be reserved as safe havens if over exploited populations are to rebuild to harvestable numbers.

3. The global protection of unmanageable species: Species that stradle too many nations or that occur in unknowned international waters have been shown to be unmanageable over the long term. In the face of hard science, politicians of multiparty treaties "negotiate" catch allocations that go against scientific reality (just as the case of the blue fin tuna).

4. The protection of the bottom of the food chain: Small forage fish that make the staple for biger fish are being massively caught to produce fish meal for feeding pigs and chickens and aquaculture, yet we do not know enough of the population dynamics of these small species that form the base for the pyramid.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It's not." (Dr. Seuss)

You can start by showing your support to South East Asia's first shark sanctuary by signing the petition at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/support-a-semporna-shark-sanctuary-and-the-future-of-our-oceans/ 

I Read a lot prior to writing this, a great book was "Four Fish The future of the Last Wild Food", by Paul Greenberg, a book I recommend to all of you and from which I took the liberty to state some of its content, like the four actions I listed at the end.