We were in fins and snorkel masks, navigating the thicket of wooden posts that lift the Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort above the limpid waters of the Sulu Sea off Sabah, Malaysia.
Around us were enough tropical fish to make not a school, but a university and all its departments: a score of yellow-and-black-striped tigerfish, stock-still under the stairs; a massive grouper, presiding over an artificial reef; banner fish, angelfish, starfish, parrotfish, needlefish, you name it, lounging amid corals and darting between rocks. Then came an underwater yelp, loud enough to make waves, from 16-year-old Jack.
"Something bit me!" he said after surfacing, pointing to an inchlong welt on his leg that was in the shape of a mouth. And so something had: a dull brown triggerfish, maybe 18 inches long, which apparently mistook him for the vanguard of a home invasion.
"They can get aggressive around mating time," our scuba instructor, Alex, said later.
Imagine that: a tropical resort where the fish bite, and the mosquitoes don't. Actually, there are no mosquitoes at Kapalai to speak of — and no palm trees, except in pots; no beach, unless you count a slender sandbar that peeks above the waves at low tide; no rental cars, no shopping street, no bars. There is only a web of spacious chalets linked by boardwalks and an ocean stretching to the edge of the sky and beyond.
That, and those amazing fish.Kapalai is an artificial island, a diver's nirvana atop wooden stilts sunk into a shallow reef, 40 minutes by speedboat from Malaysia's easternmost coast. Water is not just the compelling attraction; it's the only one. If you are so inclined (and you will be), world-class snorkeling is as easy as duckwalking in your flippers out a chalet door and down the stairs, straight into the sea.
But snorkelling is just the appetiser in an underwater banquet. Kapalai is also the closest habitable spot to Sipadan Island, a tree-shrouded speck that is among the top scuba-diving destinations on Earth. Twenty more minutes by boat transports you to a wonderland teeming with barracuda, sea turtles, sharks, pumpkin-size clams and enough psychedelic fish – 3,000 species, by experts' reckoning – to dazzle the most jaded ichthyologist.
The World Wildlife Federation has called it one of the most diverse spots on the planet. In 1989 Jacques Cousteau labelled it "an untouched piece of art."
Members of our family — husband and wife; twins, Jack and Nikki; and 23-year-old Brett — are obsessive getaway planners, poring for weeks over websites and dog-eared Lonely Planets for locations with enough diversions to suit five different tastes and enough solitude to allow a good rest. We had booked rooms at a small island resort with a gorgeous beach and kayaks.
We found an impressive array of fish and turtles there as well.
(Michael Wines/The New York Times News Service)