Sipadan

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Scuba diving in Sipadan, Malaysia

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SIPADAN diving HIGHLIGHTS

For those lucky enough to visit the island of Sipadan, a plethora of amazing marine life awaits. But bear in mind that restricted access means many scuba divers will also spend much of their time exploring the sites of nearby Mabul and Kapalai, which offer world-class critter diving in their own right.

SIPADAN DIVE RESORTS

Sipadan has been closed to tourists since 2004, and there are no land-based resorts on the island. Access is predominantly via day-trip boats from resorts on the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai, or Semporna on the mainland. 

 

 

Intro to Sipadan

The island of Sipadan lies off the southeast coast of Sabah, a province of Malaysia on the exotic island of Borneo. Long heralded a ‘mecca’ for dive travel, the island has been rated as a world-class dive destination since Jacques Cousteau visited in the early 80s. 

Sipadan boasts one of the richest marine habitats in the world, with over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species making up an incredibly rich and vibrant ecosystem. As Malaysia’s only oceanic island, the nutrient-rich waters of the Celebes Sea attract an abundance of marine life, including all sizes of reef and pelagic fish, sharks, turtles, and some fascinating critters.

Diving is only possible at Sipadan with a permit, so make sure you let your resort know that you plan to dive there so that they can arrange access.

WHEN TO GO

The diving season in Sipadan is year-round, with April to December offering the calmest surface conditions.


 

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SIPADAN DIVING INFORMATION 

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MARINE LIFE & PHOTOGRAPHY SPECIES

Sipadan island’s ‘mushroom’ shape and deep walls attract a huge amount of marine life into a very small area. On one side of the island, dramatically deep walls reach 2,000ft just offshore, whereas sites on the opposite side are characterized by gently sloping reefs that give way to steeper walls much further out.

This is one of the big fish capitals of the world, and every dive site is loaded with flashy schools of anthias, jacks, triggerfish, and barracuda. All along the reef, angelfish, anemone fish, nudibranchs, lionfish, eels, octopus, and many more species can be found lurking between coral heads. The shallow reefs are also great areas to find lounging whitetip reef sharks and resting crocodile fish. On every dive at Sipadan expect to encounter turtles munching on sponges and algae, sleeping on ledges, or simply moseying around.

Underwater Video of Sipadan's Amazing Marine Life

 

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Similar to Sipadan, the Similan Islands are a fantastic destination, boasting bountiful marine life. 

DIVING CONDITIONS

  • Water Temperatures:  79 - 86°F (26 - 30°C)
  • Visibility: 60-100ft (15-30m) 
  • Depth Range: 16-131ft (5-40m) 
  • Diving Difficulty: Suitable for all levels, although strong currents appear at certain sites.
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BEST DIVE SITES

BARRACUDA POINT

Sipadan’s iconic dive site, each morning chevron barracuda form in massive spiraling shoals just off the reef. Schooling bigeye and giant trevally pour over the ocean shelf from the shallows into deeper water, and the occasional dogtooth tuna can be spotted. Manta rays, zebra sharks, and even hammerhead sharks are known to cruise the walls at Barracuda Point. As with all the sites on Sipadan, turtles and bumphead parrotfish abound, alongside Napoleon wrasse, and several types of triggerfish.

THE DROP-OFF

Another well-known site where the reef gives way to plunging walls within walking distance of the shore. The wall is alive with a wide variety of colorful corals and sponges, in turn providing a refuge for many crab, shrimp, and crustacean species. There is a plethora of big fish at this site, and divers will often experience hundreds of jacks circling above, with bumphead parrotfish, trevallies, and barracuda joining the show. 

 

HANGING GARDENS

Reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the topography at this site is terraced to form several drop-offs festooned in soft corals of various colors. Giant gorgonian sea fans hide all manner of macro life, and in the cracks of the terraces expect to spot gobies, sweetlips, hawkfish, moray eels, and coral groupers. Green and imbricate turtles are particularly common here, as are dozens of ribbontail stingrays.

SOUTH POINT

One of the best areas for spotting elusive thresher and hammerhead sharks, this deeper site provides access to 130ft ledges before giving way to blue water. Large groups of bumphead parrotfish are also common here, chomping at the reef and leaving plumes of white exhaust as they trundle past.

TURTLE CAVERN

An eerie site littered with the bones of turtles who have become lost in the complicated system of caverns and tunnels. The entrance is at 60ft, and home to shoals of various types of cave-dwelling fish species.

WHITETIP AVENUE

Numerous encounters with whitetip reef sharks give this site its name, however, there is much more in store here. The reef begins fairly shallow before disappearing suddenly to a depth of nearly 2,000 feet. Vertical walls are covered in cracks and ledges, with terraces awash with sponges of all shapes and sizes, black corals, and gorgonians. Expect to spot groupers, emperor angelfish, triggerfish, clownfish, boxfish, the list is endless.

