Part 1 - Layang Layang
A lonesome 350km from Borneo, the little island of Layang Layang stands by itself in waters about 2000m deep. It actually is an atoll - the island itself is man-made via landfills: an effort on the part of the Malaysian government to increase its reach in this part of the world. You can walk around the entire island in about 20 minutes, and all you have there is a resort with the dive centre, a Malaysian Navy base and a bunch of seabirds. This little island enjoys a reputation as one of the world's top places to see hammerheads - which is why late May saw us getting aboard a tiny 28-seater Antonov plane, en route to the island.
We had taken a leisurely time getting here - stopping off in Bangkok to buy some dive gear for Pritha, and then hanging in KL with Adi & Shamolee, our friends who were joining us for this part of the trip. The only excitement en route had been checking into the hotel at Kota Kinabalu, and realizing that my bag with all my underwater camera gear was still lying at the baggage terminal of the airport. Adi & I made a mad dash to the airport and got it back from under the nose of a very suspicious looking security officer, but it was a very intense half hour between discovery and recovery. Other than that, we had a relaxing few days of shopping, eating and lounging by the pool. So we were absolutely raring to go diving.
Landing at Layang Layang was an experience by itself - the plane started to drop while over the water and just as it seemed as though we were going to have to swim for it, land materialized underneath. By the time the plane came to a halt, the island was also over. Yes, Layang Layang is that small. Getting off the plane and seeing water within 50m on 3 sides was definitely a feeling to remember.
The friendly staff ushered us to a lounge where we completed check-in formalities, were told the diving policies, meal hours, etc. and then it was dive time. This is where disaster struck for me. One of the wires connecting the TTL circuit board inside my Aquatica underwater housing had come loose, and my strobes were not firing. I left the camera behind for the first dive, which was a sort of check-out dive, and as it turns out, didn't end up missing much. The surface interval till the next dive was spent doing emergency surgery on the wiring, with a borrowed voltmeter and soldering iron. Ultimately, we ended up removing the circuit board and going with good old manual flash, which worked well for the entire trip.
The diving was very well structured - meet 15 min before departure, get the briefing, head out to the boat where all the gear was loaded, do a dive and return to base. The short 10-15 min boat rides meant that 3 dives a day were fairly relaxing. All dives were drift dives along the walls of the atoll, and followed a pretty common profile - the first 10-20 min were spent swimming in blue water looking for hammerheads, and then the remaining bit was spent on the reef. We were a group of 10 that dived together for most of the time - Ellen, BB, Ester & Chua Ying Kai (2 instructors and 2 DMs from Singapore); a couple from Korea on their honeymoon and the four of us, all led by Amanda The Voluptuous (don't ask), one of the dive professionals of LL. Diving was pretty much "adult diving", the way it should be but rarely is these days - the dive guides acted as dive guides, showing us fish, while responsibility for watching air/depth/time stayed with the divers.
The diving consisted of easy drifts - the boat would drop us off, we'd drfit along and pop up after about 45-50 min and the captain would be there to pick us up. No fuss, very well orchestrated.
Overall, I felt that the diving was very good, although not spectacular (which is also a function of my own expectations). The coral on the walls were abundant, and there were a fair bit of fish - sharks and turtles were sighted quite regularly, but if the hammerheads stayed away - as they did for all but 3 of the members of our group - it occasionally got a bit monotonous, especially at the shallower parts.
I have probably been spoiled for life by the Andamans, and besides, my first love is still wreck diving, so my opinion is definitely biased. I am sure that if I had seen 200 hammerheads swim by, I'd probably be singing a different tune. C'est la vie. And lest my opinions seem too negative, let me clarify that we are already considering going back there next year. Just be aware that this is a destination for spotting large pelagics, not reef fish and set your expectations accordingly.
The highlights of the trip were: a manta that came and did a loop just for Pritha and me, 3 sightings of a group of pygmy devil rays, a 3m whaleshark that swim by below us (while I had my 100mm macro lens on, no less), my first leaf fish (right lens but ripping current, so the photo was less than special) and a pygmy seahorse - also my first. And of course, how can I forget getting attacked by an aggressive Little Tern that kept dive-bombing me while I was taking an afternoon walk on the island.
Photographically, I missed out on most of the big stuff as none came close enough for my Tokina 10-17 fisheye or my Sigma 10-20. I had left my Sigma 17-70 at home in a misguided attempt to save weight, a decision I ended up regretting big time. Adi, who had a housed compact, got far better shots of both the whale shark (which was admittedly easy to pull off, as I got no shots of it) and the devil rays.
As far as the operation goes, two words: top-notch. The boat crews were very friendly & careful with my camera gear; Amanda, our dive guide was kind enough to let me and Pritha do our own thing; service at the resort was also top-notch. There was always something to eat or drink out there, and Happy Hour coincided with the end of dive 3.
All too soon, the time was over. However, our divelust was not yet satisfied (and besides, we still had to see those pesky hammerheads). We had originally set aside 10 days for a leisurely exploration of the topside wildlife and birds of Borneo. but ended up hurriedly replanned the itinerary and added Sipadan to our schedule. This meant some last minute planning and cutting out the slack in our itinerary - in other words, fewer days with monkeys & apes, more days in Sipadan with (hopefuly) hammerheads.
Part 2 - Sepilok and Kinabatangan River
As soon as we landed in Kota Kinabalu, we said our goodbyes to Adi & Shamolee, and headed over to the Air Asia counter and purchased tickets for the flight to Sandakan, making it by the skin of our teeth. A short flight and taxi-ride later, we were checked into the Sepilok Jungle Resort, located right next to the Orang Utan Rehab Centre.
