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Divers' Log

THE TURTLE TOMB / GRAVE (Sipadan Island)

by Dr. Jasmeet Singh

This is probably the most talked about dive site of Sipadan Island. There have been reports that divers had gone in, not heeding the advice that it's dangerous, and not returned. I had also been advised by a friend and a more experienced diver not to venture into the cave/tomb. This is a small account of what my feelings were when the few of us went into that little hole in the wall.

I am a relatively new diver. I got my Advanced Open Water certification (PADI) in May this year when I visited RAA Redang with a few friends who are seasoned divers.

The turtle tomb (or as some call it the Turtle Grave) is located just to the right of the drop-off from Borneo Diver's Resort. About 18m below, there is an opening in the wall which leads into The Cavern. This cavern is 75m deep horizontally from the entrance. The cavern is like 3/4 of a circle. At the entrance there are numerous signboards warning divers not to venture in. DANGER!!

The dive instructor from the resort, who acted as guide, warned us that we must have perfect buoyancy to avoid injuries and to avoid stirring up floor sediment which would reduce visibility in the cavern. Also as we reach the end of the cavern, he explained there will be a time when everything looks blurry and not to try to readjust our masks, this is because of fresh water mixing with salt water.

Our party of 11 was broken into two groups of 5 and 6. So on we went to the cavern.

About 3/4 of the way into the cavern, there is a sinkhole going down to about 21m where the first turtle skeleton is located. Also here on a ledge is the remains of a dolphin. There are numerous squirrel fish swimming about and on many occasions you will see 'millions and millions' of tiny baby fish, maybe about 2 mm long. Banded shrimps and the regular red shrimps are also present. At the end of the cavern, on a ledge is the location of the second skeleton. As we turn back in a circle, the last skeleton is seen. On the way out, on another ledge, is the skeleton of a marlin. I have never seen such a fish but it looks like a swordfish...long snout. Then we come out. As we exit the cavern we are told to turn off our torches and that's when you can appreciate the first rays of light from the mouth of the cavern. What a sight!

We explored The Tomb on another dive, the last dive of our trip (so that if we didn't make it out, at least we would have had the pleasure of diving in all of Sipadan first!).

This time only 5 of us were allowed to go. The cavern is connected to the tomb by a 7m long passage and the entrance to the tomb is at the left wall of the cavern and is only about 3 x 4m wide. Mind you, at this point there is that blurry sensation again. We have to enter single file, led by the local dive instructor. This passage makes an acute 70 degree turn about 3m in. The feeling at this point of time is actually more of uncertainty, bordering on being scared that if anything goes wrong (like a burst 'O' ring) there would be no return!

At the end of the passage we see our first turtle skeleton. It now opens up into the tomb, a fairly large circular space with a sandy bottom. The first thing you see as you enter the tomb is a window of light, opening into the wall of Sipadan Island. Turtles usually sleep/rest on ledges at night and many think that this is just another ledge. They enter deeper and deeper ultimately ending up disoriented in the tomb and dying there, as they are unable to find the way out. The window is fairly small, only about 2 x 4m wide.

At this point, it is pure amazement. Everywhere you point your torchlight you see skeletons. There must be more than 30 skeletons there. One can only feel pity as you imagine how these turtles have died. There is also a recent skeleton of a turtle, complete with eggs and some fungus growing on the shell. Most, in fact nearly all of these skeletons are resting on their back. Probably that's how they sank when they died. It is indeed a sight to see, a rather sad sight actually. The skeletons in the tomb are intact, anatomically I mean. Not many divers enter the tomb, so poor buoyancy divers and souvenir hunters have not disturbed the remains.

We navigate around the tomb keeping the wall on our left, passing that small opening in the wall, which cheats the turtles. You get used to the surroundings after a while and forget that this is a cave dive. You feel like you are just doing another night dive. As we pass 1/3 way, the light from the opening disappears only to reappear when we approach 3/4 way. It's actually quite a spectacular sight. The light from the opening is not enough to illuminate the tomb. After completing the circle, we come to the passage again.

There is no possibility for any diver who has not spent many hours or has been there many times to ever find that passage again! (I think that's how the casualties there had occurred). My friend joked with me on e-mail, asking if I saw any Japanese regulators down there.

On the way back into the cavern and eventually out of it, I was very much overwhelmed by the feeling of relief and accomplishment. It was great to think at the time that we have been to a place where not many are given a chance to go. Then you think back again about the instructor who followed us (how many times he must have been through it to be able to know it like the back of his hand) it's just another day's work for him.

For me (and the rest of the gang, I'm sure) it was just such an amazing thing to have done and to come out without a scratch. We were so overjoyed that we started clowning around in the water on our way back to the drop-off; until the instructor thought we all had narcosis. It's all captured on Liu's video cam.

Definitely one to remember for the rest of our diving career. Until we visit the tomb again...something which I plan to do again in the middle of 2002.

The Tomb Raiders:

  1. Liu
  2. Nathan G.
  3. Ann Siau
  4. Lynn Ng.
  5. Dr. Jasmeet Singh

Dr Jasmeet is a 'final year master' student in the Department of Orthopaedics, University Hospital, Selangor. Diving has now become his evergrowing passion. His only regret is that he has taken too long to realise the beauty of the underwater world and that he will need another lifetime to unlock its secrets. He feels he should have started diving a long time ago.


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Last updated: 21st November, 2003.