Sipadan Island is one of the top dive destinations on every divers list. For good reason. This little island off the coast off the Sabah mainland was the godfather of diving, Jacques Cousteau’s favorite place in the world. For someone that was able to dive the entire world when there was little pollution, coral pollution, and other divers, it really means something to call this place the best.
Sipadan, about 1.5 hours from the mainland, was actually once an ancient extinct volcanic cone. Coral has grown from the volcanic rock mountain over thousands of years and the ecosystem that has formed is something special. The island is tiny and something out of a Robinson Cruesoe book. It’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing. By nothing, I mean there’s no other land mass close to it. It is however, surrounded by a huge reef that slopes drastically from a few meters to 1000m+.
Sipadan is one of the best dive sites I’ve ever visited
Let me preface this post by saying that Sipadan deserves its fame. It is one of the most beautiful dive sites I’ve ever visited. The sheer density of fish, incredible corals, schooling barracudas, hammerheads etc. just make this an incredibly special place.
How to get to Sipadan
Sipadan is not an easy place to reach. Those coming from Thailand should know it’s not for the budget and broke diver either as the Malaysia government only issues out 120 permits PER DAY to dive this island (will get into this later). Nevertheless, it is totally worth it if you’re an avid diver and have a few extra bucks to spare.
By far the easiest way to get here is by air. The closest airport to Sipadan is Tawau. AirAsia (bless them), Malinda, and Malaysian Airlines fly direct from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau numerous times a day. I booked a roundtrip flight from KL to Tawau for under $100. Anyone that’s been to KL’s airport knows that it is state of the art. However, I found it funny when I had to walk to the furthest reaches of the airport to wait in a tiny, congested room to wait for my flight.
I was the only non-Malaysia on the flight! From the airport, I took a taxi arranged by the dive resort to Semporna, about 1 hour from the airport, and Semporna is nothing more than a port town that acts as a gateway to the islands in the Celebes sea. There were two other divers, an Australian couple, also diving at the same resort as me so we shared the cab for about 30 MYR each (~$7).
It seems that most of the dive resorts have their offices in Semporna. I highly recommend against staying in Semporna however as it is neither scenic, nor is there anything happening. From Semporna, I then took a 45 minute boat ride to my dive resort on Mabul Island.
Since 2003, the government decided to close down Sipadan Island to resorts. I suppose they figured out what they had was something special, and went to extensive measures to protect it. Kudos to them. So this means there is NOWHERE to stay on Sipadan Island overnight. All the dive resorts are now located on islands somewhere between Sipadan and the mainland.
From Mabul Island, you can take a 45 minute boat ride to Sipadan Sound complicated? Yep it is certainly not the easiest place to dive.
To sum it up:
- Kuala Lumpur to Tawau by air
- Taxi ride to Semporna
- Boat ride from Semporna to Mabul
- Boat ride from Mabul to Sipadan.
Although I didn’t take this route, many of the divers at the resort I stayed with did. There are buses from Kota Kintabalu, the main city on Borneo, to Semporna. From Semporna, read above.
How diving in Sipadan works
Sipadan is an exclusive dive spot. It’s not cheap, but I’ve certainly seen more expensive. Because of the Malaysian government’s push to protect Sipadan’s ecosystem, there’s only 120 permits given out to all dive resorts per day. That might sound like a lot but it’s not. During high season in the summer months especially, a reservation well ahead of time is required to reserve these permits or risk not being able to dive Sipadan at all.
Sipadan Permits are Essential
So to be blunt, there’s no chance for you to dive Sipadan all day every day. Because permits are so limited, divers will visit the other sites in the area on the days they are not going to Sipadan. There is plenty of diving to be had in and around Semporna, Mabul, and other islands near Sipadan. At my particular resort, their cheapest package was a 4 days of diving with 1 of those days visiting Sipadan. So that’s three days of diving around Mabul Island, and one day of diving in Sipadan. This seemed to be pretty standard among all the dive shops in the area. I’ve heard some people were able to dive Sipadan twice during low season but I was not so fortunate.
In fact, diving Sipadan is so exclusive that even the divemasters and instructors at the various resorts may not get to dive it. Unless they are specifically guiding Sipadan, they will usually need to reserve and pay for permits just like any customer would. Some of the instructors at Scuba Junkie had been in Mabul for a half year and hadn’t even visitied Sipadan yet!
