“Theresa, you have to see this picture!” Society member Flora Teng was laughing so hard as she called. I lifted my gaze from my laptop to check out the monitor of her digital camera, expecting to see yet another breathtaking underwater capture Instead I was looking at her husband, Bill Durbin, caught in midair as he tackled a six foot tall, inflatable PADI totem pole into the pool. The group gathered around was laughing hysterically. A new Society contest was born — the Tackle the Totem Pole.
You know an event is a hit when everyone is playing in the pool like kids after already spending the better part of the day diving. The pool deck at Borneo Divers Resort, our hosts for the PADI Diving Society Ocean Safari: Borneo, was now a regular afternoon hang out. Today, unbelievably, was the last day and our memorable week of diving was coming to a close far too soon. But the group, bonded by a week of amazing experiences, wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet. So, we gathered on the pool deck one more time and played games — ring toss, paddleball, and yes, Tackle the Totem Pole — while we laughed and shared our favorite dive stories of the week.
Two years in the planning, Ocean Safari: Borneo was one of the more adventurous trips the PADI Diving Society has ever offered. Hosted at Borneo Divers Resort on the tiny island of Mabul, the draw to the destination is its exotic location and world-class diving. Easily accessed from the resort’s jetty, the house reef alone is a muck divers paradise and home to more marine life than most suburban cities, including a rather large, resident cuttlefish and several gigantic sea turtles. Three weeks prior to our arrival, it’s rumored a whale shark swam right through the shallows there. The marine life of Pulau Mabul and neighboring island Pulau Si-Amil are equally as dense. Softball-sized frog fish pose atop colorful sponges and delicate leaf fish cling precariously to the reef. Shy blue spotted rays peek out from beneath coral overhangs, in stark contrast to the crocodilefish that lay in plain site, confident of their camouflage abilities. A sharp eye can spot ghost pipefish drifting among feather stars and impossibly tiny pigmy seahorses rocking to and fro on sea fans. These encounters alone are enough to entertain and impress even the most seasoned diver. But, the true star of the region is the marine protected island of Sipadan.
Described by Jacques Cousteau as “an untouched piece of art,” Pulau Sipadan is a mere 40-acre islet that rises nearly 2,000 feet from the ocean floor. Located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, Sipadan is considered one of the richest marine habitats in the world. This is the prize that Society members traveled by air, land and sea to experience. As Society member Patty Morton replied when asked what she was looking forward to experiencing the most during her stay in Borneo, “Sipadan, Sipadan, Sipadan!”
Neither Patty nor any of the guests were disappointed. As a matter of fact, the first thing we heard when we arrived on-property was LJ, Borneo Diver’s always smiling dive operation manager announcing, “We have passes for everyone to go to Sipadan tomorrow!” A marine protected sanctuary, only 120 divers are permitted to dive Sipadan each day, so we were thrilled by this news.
“Whoa! That was awesome!” was the first thing I heard after surfacing from an epic dive at Sipadan’s Mid Reef. Drifting lazily along Mid Reef’s wall, we enjoyed a show of turtles, white tip reef sharks, colorful gorgonians and dancing nudibranchs before ascending to the top of the reef where a group of bumphead parrotfish swam right through our group. Some easily the size of our smaller divers, the school seemed to care little about the diver frenzy they created and appeared almost as curious of us as we were of them. Floating comfortably, I listened to more chatter as divers broke the surface. Society members Jen Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner (a.k.a. The Lost Girls) couldn’t get their regulators out fast enough to talk about the dive.
“I’ve never seen bumphead before … they’re so cute!”
“They look like they need a good dentist.”
“I could almost touch them, they were so close…”
This was the first of three amazing dive days the Society gang would enjoy at Sipadan exploring the island’s famous reefs including South Point, Barracuda Point, Drop Off, West Ridge and Hanging Gardens. Barracuda Point is a thrill ride on a current that most often leads to a school of barracuda at least several hundred strong. Moving as one, the barracuda continuously form an ever-expanding funnel not that unlike a tornado. For the bold diver, the view from the center is magnificent as a wall of silver and light flashes all around. At the top of Drop Off, another show of strength is spotted as huge schools of big eye trevally sweep across the reef forming living walls as they go. I watched as Society member, Sabrina Lo, literally disappeared behind one of these “walls” determined to capture its magnificence on camera. It was spectacular.
