Into the Blue World of the South China Sea

As I have seen my (this) article written 4 years ago in other websites, it’s better to post the article into my own space so here it is. The first visit to Layang-Layang in the South China Sea. (The second visit has already posted in this space.) Enjoy.

“Layang-Layang, known as ‘Swallows Reef’, is an atoll situated in the South China Sea, 300 km north-west of Kota Kinabalu.  The island is man-made and was constructed for the Malaysian Navy and later developed for the only dive resort, Layang-Layang Island Resort.  The island’s location offers absolute isolation; luckily there is an airstrip with regular flights from Kota Kinabalu, which is the only mode of transport for guests visiting Layang-Layang.”

As I sat reading the above brochure from Malaysia’s Sabah Tourism Board, the last sentence was about to be rewritten as our live-aboard boat, MV Dive Master I, approached the resort’s pier.  This was the vessel’s first excursion to the island and I could tell from the amazed stares of guests at the resort that our arrival was a unique and ground-breaking event.

We had already been on board for two nights prior to our arrival, not because it was a long journey but because our voyage took us diving elsewhere as we travelled from Labuan to this artificial island.  We had stopped off at Vernon Bank and, although the coral reefs were somewhat devoid of life due to the intense damage caused by trawlers and dynamite, the discovery of tiny marine animals like strange-looking nudibranchs, fire gobies, and numerous species of juvenile fishes was an experience quite different from that encountered in the Andaman.  The other reason for stopping here was to ready ourselves for the intense wall dives at the oceanic atoll of Layang-Layang, some of which cut steeply down to the sea floor 2,000 m below.

The renowned reefs of Layang-Layang are famous for their shoals of pelagic fish, especially hammerhead sharks.  We were not disappointed.  On 3 of our 5 dives here, we successfully encountered both single and schooling Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks, passing close by as we headed out from the reef into the deep blue world.  To add to the excitement, we also witnessed a school of devil rays swooping nearby; on another occasion, a large school of Jackfish circled above the deep chasm of the ocean floor.  As we swam back to the reef, Blacktip Reef Sharks, enormous tunas, turtles, and many other large creatures welcomed our return.  Before surfacing, we always regrouped at a huge giant clam and nearby pinkish Leaf Scorpionfish who proclaimed ownership of the exuberantly diverse reef.  All our diving took place on the more sheltered eastern side of the atoll, at sites such as The Point, Dogtooth Lair, and Wreck Point.  The tail end of a typhoon, that was moving through the South China Seas towards the Philippines, prevented us from exploring any further.  However, the swell and surge of the sea could not stop us from enjoying a relaxing last dive to see exquisite tiny creatures such as Pygmy Seahorses, numerous colourful nudibranchs and other benthic fauna hiding among the beautiful sea fans and soft corals of this fantastic and dramatic ‘wall’.

After two nights at the resort of Layang-Layang, we re-boarded the MV Dive Master I.  I must admit it was a pleasure to be back to the familiar and delicious taste of Thai food, expertly prepared by the onboard chef.  It was now time for a new adventure as the boat took us to some new dive sites on the outer reefs.  A number of oceanic atolls are located to the north of Layang-Layang in the Spratlys but due to political and military reasons have remained virtually unexplored by tourists.  However, some are now closely controlled by the Malaysian Navy, making them safe for diving so long as permission is granted beforehand.  All our paper work had already been processed with assistance from the Labuan Tourism Action Council so we had nothing to worry about.  Our brief visit to some of atolls, such as Dallas Reef and Permatang Ubi (Ardarsia Reef), indicated the prosperity of the natural environment – Whale Shark, Manta Rays, Devil Rays, and many other species of sharks were all encountered.  Not to be overlooked were the countless other fish and animals on the reefs themselves.  By studying aerial photographs, it was strikingly apparent that some of these atolls and their reefs were 4-5 times bigger than Layang-Layang itself: one short trip was most certainly not long enough to uncover the wealth of marine life to be found.  The underwater world of this delicate marine ecosystem awaits your discovery.

MV Dive Master I began its journey back towards Labuan.  As we traversed the open sea, Brown Boobies and various terns followed our boat – and what a show they put on for us!  As flying fish leaped from the sea and sailed across the surface, the birds would swoop down to catch their supper.  Usually they missed, but it didn’t stop their endeavour.  With the sun setting and bellies slowly filling, these aerial masters of the sea started to drift away.  What a scene!Layang Layang 2

The island of Labuan is located off the coast of Borneo at the mouth of Brunei Bay.  This historic island has long been an important port of call for sailors of the South China Sea.  Since the 14th Century, it has been governed by the Majapahit Empire, the Brunei Sultanate, the British Empire, the Japanese Army, the British again, and finally Malaysia.  The island’s troubled past and treacherous waters have left, amongst others, four famous ship wrecks not far from the island: Blue Water Wreck and Cement Wreck sunk in the 1980’s and American Wreck and Australian Wreck date from World War II.  Numerous marine animals have occupied the wrecks as the years have passed, making them havens for unfamiliar underwater life.  The mysterious appeal of exploring these historic memorials to war and disaster added an extra dimension to the adventure of discovery.

On the day we were to dive at Labuan, visibility was rather poor so we only managed to survey two of the four wrecks.  Mabini Padre, better known as Blue Water Wreck, was an 80-metre-long Philippine trawler lying on her port side at a depth of 35 metres.  At her shallowest, she was about 22 metres from the surface.  I knew that I couldn’t stay very long at that depth but fortunately our boat had some Nitrox tanks that allowed us to stay underwater for longer.  We were not disappointed as the wreck welcomed us to its garden of soft corals, with Batfish and barracudas waiting to escort us on board.  The wreck itself was still in very good condition making it an especially beautiful attraction for wreck-diving enthusiasts.  After spending some time admiring the eerie scene in front of me, I swam down a little deeper.  Just above the propeller, I discovered the scattered white bones of a turtle, which reminded me to do my safety stop and return to the surface!

Cement Wreck seemed to be a much friendlier place with its lively marine animals posing for photographs among the towering 8m masts that stretched towards the sparkling blue waters above.  Once known as the freighter MV Tung Hwuang, Cement Wreck now sat upright in 30 metres of water after hitting the Samarang Bank in 1980.  Its masts, deck and wheelhouse were now home to numerous marine creatures.  An octopus changed colour and hid itself in a hole.  Yellow Hawkfish played hide-and-seek with divers.  A large lionfish stretched its elegant fins and declared a patch of water as his own.  Wreck-lovers penetrated the cargo holds, engine rooms and decks.  I took a picture of the ladder and a treasure box.  The wreck was adorned in array of natural and human history, and admired by divers exploring its 92-metre length.  Our last dive was drawing to a close but I took a couple more minutes to reflect on the fantastic sights and experiences of the last few days – had this been a once-in-a-lifetime trip?  In one respect, yes, but I knew I’d be back again for more.  MV Dive Master I took us back to Labuan port.  We still had some time to explore the town or do a little sight-seeing around the island before our flight the next morning but my choice was simple.  I got off the boat, walked just 5 minutes to a shop, bought a pack of very cheap beer (Labuan is a duty fee island), returned to the boat, and celebrated the culmination of my wonderful adventure in the comfort of the air-conditioned living room.

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