J: Floating in a Paint Box

This place is why words like “cerulean” and “azure” were invented.

On the long bouncing ride out the mouth of Sandakan’s bay and into the Sulu Sea, the rooster tail of the speed boat showed sharp white against the blue.  Fish farms dotted the route, like something from that “waterworld” movie, lashed together bamboo stilts supporting a circle of netting and a little tent house for the tender.  Small islands began to appear replacing the tottering farms; fishing boats gave way to dive craft, and we slowed to glide into the Lankayan dive shop, perched over the ocean at the end of long wood-plank jetty.

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Walking unsteadily from the boat we could easily see the sandy ocean floor with a few mounds of coral and schools of small fish.  “Dry snorkeling” began before we even got to shore!

The resort is a small collection of chalets, wooden houses built a meter off the ground, each with a large bedroom, bathroom, and porch just a stone-throw from the beach; as I sit now in our room, the background music is surf playing against the shore.  The main building, a structure open on three sides to the sea, is the dining room and internet café.  Then there’s the dive shop, and a special building for the Reef Guardians, the “park rangers” of this ocean preserve, who monitor the reefs and also protect the sea turtles who use these small islands and warm waters as nesting grounds.

To snorkel, we walk out to the dive shop, pick up our gear, and walk down the stairs into the warm ocean.  A few kicks of our flippers and we’re amidst the shoals of fish that weave and flow under over and seemingly through the branching corals.

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We’ve snorkeled in marvelous places before, stunning soft corals in Fiji, myriad fish streaming through sun beams off Bali’s Northwest shore — but no place comes close to the shear abundance of these waters.

The giant clams wave their colorful lips, like a psychedelic version of Fantasia, more colors than can possibly exist.  Deep teals, shining blues, bright purples, and mustard yellows; the small ones just a few inches across, the large well over two feet, mouths open wide with crazy patterns of lines and dots.  The “Christmas Trees,” small anemone-like molusks (?) spread from the rounded masses of coral, suddenly disappearing when large creature come near, shine in complimentary shades of yellows, oranges, and reds.  Just these alone turn the ocean to a jewelbox of turquoise, amethyst, emerald, and ruby.  Then there are the fish.

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One piece of bad news is that our fancy waterproof camera turned out to be no-so-waterproof after all, so with no pictures of this banquet, I’ll try to feed you with words.  We’ve seen fish we’ve never heard of, every shape and color, with endless variations of stripe, swirl, and polka-dot.  The ones we’ve recognized include countless triggerfish, parrotfish, bannerfish, wrasse, goatfish, plus some rare finds — a small lionfish was hunkered down between folds of coral; a leopard eel reached its fierce beak up through a crack between two others, its white body the size of my wrist speckled with black dots; a cuttlefish, perhaps a meter in length, reached its legs in a sharp point toward a cluster of rocks and used its fluttering fins to hold still, hunting for small morsels; a small black octopus nestled itself down under a shelf waiting for nighttime, just it’s eyes showing that it wasn’t a rock itself; the stingray nearly invisible against the sand but for the dusting of bright purple eyes around its edges, with tail fully a meter long and the sharp stinger sheathed.  We even saw a nudibranch.  More creatures than we’ve seen even in a great aquarium.

The other bad news is that Emma, especially, and also Max, are not feeling well.  Their only symptoms are some tummy discomfort and fever, so hoping it will pass soon.  “Under the weather” doesn’t make much sense here linguistically, nor for vacation fun.  But Max was well enough for a snorkel this afternoon, and near sunset Emma joined us for some jumping and diving off the jetty.

Once we learn to scuba, Lankayan is on the “definitely come again” list – in the meantime, we’re reveling in looking down into this marvelous scene, watching these creatures form an endless ballet of color and texture beneath the clear waters.

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