Is Sipadan Safe to visit?
Recently, there’s been a lot of bad press about Sipadan and the islands surrounding it. In 2000, 21 divers and resort workers were taken hostage by Filipino terrorists and were held captive for a half year before finally being freed. In 2014, the same group linked to Al Qaeda stormed Mabul Island (where I stayed) and killed a cop, and in 2013, a Taiwanese tourist was killed. I didn’t even know about these dangers until after I had left the resort by one of the staff members at Scuba Junkie Mabul. They were specifically instructed by the resort not to talk about these events so to not frighten the guests.
Could have fooled me.
I did notice a huge military presence on the island of Sipadan and also lots of military boats patrolling the Celebes sea. However, after traveling through the Middle East and experiencing one road block after another, I didn’t think much of it.
In no way did I feel like I was in danger during my visit in Nov 2015. Not saying these things can’t happen but I think the Malaysian Government has really cracked down on these things since.
Diving Sipadan with Scuba Junkie
Scuba Junkie would be my go to dive provider for my trip in SE Asia. I went to dive Sipadan, and then immediately proceeded to Komodo National Park to do my divemaster course. They were professional and helpful arranging all my plans beforehand. Once I got to Tawau, they had a guy waiting to pick me up to Semporna. In Semporna, we did some paperwork at their office, and I was off on their boat to their lovely resort on Mabul.
The Local Village in Mabul
Mabul is a pretty little island surrounded by long stretches of beaches and dotted with numerous dive resorts of all levels of luxury.. The island is also home to local fishing villages and the resort just happens to be located right next to one. The contrast was quite stark getting off the boat and seeing the resort to my right and slum-like wooden houses on stilts to the left. Nevertheless, one of the reasons I chose Scuba Junkie was their commitment to the environment and all the projects they’ve undertaken to help the local community. They have a turtle hatchery, organize beach cleanups, etc.
The resort was fantastic. It was the perfect divers getaway. It wasn’t super fancy or expensive, but it certainly had all the amenities I needed (which aren’t many). I elected for the dorm rooms as I was solo and it was included in the price of all my dives. The bungalows were an extra 100 MYR a night or so (~$25) which I thought was quite a good deal. The dorms were more than fine for me however. I met plenty of cool fellow divers here, which meant sunset beers after a long day of diving was a given. It did get blazing hot at night at times but no complaints otherwise!
As Mabul is an island in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t many other bars or restaurants besides the other dive resorts. Everything is done at the resort, including all the meals, and post-dive drinks.
I spent three full days diving around Mabul, and the neighboring island of Kapalai. As far as diving goes, it’s FANTASTIC if you’re into macro diving. I saw plenty of Flamboyant cuttlefish, pygmy seahorses, scorpionfish, frogfish etc. I also saw the biggest sea turtles of my life around Mabul (~1.5m or so). The coral has mostly been bleached or has died off so from a landscape point of view, it isn’t super impressive. Nevertheless, three days was enough for me.
My third day of diving was dedicated to Sipadan. It is a full days diving, consisting of 4 dives around the island. We left early in the morning at 6:30am so we could get to Sipadan and have our first dive by 8am. One of the nice parts of diving with Scuba Junkie is they offer 4 dives instead of the standard 3 at other resorts, so I’m really maximizing my time here. Having spoken to the other divers that had dived Sipadan days earlier, I was pretty hyped and my expectations were sky high. After doing mostly macro and muck dives the last 3 days, I was looking forward to the good stuff.
After arriving to the island, we had to obtain our permits from the tourism office on the island. The island is heavily guarded by Malaysian military and the first thing you see on Sipadan is not nice colorful fish but rather military guys in heavy camo gear carrying semi-automatic rifles. Apparently pirates attacked the island many years back and killed a bunch of tourists. Nowadays, the government does not F around and they make sure this place is protected all around.
First stop is South Point, a dive site famous for its coral wall, and the possibility of seeing mantas and hammerheads. The wall was certainly as dramatic as advertised as it dropped as far into the blue as I could imagine. The corals were plentiful and beautiful as fan corals dotted all parts of the landscape and white tip sharks and turtles were also swimming all around me. We must have seen at least 10-20 turtles on this dive site alone! Our guides had seen a few hammerheads the day before so we actually swam away from the wall into the blue looking for hammerheads. Sadly, we weren’t so lucky and did not find any hammerheads on my dive! We did see a few devil rays however!
