The Snorkel of a Lifetime

I tried to keep this blogpost light and airy and short, none of which I feel like I achieved, but this blogpost is also one that I have worked on for quite some time and now finally I feel like I reached a point where I’m comfortable with sharing it with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed experiencing and writing it. – J

I learned how to snorkel when I was 26. I had no idea how to do something as simple as snorkeling because I never had to do it. But I knew that A and I were going to go snorkeling in the icey cold water of Iceland so I had to learn it, preferably before we got there. Naturally, I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I googled how to snorkel, and let me tell you, google is a great source for learning how to do the most simplest things.

Two weeks later after my daily training in my bathtub and after 5 minutes helplessly floating around in a dry-suit in a stream of glacier water in Reykjavik I managed to snorkel for about an hour, before I couldn’t feel my fingertips anymore and escaped the almost freezing water. Turns out, 1. snorkeling isn’t that hard and 2. that wouldn’t be the only time I would be snorkeling.

Snorkeling in Reykjavik
Snorkeling in Reykjavik

And yes, that is me snorkeling in the continental divide between North America and Europe. It was amazing, not only snorkeling in ice water but being able to have great visibility and being able to float around. It was simply breathtaking (on a few occasions, literally). At this point, I thought I had peaked in my snorkeling career and would never touch another snorkel again in my life, and I was okay with it.

Fast forward a few months later, I was, where I never thought I’d be. In Borneo, Malaysia, enjoying fall-break with an exchange friend of mine which for the sake of this story we will call Crazy. I think she’d enjoy that thoroughly.

Just to give you an idea, where on the globe we were: We flew from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu, which is in Sabah (the orange part of this map). Later on I would travel by myself from Kota Kinabalu on the left hand side of the orange map to the right hand sight, over Mt. Kinabalu to Sandakan, and if you look closely you can see the Turtle Islands in the Sulu Sea, where my life changed forever.

Sabah, Malaysia
Sabah, Malaysia

On the day before I left for a life changing adventure, Crazy and I decided to do a bit of island hopping around Kota Kinabula (short: KK).

I picked up Crazy from her hotel and we bought a few snacks before walking towards the piers. There we were greeted by a huge hall and about 50 different men yelling at us ecstatically, assuring us we would get the best deal if we would book with them. We talked to an older man, whose rates seemed to be below average . Being street savy, we asked for numerous discounts, which he happily agreed to, but I am sure, he still made a profitable deal. And in addition he made us feel as if we got a good deal, so a win/win situation.

Then we were escorted to a scary looking boat, that seemed as if had survived more than a hundred years in the rough sea. The captain ripped through currents as if his life depended on it, making us very dependable on him, both Crazy and I were fearing for our lives.

The Borneo-face
The Borneo-face

By the way, this look of surprise and terror would not leave my face, until we safely returned to Hong Kong. After about 35 minutes we arrived on Sapi island which is a breathtaking paradise, it really is, if it wouldn’t have been for the tourist industry. On pictures it looks like this:

Sapi Island

In reality, the island was host to many tourists, which ultimately compromised the island’s natural habitat to many different species. This picture is more accurate:

Crowded Sapi Island

Crazy and I gave into the tourism and put our towels on a reasonably nice sunny spot on the island, a few feet away from the shore and far enough from the overfilling trash cans. We watched innumerable Asians shrieking excitedly upon entering the sea. Many of them were wearing long sleeved shirts and pants and water-shoes and life vests and hats and all the things, that Crazy and I were lacking, as we gorged in the unbearable heat in our bikini clad bodies. My SPF50 and bugspray wore off quickly but I reapplied continuously because I am a Western person afraid of Malaria and anything else that could compromise my health, at least that’s what I kept telling myself. All the while Asians were “admiring” us as they scrambled to sit in the shade and giggled over our “lack of fabric”.

Both, Crazy and I, watched the Asians yell excitedly about fish they encountered in the water. At one point we grabbed our snorkel and goggles and decided to see for ourselves, what all the splash was about. We entered the brackish water, which in the pictures looked pristine with great visibility,  but in reality the shallow waters were murky and visibility ranged about two feet (although this might also be because of a tropical storm that preceded our stay).

