We were in fins and snorkel masks, navigating the thicket of wooden posts that lift the Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort above the limpid waters of the Sulu Sea off Sabah, Malaysia. Around us were enough tropical fish to make not a school, but a university and all its departments: a score of yellow-and-black-striped tigerfish, stock-still under the stairs; a massive grouper, presiding over an artificial reef; banner fish, angelfish, starfish, parrotfish, needlefish, you name it, lounging amid corals and darting between rocks.
Then came an underwater yelp, loud enough to make waves, from 16-year-old Jack.
“Something bit me!” he said after surfacing, pointing to an inchlong welt on his leg that was in the shape of a mouth.
And so something had: a dull brown triggerfish, maybe 18 inches long, which apparently mistook him for the vanguard of a home invasion.
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“They can get aggressive around mating time,” our scuba instructor, Alex, said later.
Imagine that: a tropical resort where the fish bite, and the mosquitoes don’t.
Actually, there are no mosquitoes at Kapalai to speak of — and no palm trees, except in pots; no beach, unless you count a slender sandbar that peeks above the waves at low tide; no rental cars, no shopping street, no bars. There is only a web of spacious chalets linked by boardwalks and an ocean stretching to the edge of the sky .
That, and those amazing fish.
Kapalai is an artificial island, a diver’s nirvana atop wooden stilts sunk into a shallow reef, 40 minutes by speedboat from Malaysia’s easternmost coast. Water is not just the compelling attraction; it’s the only one. If you are so inclined (and you will be), world-class snorkeling is as easy as duckwalking in your flippers out a chalet door and down the stairs, straight into the sea.
But snorkeling is just the appetizer in an underwater banquet. Kapalai is also the closest habitable spot to Sipadan Island, a tree-shrouded speck that is among the top scuba-diving destinations on Earth. Twenty more minutes by boat transports you to a wonderland teeming with barracuda, sea turtles, sharks, pumpkin-size clams and enough psychedelic fish — 3,000 species, by experts’ reckoning — to dazzle the most jaded ichthyologist.
The World Wildlife Federation has called it one of the most diverse spots on the planet. In 1989, Jacques Cousteau labeled it “an untouched piece of art.”
Kapalai’s 59 chalets are roomy cathedrals with infinite ocean views from the decks, a cooling wind and nothing but the sound of lapping water and the sway of creaking timbers to lull you to sleep. No restaurant scene here: The food, a fish-heavy mix of Malaysian cuisine and Western favorites like spaghetti for the younger set, is cooked on-site and served at a sprawling buffet. Nor are there televisions, in-room telephones or room service, although Wi-Fi can be had in the combination dining room and lobby. Diversions are limited to a tiny gift shop, a rudimentary bar, a Ping-Pong table and a stack of books on local sea life.
To our surprise, Kapalai was not just for hard-core divers. There were Chinese families with children in water wings, Aussie couples seeking a romantic interlude and other scuba novices like ourselves. And after a few days of lessons, it became clear that scuba diving imposes its own soothing rhythm.
So we fell into what became an enchanting regimen: dive, lunch; dive, relax; snorkel, dinner. Then a spirited bout of the board game Settlers of Catan on the veranda, followed by a stroll to the sunbathers’ deck to watch poisonous lionfish and curious sea turtles gather below, lured by spotlights. And then to bed.
Scuba diving proved an almost ideal mix of exercise, adventure and variety for all the family, including teenagers. We left Sipadan — diving’s holy grail — until the end, for good reason: While the island has some dive sites suitable for beginners, unpredictable currents can race through others. Novices can be pulled away from their guides or even yanked downward to potentially dangerous levels by rivers they can feel but cannot see.
Kapalai requires beginners to obtain PADI open-water certification (would-be divers must be at least 15 years old), and as is the rule in the Sipadan area, everyone must notch a series of successful dives before making a visit. Although we learned to dive during our trip, it’s best to arrive certified and ready to explore places like Sipadan where dives are more demanding.
Finally, one dawn found us on a speedboat headed for Sipadan.
Geography and geology make this tiny egg-shaped island, just 220 by 550 yards, a diver’s paradise. Sipadan is the tip of an extinct underwater volcano just off the continental shelf that rises from the ocean bottom some 2,000 feet below. A reef traces a ring around the island. Nearby, a trench provides a haven for deep-sea fish that follow cool currents upward in search of food. The combination makes an unparalleled scuba experience: on one side, a near-vertical wall teems with morays, clams, turtles and endless varieties of fish. On the other, reef sharks, jack, eagle rays, manta rays and even whale sharks cruise in crystalline waters. Near the surface, the vast fringing reef is home to fabulous corals and brilliant fish.
Sipadan’s stellar reputation almost proved its undoing. By the 1990s, five resorts pocked the island, and clumsy divers and sewage runoff threatened to wreak havoc on the corals and marine life. But in 2000, the island won an improbable reprieve: A band of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, Islamic separatists from the southern Philippines, raided the camps and kidnapped 21 people, including 10 tourists. The group was freed months later after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi paid a $25 million ransom. But nervous divers gave Sipadan a wide berth and a respite from damage for some time afterward.
Four years later, Malaysian authorities, awakened to the tourism value of an untouched Sipadan, ordered the resort operators and their camps off the island. Today fishing is banned within one kilometer of the shore, and diving is limited to 120 visitors a day — a vast improvement in protection, although too meager for environmentalists who fear the island can’t sustain even that procession of tourists.