The island looks pretty much like any other island found in our waters but the only difference is that, millions of years ago, Sipadan was formed by an undersea volcano, which means that it is a deepwater oceanic island. In fact, it’s the only one of its kind in Malaysia. Dropping to a depth of 600m or 2,000ft to seabed, it can be daunting for new divers. A narrow shelf, lining the island and then a sudden drop into darkness, is not for all divers.
Just below the surface is an alien world, a bizarre backdrop for a wondrous dream. The coral reef skirts Sipadan just below the surface and as far as 164feet down, providing one of the best wall dive experiences.
Sipadan before and today
Sipadan is located some 35km(22miles) south of Semporna, on the southeastern side of Sabah in Borneo. It was first gazetted a bird sanctuary in 1933 and was left pretty much alone until the late 70’s when recreational divers rediscovered this new dive eden. Only a handful of the privileged were allowed into this secret garden.
Its geographic location puts the island within the Indo-Pacific basin, the richest marine bio-diversity area in the world. Some experts believe that the Indo-Pacific basin was earth’s marine incubator. Nowhere in the world can we find such diversity and researchers are still discovering new species as new places and depths are discovered.
In 1989, Jacques Cousteau and his crew anchored his research vessel,’Calypso’. Cousteau was so taken by its virgin beauty , ‘ I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art’, he quipped.
But perhaps that one statement, that one documentary has changed the serenity and beauty of Sipadan forever.
Today, Sipadan is on a slow but hopefully progressive road to recovery. In just 15years what was a dream destination for divers was going to the dumps. By 2005, the Sabah Marine Parks closed the island off to resorts. There were several resorts stationed on the tiny island itself and as many as 80 to 120 divers were on the island at any one time. This caused a toll on many of the more frequented dive spots like barracuda point and south point. Divers , rumours had it, were diving as many as 10dives a day!!!
Having now closed the island off to overnight stays, divers now stay at resorts on nearby islands such as Pulau Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking Island. Staying on these islands, divers can dive either in the morning or after lunch or opt to stay the entire day on Sipadan but sign up at your respective dive centres for separate dive groups. for the morning and the afternoon session. This will indicate to the dive masters that you wish to stay on the island for both dive times. However not all resorts have boats going to and fro Sipadan twice a day especially during low seasons. The boat rides can take from 25mins (from Mabul), 18mins (from Kapalai), and 80mins (from Mataking). One thing about the boat rides – slap on lots on sunblock as its gonna be a ride in hot sun and clear blue skies. well most times anyway.
Since the closing of the island, guests are not allowed to wander too far from the jetty. The jetty is the converging point and rest area for all guests. Sabah parks have stationed personnel on the island to safeguard the area. A few of the abandoned resorts are used by the guards as posts. The rest are left to the jungle..
Sipadan’s dive sites
Rainy season is between mid December and mid February so bear in mind if you’re thinking of getting away during Christmas. The nice thing about going during these months is that the crowds are manageable. Sometimes it may just be you and the divemaster on a dive – no rush, no hassles.
We went in early March and although the vis wasn’t too good and currents were pretty unpredictable plus the rains would catch up on us from nowhere, it was great for muck diving if micro is what you want. Good diving months are from months April till November. Best diving months is in July and August.
The currents can be unpredictable and divers must at all times stick close to the divemasters. There have been cases of lost divers, only to be found a distance away or not to be found at all..
Probably the most popular site at Sipadan. Usually, the visibility is pretty good here from anywhere 20m to 30m but currents can be unpredictable. This dive site is preferable for those who are experienced due to the current uncertainties. Had a chance to catch up with a leopard shark along the way, several white tip sharks and a few snoozing turtles. Average depth is about 15m.
Barracuda point is so named because of the large shoal of barracudas often found in this spot. We didn’t get to see them on our dive here but it seems that sometimes they move on to south point or disappears for a couple of weeks or so and then turns up again. Here on the shallower shelves, we found quite a bit of coral rubble.
We also found a number of divers especially those with underwater cameras with gloves on. A question posed to the dive centre later had this reply, ‘ because some of our guests have allergies or they work with their hands such as surgeons so they need protection.’ The best protection is not to touch anything if possible.
We found many inexperienced underwater photographers resting on corals, thrashing around with their fins and had to ‘lift’ quite a few of them off the corals in the course on only one dive. There really should be more discipline across board for all dive centres. Some practise responsible diving and some don’t. No matter what, in the end, it’s the coral reefs that suffer.
This is where divers usually ascend after making their way through barracuda point. This takes divers through a pleasant underwater garden with soft corals and hard corals, a variety of coral denizens , whitetip sharks, unicornfish, a great variety of triggerfishes hovering in schools, a lonesome napolean wrasse here and there etc.
The currents can be a bit difficult here and inexperienced divers can get carried out into the open sea. The shallow seabed of between 5 to 10m is a great place to level off for a safety stop after a dive at barracuda point.
Look into nooks and crannies and you may just discover a spider crab or a mantis prawn or even the beautifully painted blue ribbon eel. But remember, unless you’re an experienced diver, leave the photography to professionals.
