When we arrived at Mataking Island, they didn’t waste a minute. After giving us the island briefing, we were whisked away to the dive center to be outfitted for our equipment. We were then made to do a shore entry dive to prove we knew what we were talking about. It was clear that people come to this little blip in the middle of the Celebes Sea for one reason and one reason only: to go diving in Borneo.
Truth: I was a little nervous about the skills test. Sure, I’ve logged quite a few dives in the past three years, but I hadn’t suited up in over a year since my trip to the Cook Islands. What if I forgot the most basic of commands, like clearing my mask?
Another area of concern was my panic attacks. A year ago, I spent the summer having pretty severe attacks that resulted in a stint in therapy and a round of anti-depressants (which I quickly went off, as they in turn gave me an auto-immune disease…just can’t win). Granted, I’d been fine for almost a solid 12 months, but my attacks were always brought on by extreme claustrophobia (planes, vans with heavily tinted windows, you get the gist). I can’t think of anything more claustrophobic than being 60 feet below sea level or deeper with thousands of gallons of water on top of you.
The good news is all my worrying was in vain (it usually is). From the moment we first submerged, I forgot my anxieties and remembered just what it was I loved about this sport.
Mataking is all about macro life. You won’t find big ticket items—your sharks, your bumpheads—around here. At first, I thought that would bum me out. But I found I much prefer the macro diving. It becomes a game, not unlike Photohunt, where you have to be at your best, keeping your eyes peeled and peering closely between the rocks and corals to spot something really cool.
Since Finding Nemo, clownfish have been among my favorite swimmers. They’re so cute, and they sit there and try to challenge you, but you know deep down they’re terrified and just trying to guard their “nemonemones” (anenomes).
Turns out, I have a knack for this spotting business. I was the only one to see the very elusive cuttlefish. I found the octopus that inked on our divemaster once she swam over and tried to coax it out of the hole. I saw both a crocodile fish and a few stonefish, which are extremely hard to spot as they blend into the underwater terrain.
(That’s not a stonefish, FYI. I didn’t get any photos of the quick little suckas.)
Don’t be fooled, though: Macro life doesn’t mean everything is so small you can barely see it. In fact, other than turtles by the dozens, the spotted ray was probably the creature we saw most often. It seems like there was one hiding under every rock we swam by.
There were also a number of lionfish sleeping beneath rocks. They’re traditionally shy, so you have to know where to look and often swim upside down to see them.
There were all kinds of crazy coral floating around.
And sea slugs and sea cucumbers, which I think are such funny creatures, don’t you?
Not to mention, nudibranchs everywhere we looked, barely an inch long and in a plethora of neon hues.
We did 20 dives that week. I would have done 20 more if they’d let me. We also did our first night dive, which was a bit creepy, given Charlie, the massive barracuda who lives under the dock, but fun nonetheless. Besides, anyone who says they’re not afraid of the dark is straight-up lying!
I’ve now been submerged in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Cook Islands, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, the Maldives, Honduras—and up next: Bonaire—and I must say, Mataking was probably my favorite underwater experience to date.