 

BEST TIME TO DIVE SIPADAN

Diving in Sipadan is fantastic all year round, although conditions do vary throughout the season. From April to October waters are normally calm and glassy, comfortably warm, and with visibility up to 100ft. The rainy season runs from November to March, and windy periods in January, February, and August can increase surface chop and reduce visibility. Although this brings cooler water and air temperatures, amazing marine encounters and great diving are still the norm.

 

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Travel Information 

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How to Get To Sipadan

Getting to Sipadan’s neighboring islands of Mabul and Kapalai can be quite a task, however, the journey is more than worth it. Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) is the main gateway, and flights are available from many of the major Asian hubs. Once at Kota Kinabalu, a domestic flight takes you to Tawau Airport (TWU) on the southern tip of Malaysian Borneo. From Tawau, resort transport will transfer you the 90-minute journey to the port town of Semporna where you’ll board a boat out to your resort.  

 

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How to Dive Sipadan

Access to Sipadan Island is heavily restricted through a permit system, with only 120 diving permits issued each day. Resorts are not able to guarantee Sipadan dives before guest arrival as permits are not allocated in advance, therefore the longer you stay the more chance you have of achieving multiple days diving at Sipadan.

There are numerous dive operators and resorts in the Sipadan area, many offering all-inclusive packages. The boat journey to Sipadan normally takes 20 to 30 minutes from the neighboring islands, and operators generally offer up to four dives in a day. When diving at Sipadan is not possible, the house reefs and sandbanks of Mabul and Kapalai offer some fantastic muck diving. 

 

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OTHER THINGS TO DO IN SIPADAN

Sipadan is a protected island covered in pristine rainforest, therefore all top-side activities are based on other islands in the region. Many of the resorts offer kayaking and beach sports, spa facilities, and plenty of long sandy beaches to relax on. 

The province of Sabah in Borneo is definitely worth a few days of touring. Visit the jungles of Borneo and see the orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. They have a wonderful orangutan rescue/release program there. You can also visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary to watch some great wildlife.

If you are going to spend a few days in Kota Kinabalu, do some souvenir shopping at the Filipino market, or join a city tour to learn more about the people of Malaysia.

 

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Other Useful Information 

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Practical Information

  • Currency: Malaysian Ringgit (MYR)
  • Language: Malay and English
  • Time Zone: Malaysia Time (GMT+8)
  • Electricity: 240V, 50Hz

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Reviews (4)

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The marine life here is incredible. No wonder this is a top rated dive destination!
My favorite dive site was Barracuda Point. There were constantly large schools of jacks and schools of barracuda every time we went back...and we kept asking to go back.
Turtle Cave was a cool dive site. It's where turtles go to retire and there are turtle bones and shells even at the entrance of the cave. Eerie but different.
Hanging Gardens is not a "famous site" but it was really beautiful with all the colorful soft corals.
There were lots of black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks and lots of turtles on every single dive. I even spotted a hammerhead on my first dive.
Most dives start deep > 100ft so get yourself nitrox certified and dive with it along with a computer to extend your bottom time. Even in the winter it was warm in the mid 80s and I think the worst viz I got on my trip was 60ft. Most dives was over 100ft viz.
Book early and let the dive operator know that you want to dive Sipadan coz a limited number of divers are allowed on the reef per day.

Visited on 12/2006 - Submitted on 07/29/2014
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Visited on 08/2013 - Submitted on 02/26/2014
  • Top Reviewer
Brisbane, QLD
Australia
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Sipadan has been a world class performer for decades and offers the best chance of red-hot blue water action without the need to spend a small fortune or trek for days out to the likes of Layang Layang, Tubbataha in the Philippines or Rangiroa out in Pacific. Results do vary but even in the off-season we experienced large numbers of White-Tip & Grey Reef Sharks, schools of Chevron & the odd small group Giant Barracuda, large Napoleon Wrasse and schools of thousands of Oceanic Triggerfish & Bannerfish all set against breath taking drop-offs. We even heard reports of everything from reasonably regular groups of Hammerheads deep on the South side to Sailfish, Tiger Sharks & even Killer Whales. Always worth keeping an eye out to the Blue.
The remains of an ancient Volcano situated far off the continental shelf of Borneo, Sipadan sits in around 600m of clear Oceanic water with a sloping wall of hard corals on the North of the reef & sheer, soft coral draped drops on the south. Dives always start sedately on the reef flat amongst the stunning hard table corals before plunging off down the drop-offs to the pre-determined depths. Currents range from non-existent to raging with tricky down-currents reported off the back of the reef though I did not encounter any problems while diving on the North & South walls. Intervals between dives are spent on the island proper with tables & toilet facilities provided.
I was last there in May 2013 shortly after incursions from Filipino ‘bandits’ on the mainland though we always felt safe both in town and out at the islands. A force of Malaysian Navy is stationed at Sipadan and regular patrols are carried out throughout the area.

