Guest article by PADI Regional Manager Chris Hailey
Back in 2010 I was backpacking south east asia being a travelling bum. I used to live on pot noodles, street food and sleep in the cheapest accomodation money could buy just so I could conserve money to pay for my addiction… SCUBA diving!!!!
After 4 weeks of backpacking around Thailand bouncing from island to island I did my PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water Course. I had 15 dives under my belt and felt like a true underwater adventurer. But something was missing from these adventures… I wanted to go somewhere that no one had ever been (or at least very few people) I wanted to do world class diving.
A quick internet search revealed the top 100 dive sites as voted by divers… number 1 was the Yongala Wreck in Australia. Ill put a pin in that and do it later… and I did. Number 2 was a wall dive in Palau which when I looked at my map and flights was too far but number 3 was just a quick flight and 12 hour bus ride away. Sipidan, Borneo.
With my diving booked I jumped on a flight to Kota Kinabalu, grabbed the next bus over to Semporna and within a few days of hearing about this amazing diving I was out on an oil rig that had been converted into a divers livaboard experience. After a few days of luck with minimal customers on board I was diving Sipadan everyday having an amazing time with sharks and turtles everywhere.
One of the guides was seeing how much I enjoyed diving with turtles and told me about a cave system on a dive site called the drop off. He describes its passage ways lead to an opening and a chamber the size of a warehouse called the “Turtle Tomb” he told me it was a place that turtles go to die and there were 10 or more turtle skeletons in pristine condition. I asked him it we would be able to dive it and he laughed saying it took a high level of experience to cave dive that far into the system but from that moment… I had a goal. One day ill come back and dive the tomb.
Fast forward 5 years…
I’m sitting on the boat with a plan on my wrist slate, sidemount cylinders full of 32%, 2 torches, an expedition reel and a few jump reels hanging off my harness. We jump into the water at the drop off and get our cylinders handed down to us, we quickly bubble check, descent check and start heading towards the cave. We get to the entrance where we are greeted by a sign telling us to turn back unless we are experienced cave divers. At this point we conduct a final gear check, s drill and valve check before doing a primary tie off.
We start into the cave, tie off after tie off. I check the map I have on my slate to the dolphin skeleton. We are around 150m inside the cave when we come to the dolphin and a turtle skeleton. I hand Joel the line and take some photos. I couldn’t believe I was finally getting to do this dive. We stayed around the skeletons for a while just looking and absorbing what we were seeing. What happened and why did these animals come inside the cave. Were they disorientated? Were they looking for a way out at night? Were they also cave explorers but didn’t have the training that we did?
We turn around and check out gas, at this stage we were only 20m deep, still have lots of NDL time left and our gas supply was still at about 175 bar in each of our sidemount cylinders. I signalled to Joel we would push on and find the tomb to which I saw his eyes lighting up with excitement. Time to get squeezing through some gaps and putting this gear through its paces.
We traversed back along the line reeling it in and untying as we went until we found a small gap in the left hand wall of the cave. Another tie off and we head in, the small gap lasted for about 25-30m before you squeeze through a final time and into the tomb itself.
It was magnificent!!! The small opening had spat us out in an enormous circular room, we completed a final tie off which was at the extent of the expedition reel and tied off a jump reel. The tomb had incredible visibility and was so big we cruised around the edge taking in turtle after turtle, skeleton after skeleton. This truly was a room of death.
The max depth was around 15m and minimum about 5m at the roof of the tomb, we had ample gas and ample NDL. For the next 65 mins we cruised around the tomb taking photos and absorbing this eerie atmosphere. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, in my previous 3000 dives I had seen whale sharks, turtles, sharks, octopus and a plethora of marine life but nothing like this.
We were around 80 mins into our dive when we started to exit the tomb, the exit felt as though it took 5 mins, our focus on the cave system and taking the line back in. After 10 mins we were nearing the exit and started head back up to the surface. We deployed a DSMB and headed to our stop depth where we were promptly greeted by living turtles swimming around us, then an enormous school of big eye trevally swarmed us. At 101 mins we were breaching the surface with a new look at diving. Me an Joel sat on the island while everyone else was on dive 2 we were off gassing ready for another exploration dive inside the tomb.
To this day, I have done around 15 dives into turtle tomb to shoot videos, photos and just soak in the atmosphere, it is by far The Eeriest Tunnel I have ever dived.