Perhaps Sipadan’s claim to fame is Barracuda point. After the first dive, we came on to land to eat our breakfast before heading out again. Barracuda point is famous for well, its barracudas! It is also home to a HUGE family of jackfish, some incredibly colorful and vibrant corals, sharks, turtles, parrotfish and everything else one could think of. This was diving paradise. This is why I came all the way out here! There was a ever so mild current here that made the dive even better as I just drifted along the stunning corals dodging turtles and sharks along the way.
The highlight for me was definitely the school of jackfish. There is a 10000+ school of jackfish that are native to this area. I’ve never seen so much fish together before. This was the crazy stuff that I saw in Nat Geo documentaries before I even picked up diving and now I could finally experience it first hand.
The huge school of fish came right up us in the shape of a tornado and at one point, I was firmly in the middle of this tornado! It was incredible. I was busy trying to take pictures but then realized, there’s no way I could get a decent shot here because I’m literally completely surrounded by jackfish. I put the camera down and just soaked it all in. We stuck around the jackfish for a good 10-15 minutes before the guides insisted we go check out other things.
Thank god we did! As we shallowed up to 10m, we were hovering over just a huge garden of corals. A large school of resident bumphead parrotfish reside here. These were also the biggest bumpheads I’d ever seen. Bumpheads for those don’t know have these giant human looking buckteeth, eat coral, and POOP out sand. Most of the sand on Sipadan is a result of bumpheads pooing everywhere.
As I was diving next to them, I could actually see and hear them chow down on corals and as they relieved themselves, I was swimming through a cloud of sand/poop. For how large they are, they moved at a snails pace and didn’t seem to be the slightest bothered with divers. I literally got within arms reach of them and they couldn’t be more bothered as they were busy chomping down on corals.
Our third dive was to Turtle Cavern, a dive site famous for its deep and expansive caves, and of course turtles. Apparently the caves get deep, narrow, and confusing and many turtles have wandered in without being able to get back and drowned. We dived towards the caves but did not penetrate.
It was hard to top what I had just seen at Barracuda Point but this site had plenty of corals, fish, and TURTLES galore to keep one stimulated. We saw plenty of turtles, white tip sharks, Napoleon Wrasse etc. In total I would say I saw at least 50 turtles and white-tip sharks during my day in Sipadan!
Hanging out on Sipadan Island
After our third dive, it was time for lunch. There’s a large wooden houses built on the island specifically for all the divers to relax between dives. There’s also a nice stretch of beach with crystal clear water and amazing views. Lunch was pretty decent and I ended up talking to some divers from other shops about their day and it seemed like we all saw the same stuff.
It’s easy to understand why permits are necessary. There was maybe 20-30 divers staying at Scuba Junkie Resort but only 6-8 dived to Sipadan per day. So if all of SJ came, along with every diver from every other resort surrounding the island, this place would become an absolute zoo and the diving would deteriorate quickly.
After lunch, we had one more dive at South Point to look for hammerheads which didn’t yield anything sadly. Nevertheless, on our boat ride home, this was easily one of the best parts of my entire trip as we were tailed by a huge school of bottlenose dolphins numbering well into the hundreds. Literally, they swam with us the entire 45 minute boat ride back to Mabul. I’d never seen so many dolphins in my life. It was something special and something I’ll remember for sure. Yet another reason Sipadan is so amazing.
Cost of Sipadan diving
As of Nov 2015, I paid in total 2500 MYR (~$600) and this included
- 5 nights dorm accommodation at Mabul resort
- All meals (no alcohol)
- 13 dives (3 days of 3 dives around Mabul, 4 dives around Sipadan)
- All gear
- Park fees
Still a fantastic deal in my mind because that evens out to ~$45 per dive and this includes all accommodation and food. Comparatively, Cozumel in Mexico was the same price and that included only the diving.
Prior to Sipadan, I had dived in numerous places including Cozumel, Madagascar, the beautiful beaches of Quirimbas Archipelago in Mozambique, the Red Sea in Dahab, Utila Honduras, and Okinawa in Japan. Sipadan was easily the best diving I had done to date and by a big stretch. I was already missing this divers dreamworld as my boat headed back towards the mainland.
However, it turns out, my next dive destination of Komodo Indonesia would eclipse what Sipadan had already done for me!