I first encountered Mabul during a 10 week dive trip through SE Asia. The availability of Sipadan passes was so good that we didn’t have a spare day to dive Mabul, though one check out dive there at ‘Paradise 2’ on the first day was enough to entice us back the following year. Most divers come here for the stunning drop-offs and big-fish action of Sipadan and talk down Mabul as a poor substitute when you lose in the ‘Sipadan pass lottery’, however macro fans will love it and new converts to diving couldn’t find a better practice area before tackling the currents & excitement of the glittering island off-shore.
Although known for its sedate sand dives populated with all the classic weird and wonderful critters found in SE Asia - We found Pygmy Seahorses, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Nudibranchs aplenty, various different shrimp species and a multitude of lionfish big & small being just a start – Mabul is in possession of some wonderful shallow coral and features fantastic drop offs of its own right on the edge of the continental shelf.

As a final thought, the transit town of Semporna on the mainland is certainly an experience and I enjoyed my stay there for a day & night once on my way back , though you would do well to avoid it if you have not spent much time in Asian towns. It is also a much cheaper alternative to staying on Mabul, Kapalai or the Seaventures Rig though most will find the 1 hour + boat journey out to Sipadan to be prohibitive.

Flights: Prior to the advent of Air Asia most divers flew to Kota Kinabalu on the North coast of Sabah and then took an onward flight though with the arrival of Air Asia it is possible to take a direct 3 hour flight to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur – a 1 hour bus transfer from Semporna. This is a simple journey from KL though the ‘Cattle shed’ KL LCCT is certainly not an A+ International Airport. As always, it’s part of the experience and will soon be replaced by a custom made terminal that is current in construction elsewhere in the airport.

WARNING: Of countless Air Asia flights I have taken, the return journey from Tawau to KL is the only one for which I have had my carry on weighed. Twice. If like me you are carting a large amount of gear in your carry-on be prepared to be forced to check a lot of it. Extra baggage is affordable on Air Asia but the decision of which of your delicate gear goes into the hold is a difficult one.

Visited on 05/2013 - Submitted on 02/17/2014
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Sipadan is a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ style Island set in the Celebes Sea, Malaysia. You aren’t permitted to stay on the Island (any longer) and most of the diving takes place on the wall that descends, in a fairly vertical column, from the white beach sand to the sea floor 1000 feet (600m) below.

The diving was beautiful.

Sipadan is mostly wall diving and generally with strong currents. The viz. was mostly excellent and we dived Sipadan Island twenty three times from the Celebes Explorer liveaboard in the week we were there, (which you’re unlikely to get right if you’re staying in one of the many resorts in the area – this is a detail you must definitely pay attention to…) It means you get to dive the same sites several times and when we are talking about Barracuda Point (which CNN Travel rates as the top dive site in the world – ok, that is always going to be a matter of opinion) or North Point (huge shoals of jacks and batfish) or Turtle Cavern (the infamous turtle graveyard) then, trust me, you will want to visit the same sites as often as possible. We also saw innumerable white tip reef sharks, leopard sharks and spent quality time with the huge school of bumphead parrotfish that regularly feed in the shallows – fascinating-to-observe coralivores. And, of course, the turtles are omnipresent - the extent of the turtle action has to be seen to be believed. It is deeply gratifying to see them in such numbers, relatively safe from exploitation.

Turtle Cavern – discovered by Jacques Cousteau apparently – is as unusual a dive as you are likely to come across in the sea. You enter the cave-mouth from the sea at 22m and penetrate approximately 70m ‘into the Island’ and you’re inside for approximately 50 minutes. Believe me I am no cave diver, but it was absolutely fascinating and I was astounded that time was up ‘so quickly’. Apparently turtles enter the narrow throat of the cave to sleep and when it is time to surface for air they are unable to find the exit in time and drown. So at every turn there is a turtle carcass in some state of decomposition. You definitely wouldn’t want to contemplate Turtle Cavern without a (very) experienced guide and a good quality torch is also useful…

There is also plenty of macro activity, especially in the shallows. We saw pygmy sea horses although try as I might I couldn’t get a decent photo! (One of the reasons I upgraded to DSLR this year!) And the corals are varied and beautiful. Having said that Sipadan is ideal for divers who prefer open water and big shoals of pelagic fish… it isn’t Lembeh.

Every evening we travelled from Sipadan to anchor off Mabul Island. This because overnighting on / near Sipadan is not allowed (in any case the water is very deep so anchoring would be impossible.) The night-diving off Mabul was diverse: the biggest turtle I have ever seen seems to live there and we saw sea horses, pipe fish, mandarin fish, frog fish and cuttle fish – what a privilege.

I don’t like flying very much – and it took four flights to get from my home in Durban, South Africa to Tawau, Malaysia where they collect you. And, believe me, it takes a special effort to find a beer in Tawau. And, the liveaboard we stayed on leaves much to be desired. But the diving and the photographic opportunities make these inconveniences seem minor. It is a special place.

Sipadan really should be on your bucket list.

Visited on 07/2013 - Submitted on 02/17/2014

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