Are you a dive enthusiast who would love to dive at one of the best dive spots in the world? If yes, then it's time to book a flight to the Malaysian Borneo for some diving in Sipadan to discover its amazing underwater world.
Known as a divers paradise, Sipadan island was formed thousands of years ago by living coral growing on top of an extinct underwater volcano cone. It is Malaysia's only oceanic island, located in the Celebes Seas off the east coast of Borneo.
Over 3000 fish species and hundreds of different corals call this place home, making it one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Not to mention the abundances of green and hawksbill turtles, huge schools of barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, sharks, and if you are lucky, whale sharks. It is no wonder, diving in Sipadan is every divers dream.
We first heard about Sipadan in December of 2015 while doing our Advanced Open Water on Koh Tao.
Although Koh Tao is a great place to do some cheap diving, the diversity is not all that amazing. So when we heard of Sipadan from a girl at our hostel speaking so highly about it and Borneo in general, we just knew we had to go there.
Within a couple of hours, we had our flights booked and were super excited about our new adventure, exploring Borneo, spotting wildlife along the Kinabatangan River and diving in Sipadan.
Diving In Sipadan
Diving in Sipadan was hands down the best diving we have ever done. In total, we had booked six dives, three for Sipadan island, with the remaining three to be decided on the day.
Leaving our hotel, we arrived at the dive shop all excited as we knew our first day of diving would be at Sipadan. After receiving our equipment, we made our way to the boat and set off towards the island.
Sipadan is located 40 km from the town of Semporna and takes about 50 minutes to reach by speedboat.
Arriving at Sipadan we pulled up to our first dive site of the day, Turtle Patch. All ready and set to go, we fell backwards one by one of the boat and into the turquoise water. Descending down, we were greeted by our very first turtle of the day.
Throughout the dive, we passed by many parrotfish, groupers, and white tip reef sharks. For us the sharks were the highlight of the dive and even the day, to swim with these fascinating creatures was so surreal. Yes, they might not have been great whites or hammerheads, but this was our first time swimming with sharks and it was pretty cool.
Our next stop was Barracuda Point, which is ranked in the top five dive sites in the world. We've heard stories of huge schools of barracudas in a tornado like formation found in these parts, but unfortunately, all we saw were three.
For some unknown reason, there just weren't too many around. In saying that, we were overtaken by a massive school of jackfish. At one stage, we also swam over five black tip reef sharks resting on the seabed below.
Before our third dive, we got the chance to step foot on Sipadan Island for lunch. A tiny little island only 500 meters in length and 200 meters wide.
Surrounded by crystal clear water, the pristine soft white sand was alive with small hermit crabs running along the beach. Covering the centre of the island is a small but dense rain forest.
The island really is something to be seen with your own eyes. We got to enjoy this beautiful little paradise for over an hour before jumping back into the water.
Our last dive of the day was at Coral Gardens. This dive spot is fantastic for those of you who love underwater photography. The healthy coral is so diverse, you can almost find every species of fish in Sipadan's waters here. It's also a highway for sharks making their way to white tip avenue while resting turtles chill on the sloping reef tops.
Back on the boat after an amazing day of diving in Sipadan, we waved goodbye to this charming island, hoping to return one day.
Day Two - We Got Lucky
Not knowing where we would be diving, we could only imagine it would be pretty difficult to compete with one of the best dive spots in the world. But in fact, there was no comparison to be made as we were returning back to Sipadan. We could hardly believe our luck.
See, to dive at Sipadan you must pre-book weeks or even months in advance. In 2006, Sabah National Park introduced a quota system to protect this exceptional ecosystem. Meaning only 120 lucky divers are allowed to dive here per day including instructors and dive masters.
So how did we manage it? Well, to guarantee their customers dives at Sipadan, dive schools must pre-book their permits in advance. Due to Chinese New Year (high season) the week before, our school had booked a few too many permits. Giving us the opportunity to dive for the second day in a row at no extra cost.
We began our second day diving in Sipadan at a completely new dive site on the north point of the island known as The Drop Off.
This site was once considered to be one of the best shore dives in the world. Just meters from the beach, the wall of the island drops to over 600 meters to the seafloor. On one side you have hard and soft coral and on the other, you have schools of jacks, batfish and barracuda.
At one stage while swimming towards turtle cave, we had this huge shark circling about 40 meters below. When I say huge I mean this fella was a lot bigger than the other black or white tips passing by. We never did find out what type of shark it was. Our dive master said it could have been a larger white tip, known to grow up to three meters in length.
Further on we came to turtle cave, one of the best-known features on this dive. The cave runs 20 meters deep and along its floor, you'll find many turtle skeletons.
Unfortunately, some of the turtles who enter the cave die from drowning before finding their way back out. We got a chance to explore a couple of meters into the cave, and on our way back out we saw a small group of tuna rush past our eyes.
This was by far our best dive at Sipadan. Actually, it's the best dive we have ever done.
Our next two dives were back at Coral Gardens and Barracuda Point due to the ever changing strong currents. During the dive, we pretty much saw the same as the day before.
Although we didn't get to see the eight other remaining dive spots, we were still happy that we got an extra day of diving in Sipadan. At 3 pm we made our way back to the boat before waving goodbye to the island. Only this time not knowing for sure when we will return again.
Overall, our time spent diving in Sipadan was unforgettable. We swam with turtles, reef sharks, and through thousands of jackfish. We got to explore the entrance to an underwater cave and saw many different types of fish like batfish, scorpion fish, harlequin sweetlips, Nemo (clownfish) and Dory (blue tang). Diving in Sipadan truly was a lifetime experience and we would highly recommend it to everyone.
Where To Stay
As of 2004, it is no longer possible to stay on the Island of Sipadan. Most people who dive here will stay in Semporna or on the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai. We chose to stay in Semporna as it was the cheapest option of the three.
Who To Book With
We booked a 3N/2D package with Sipadan Scuba who are based in the main town of Semporna. Included in our package were three nights accommodation in the Holiday Dive Inn, three guaranteed dives at Sipadan, three dives at another island, plus lunch for two days.
Total cost was 919 MYR (280$) per person as of February 2016. We also had to pay an additional 50 MYR (15$) a day for our scuba equipment. Sipadan Scuba was by far the cheapest at that time and we had a great time diving in Sipadan with them.
Update: As of April 2017 3N/2D package is no longer available. You can, however, book a 2N/1D or 4N/3D, both guaranteeing you three dives at Sipadan.
Coming from Kuala Lumpur you can fly to Tawau (3 hours). From the airport, you can take a 1.5 hour taxi or arrange to be picked up by your dive school.
Coming from Kota Kinabalu you can fly to Tawau (50 minutes) or take the bus which will take you about 10 hours.
If you are travelling across Sabah by bus like we did, you can catch the bus from Sukau to Semporna (5 hours) which drops you right into Semporna town.
Note: Diving in Sipadan does require you to have at least an Advanced Open Water Certificate.
Do you like to dive? Would you stick diving in Sipadan on top of your dive list or have you been before? Share with us your thoughts in the comments below. Also, we would love to hear what dive spots in the world you think we should check out next.