Dive into a whole new world

Twenty metres below the surface of the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo, I’m getting blasted by the ripping current.

Desperately, I grasp at the loose coral littering the top of the reef wall trying to find an anchor.

My husband Aaron has a slippery grip on my other hand and my two younger sisters are clutching the tips of my fins. It would be downright comical if I weren’t concentrating so hard on staying put.

The four of us tenuously hang on literally by our fingernails, while our bodies are buffeted by the washing-machine current that whips around Sipadan Island’s most famous dive site, the aptly named Barracuda Point.

The battle is worth it. I’m staring at a huge school of those voracious predators. There are hundreds of them, astonishingly still in the rushing waters, perfectly posed so I can get a good look at their toothy grins. Then in a silvery flash, the school turns on itself and swirls into a massive ball. The barracudas swim off into the blue yonder.

Perfect timing, because I’m losing the fight. The crumbly coral slips out of my hand and we hurtle around the point into much calmer oceans and an entirely new aquatic landscape.

The late Jacques Cousteau propelled this tiny oceanic island into the spotlight in 1984 after he shot a documentary at Sipadan, describing it as “an untouched piece of art.”

Several resorts popped up and divers flocked here from around the world. But this underwater mecca became a victim of its own success.

Four years ago, environmental concerns prompted the Malaysian government to shut down the island to all overnight stays.

The siren song of the sea still draws thousands of divers to the area every year to experience what’s often called the world’s best diving. With a steep drop-off of 600 metres, the wall-diving is spectacular.

Turtles are the stars here. During one dive at Sipadan, there were so many giant green and hawksbill turtles, I stopped counting at 20.

There were also plenty of reef sharks, moray eels, clownfish, plus the weird and wonderful, including bumphead parrotfish, ornate ghost pipefish and pygmy sea horses.

Other divers reported swimming with hammerhead and tiger sharks, or the odd manta ray. That’s the beauty of scuba diving — you could visit the same site a dozen times and the underwater safari would never be the same.

There is a big downside to one of the world’s fastest-growing recreational sports — it can be expensive. But bargains aren’t tough to find.

The most affordable diving is in Southeast Asia, which is conveniently home to the Coral Triangle, a global epicentre of biodiversity.

With top dive sites, you get amazing dive resorts, often at half the price you’d pay in North America.

For example, my temporary home for five nights near Sipadan is a private thatched-roof bungalow on stilts at Kapalai Dive Resort (www. sipadan-kapalai.com).

Overlooking the crystal-clear azure waters, the entire resort sits on a sandbar, so during high tide you are virtually marooned in the middle of the ocean with no land anywhere in sight.

It’s like something from the cover of a glossy travel magazine and it doesn’t cost much more than the price of just three boat dives in the Caymans ($200 per night including meals and unlimited diving).