Diving in Sipadan Island, one of the best dive spots in the world

written by Lee Hobson 03/05/2017

“There’s an island in Celebes Sea, the name Sipadan you must go and see. If you are a diver and you want the best, come along and Borneo divers do the rest” is how the song goes. But when you book with Borneo Divers Mabul (more information on our stay with them here) that is exactly what happens.

MABUL

Mabul is a tiny island, 15km North of Sipadan. The island has been a fishing village since the 1970’s and in the 90’s started to become popular with divers due to its close proximity to Sipadan. The locals are mainly Bajau Laut and Suluk Muslims who live a nomadic lifestyle on the ocean. More than half of the island’s population are children below 14 years old. This makes it an island full of games and children laughing and playing. A game I saw the kids playing was race the cat home, one kid grabbed the cat and is then followed by loads of other children. The cat is dumped at the other end of the island and the kids race the cat back home.

Mabul kids

Mabul has something for all divers! With the deepest dive site around the island being 40 m and its shallowest being 12m. Mabul is often over looked by divers as they want to get to Sipadan, but in its own right, it is famous for its macro life. I’ve never dived anywhere like this!

At the same moment in one dive I encountered a pygmy seahorse, a flamboyant cuttlefish and a blue ring octopus (don’t touch those as they carry enough venom to kill 26 adult humans within minutes which makes them one of the deadliest reef inhabitants in the ocean) .

Bluering octopus Sipadan

Bluering octopus


Sipadan Flamboyant cuttlefish

Flamboyant cuttlefish


Sipadan Pygmy seahorse

Pygmy seahorse

Being an avid underwater photographer I pursued the blue ring as I knew the others were not likely to make a swift get away. There are so many frog fish around Mabul, that you can ask your dive master for the preferred colour of frog fish you wish to see that day.

Sipadan Clown Frogfish

Clown Frogfish

If you are not afraid of the dark! You can just hop of the jetty at sunset or at night dive and see the most incredible creatures. After we had geared up and slipped into the warm water we got in position to see the elusive mandarin fish or mandarin dragonet (Synchiropus splendidus). It is a small, brightly colored member of the dragonet family and is arguably the most attractive coloured and patterned fish ever to exist. They turned our night dive into a beautiful Romeo and Juliet serenade, as they performed an amazing courtship and mating ritual. We also saw a bobtail squid which was just as tantalizing as the phosphorescent blue waters around Mabul. Once we ascended we couldn’t believe that these beauties had been under our feet the entire day.

Sipadan Mandarin dragonet

Mandarin dragonet

SIPADAN

Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising 600 metres (2,000 ft) from the seabed, so be careful of your depth while diving. It is located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia. It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. Sipadan is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem. On your dive it would be impossible to classify all the marine life you see and it is this rich diversity that makes Sipadan the best.

As you travel from Mabul to Sipadan keep and I out for whales, dolphins and whale sharks. Due to the ocean being like glass they were easy to spot. Once you have arrived at the stunning shores of Sipadan you go and register and then your underwater adventure can begin. Depending on the currents the dive guide will choose a suitable dive site.

Mabul Sipadan ocean

Turtle Tomb

The drop-off is the closest dive site and is right there at the jetty. We rolled off the boat and descended to the entrance of Turtle tomb, where we saw our first white tip reef shark. Then we swam through a school of jack fish which were swimming around the entrance of the cave.

Jackfish tornado


Turtle Tomb is a very special dive site! It is one of the must dives in Sipadan for any cave divers. Turtle Tomb is part of a huge cave system located after Turtle Cavern. There are many side tunnels with dead ends. You can go in for 200 m from the entrance of the cave. But only advance divers should attempt the cave as the silty bottom is easily disturbed. In the cave you can discover many skeletons of turtles, as well as a dolphin’s and a marlin’s, making it an eerie sight deep within the belly of the reef.

Sipadan Turtle tomb

Turtle tomb entrance

There are two ways to leave the cave, go back the way you came or go through a small window which brings you out on the reef. This will be decided by the dive master due to the divers’ air consumption. Once you come out of the cave the reef is filled with bubbles escaping from the cave system and truly a sight worth seeing.

Once you have ascended, you then have a surface interval on the fine white beach of Sipadan. With delicious snacks and drinks prepared for you by Borneo divers. Other dive resorts will be there so you can swap stories of what you saw and sometimes get a heads up on what’s in the area.

Sipadan islandSipadan

Barracuda Point

Our second dive was a drift dive at Barracuda point which was awesome. So many reef sharks it was truly remarkable and due to them being used to divers they were close enough to touch. I wouldn’t advise doing that though! We were then surrounded by the biggest school of barracuda I have ever seen. Just to make the moment more magical a turtle swam through the barracuda to see what we were doing.

