Sipadan’s secrets for scuba diving success.
What makes a world class dive site like Sipadan? Usually it’s location, location, location – but nowadays protection is also a big factor. Deborah Dickson-Smith of Diveplanit Travel explains what makes Sipadan so special.
Just off the northeast coast of Sabah, Malaysia’s Borneo, is Sipadan, an island made famous by the legendary Jacques Cousteau in his 1989 documentary Ghosts of the Sea Turtle; “I saw other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but not anymore. Now we have found an intact work of art”.
Sipadan is an oceanic island located off the continental shelf of Sabah in the Celebes Sea, on top of an extinct volcano rising 600m from the seabed, fringed by a natural hard coral reef.
The reef provides the lower links in a food chain that runs through reef fish of all sizes, from tiny damselfish and basslets to pelagic fish, including schools of barracuda and humphead parrotfish, and large pelagics such as sharks hammers that come from deeper waters in this ancient ocean basin. It also sits almost in the center of the Coral Triangle known for its massive marine biodiversity.
Only a few hundred meters in diameter, it is also an ancient turtle nesting site that is home to between two and three hundred nesting turtles at any one time. While diving in Sipadan, you will almost certainly come across turtles resting, browsing and swimming, as well as a multitude of golden batfish, a tornado of barracuda, a valley of white tip sharks and a flock of humpback parrotfish, very similar to a herd of bison, which seem to endlessly rush around the island.
Add to that the coral reefs and a plethora of larger reef fish like unicorns, surgeonfish and six bar angels and you’ll know why even four dives a day just isn’t enough.
Its location in the center of the Coral Triangle makes it very special, but what makes Sipadan special is the protection it is now afforded by the Malaysian government.
In the years following its discovery by Jacque-Yves Cousteau in the late 1980s, dive tourism nearly ruined Sipadan. There used to be a dive station on the island, along with hordes of divers from surrounding resorts who visited it daily.
But it all became too much and in 2004 the decision was made to close the station and limit the number of divers to just 120 per day. Now a permit system is in place, with each local dive operator receiving enough permits to fill just one small boat each day, and berths are allocated to divers based on the length of their stay. For example, you can stay five days in a resort and spend two days diving in Sipadan.
So what happens on the other days, I hear you ask? Well, even without Sipadan, the east coast of Sabah is a great place to dive.
The two closest islands to Sipadan (just 30 minutes by boat), Mabul and Kapalai, feature a number of resorts as well as numerous natural and artificial reefs. The man-made reefs are well worth a visit on their own – some absurdly constructed as the sort of adventure playground you might find in a monkey exhibit at a zoo rather than an underwater setting. (I guess it’s hard to ask a fish how he would like his artificial reefs to be designed). Either way, they attract all kinds of sea life.
Mabul is also famous for mud diving, home to several natural reefs with names like: Froggy’s (where you might find frogfish), Ribbon Valley (ribbon eels!), Stingray City (- you guessed it! ), Eel Garden (another gift) and finally Lobster Wall (actually no! No lobsters but lots of moray eels.)
Mabul and Kapalai are excellent islands to base yourself for easy access to Sipadan and great diving on their own fringing reefs. On Mabul you will find a range of resorts to suit most budgets including Borneo Divers, Scuba Junkie, Mabul Water Bungalows, Sipadan Mabul Resort and on Kapalai, Sipadan Kapalai Resort.
There is also the Seaventures Dive Rig – a converted oil rig which sits in about 24m of water about 1km offshore of Mabul. It is probably the only dive center in the world where you go down by elevator to House Reef.
You don’t need to stay at the gates of Sipadan to dive there: other options for spending a few days in Sipadan are the mainland port of Semporna and some of the luxury resorts on the islands just north of it. Obviously the drive to Sipadan is longer, but accommodation options are much wider in Semporna, especially at the budget end.
So yes, Sipadan is a very special place that will give you a very special diving experience and hopefully will stay that way for a long time. The whole area deserves a place at the top of everyone’s list.
In terms of marine conservation, Sipadan is a success story. This shows that you can stop the clock and even start winding it up. But it requires bold decisions and commitment.
For more information on how to book a diving holiday in Malaysian Borneo and Sipadan, contact the experienced travel advisors at Diveplanit Travel. Diveplanit.com Email: [email protected] Phone: 1800 607 913
“I saw other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but not anymore. Now we have found an intact work of art” Jacques Cousteau
Top Tip: Consider booking well in advance (at least six months) to lock in your dive days on Sipadan.