Pulling out my100-400, we headed over to see the big apes being fed. After buying the tickets, we walked down a long raised walkway built amidst the rainforest, which led to a large viewing platform built amidst a clearing. Initially, nothing was visible except what looked liked an Ochraceous Bulbul, but as feeding hour drew near, the OUs emerged from the thick vegetation and headed to the feeding platform, where the handlers were doling out bananas. There was no squabbling or excitement among the apes, who patiently waited for their turn to get the food. A shame that this did not hold true for the viewers - we had come during "noisy child day", it seemed: one child in particular did not stop yelling, screaming, clapping or making other noises for the entire 2 hours were were there. Wistfully looking at one particularly monstrous and noisy child, I asked a nearby volunteer if orang-utans could be fed tender human meat - earning a jab in the ribs from Pritha and a dirty look from one of the parents for my troubles.
The biggest threat to orang utans is habitation loss - as it is, Borneo - or atleast Sabah - is one big palm tree plantation with hardly any native forest cover left over. That means that these graceful apes are probably headed to extinction, which is a tragedy of the highest order. Watching the gentle, lumbering giants ambling around convinced me of one thing - I had to go see them in the wild!
And so we booked a 2 night stay at a jungle lodge in the Kinabatangan River, where we would do 4 river cruises to see Borneo's endemic wildlife the way it ought to be seen: in the wild. The taxi picked us up after lunch the next day - as it turns out, we were joined by a young Dutch couple who were in the last stages of a 4 month trip through SE Asia, and the four of us had the lodge to ourselves for the first night.
The lodge was built on stilts on the banks of the Kinabatangan river, and rustic yet comfortable enough. After putting our bags in the room, Nelson, our guide, escorted us into the waiting boat and we were off to do our first river safari.
The boat safaris were good fun - we would cruise along the banks of the river in small canoe-style boats, scanning the trees on the shore for signs of life. Some were quite easily spotted.. and some were spotted out of nowhere by Nelson, much to our amazement. We did 4 during our time there and it was surprising how much wildlife we saw: among mammals & reptiles, we saw the long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, bearded wild pigs, a pit viper curled up on a branch overhanging the river, gharials, silver langurs, monitor lizards, tree frogs, a big scorpion, lots of leeches (more on them later) and, best of all, 2 sightings of wild orang-utans - one with a baby!
We also saw heaps of birds - as per my list, these included: white bellied sea eagle, lesser fish eagle, Brahminy kite, Wallace's hawk-eagle, Blythe's hawk eagle (?), oriental darter, storm stork, little eagret, green imperial pigeon, bluethroated bee eater, greater coucal, stork-billed kingfisher, blue eared kingfisher, black hornbill, pied hornbill, rhinoceros hornbill, bushy-crested hornbill, helmeted hornbill, great black woodpecker, pied fantail, scarlet headed flowerpecker (?), scarlet-rumped trogon, tailor bird, ochraceous bulbul (?), euarsian tree sparrow, female yellow breasted sunbird and ruby cheeked sunbird.
In fit of misguided enthusiasm, I signed up for a night walk despite not having any shoes. Pulling a pair of dress socks over my cargo pants, wearing a pair of Crocs and using my underwater focus light at a torch, I was probably the least well-equipped adventurer to ever set foot in the jungle. Even Nelson was a bit taken aback at the sight that stomped out to meet him. "Are you sure you want to do this?," he asked repeatedly, shaking his head in wonder (or pity) at me.
Well, I can say this - short of wearing 8" stilettos, I cannot think of a more painful way to do a jungle walk. It started out nicely enough, with the sounds of rainforest covering us within minutes of hitting the trail. Then my feet were on fire - fire ants. The wretched sods decided to feast on my feet, causing me to stomp around and swear like a sailor, much to Nelson's amusement. Declining another offer to return, we soldiered on, the sounds of the night forest occasionally punctuated by my screams. I was initially very happy scanning the trees, looking for orang utans and tarsals - that is, until Nelson showed me a big (5") scorpion on the ground and kindly pulled a couple of leeches off my feet. At that point, I started looking down a lot more.. and almost missed a trogon and a tailor bird sleeping on a branch within an arm's reach of me. A few more leeches and a couple of screams later, we saw a couple of tree frogs. Finally, after all the fire ants in the area had been fed, we returned back to the lodge - me covered in sweat and leeches, but very happy nonetheless. I am glad I did the hike, in hindsight - walking in a rainforest at night was definitely an experience to remember.
We also did a day hike the next day. This consisted of trudging an hour at midday to get to a lake, where we had lunch and then hiking back. This time, Pritha borrowed my socks so I had to wear my diving boots over my pants - which earned me yet more strange looks from Nelson. The lake was nice, but the hikes weren't - there was a profusion of leeches and we were too concerned with removing them to enjoy the hike as much. Perhaps with better gear and in drier season, it would be worth it. Still, it was an experience and that is always worth it. Pritha won the leech contest, getting 12 leeches on her while I only got 5.
Generally, most sightings were a long ways away, and in poor light, so even the 400mm end of my zoom was too short. Most of my keepers on this trip were taking with my 100mm macro and Sigma ring flash. But it was still great to be able see so many species in just a couple of short days. I would definitely like to go back there with the 500 and focus primarily on wildlife.
But for now, we had more diving to do. The Dutch couple were also planning to do a couple of days diving in Sipadan, and off to Semporna we headed.
CONTINUE TO SIPADAN...