Rich in natural resources and one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world, Brunei Darussalam reveals yet another treasure, which is perhaps more valuable than all its petroleum put together: Its untouched coral reefs and marine biodiversity.
Words & Photography: Lawrence Alex Wu
I knew that His Majesty, the Sultan of Brunei is one of the richest monarchs in the world but I was stunned when I started to photograph another treasure his country owns that doesn’t relate to petroleum; one that very few knew even existed.
As an underwater photojournalist who has gone diving in almost every Southeast Asian country, the reefs I visited in Brunei in 2012 revealed a secret that has been shared with only a select few. The waters off the coast of this country include shallow reefs that stretch for miles, several sunken World War II ships and, over two dozen other wrecks. I could safely surmise that Brunei’s waters harbour more wrecks than any other Southeast Asian country that I had been to. Even more surprisingly, diving and exploring the watery world along the coast of Brunei has begun to take off only recently. I consider myself very privileged to be part of the Poni Dive Team that was recently invited by the local authorities to explore the waters of Brunei to document and marvel at the magical underwater world.
That Sinking Feeling
Half a dozen World War II ships lie in Bruneian waters as shallow as 11 metres from the surface, shallow enough even for snorkelers. Two of them, the American and Australian wrecks sank during the last two years of the war.
Travelling to the wreck site, I noticed that the ships were very close to the shore while a 30-minute boat ride took me directly above them.
Descending into the depths always fascinates me although I have done it so many times before. Apart from the beauty and mystery of the underwater world, the history of the wrecks too becomes a point of interest. For instance, the 60-metre long American made USS Salute that I visited had received five Battle Star commendations for her war efforts as a minesweeper before finally encountering a Japanese mine that split her hull in two.
In fact, several of the war ships here suffered the same fate with enemy mines. Most of these metal wreckages still wear their war wounds such as the Australian wreck, SS De Klerk, that has a gaping hole four metres wide from the bomb blast on the starboard side. While not all the wrecks are war casualties, they all have one thing in common: They are a rich trove of nursery grounds to hordes of juvenile fish creating an amazing ecosystem with a clear hierarchy of predators and prey.
Being preyed on here is part of the life cycle. This was beautifully, if not brutally, demonstrated by the barracudas that darted in and out of the wreckage lavishly adorned with coral and other organisms. Elsewhere, scorpion and lionfi sh waited patiently amongst the grass and rocks for a chance of a tasty morsel, while an octopus sneakily plied the foredecks in search of its next meal.
Built on Wrecks
Being submerged 30 metres underwater is common practice in scuba diving but hovering next to a 100-metre wreck with a 12-metre mast and booms stretching several metres in all directions was quite exhilarating. The Hong Kong built MV Tung Huang sank in 1980 after it hit the Semarang Banks. While making a run to port, this freighter sank with the cement cargo it was carrying. Thye, my local dive guide, promptly directed me to the 30-year-old cargo that was meant for the construction of a palace on land.
As I followed Thye deeper, branches of coloured black coral appeared, some of which were larger than a grown man. Looking like gigantic underwater ferns in neon strands of greens and yellows, they lit up the walls and chimneys of the wreck. On beams that were too precarious for the black coral, bushy short soft coral in warm reds to purples lined the remaining patches. Like a dense rainforest, every inch of the vessel was fertile ground for the underwater flora to flourish.
Lost and Found
The dive team couldn’t locate one of the reefs during our excursion. With only vague coordinates, the only means of finding the reef was by sonar depth sounding the number of metres from the boat, except on that day, the depth-sounding device was broken! So we opted to be towed by the speedboat while wearing our masks in the water hoping to spot the reef while adrift in the open sea, not knowing how far off we were from our ‘loose coordinates’. Suddenly, through the muffled cries of Thye’s snorkel, I heard “Baru nah!” As his snorkel came off, he exclaimed: “Stop, there’s an underwater drop off here!”
The current was sweeping us away swiftly so, with my camera in hand, I descended quickly, followed by Thye and another fellow diver, Dave. Within seconds, we reached the top of the reef at seven metres. Another two metres down revealed a five-foot ledge roofing over a carved out wall. The walls extended to both sides and the water was almost still. “Where were we?” we wondered collectively.
Baru nah & Brunei
*Baru nah is the old Malay expression for “We have found it”. Local legends say that it was what Awang Alak Betatar (or Alka Betara as recorded in Hindu accounts) uttered when he arrived at Brunei’s river estuary in search of a new capital. The name ‘Brunei’ is said to have been derived from these words. Other accounts say that ‘Brunei’ was derived from the Sanskrit word varuna or barunah, the deity who governs water and the oceans.
Disturbed by the commotion, the fish there peered at us from inside the walls, wondering what strange creatures had come to visit their cave. Before I could identify the marine life there, I noticed Thye and Dave were off exploring already. As I followed three young batfish into a shallow cave, a 2-foot Sweet Lips directed her attention at me. And then, a sudden shaft of light penetrated the back of the cave and revealed a magical kingdom of fishes, swirling like a dream.
Like a royal aquarium, Queen emperors and blue-ringed angels, banner fish, snappers, giant squirrelfish and clusters of diamond shaped orange bulls eye fish were all secretly resting together in the crevices that extended up both sides of the cave. The walls were decorated with vibrant sponges, coral whips and short stalks of soft coral. With the bright colours and patterns swimming and shimmering, I felt as though I had stumbled upon a cave of sunken treasures, sparkling gems and lavish ornaments.
As I inched towards the light in the cave, the initial cautious stares from the fishes turned indifferent, as the marine life swam around sensing that I hadn’t come to harm them and that they were far, far away from any fisherman’s net. From the dimness of the cave, I slowly moved under a beam of light that reached heavenwards and to the shimmering water surface above me. As I slowly swam through layers of stone, sponge and coral, I emerged through a gaping hole to see Thye signalling to me with his two hands, enquiring: “Where have you been?” I swam over to Thye, grabbed his arm and replied, “Let me show you.”
In an era where many reef ecologies suffer destruction due to pollution and over-fishing, the coral reefs here seemed almost intact and as nature intended them to be. During my three weeks of diving and photographing these virgin reefs of Brunei, two new wrecks and one new reef were discovered. With over two dozen dives on the wrecks and countless reef dives, I am often dumbstruck at the amazing pictures I have amassed of the pristine corals, the colourful and healthy reefs, and the mysterious final resting places of the wrecks. As I close my picture album of my deep sea travels, I shut my eyes and drift away to other rich and thriving sites that Brunei would offer me in my future excursions to this truly bountiful country.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies daily to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam from Kuala Lumpur. For additional destinations, lowest airfares and flight information, go to www.airasia.com.
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