As we first entered the lukewarm water, it seemed like an instant relief from the scoring heat that was sucking out the life of our white pasty bodies. I welcomed the relieving cold of the sea. Instantly, before we even put the goggles on, we were surrounded by schools of fish. They appeared out of nowhere and they came uncomfortably close. So close actually, that one of them bit my leg and drew blood.

Not quite a shark bite


The fish did not leave our side, we weren’t observing their natural habitat, they were observing us. This did not seem natural, but more like they knew that whenever a large body would enter the water, they would get fed and if we don’t have bate, we are bate, I guess.

Crazy and I instantly retrieved from the sea and did not enter again. If a small school of fish was able to draw blood with one single bite, I didn’t want to find out, what bigger school of fish would do to us. But this also explained the long pants and sleeves and shoes and hats and what not that the Asians  were wearing.


Eventually we headed to our second destination, Mamutik Island, which ultimately is less touristy and more enjoyable, but either way, not being able to deal with the heat and the relentless sun and the fish feeding on us (again they surrounded us instantly as we entered the water) I took about 400 selfies while Crazy was working on her tan.

Selfie-me on Mamutik Island

As the sun went down that day, we returned to KK, getting some aloe vera and sun lotion for Crazy and I was getting ready for a snorkel of a lifetime. I say this, because when I first arrived on Turtle Island, less than 24 hours after the picture above was taken, I was sleep deprived, hungry and didn’t even have the slightest clue of what to expect. I spare you the gruel details of the long and treacherous journey from KK to Sandakan and from Sandakan to Turtle Island, but I will let you know, that this was beyond anything not what I would call enjoyable.

The sun has only gotten hotter since the day we first touched down in KK. And I was frantically reapplying SPF50 because I know how a sunburn can incapacitate you for days and I was not about to risk my general comfort for my own stupidity, so as we reached turtle island, I looked for some shade and sat down by myself.

Now, I want to remind you, that I was traveling by myself and most people I traveled with, were enjoying this trip with their significant others, all the while I was preoccupied with not burning up. I was still remembering what it felt like being fish-bate and was hesitant to enter the pristine waters. Also, on the boat ride to Turtle Island, someone had mentioned the sightings of a big black tip shark and I certainly didn’t want to end this trip short because I became shark bate although, that would have certainly made one hell of a story. All these thoughts were in my head, as I stared out the Sulu Sea. Not wanting to intrude on anyone’s vacation, I eventually overcame my fish-bate fear and got my snorkel out.

I entered the glass clear water, put my goggles on and took one deep breath. The cool water hit my over heated face and acted as a welcome relief. My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the salt water and once they did, I instantly had forgotten about all my fish-bate fears and was taken to a life of its’ own, one I didn’t want to leave. I was carefully floating above the marine life, making sure, I wasn’t interrupting what I instantly fell in love with.

If you have read any of my earlier blog posts, you will know that I love aquariums, I always have. Aquariums allow us a window in the life beneath the surface, a life we would otherwise not be able to encounter. It’s exciting and thrilling and I never thought, that I would be able to let go of the love of aquariums. I fell in love with my great husband A in an aquarium, and having to let go of my love for aquariums kind of meatn letting go of an important part of my life.

But as I got a clear view of what life beneath the surface looked like, I realized that any aquarium I would see from now on, would not compare to this. I was awestruck and did not want to leave the sea. I spent hours snorkeling as far as I could, discovering more and more things and not being able to leave the world behind.

The sounds of the oceans are unlike anything you have ever heard. It is silence paired with distinct sucking sounds that melon big rainbowfish make. I discovered fish, perfectly camouflaged, watching me, watching them. I witnessed sea cucumbers slowly moving with the current, clownfish hiding in corals that look like they’re dancing in the crystal clear water. All the while I was observing the spectacles from a healthy distance.

Being able to experience life under the sea from an amateur snorkel-perspective ultimately led me to the decision to stay away from aquariums, no matter how much I loved them, and no matter how much they meant to me. Ultimately they cannot compare to the glimpse I got in what can only be described as a life altering experience.

This  experience was only the beginning of a journey that I will treasure forever. Unfortunately I cannot provide you with pictures of the sealife, but I can provide you with one picture, that pretty much wraps up my snorkel experience as a whole: Me with awesome Turtle Island Hair.

Turte Island Hair
Turte Island Hair

If you’re interested in more about the fun adventures in Borneo, here you will find detailed adventures about Turtle Island (this time also including stories about Turtles…).

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