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An Oil Rig's Second, Scuba-Diving Life
Author: STAN SESSER,, 27-09-2010

These hotel guests don't mind spartan rooms. They're here for the underwater sights

A onetime oil-drilling rig stands in crystal-clear waters dotted with tiny islands and their lush green hills. But most impressive is what's underwater-an amazing array of coral reefs swarming with hundreds of species of multicolored tropical fish, sea turtles and other aquatic life. The rig has been converted to a hotel for snorkelers and especially for scuba divers.

"The abundance of marine life is the best I've ever seen," with schools of big fish and without pollution or rubbish, said Craig Brown, a British electrical engineer and scuba diver vacationing on the rig for the second time in five weeks. Other divers agreed. (Mr. Brown's job, based in Dubai, involves surveying the seabed for potential oil deposits.)

The rig sits in the Celebes Sea, the part of the Pacific Ocean ringed by the island of Borneo, Indonesia and the Philippines. Getting here involves a flight to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia; another flight to Tawau, on the east coast of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah; an hour's drive and an overnight in the tiny port city of Semporna; then an hour's boat ride to the oil rig, now called Seaventures Dive Resort.

Nearby is Sipadan Island, known to scuba divers around the world for its superlative diving. It made headlines a decade ago when Muslim rebels abducted 21 tourists to the Philippines and eventually freed them, presumably after ransom payments. Although there have been no incidents since, Sipadan and surrounding areas are still subject to a U.S. State Department warning, urging visitors to "exercise extreme caution."

Five years ago Malaysia ordered all occupants off of Sipadan island and last year declared it a national park, granting only 120 permits a day for divers and snorkelers, to be divided among resorts like Seaventures. A diving veteran of places like the Red Sea can still be stunned by Sipadan: Coral reefs start at a couple of feet below the surface, just off the coast, and dramatically drop off in steep cliffs to around 180 feet. In a minute, a few oddly shaped and brightly colored individual fish give way to schools of hundreds or even thousands, seemingly unperturbed having a human in their midst. They range from thumbnail size to several feet long, from paper-thin to plump, from striped to polka-dotted or decked out in every hue. Also on view: barracuda and sharks, fortunately of a species that doesn't attack swimmers.

Most Westerners come from England, with plenty of other visitors from Japan, Hong Kong and China. Americans make up fewer than 5% of Seaventures' clientele. "For some reason, Malaysia isn't on the tourist map in the U.S.," says Cahlan Mazur, a 31-year-old math teacher from Washington, D.C., staying on the rig. "I was at [Australia's] Great Barrier Reef for the better part of a week and probably saw more fish here in one day."

"So far as we know, we're the only ones in the world using an oil rig as a hotel and diving platform," said Suzette Harris, the Singaporean owner. Her father-in-law, a regional Malaysian official, bought the rig in Singapore in 1988 (there, she said, "you can buy a used drilling platform just like you can buy a used boat."). He had it towed into Borneo waters.

No one would confuse the result with a luxury hotel. The 25 tiny guest rooms, although spotlessly clean, resemble those on a cruise ship that has seen better days. A visitor's room had a rusty metal locker without hangers to serve as a closet, and the reading lights and shower water heater didn't work. The air smelled from the oil powering the generators. For recreation, an employee band every few nights blasted rock music into the hours when one might have wanted to sleep. Meals were far from haute cuisine, although fresh and bounteous. A three-day, two-night scuba-diving package for $516, per-person double occupancy, includes room, meals, transfers, equipment rental and guarantees of a morning of three dives at Sipadan Island. (Several land-based diving resorts on nearby Mabul Island offer more spacious and comfortable accommodations, though often at higher prices.)

Ms. Harris, the Seaventures owner, said: "No matter what you do, oil rigs have an industrial feel because they're made of metal." She added, "You're not going to come to the rig to enjoy the sunsets. You come to dive."

an White, Seaventures dive team supervisor, said: "We're at the heart of what's called the Coral Triangle," rich with marine diversity. "Nutrients like plankton mass in this region because of the currents."

Given the preoccupation with diving, it came as little surprise that a free boat ride to nearby Mabul Island had only one taker, who was a snorkeler rather than an addicted scuba diver. The trip included a village on Mabul populated by several hundred Bajau fishermen, an ethnic group that originally came from the southern Philippines. Their rickety houses on stilts betrayed a developing-world poverty that was shocking in prosperous Malaysia.

None of Seaventures' drawbacks seemed to matter to the scuba divers, who'd wake at 5 a.m. to make a boat for the first of three dives off Sipadan Island. They shrugged off a heavy rainstorm just before the third dive. Several divers returned to Sipadan in the afternoon and later dived yet again, this time from a lift that takes guests from the deck level of the rig to ocean level, where artificial reefs have been established.

If it's not a band night, anyone seeking other sorts of entertainment on the rig would be out of luck, except for a bar-but no more than three or four people were at the bar at any time. Meanwhile, some divers pored over their laptops into the night, organizing the hundreds of photos they had taken with their underwater cameras.