Average depth is about 20m. The currents can be pretty rough and may reverse during dives so stay close to the divemasters. However, if there are strong currents, there could be lots of pelagics swimming through for some plankton chow. It’s been known to have large shoals of fusiliers , batfish, sweetlips , snappers, rainbow runners. Other slow moving marine life such as the lionfish, crocodilefish, pufferfish, stonefish and turtles have their regular hangouts here.
For those wishing to meet the large school of bumphead parrotfish or hammerheads that may flow through with the currents – that’ll have to be very early in the morning.about 5.30am or so.as we were told by a divemaster. This means that special arrangements have to be made with the divemasters for a boat and crew to take you there. Check with your divemasters though. If the water temperatures are cool enough, there may be a chance sighting of manta rays or whale sharks.
Divers will back roll into a shallow reef crest and slowly make their way to the drop-off and down the wall. Average depth here is about 18m. There may be currents here so stick closer to the wall and the divemaster will often advice to follow the current flow. An amazing sight!
The entire wall is covered with soft corals, large gorgonian sea fans, black corals, barrel sponges, Dendrophyllia corals, Tubastrea corals. Small caverns with sleeping whitetips and if you look closer, you may even get to see the jewfish. If you look even closer, you may get to see the tiny eggs it may be carrying in its mouth.
With plenty of corals, divers are bound to see a lot of micro stuff . divemasters at the resorts have become quite skill at spotting small creatures tucked away under coral skirts etc.so if you’re into the small stuff, stick with the divemasters.
Upon ascending we had a wonderful encounter with as many as 11 male turtles and 1 female turtle. The male turtles were clambering over each other to get a good grip on the female. At any one time there were 4 males clinging on to the female with the rest tailing the group. Sometimes, such orgies could cause the female to drown. turtles breathe air, in case you may not know..
Getting To Sipadan
Borneo ~ Sabah ~ Tawau ~ Semporna ~ Pulau Sipadan
Most of the resorts provide pick up and drop off service from Tawau Airport or Tawau Town.
This is generally the route to take when thinking of travelling to Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai. Catch a flight to Sabah, normally point of entry is Kota Kinabalu or Tawau. For those arriving at Kota Kinabalu airport, you are possibly flying in from Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong or any other country of origin apart from Malaysia. For those flying from Kuala Lumpur, then you will have a choice of either to fly direct to Tawau or to fly via Kota Kinabalu and catch a connecting flight.
Before doing all this, best for you to do a little homework on which resort you wish to stay at whilst visiting Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai. Then resort operators will make arrangements to meet you at the Tawau airport and who will then whisk you off to Semporna by private van which takes about 1hr or so. The roads connecting Tawau and Semporna are good. Not much can be said for the scenery though. Miles and miles, as far as the eye can see of …palm oil plantations.
It’s always best to book your trip in advance as the busy diving months can mean full occupancy at the resorts. The last thing you’d want to be is disappointed.
Always book the earliest flights out to Tawau as some of the resorts have scheduled boat transfer times and if they have to transfer divers at an unscheduled hour, it’ll cost.
There are several routes to take:
1. From Kuala Lumpur
Air Asia flies direct to Tawau daily ; www.airasia.com
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu with connecting flights to Tawau daily ; www.malaysia-airlines.com , Mas Wings
2. From Kota Kinabalu
Malaysia Airlines flies from KK to Tawau daily ; www.malaysia-airlines.com , Mas Wings airline webpage
3. From Singapore
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday ; www.malaysia-airlines.com
SilkAir flies to Kota Kinabalu on Monday and Friday ; www.silkair.com
Air Asia flight from KL to Tawau, no delay this time…lucky us!
Flights coming in from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu normally arrive late evening. It will be advisable to spend a night in KK (accommodation is much better than in Tawau..) and then take the connecting flight to Tawau early the next morning. Flight time from KK to Tawau is about 40minutes.
Those of you waiting in between flights, and have 3 to 4 hours to spare, just catch a bus from Tawau airport to town for a walkabout. Cost is minimal , about RM9 and takes about 20min. Tell the driver you want to be dropped off near the market place.
Tawau Airport Bus Schedule to Tawau town : 7.15am, 9.15am, 10.50am, 12.15pm, 2.30pm, 3.50pm 6.50pm
Tawau town to Tawau Airport Bus Schedule:5.30am, 8.00am, 8.30am, 10.30am, 1.00pm, 2.30pm, 5.00pm
If you’re unsure, take a taxi to town for about RM35 per way. But on the way back from town, you can bargain with the taxi driver for a cheaper rate taking you back to the airport. You can pick up a taxi from the ‘bemo station’.
For those not wanting to take the private van or arriving at Tawau from another part of Sabah, it’s possible to take a public van like a bemo, from Tawau to Semporna. This ‘station’ is situated close to the markeplace. But be prepared to wait.
Those not wishing to fly on return to Tawau from Semporna, there are buses leaving for the larger towns in Sabah from the outstation bus terminal eg to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan.
The speedboat ride from Semporna to Mabul is about 45min depending on the weather and to Sipadan is about 1+hr
If you wish to take a taxi from Tawau airport to Semporna, cost is approx. RM160
Minivans are available at the airport based on SIC (seat-in-coach) sharing basis and will cost approx. RM40 – RM45 per person to Semporna. However,expect to wait till the seats are filled before they depart. If you have plenty of time, this may be the best option for you