Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Diving in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (1)

At last, I have dived in my own country! angel8

I went on a three-day dive trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TARP), Sabah, last week. The marine park is accessible by a 15-minute speedboat ride from the mainland. I went diving with Downbelow, a dive operator based on one of the islands, Pulau Gaya (Gaya Island).

It just happened that during my visit, it rained every day. So the underwater visibility was not very impressive. According to the dive guides, visibility was the best during the driest months, e.g. January and February. Anyway, this being my first time diving in the tropical seas, I was quite happy to have seen heaps of marine life that I haven't before.

Every morning, the routine was pick-up from the hotel, followed by transfer by speedboat to the island. Then I would spend the morning doing two dives, and would have a tea break after the first dive, and lunch (catered for) after the second dive. After another dive in the afternoon, the dive operator would send me back to the hotel.

This is a photo of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain (4100 m) in South East Asia, taken from the speedboat. Every day, during the speedboat transfer to and from the island, I saw this.

The jetty on the Gaya Island.

On the first day I set foot on the island, the dive operator gave us a brief introduction to the island and the marine park.

A sign erected between the jetty and the dive centre, informing visitors what they mustn't do in the marine park. It says "...it is an offence to: Bring any weapon, explosive, fishing net, trap or poison into this park...Bring pets into the park...Take away sand or coral". And that penalty is a 1000 Ringgit fine plus a three-month imprisonment for first-time offenders.

Our three dive sites on Day 1 were Sulug Island, Edgel's Patch and Coral Garden. The photos below were taken in the first dive site.

The visibility as I mentioned wasn't too great. So, I didn't take many shots like this one, which shows a huge school of fish in the background.

There were corals everywhere I looked. The seascape was very different from what I was used to, where there was seagrass or seaweed or kelp on the seafloor. I don't remember seeing any seagrass patches in this dive site. It was mainly coral reefs with some sandy or silty patches. This photo shows some staghorn corals amid other hard corals.

Stony coral (Family Faviidae?)

There were many soft corals around the dive site too.

Roy, my dive guide, told me these are bubble corals.

He said that bubble corals are home to orangutan crabs (Achaeus japonicus), the fuzzy red thing in this photo. It was about 3 cm long I think. Basically it's a decorator crab covered in red algae for camouflage. There is an excellent picture of the critter on this website: http://www.starfish.ch/c-invertebrates/corals.html. Click here.

There were many sea fans around the dive site. I tried to take photos of sea fans with a diver in the background, the kinds of photos I often see in dive magazines but wasn't every successful.

There are sponges everywhere too. Large barrel-like sponges like this one were quite common too. This one was 2 to 3 -feet tall.

And wow! Feather stars were very, very common! It was impossible not to notice them. They were perching on sponges, on sea fans, on soft corals, and I even saw one that was swimming freely in the open water.

The blue seastar (Linckia laevigata) was the second-most common sea star around the dive site, after the feather stars. I didn't see this sea star very often where I used to dive in Australia. Many of them were quite big, about 20 cm or even more across. Unlike many sea stars, this species can actually regenerate the whole body even when there is only one arm remaining.

In this dive, we saw a few sea cucumbers that were quite big, sitting on the silty, sandy sea floor.

A white stonefish! The arrow points at the eye. This was the only one I saw. So it had to be rare. This one was almost one foot long.

A zebra moray eel

I saw a few nudibranchs. This one was Phyllidiopsis species (?).

Giant clams were not very common. I remember when I went snorkeling in Coral Bay, Ningaloo Reef, they were everywhere I looked.

Note (19 May 2010):
Correction. I was just told by Bubble Ring that Mount Kinabalu is not the highest peak in South East Asia, only one of the highest ten.