Layang-layang: The underwater jewel of Sabah

Have you ever flown in an aircraft so small it can only take six passengers, and land on a man-made island that consists of one short airstrip and one dive resort? I have, and I'm happy to report it was not as scary as it sounds. The trip to the remote atoll of Layang-layang was my first - little did I know it was the one of many first experiences I encountered on the trip.

The 10 of us began the long journey to Layang-layang from Singapore, taking a 12-seater van to reach Senai airport in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. We boarded an Air Asia flight, which took us to Kota Kinabalu where we had to spend the night before flying to Layang-layang the next morning.

Kota Kinabalu was an interesting little town, as we found out the night we arrived. While having dinner at a nearby food stall, a bunch of Caucasian tourists walked past in their pyjamas, obviously heading to (or coming back from) a costume party. Later, when we proceeded to a nearby bar for a drink, we saw more Caucasians pottering about. I found it rather odd that this tiny town would have more Caucasians per capita than the bustling city of Singapore. Were they all tourists? I don't know. But then at the end of the trip, we found this small coffee shop called "Australia Place" that served Vegemite on toast! So perhaps the town really has a large Aussie population for some reason? I guess we'll never know.

The next morning, we set off to the airport to board Sabah Air's "plane". The look on our faces when we saw the teeny weeny plane was one of those MasterCard "Priceless" moments. One passenger in particular, turned a whiter shade of pale when he saw what was on the tarmac. "It's smaller than my car!!" he blurted out. Needless to say the journey on "Tincan Air" was not exactly pleasant to him, but the rest of the passengers started snoozing as soon as the plane took off.

The aircraft was probably the smallest I've ever seen. It can take a maximum of seven passengers, one pilot and one co-pilot. Our luggage was unceremoniously dumped at the back of the plane, with nothing separating the passenger area and cargo area. Imagine a major turbulence that causes our heavy dive bags to fly across the cabin and land on our heads - nice (not). A life jacket was nestled in the seat pocket in front of me, along with a bamboo fan with "Sabah Air" written on it with black permanent marker. At that point I gave up hoping there were going to be inflight entertainment and trolley dollies offering hot snacks. For a while I wondered if they would turn the airconditioning on, but as the plane started to ascend, I realized that airconditoning was not necessary. It grew colder by the minute, because the cabin was not pressurized. Ingenious cost-cutting strategy.

About an hour later, the plane started its descent. Our destination appeared on the horizon - a tiny green dot in the arse of nowhere. The landing was surprisingly better than I expected. Several resort staff were already waiting for us when we disembarked, and we walked the short distance to the resort. The sea around the island was rather choppy, but we were unfazed. It would be fine underwater (and it was).

The resort staff was helpful, friendly, and efficient. They even remembered each of our names, I was very impressed (check out the manta-shaped towels they surprised us with). After a quick resort briefing, we went to the dive centre for our dive facility briefing. Our group's divemaster, John, greeted us and quickly informed us there's a typhoon passing through and that the sea will be rough for a few days. Bugger. However, he assured us that we will still be able to dive, although for safety reasons we had to steer clear of the reefs in the unprotected side of the island.

After the briefing, we geared up for our checkout dive under the jetty. The visibility was not that great, so we promptly lost Martin just minutes into the dive, found him again, lost him again, but it was shallow so we didn't worry. It was quite a fun dive, we saw a big bumphead parrotfish right under the jetty, lots of boxer shrimps and pipefish, a few lionfish, and a very strange jellyfish-like thing that was lying on the sand with its tentacles facing up, slowly pulsating. Upside-down jellyfish?

The next 10 dives were all boat dives, except for one miserably cold and scary night dive under the jetty. Let me tell you one thing, over the next few days, we only managed to dive a few sites over and over again, so if you wonder why I'm only describing 5 sites, it is because I didn't get to see all the sites. Next trip perhaps? Anyway, We dived The Point, Wreck Point, Dogtooth Lair, Navigator Lane, and then back to the same sites. For more details on what we saw on each dive, look in my online logbook.

The highlights of the dives are as follows:

Awesome soft and hard corals and great visibility

Even though the surface was choppy and it rained and rained, the visibility was still so good. The corals were also very impressive, an almost pristine cover of soft and hard corals on gently sloping walls and in some areas, drop offs. I daresay 90% of the corals were healthy - we'd covered a large area of unbroken coral cover before finding small patches of bleached corals, most probably from illegal potassium fishing (although not recent, judging from the coral growth around it).

Pygmy seahorse

This was a curious specimen. We couldn't quite figure out which one it was, Hippocampus denise or Hippocampus pontohi. It was most bizarre that the seahorse was yellow and the seafan was bright red - was it lost?.

Humongous giant clams

We saw several of these ginormous clams. I asked my buddy Alice to pose next to one as a size comparison. It's good to know that nobody eats the clams in Layang-layang, so it's not in danger of extinction (do you know that Tridacna gigas clams are extinct in the Philippines?).

Manta ray (Manta birostris)

We only saw one, but it made our day and it was the best bonus on our last dive of the trip. For some, it was a first (Eric, Huiling, Martin).

Robust ghost pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus)

They're not exactly very pretty (cmon, how does one get excited about a fish that looks like decaying seagrass?) but they are rare and difficult to spot.

Overall, the diving was fantastic. Despite the sucky weather that prevented us from exploring all the sites, what we saw underwater was amazing enough to make up for the topside condition. Martin gushed about the many many species of angelfish/butterflyfish that he has yet to identify (a true dive geek in the making), and I personally had many "zen" moments down there, just hanging midwater, looking at the magnificent vista of colourful corals and the blue, blue water.

It was a fantastic trip, with great company and amazing adventures. I just wish I didn't have to get back to work :(