Early on in my scuba days Until recently, I was most afraid of a shark taking a chunk out of my arm while splashing around haphazardly underwater. Little did I know, it’s the small guys you need to watch out for.
Borneo is most visited by divers as its east coast entities in the Celebes Sea are said to be home to some of the best diving in the world. I will say that the marine life around Mataking Island was some of the most incredible we’ve experienced. I’ll also say that Sipadan itself is wildly overrated—a case of a destination suffering from its own popularity. Only 140 permits are allotted a day for divers who want to explore the uninhabited isle. That may not seem like a lot, but the island is so small and all the boats tend to visit the same sites at the same time, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to look down and see more divers than you did fish. Both SVV and I found it a huge disappointment.
But that’s neither here nor there.
While we were on our third and final dive on the first of two days we dived Sipadan, I was floating casually atop a coral bed for my safety stop. For those of you not educated in the world of diving, every time you surface for a dive, you stop at 15 feet for three minutes to avoid lung expansion injuries. Many times as you do this, you continue to swim around at the shallow depth to maximize your dive time and try to continue to spot creatures among the coral.
I was doing just that when out of nowhere, something grabbed me by the ankle. I thought it was SVV trying to get my attention to show me another octopus or something equally as cool. I flipped over and saw a pesky little fish coming right at me and swimming at my fins. That’s odd, I thought. And so I kicked myself away from him and thought nothing more of it.
It wasn’t until I finally surfaced that my leg started to throb something awful. SVV came out of the water behind me and exclaimed, “DUDE! Did you see that triggerfish trying to punk you? That was some crazy stuff!” I finally put two and two together: It wasn’t SVV who had grabbed me, but said triggerfish. My leg continued to sting beneath the wetsuit.
The divemasters we dived with that day spoke little English. When we got back on the boat, I tried to explain to them my plight. They looked at me and blinked stupidly. Apparently, a visual would better convey my point. So I pulled off my wetsuit to reveal this:
That little jerk had punctured through both a 5mm wetsuit, double layered over a dive booty. All I have to say is it’s a darn good thing I chose that day of all days to wear a long suit; the other dives, I’d been going in either a shortie or nothing at all. Lesson learned: Neoprene saves limbs. The wound was an odd one: It was bloody under the skin but had a rubbery layer on top. In the coming weeks, it got extremely infected and took nearly two months to heal.
The funny thing about the triggerfish is that it looks like a perfectly nice animal, awash in a rainbow of colors. (See below for a very cloudy shot of two such fish.) Looks can be deceiving. His beak is made to cut through bone, and I later learned that triggerfish are mighty territorial and if you happen to drift into their conical sphere, you might not make it back out unscathed. This also happened to my friend Terry while she was diving in Papua New Guinea. Same fish, same attack, same injured limb. I repeat: Those little jerks.
I guess I was just lucky he—or rather, she, as we deduced it was a mama guarding her turf—let me off easily. She could have very well not taken mercy on me and snapped my Achilles tendon into pieces instead.
Sharks no longer make me flinch, but you better believe every time I see a triggerfish, I swim out of its zone as quickly as my fins will carry me. At least I have a permanent reminder of my honeymoon, in the form of a quarter-sized scar. At least there’s that.