Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

Layang Layang. Malaysia

Layang Layang Resort

Simon Christopher decided to establish Scubazoo near Sipadan, Malaysia, as the waters there are home to some of the world’s greatest marine biodiversity. Given Simon’s goals to communicate worthwhile conservation stories with Scubazoo’s images, this seemed the very best place to start. When it was time to expand the organization’s convervation mission and message, Layang Layang was the next stop. “It was a natural progression,” Simon recalled. “Layang Layang is very unspoiled; there’s been very little commercial fishing there, thanks to the proximity of the Malaysian navy. We strive to capture such pristine places on film so peole can understand what a healty marine ecosystem is like, and Layang Layang’s near-perfect reef becomes more unique every day as other locations around the world are adversely affected by man’s destructive fishing practices. I first dived there in 1997, and on the rare occasions I return, it’s wonderful to see that the coral is as pristine as it was then and the marine life is just as abundant, too.”

Layang Layang. Malaysia - photo 1

Layang Layang. Malaysia

Layang Layang (pronounced “lie-young lie-young”) is a smallish coral atoll that lies 200 miles northwest of the tip of Borneo in the South China Sea, off the Malaysian province of Sabah. It’s one of the 600 islands that make up the Spratly chain. Layang Layang (which means “Swallows Reef” in Malay) was originally a series of thirteen interconnected coral reefs; the island, as it’s experienced today, is largely the creation of the Malaysian government, which connected two reefs with extensive deposits of sand. A small naval base (averaging seventy residents) was established here in 1983, and soon after, a large dive resort (maximum capacity: 120 divers). The naval base was built in large part to strengthen Malaysia’s territorial claim to the region; the dive resort, to take advantage of the incredible wall dives Layang Layang presents. Just off the island, the water plunges to depths of nearly 7,000 feet; this makes Layang Layang an ideal place to find large pelagics—most notably, hammerhead sharks.

“The first thing that strikes you about Layang Layang is its remoteness,” Simon continued. “There’s only one flight a day in. You wake up early and head to the airport at Kota Kinabalu, and there are ten other divers there yawning, and you know you’re about to go on an adventure. The atoll is really in the middle of nowhere. There’s a small airstrip, the naval station on the far side of the island, and the resort at the top of the atoll. You have incredible diving at each end of the atoll, and you feel like you’re pushing the boundaries, as if you’re exploring new frontiers. The visibility is staggering; on a good day, it can be nearly 200 feet. On many dives, you’ll drop in on top of the reef, which can extend nearly to the surface in places. As you drop down, you’ll come upon the reef fish you’d expect to find in Malaysia—bumphead parrotfish, barracuda, trevally, as well as grey reef and white-tip sharks. But the big draw at Layang Layang are the serious creatures that come up from the deep.”

Layang Layang. Malaysia - photo 2

Layang Layang. Malaysia

As mentioned above, the star pelagics here are the hammerhead sharks, which gather in large numbers from March through July. “At this time, you’ll often see scalloped hammerheads by the hundreds,” Simon added. “Sometimes they’ll even be above the reef. I can recall looking up at a wall of coral and seeing a shape appear—the leader—and then watching the entire school of sharks make their way across. A religious experience!” It’s not uncommon for hammerheads to gather in large schools, and marine biologists do not understand all the facets of this schooling behavior. However, at Layang Layang, schooling occurs because romance is in the water. The mating ritual unfolds something like this: females (which generally outnumber males by a factor of six) gather in the mid-section of the shoal, with the largest (and hence most sought after) females positioning themselves in the mid-section’s core. Male sharks seek out the most desirable females, and as darkness descends they pair off to procreate. (To help gain purchase, males grab hold of the female with their teeth, leaving a lasting memento of the night’s passion.)

Layang Layang. Malaysia - photo 3

Layang Layang. Malaysia

In terms of big pelagics, hammerheads are only the beginning at Layang Layang. “You can drop in at Shark’s Cave or Dog Tooth Lair, and you never know what might come past,” Simon continued. “You get numerous cetaceans—spinner and bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, and every year, pods of killer whales stop off on their migrations to feed on the hammerheads! You’ll also get schools of devil rays circling the atoll. When you get wave after wave of pelagics coming through, everyone is in a daze.”

Simon recounted an experience at Layang Layang that seems to capture the spirit of Scubazoo, and why the organization was formed. “When I and Jason Isley (cofounder of Scubazoo) first moved on to Layang Layang from Sipadan, we were very passionate about thresher sharks. We’d both seen threshers on our own, and as we were both filming, we were getting a little competitive to see who could get the best footage. On one dive, we went a bit deep to find them. Lo and behold, two thresher sharks came out of the depths. This was one of the high points of Scubazoo and it brought us back to the basics of why we were doing what we’re doing—to create awareness about the oceans and help preserve creatures, like sharks and turtles, for future generations.”

Layang Layang. Malaysia - photo 4

Layang Layang. Malaysia

SIMON CHRISTOPHER is founder and CEO of Scubazoo (www.scubazoo.com), a team of professional underwater cameramen and photographers who have an intense love and appreciation of the marine world. After graduating from Swansea University, UK, with a B.Sc. (Hons) degree in zoology and spending four years in sales in London, he traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. During this time he developed his love of scuba diving. After becoming a PADI divemaster on Sipadan, Sabah, he left for Cairns, Australia, where he started his underwater filming career. In 1996, Simon returned to Sabah to start Scubazoo, with Jason Isley in hot pursuit. While continuously planning the growth and direction of the company, Simon now develops Scubazoo’s broadcast opportunities. By accurately documenting this immensely fascinating and complex web of life—with mankind’s intricate and vital link to it—Scubazoo’s stories will always have a strong conservation message. Simon is a qualified PADI instructor with nitrox and videography specialties and has dived extensively throughout Southeast Asia, as well as the UK and South Africa.

Layang Layang. Malaysia - photo 5

Layang Layang. Malaysia

Getting There: Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) offers flights from Los Angeles to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. From here, a private airline (booked through Layang Layang Island Resort) will spirit you to Layang Layang.

Best Time to Visit: March to August is the best time to visit, though good diving can be had a month on either end.

Accommodations: The Layang Layang Island Resort (+603 2162-2877; www.layanglayang.com) is the only hotel and dive operator option on the island, but they have an excellent reputation. The Thailand-based operator Dive Master (+662 259-3191; www.divemaster.net) offers live-aboard excursions May through October.

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

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