Preparations for our trip commenced four weeks prior to departure. Ernst, our trip organizer and dive instructor setup weekly meetings. The purpose was to review National Geographic Fish & Coral ID coursework, introduce team members to each other and to present film footage on the destination. Despite the beauty of the scenery in the film footage, non of us could have been adequately prepared for what we saw and felt!
Ernst declared “you feel you don’t really know the people around you, even though some of you went diving together in Dubai, by the end of the trip, you will all be good friends”. Looking around the room, I found that a challenging thought. I felt I had little in common with the seemingly pleasant strangers. A bouquet of nationalities, french, Emirate, British, Scottish, Cypriot-Jamaican, Palestinian-Irish, Lebanese, American and South African, paralleled by diversity of professions like architects, security engineers, fire dancers, legal secretaries, computer sales professionals and the list goes on. Even the personalities seemed extremely different! The only common denominator was our appreciation for marine life and love for diving.
The trip was long, a six hour plane ride, followed by two other 2 hour rides, then a 2 hour bus ride, and finally a 1 hour boat ride. We really were going to the end of the earth! But we were prepared.. dive gear, dive insurance, marine life education and most importantly enough cameras and film to transform Sipadan to the underwater hollywood!
We arrived at Mabul, a small island of a few thousand inhabitants, some Malay, others from neighboring Philippine islands. We stayed at the Borneo Divers Resort, one of three resorts on the island. Mr. Clement, the Chairman of Borneo Divers had been in the business for over 20 years, is a lover of marine life and an acclaimed conservation activist. Clement works closely with local conservation groups, and communities to ensure the beauty of Mabul and Sipadan is sustained and enjoyed by many. The resort offered the necessary resources to provide for a great dive experience. Well trained and friendly dive masters, boats, dive equipment, and a program ensuring daily passes to dive in Sipadan.
I find diving a peaceful experience that takes me away from the noise pollution in urban life. While I snorkeled in the Caribbean and Red Sea my only diving experience was in Musandam. I thing that is beautiful. But imagine a 600 meter drop, imagine gliding alongside a wall of hanging reef gardens, imagine 50 meter visibility, imagine being surrounded by schools of barracuda, white tip sharks, sea turtles, Napoleon wrasse! Imagine seeing Nudibranch, pigmy sea-horses, frog fish, crocodile fish, squid, spanish dancers all in one dive! Imagine riding a gentle current among thousands of colorful brilliantly shaped peaceful species. For 7 days, we had three to four dives a day in Barracuda point, Lobster Wall, Hanging Gardens, Ray Point, Eel Garden, White Tip Avenue, and Turtle Patch. To say we were overwhelmed with beauty would be an understatement.
Diving in Sipadan and Mabul alone would have made this trip memorable for life. But Ernst gave us more. Two years back, Ernst started Tawasul, a program designed to connect UAE youth to marine ecology, teach them conservation and enable them to support marine communities around the world. With that end in mind, our trip consisted of a voluntourism (volunteer tourism) component; we had raised sufficient funds to deliver desperately needed school supplies to the local village. We meet with local village leaders and teachers and the WWF to understand the local community challenges and requirements. We spent time with children in home schools singing, teaching and capturing the beauty of their smiles in our hearts and minds.
We return to Dubai with plans to return to Sipadan and Mabul. We are planning to support their local communities through eco-education, health education and eco-tourism capacity building. Ernst is training 70+ dubai school children on diving and preparing the next trip to Sipadan. You can help us achieve our goals by visiting the Tawasul site at tawasul.ning.com and joining our community.
“In the end,we will conserve only, what we love we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum -Senegalese Conservationist