On this dreamy surface interval, you get to have your lunch while looking out from the island with a view of the ocean as far as your eyes can see.

Sipadan green turtle

Green turtle


Sipadan Blacktip reef shark

Blacktip reef shark


Sipadan barracuda

Barracuda

Hanging Garden of Sipadan

Our third dive we went to hanging garden is a dive site that is so breath taking. Hanging garden as the name suggests has a lot of overhangs containing Tubastrea and Dendrophyllia corals, large gorgonian sea fans, sponges and barrel sponges giving the reef wall a colourful appearance and making it unique from other parts of the wall. On top of that, the topography of this area resembles that of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, thus for its given name.

This dive site is truly unique. I couldn’t stop staring at the wall and only glanced away twice. Once to watch a manta glide underneath us and another time to check out a thresher shark way down in the depths. Even on my safety stop, I found the shallows really tranquil and enjoyed watching the sunlight beaming through the surface of the water giving the coral that striped sunlit effect.

Sipadan Blacktip reef shark

Blacktip reef shark

After our final surface interval, I really didn’t want to get on the boat. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to go diving but I didn’t want to leave this magnificent island. As I shuffled my feet down the jetty and tried to somehow make my time here that little bit longer, while my fiancé was doing the same by demanding just one more photograph.

We went on our last dive which was turtles patch, I immediately descended after rolling in, to go and dive with the sharks. We then were treated with a huge school of Jacks tornadoing around us. Then I followed a shy humphead wrasse. I ended my dive with five turtles, one of which was a huge male and probably the biggest green turtle I have seen. And just like that, our day at Sipadan had come to an end.

I hope one day I can return to this underwater dreamland which will probably remain for me, the best dive site on Earth!

A FEW USEFUL TIPS

The gateway to Sipadan Island is through Semporna town and the nearest airport to Semporna town is Tawau Airport. A travel time from Tawau Airport to Semporna is about 90 minutes by car and from Semporna to Mabul island is around 45 minutes by boat.

We took a direct flight with AirAsia from Penang  to Tawau Airport. You can also take a direct flight from Kota Kinabalu International Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Tip: Choose your flight to arrive early at Tawau Airport so that you can catch the first boat transfer to your resort. On departure, choose the afternoon flight so that you have time to off-gas between your last dive and your departure flight.

The best time is during the dry season which is from March to October. High period is in July, August and first week of October. However, during the wet season the islands are not usually affected by the monsoons.

Diving at Sipadan Island requires a permit. Each day, there is a quota of 120 permits issued by Sabah Parks, the government authority charged with protecting the unique heritage. Diving at other nearby islands will not require these permits.

These 120 permits are allocated to 12 resorts operating in the area based on the size of the resort. The permits are not allocated to individuals directly. Application of these permits is through the resort that you are staying at and the resort will assist with this.

RESORT PACKAGES

Valid from 1st January 2017 to 31st December 2017

3 Days 2 Nights

RM 1.800 per diver
  • Transfer from Tawau airport to Semporna jetty
  • Boat transfer from Semporna jetty to BDSS Mabul Resort
  • Fullboard meals
  • Accommodation with A/C and bathroom with hot water shower.
  • 3 boat dives a day with divemaster
  • Unlimited shore dives without guide at our Mabul house reef

4 Days 3 Nights

RM 2.550 per diver
  • Transfer from Tawau airport to Semporna jetty
  • Boat transfer from Semporna jetty to BDSS Mabul Resort
  • Fullboard meals
  • Accommodation with A/C and bathroom with hot water shower.
  • 3 boat dives a day with divemaster
  • Unlimited shore dives without guide at our Mabul house reef

5 Days 4 Nights

RM 3.200 per diver
  • Transfer from Tawau airport to Semporna jetty
  • Boat transfer from Semporna jetty to BDSS Mabul Resort
  • Fullboard meals
  • Accommodation with A/C and bathroom with hot water shower.
  • 3 boat dives a day with divemaster
  • Unlimited shore dives without guide at our Mabul house reef

Extra night

RM 800 per diver
  • Transfer from Tawau airport to Semporna jetty
  • Boat transfer from Semporna jetty to BDSS Mabul Resort
  • Fullboard meals
  • Accommodation with A/C and bathroom with hot water shower.
  • 3 boat dives a day with divemaster
  • Unlimited shore dives without guide at our Mabul house reef

HERE IS THE SONG FROM THE BEGINNING OF THIS ARTICLE

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  • Rupali

    Needless to say that I am jealous😁
    Loved this post! Def referring to your blog when I plan this trip! Thanks for sharing!

  • Snehal Soni

    So beautiful 😍