Semporna is a hot, dirty, rat infested town perched on Malaysian Borneo’s far eastern coast, not far from the Indonesian-Malaysian border. The town is home to an extraordinarily pungent fish market – even by fish market standards, a small army of the most shabbily put-together ladyboys in all of Southeast Asia, and a rundown yellow mosque whose bells toll a heartless, languorous tribute to oppressive heat and dust. There is no quaint water front; there are no cozy hotels; the roads are strewn with plastic trash.
Getting to Semporna isn’t exactly wonderful either – an hour and a half ride from Tawau airport through the peaks and troughs of a featureless palm tree ocean. To feed mainland Asia’s new and voracious middle classes (and to make sure that hypertensive, convenience-obsessed westerners maintain an uninterrupted supply of artificially cheap processed food) Malaysia’s political elite, in often blatant self-enrichment projects, have embarked on a kind of ecological scorched earth campaign clearing massive swathes through some of the planet’s most biodiverse rainforests and converting the broken leftovers into mile after mile of palm oil plantation. Transit to and from Semporna in unremarkable, the town itself is un-enthralling by almost any conventional signifier of traveler fancy, and shore-side comforts are scarce at best.
And yet Semporna is rapidly becoming one of the most sought after destinations in Borneo. This can be attributed directly to the fact that the islands and barrier reef systems located short boat rides from the crowded central wharf are nothing short of littoral, intertidal, maritime, underwater fantasy lands. Called an, “untouched piece of art,” by no less than Jacques Yves Cousteau himself, the diving in and around Semporna is legendary – known for sheer walls, thriving coral, and one of the most biodiverse marine habitats in the world. Steep sided volcanic islands, most within sight of mainland, are enveloped by water ranging – on a scale of blues – from cobalt to hues so light and clear they resemble rarefied electric clouds more than saltwater.
World class diving and snorkeling sites are strewn in liberal, almost careless fashion across the Celebes Sea around Semporna. At Tun Sakaran Marine Park, comprised of Sibuan, Mantabuan, Selakan and five other volcanic remnants, and at the incomparable aquatic paradise of Sipadan divers and snorkelers will encounter species that have largely or entirely disappeared from other popular regional destinations. One of the most fascinating attractions at Tun Sakaran is its Giant Clam and Marine Invertebrate Hatchery. Some of these humble bivalves can weigh in at over 400 pounds (once released into the wild) and at over 4 feet in length a person could literally sleep inside an empty shell.
Adding to the Melville-ian atmosphere of littoral Semporna are the Bajau Laut, also called Sea Gypsies, who live in small stilt villages built directly over coral atolls. As their livelihoods come almost exclusively from the sea, most of the Bajau Laut spend their entire lives on or in the water, only coming ashore to sell fish or bury their dead. Like almost every other environment on earth, this liquid empyrean faces severe ecological pressures, primarily from overfishing (and the continued, highly destructive use of dynamite by local fishermen), pollution, and wear and tear from the explosion of tourist interest in the area.
For those who want to make the trip, spend your time offshore, on an island or in the water, and book Sipadan in advance – it is one of the most sought after dive destinations on planet earth. Check out Scuba Junkies, they’ve been in the area from almost the beginning and devote a not insignificant amount of time and resources to marine rehabilitation and conservation efforts. Wear sunscreen. Semporna is a heat-blasted place, with an unforgiving sun. And prepare for several rounds of tiger beer and comparative storytelling, which will almost certainly be needed after a day or two spent in these fauna rich waters.
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