When not diving, which wasn’t very often, Society guests enjoyed socializing, playing games and watching traditional dances performed by Borneo Diver’s warm and friendly staff. A few of us even ended up joining the dancers on stage. And during the week, guests participated in Society’s underwater photo scavenger hunt, with the winner of the most captures taking home a GoPro HD Hero video camera. The competition was tight, and Bill Durbin won first prize, just barely nudging his wife, Flora, out of first place. While this could have hampered their domestic bliss, not to mention breaking up a darn good buddy team, all turned out well as Bill wisely told Flora he won the camera for her (or Flora told Bill he won the camera for her). Flora took second place and a DAN Drybag, to boot. Entering his first underwater photo contest, Society member Lyle Erway won third place and a PADI jacket.
Society guests also enjoyed a Saint Patrick’s Day party, a duck (treasure) hunt and other games throughout the week. My favorite was the Great Paddleboard Playoffs. A few special Society diver recognition awards were handed out during the bon voyage party and beach barbecue. Society members Amy Peccia and Andreas “Dre” Didriksen received the Best Buddies award (the two were really cute underwater) and two “I Love My Buddy” coffee mugs. Pele Bagwell was awarded Best Buoyancy and a DAN Surface Signal Kit, and Patricia Morton won the Environmental Diver award and a Project AWARE jacket.
The week passed so quickly that I remember counting back the days as we departed the island, trying to figure out where the time had gone. It was magical week with a truly warm and wonderful group. I already miss the morning chats, the teasing after dives and the abundant easy laughter. The good news is that I know I’ll see them all again as the global PADI Diving Society family continues to grow and explore the best of everything the dive life has to offer. Until the next event.
Sidebar: Society Members Testify
Capt. Theodore “Ted” Gottfried:
”I wanted to dive Sipadan Island and made 12 great dives there! The diving around Mabul was also very good. There were a number of PADI Diving Society regulars on this trip — good divers and very nice people. I would love to see them again on a future trip. I would recommend a PADI Diving Society trip to all my diving friends.”
Patricia “Patty” Morton:
“I took picture after picture and after having more that enough, I just put my camera down and enjoyed the experience of being in the water with barracuda swirling all around … until I was in the middle and they were encircling me. It almost brings tears to my eyes. Magnificent.”
“Beyond the excellent diving and after diving activities I think the thing that sets PADI Diving Society events apart is the obvious dedication of the PADI staff. From the office staff that plans and books the trips to the absolutely wonderful people that host us on site, it is evident that they are committed to making sure everyone is cared for and that every detail is seen to. It is primarily because of this that I will continue to attend Society events.”
Flora Teng & Bill Durbin:
“We tell all our friends and other first timers at a PADI event that they can always expect a fun time. When attending a PADI event, you don’t have to worry about the planning and logistics of the trip. Especially if you are going to a far away place that you are not familiar with. You can just get on the plane, arrive and have a good time. It’s like just add water for FUN. The parties, games and welcome pack make us feel “Special (VIP)” and you would never feel alone or lost when you are put in a group of people that shares the same interest and love for diving.”
Sam & Sabrina Lo:
“The PADI Diving events we’ve participated in have all been well organized at well chosen dive destinations. Every detail is efficiently handled by the PADI Travel Network staff. Itineraries are well planned, events at the resorts are numerous and there are prizes for many participants. Plus, the seminars are informative and educational.”
Saravoot “Pele” Bagwell:
“This was my first Diving Society event, and the experience ensured that it will not be my last. After spending 12 months in Afghanistan, I planned on using my Rest and Recuperation (R&R) break to relax and unwind in a stress-free environment. With the PADI Travel Network planning my arrival and departure in Malaysia, all I needed to do was just show up and have fun. The multiple diving locations on Mabul and Sipadan Island with abundant sea life and thriving coral reefs exceeded my expectations, but it was the people I met that really impressed me the most and made the PADI Diving Society event well worth the trip.”