“The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish,” said Jacques Cousteau. Sipadan Island in the Celebes Sea is an idyllic locale where divers can do exactly that.
As the best dive destination in Malaysia and one of the most loved in the world, Sipadan is routinely named in diving bucket lists. It recently took the number one spot on Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine’s Gold List of The Top Dive Destination in the World. Sipadan shared the accolade with Truk in Micronesia and the Galapagos Islands (quite a prestigious group).
Giants of the fish world frequent the clear waters, so prepare for close encounters of the barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and schooling jack variety.
Where is Sipadan?
Sipadan, or Pulau Sipadan (‘Border Island’) as it is officially known, is a 30-acre island on the north-eastern edge of Malaysian Borneo in the state of Sabah.
Blanketed with lush rainforest, Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia. Floating 2000-feet above the sea floor, its remarkable underwater environment is the culmination of three centuries of coral growth flourishing atop an extinct volcano. The result is a lavish ecosystem teeming with big fish like tuna, silver jack and big-eye trevallies. Pelagics such as manta rays and eagle rays also roam the warm waters, along with sharks and thousands of diverse fish species.
Getting In and Out
Reaching Sipadan is tricky and time consuming, but any concerns are alleviated upon arrival.
To get there you’ll first need to fly into Tawau airport. How? Easy. Start at one of two points of origin.
- Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Tawau airport (TWU)
- 6 flights per day
- Flight duration: 2h 45m
- Kota Kinabalu (BKI) to Tawau (TWU)
- 8 flights per day
- Flight duration: 55 minutes
Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines run services to and from both airports. There are flights running throughout the day, but it is recommended you secure a seat on the morning flight that arrives in Tawau at 8.15am. Most resorts prefer a morning pick-up, and it means you’ll be able to start diving the same afternoon.
From Tawau (TWU), a two-hour journey by car (taxi or private/joint transfer) takes you to Semporna harbour.
Next, a 45-minute boat trip will ferry passengers from Semporna harbour to their final destination – either Mabul or Kapalai Island. It shouldn’t take longer than 25 minutes from either destination to reach Sipadan (more on this soon).
Make the transfer process as simple as possible by booking through a reputable transfer company when you arrive at the airport, or even better, do it before leaving home.
Tawau (TWU) – Kota Kinabalu (BKI)
- 8 flights per day
- Flight duration: 55 mins
Tawau (TWU) – Kuala Lumpur (KUL)
- 6 flights per day
- Flight duration: 2h 45m
Live updates on Malaysia’s Ringgit (MYR) can be found at http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/?From=MYR&To=USD. At the time of writing, the numbers looked like this:
1USD = 4.40MYR
1AUD = 3.34MYR
Jacques Cousteau (1910-1977) is the Godfather of SCUBA. He co-invented an on-demand oxygen system that reinvented the SCUBA world in the ‘40s and allowed intrepid divers the opportunity to spend longer and longer under water.
After submerging himself in the splendour of Sipadan, Cousteau became enamoured with the Island’s eclectic and bountiful marine diversity. In 1988 he remarked, “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art.” The Island has since become one of the most poplar dive destinations in the world, attracting Cousteau-wannabes and serious divers to its inviting waters.
Sipadan’s equatorial climate delivers warm and humid (85-95% humidity on average) all year long. However, sea breezes make daytime temps of 28-34°C, and nightime lows of around 22°C, more bearable.
Visibility: minimum of 5m and maximum of 40m.
Water temp: ranges from 26-30°C
The waters of Sipadan are diveable year round, with experts touting the months between April and December as the most favourable. More specifically, July and August enjoy the calmest surface conditions. The rainy season between December and March experiences the choppiest waters with slightly poorer underwater visibility and cooler water temps.
Peak seasons span July-August, December-January and the Easter period to a lesser extent. Find cheaper package deals and increase your chances of diving by planning a trip to Sipadan during the off-peak months. Since Sipadan does not experience a monsoon season, there is little disadvantage to travelling in quitter times.
The Sipadan shore is a popular nesting ground for green and hawksbill turtles. Sightings are high, particularly from April to September.
The popularity of turtle season translates to fully booked dive resorts most of the year. Pre-book to avoid disappointment and set aside between one and two weeks so you can enjoy as many dives as possible.
Diving works a little differently on Sipadan and you will need to obtain a diving permit before hitting the water.
A total of 120 dives (or permits) are allocated by officials at Sabah Parks each day. One permit equals one day of diving (how many individual dives you will be able to squeeze into a single day depend on your operator and weather conditions).
The permits are divvied up between the biggest resorts in the region. You cannot obtain them yourself – you must do this through the resort.
