After breakfast Mabul Island was left behind and a course set for Sipadan, with the Young Explorers getting their first taste of hoisting the sails, learning the difference between halyards and sheets, and that Lazy Jacks are ropes, not sleepy kids.
Sipadan is all you want in a paradise island – powdery white sand and coconut trees in a clear turquoise sea. “We have found an untouched piece of art,” said Jacques Cousteau, who ‘discovered’ it in 1989 (according to the guide books) and spent months diving here from his boat, Calypso. (Interestingly, Mike was inspired by Jacques Cousteau and Calypso as a youngster, and he dreamed of doing something similar. Which is proof that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen!) But what sets Sipadan apart from a million other tropical islands is that it’s not attached to the continental shelf; it perches on a towering ‘stalk’ of limestone and coral. Which makes it the most awesome place to dive, because just a few metres from the beach you reach the end of the world. After that the reef plummets in a sheer drop 600 metres – and in places over 900 metres – to the ocean floor.
“It was fantastic,” said Michelle Nay, 19, from Switzerland. “It’s a very strange feeling when you look down and there’s absolutely nothing there but blue ocean. We saw so many fish – sharks, barracuda and turtles come to the island.” Turtle Cave is a famous landmark about 20 metres down, which has been closed for safety reasons after divers (and even turtles) have become disorientated in it. But you can swim a few metres in. “We swam up to the roof of the cave, and all the bubbles collect there,” said Garret Celestin, 15, of the USA. “I put my hand up into the air pocket and it was all dry up there. It’s amazing to have no gravity, to just drift up to the roof and down.”
The man who helped put all this together joined us on board Pangaea yesterday: Malaysia’s deputy minister of tourism, Sulaiman A. Rahman Taib, organised permits for us to dive. Sipadan is very well protected by the Malaysian government: all the resorts on the island were closed in 2004 – guests now stay on other islands nearby – and only 120 dive permits issued a day, all to try and protect its stunning natural environment.
“What you’re doing is so exciting,” the minister told the YEPs, “because you’re seeing what even most Malaysians don’t see. Mike is doing a very good job. It’s rare to find an expedition that gives youths the chance to see the environment, and let’s them see the difference they can make. I’d like to join you for the whole journey!”
A morning and afternoon dive were followed by a trip to the island for a game of volleyball, and then a fairly long cool-off swim back to the boat. Swimming is a relatively new skill for Dongkyun Seo, 20, of South Korea, who learnt on the training camp in Switzerland. “That swim reminded me of the training camp, and how I’d be half dead after swim training each morning. But I did it. I kept thinking ‘almost, almost, almost…’ And I felt really proud when I got back to Pangaea.”