Sipadan Island : Turtle Patch

The very name Sipadan tends to conjure up excitement in a divers imagination as the once only spoken tales from the Celebes Sea begin to be shared in cyber-space. Most readers, including the SDA Team until recently, did not know that Sipadan is Malay for “turtle.” Sipadan’s namesake comes as no surprise as this tiny oceanic island is home to more green and hawksbill turtles that call its’ reefs home than any other dive location we’ve ever visited.

Sipadan has many impressive stories of conservation underwater, but the turtle sanctuary is not only underwater. The local military and a team of biologists have made huge efforts to create a small turtle hatchery that raises turtles from eggs to just large enough to set free in the waters of Turtle Beach. These biologists provide a safe land environment for the turtles to hatch and gain strength in an isolated beach location, secure from the opportunistic monitor lizards above ground, curious divers on the island, as well as the oceanic predators who will snap up any opportunity for an easy meal. This inaccessible area, turtle beach, extends straight out towards the reef along the east wall and has aptly provided the name for this next dive site, Turtle Patch.

A favorite place for Sipidan’s resident turtles to lounge about, the underwater topography at turtle patch boasts incredible crevices and large coral heads which are home to the turtles’ food source of algae and sponges. The top reef is prominently covered with staghorn and acropora corals, but patches of fox, cabbage and colt coral also attract the turtles in massive numbers. Looking at this picture of a green sea turtle resting on a bed of colt coral and several pieces of crushed staghorn and acropora coral, it becomes evident that the turtles crush more coral than some of the less coordinated divers who descend into the water with poor buoyancy. There are literally hundreds of places for these turtles to rest along this dive site and even the white tips venture up to this area to lounge about.

Another curious fact is that the turtles are not trying to eat the coral but they use their serrated beaks to clean the algae, sea grass (green turtles) and sponges (hawksbill turtles) off the coral. This is what provides them with their nutrition and it also helps sustain Sipidan’s pristine reef system.

Turtle Patch is not just a playground for the turtles, it is also a wall dive along the Eastern side of the island, shared by larger pelagics that venture into this southern part of the reef. Watch closely into the deep blue and you’re likely to spot large grey reef sharks or eagle rays gracefully cruising the island’s perimeter. One of Lana’s dive log entries from this site exclaims, “Sharks, Sharks, Sharks! Greys and White tips everywhere!” Are you looking for some excitement? Lana surely recommends this dive site. But venture back up to the shallows to see the islands greatest concentration of turtles.

Like other Sipadan wall dives, the safety stop rests perfectly on the top reef. The way that all of the Sipadan dives end is convenient as you nearly always finish a dive with a safety stop perfectly on the top reef. As you take care of your three-minute stop you can relax and watch as thousands of tiny anthias and other reef fish fill a huge Christmas tree coral formation. Before you know it, your three-minute stop turns into ten or fifteen minutes of off-gassing nitrogen and it’s time to hop back on the boat.

Turtle Patch is a great morning deep dive or an afternoon shallow dive. The current is typically mild and it is a good dive to consider if you haven’t graduated past your open water certification. If you are in question about a certain dive or the conditions that exist it’s always best to consult the dive masters and boat captains. They are experts at reading the currents and assessing if something may be too strong for your skill level.

Until next post,

Dan, Esther, Tim and Lana wishing you happy dives!

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