REMEMBER: A strict ‘No Glove, No Dive’ policy applies at all of Sipadan’s dive sites. Additionally, a maximum depth of 40m cannot be surpassed.
With the permits in place and gloves tossed aside, you should expect to visit four dive sites on a good week.
Unfortunately, permits cannot be secured ahead of time and distribution works on a rotational basis, so it really is the luck of the draw. But once your number comes up the wait is well worth it.
In essence, the only way to secure dives is to stay as long as possible.
Where to Stay
With such an illustrious underwater reputation, resorts have popped up faster than a diver out of oxygen. As such, competition is hot and finding a great deal that ticks all your boxes is easy so long as you’re willing to shop around.
Staying on Sipadan Island has been prohibited since 2004, when all the resorts were forced to relocate to the surrounding islands of Mabul and Kapalai. This was done as part of conservation attempts to protect the region.
Due to the permit situation on Sipadan, it’s important to note that both Mabul (12km from Sipadan) and Kapalai (10km from Sipadan) boast their own popular dive sites where micro treasures take centre stage. Muck and wreck dives also punctuate the underwater landscape of Sipadan’s neighbouring islands.
Recommended Dive Sites:
- Barracuda Point – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
Forget sharknado, Sipadan has barra-nado. Tornadoes of chevron and black tail barracuda (thousands deep) prowl the strong current at Barracuda Point. Joining the barracudas are batfish, whitetip sharks and hammerhead sharks. Barracuda Point is often included in top 5 dive universal dice spots.
Conditions: 40m+ depth. Visibility between 5-30m.
- Coral Garden – Certification required: Open Water
Coral Garden plays host to bountiful macro life, reef sharks, turtles and Manta rays. Underwater photography is encouraged.
Conditions: 10m-23m depth. Visibility up to 30m
- The Drop Off – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
An awesome 600m-wall drop that has become one of the most popular sites around the island. All the usual suspects are here: turtles, sharks (grey and reef), barracuda and bumphead parrotfish.
Conditions: 5m-16m depth, visibility up to 40m.
- Hanging Gardens – Certification required: Open Water
Hanging Gardens is a wall dive promising majestic blooms of soft coral in all the colours of the rainbow. Dusty rose, lavender and lemon coloured bunches make for a kaleidoscope of coral. Seafans and barrel sponges speckle the scenery.Free-diving and snorkelling are also popular here. Great for experienced and beginners alike.
Conditions: 5m-40m depth, visibility up to 30m.
- Lobster Lair – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
Step (or rather, dive) into the Lobster’s Lair where craestacions can be spied in all the little nooks and crannies. While your playing ‘Where’s Wally – Lobster Edition’ don’t forget to bypass the pincers and say hello to the reef sharks and Manta rays visiting the Lair.
Conditions: 25m-40 depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- Midreef – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
This is a vertical wall drift dive teeming with green turtles. The wall is splashed with beds of table coral, green tree coral, stony coral and cabbage coral. Frolicking amid the knotted fans and gorgonian sea fans are turtles and whitetip reef sharks.
Conditions: 4m-40m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- North point – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
Feast your eyes on marine bio-diversity to rival the best in the world at the North Point wall dive.
Conditions: 25m-40m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- South Point – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
There’s a high chance of rare shark encounters on this deep wall dive; think deep-sea threshers and hammerhead sharks.
Conditions: 20m-40m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- Staghorn Crest – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
This wall dive offers perfect conditions for photography. Staghorn corals are prolific in the shallows, while a steep drop-off keeps advanced divers busy.
Conditions: 15m depth, visibility up to 30m.
- Turtle Cavern – Certification required: Advanced Open Water
The opening of Turtle Cavern is 18m below the surface. Peruse the scenery alongside green and hawksbill turtles before exploring the turtle graveyard (Turtle Tomb).Experienced divers need only apply – this one isn’t for beginners, and requires special equipment and guides for the Turtle Tomb.
Conditions: 14m-23m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- Turtle Patch – Certification required: Open Water
Turtles abound at the Patch. Joining them are giant table corals, parrotfish and reef sharks.
Conditions: 5m-12m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
- Whitetip Avenue – Certification required: Open Water
Dive with friendly whitetip reef sharks, turtles and Manta Rays. The lower you go, the higher your chances of spotting sharks.
Conditions: 17m-40m depth. Visibility up to 30m.
In the words of Jacques Cousteau, “People protect what they love.” In this vein, we encourage underwater explorers to tread lightly, dive carefully and leave Sipadan cleaner than the way you found it.
Most importantly, happy diving.