On a Hammerhead hunt – Layang Layang

by Arhnue Tan, Social Media Nudibranch

Diving Layang Layang Island, Sabah, Malaysia 

Date: 15 May to 20th May 2016

Water Temp: Balmy, 29-30 degrees Celsius

Visibility: >30 meters

Stayed at: Avillion Layang Layang

Layang Layang is one of Great Ocean Divers most frequented destinations. The little island, 300km off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, offers pretty spectacular diving at a comfortable resort for a fairly reasonable price. Besides, it is one of the only places in South East Asia with reliable scalloped hammerhead shark sightings. There is also some element of danger and intrigue surrounding Layang Layang as this little atoll is part of the highly contested Spratly Islands.

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Getting there is pretty straight forward. We flew to Kota Kinabalu and from there took a Mas Wings chartered flight to Layang Layang at 5.45am the following day. By 10.45am after a hearty breakfast and a good nap, we were ready for our check out dive.

Day 1 Dive Sites  – Coral Cafe and Shark Cave

Our first day diving was pretty uneventful but gave us a taste of Layang Layang’s endless walls and endless hues of blue too. The water temperature was almost too warm at 30 degrees Celsius with thermoclines coming and going. The walls were healthy and we spotted a whitetip shark, napoleon wrasse, a couple of turtles and lots of blue stripe fusiliers. The unicorn fish at our second dive at Shark Cave were alarmingly large and within Shark Cave were also lots of black lipped snapper. This dive site had a slight drift and we wafted over to The Valley during the dive and bumped into some lovely bigeye barracuda before ending the day’s diving.

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Resting green turtle
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Grunts off the wall

Day 2 Dive Sites – The Point (twice) and Wrasse Point

We woke up on the second day  with a feeling of excitement as our dives out in the endless blue, in search for a school of hammerheads, began today. At 8am, we bee lined for The Point which is the tip of the atoll and a hammerhead hotspot. I personally have not dived much in the blue so this first experience was a bit disorientating. I kept a close eye on my dive computer as it went from 15m, to 25m, and suddenly breached 30m where it started pinging because of an alarm I set.

Thankfully, within about 5 minutes of “blue” time, a shadow appeared before us and there it was, our first hammerhead sighting! Yay! It was just one shark but for some of us who have not seen one ever, it was pretty exciting! The shark appeared for only a few seconds as if to check us out and disappeared back into the blue. Within our excitement, we did not realise that we were also getting stung by minute jellyfish and little bits of plankton that came with the upwelling from the deep. As the pain set in most of us spent the rest of the dive rather uncomfortably. At least a mobula ray came to greet us at the end of the dive.

We did not have any hammerhead sightings during the second dive or third dive but more interestingly, we caught sight of Malaysia’s Scorpene Submarine in action off the island. The Sultan and Sultanah of Perak were visiting and the navy was putting on a show.

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Victor, DM and Instructor giving us a briefing of The Point

Day 3 Dive Sites –  The Valley, The Point, and Crack Reef

Day 3 saw us with the same agenda, sighting a SCHOOL of hammerheads. We set out this time to the Valley. On the way, we were greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins which was a wonderful treat!

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Enjoying the company of a pod of spinner dolphins

The day’s diving started well with a squadron of 8 mobula rays patrolling the reef. Then we went into the blue and searched for 15 minutes only to see a shadow of a hammerhead as we swam back to the reef.  Not too bad I thought, one shark. Ha. After that Layang Layang’s resident school of jacks appeared close to the reef at about 18m and oh! what a lovely sight they were! Swirling in a vortex and the school was split into two portions. Possibly it was mating season.

Our second dive turned out to be hammer-unsuccessful as well and to our dismay we returned to the dive center to find another group, which had dived the SAME site as us, ran into about 40 sharks. -__-. That’s diving for ya. A little jaded, we did a different dive in the afternoon at Crack Reef which turned out quite well. At the beginning of the dive we found a large Gorgonian sea fan which was home to the tiny yellow Denise pygmy seahorse. As the dive progressed, we also saw a beautiful flabellina nudibranch, some large marbled grouper and a giant moray eel.

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Mobula’s on patrol
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Huge school of jackfish

Day 4 dive sites – The Point, D-Wall and Gorgonian Forest.

Feeling a little weary of searching the deep blue, we went ahead anyway back to The Point in the morning. As we descended, we bumped into the school of jacks again and this time up close where we enjoyed their company for a good 10 minutes. Off into the blue it was after that and thankfully, we spotted 2 hammerhead sharks which swam quite near to us but alas, the large school was still no where in sight. Happy anyway with the sightings, we head back to the shallow part of the reef and saw critters like leaf fish and lionfish and stretches of healthy coral reef.

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The school of jacks up close
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Unfortunately, the best picture i got of the hammerhead. Haha.
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Lionfish telling me to back off 
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Tiny leaf scorpion fish

Our second dive was at D-wall where we went down to 40m for 3 minutes to do an unlikely thing, send snail mail! Layang Layang has Malaysia’s deepest post box. I don’t know why it needs to be there, but well, there you go. As we ascended from the depth we saw 3 large marble rays doing a mating dance. What a treat! Two males were hot on the heels of a female and they were oblivious to our presence as they kicked up lots of silt in the chase.

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Sending hammer mail!
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Three rays in a mating chase

For our third dive, we headed to The Point to try our luck but AGAIN saw nothing but blue. We then spent the rest of the dive in the shallow reefs, enjoying rainbow colours the evening sun played on the reefs and hanging with a napoleon wrasse and butterflyfish.

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Panda butterflyfish. What a great name huh?

Day 5 dive sites (the final push) – The Valley

After some debate of where to go for our last dive at Layang Layang, we settled on The Valley. Alas, there is no happy ending to this uber long blog post that I have made you sit through. There was blue, blue, blue and even a nasty current we had to cut through to get back to the reef. Thankfully though, 4 mobula rays appeared in the end as if to wish us well and perhaps entice us to come back to Layang Layang.

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Our dive boat. Nice and spacious 
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Mobula’s greeting us farewell 

And just so you know, the other boat saw the school of hammers a total of THREE times during their trip. Better luck next time!

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Till we meet again Layang Layang!
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