Located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin is one of the richest marine habitats that all the world’s oceans have to offer. Sipadan Island was formed by corals growing on the top of an extinct volcanic cone, which took thousands of years to develop. Over 3000 species of fish, and hundreds of different coral species, many of which as still in fantastic condition, diving Sipadan has regularly been considered some of the best in the world!
One of the best places to observe many different species of turtles, including the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle, who use the island to both mate and lay eggs. It is also a great place to see pelagic species such as manta rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks.
In 1933 Sipadan was declared a bird sanctuary by Britain as it is considered an important stop for many species of migratory birds. Historically Sipadan has been at the centre of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, which ended in 2002 when the international court of justice awarded the island to Malaysia.
Sipadan is a small uninhabited island, measuring roughly half a km long, and having a maximum width of 200 metres. It has been uninhabited since all the resorts were closed in 2004 to protect the islands pristine coral reefs. Since then all resorts have moved to the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai. The decision to close and move all resorts was seen as a massive victory for conservationists, who could see the reefs degrading from the amount of tourism the small island was seeing.
Sipadan is regularly featured on lists of the world’s best dive locations, usually taking one of the top spots. It is a great location for some epic wall dives, heart pounding drift dives and encounters with large pelagic and sea turtles. The island is prone to some very strong currents at times so it is not an ideal location for beginner divers or those who find diving in currents overly stressful.
The island offers many dive sites around its shore line, with the top of the reefs going as shallow (shallower in some places) as 5 metres, but as the dives are wall dives, you can easily get down to 40 metres and far beyond. Water temperatures are generally between 26 degrees and 30 degrees depending on the time of the year, so a full length 5mm wetsuit should keep you comfortable over the cooler months but not over heat you during the summer months.
The dive season is all year round, but most divers claim that the best conditions are between April and December, with peak conditions in July. Although diving is conducted year round, the rainy season is between December and March, with the worst being January and February. Like almost everywhere else in the world, Sipadan can see a drop in visibility during the rainy season.
On February 10th 2013 the Malaysian government announced that only Advanced Open Water level divers (or equivalent) with a minimum of 20 dives are allowed to dive in Sipadan.
Popular Dive Sites
Turtle Cavern.. The cavern entrance can be found at around 18m underwater. At one time people thought that turtles came here to die. We now know that the reason why there are so many turtle skeletons in here is because turtles would get lost in the complex network of underwater tunnels at night, and drown. Inside the cavern you will find skeletons of those turtles who were unlucky to not find their way out. Heading further into the cave system you can see shoals of fish that have adapted to living in the low light environment. Be aware the only those trained in cave diving should be allowed to enter the caverns, and only with the correct equipment.
The Drop Off.. Considered by many as the signature dive site of Sipadan, and also well thought to be the best shore dive in the world, until access to the island was blocked. The reef drops very quickly to over 600 metres. While swimming along the wall you are likely to encounter hundreds of jacks, bumphead parrotfish, turtles, whitetip and grey reef sharks.
Whitetip Avenue.. From hearing the name you can already start picturing what the dive may be like, but is it just a name? No, Whitetip Avenue offers encounters with numerous schools of whitetip reef sharks, but this is not all there is to see there. A shallow coral reef quickly drops away to a 600m vertical wall into the abyss. The wall is covered in ledges, chimneys, nooks and crannies to look in. Black corals, gorgonian sea fans, and giant sponges encrust the wall, while a whole array of reef fish swim around you, while looking out into the blue you may also spot grey reef sharks, and other pelagics.
Seaventures Platform.. Located just off the Coast of Mabul Island is an old converted oil rig. Although that may not sound like a top dive site, it offers some interesting wildlife, and when’s the next chance you will get to dive around an oil rig?! Look out for many different varieties of frog fish, moray eels and nudibranch. The sea bed is littered with bits of scrap metal that have fallen off the rig, which hides many different smaller species of fish and crustaceans.
Mandarin Valley.. This dive spot, located close to Kapalai Island, is one of the best spots in the world to see the beautiful mandarin fish. A favourite for underwater photographers who get the rare chance to see the alluring mating dance of the mandarin fish. But this site also offers much more. Ghost pipefish, frogfish, stonefish and cuttlefish are just some of the other critters you may encounter here. Also a great site for night dives, where divers frequently report seeing squid, shrimps and many species of crab.
How to Dive Sipadan
Because staying on Sipadan is strictly prohibited, more thought needs to go into your planning to be able to get the most out of your time here. You will need to apply for a permit to be able to dive at Sipadan itself, and there are only 120 of these available per day, and not available in advance. Your best option is to stay on one of the local islands of Mabul or Kapalai for a few days. The longer you stay here the better chance you have of getting a permit, and these islands also boast world class macro diving. There is only 1 Liveaboard operating in the area, which also stays overnight in Mabul.
Getting to Sipadan
Sipadan Island is not the easiest dive location to get to. Most people fly to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabula, and then take taxi or minivan to the port town of Semporna. From there it is a 1 hour journey to Sipadan Island. It takes a similar amount of time to get the neighboring islands of Mabul or Kapalai where you will most likely be staying during your visit.
As all resorts on the island itself are closed, you need to stay on one of the local islands of Mabul (12km away) or Kapalai (10km away). Mabul is the most developed, with almost all the dive resorts that were once on Sipadan now based there. Both islands offer some great dive sites to keep you entertained if you are not lucky enough to get the Sipadan day ticket. Both of these islands offer many places to stay for different budgets, but be aware, during the high season it is very unlikely that you will be able to just turn up and get a room. Both islands also have many dive resorts that offer diving in Sipadan itself, as well as around the other islands.
Eating & Drinking
There are no restaurants or bars on Sipadan, so most dive operators provide food and drink for the day trips to the island. There are many restaurants on the neighboring island where you will be staying for the duration of the trip. Please try to avoid fish dishes, as there are still illegal fishing operations in and around the park.
Because the islands have been disputed for many years between Malaysia and Indonesia, there has been some instability in the past, but this has now mostly been settled. In 2000 Abu Sayyaf rebels from the Philippines kidnapped many tourists and resort staff from the area, which were all released relatively unharmed in the end. The Royal Malaysian Navy have an outpost on the island, and the waters are regularly patrolled. Now safety issues are mainly to do with the diving. There are many reports from divers who say that the equipment rental can be in very poor condition, and divers are being taken beyond what there certification allows.
Related Blog: Diving Malaysia. The Mystery of Underwater Paradise