Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Where I stayed

Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Sunday, September 18, 2011

I have heard about Sipadan for some time now as it is one of those spots labelled 'one of the top ten dive sites in the world'. It isn’t a cheap place to visit though and so we almost decided to cut it out of our schedule, Borneo to date already being a budget buster.  But by now we had decided to try to cut Australia out of our schedule, thinking along the lines that we can go back and do Oz on a holiday anytime and despite having some people to stay with, timings weren’t working for us and the expense of getting around meant it would rinse our funds.  If truth be told we didn’t think it would be possible to change the destinations of our flights so we just called to enquire but found that we could and had to give an answer there and then and so in a drastic and swift move Austalia was no more, and Sipadan was back on!

You haven’t been able to stay on Sipadan itself since they closed it and turned it into a national park in 2004.  Unfortunately there was an accident with a boat carrying building materials in 2006 that destroyed some of the reef there and so its a good thing that they have now turned the unique island into a national park so that only 120 permits are granted each day for visitors to the island.  Of course prices vary depending which company you go with but on average a day at Sipadan will cost you around 95 to snorkel and 120 for 3 dives, neither of which include transport there from the mainland if you are nor staying on Mabul.  The permits get booked up far in advance though and so without pre-booking you might have to simply go there with whoever has the permit, if any.  We started enquiring 2 weeks before heading there and only found a permit via Uncle Chang’s dive school and so that is who we had to go with.

As you can’t stay on Sipadan most people stay on the nearest island of Mabul, itself only 20 hectares and sits on a continental shelf with plenty of awesome dive sites of its own.  We couldn’t stay at Uncle Chang’s (it being full with a big group of Chinese holiday makers) and so we stayed at (a much more superior standard of dive operation but alas with no Sipadan permits).  Mabul itself has some beautiful beaches but as the water is shallow and the reef comes right up to the beach its not really sea for swimming in espcially due to the likelihood of bumping into urchins or sting rays.  There are some beautiful (pricey) resorts there though with pools and jetties built out to the deeper water for snorkelling and swimming. 

Thankfully there are also plenty of backpacker dive operations and accommodation on the island mainly in the form of ‘homestays’ in the village in local style longhouses built on stilts over the water.  The locals are Bajau who have lived in the surrounding waters for generations farming fish, sea cucumbers, shells etc.  They used to be nomads living in intricate carved wooden boats but now live mainly in wooden stilt houses sometimes right in the middle of the shallow waters out at sea rather than attached to the land like at Mabul.  The Bajau are known as ‘sea gypsies’ and you may remember that they featured in the BBC’s Human Planet series as some have adapted so they can hold their breath for huge lengths of time under water while spear fishing. 

Unfortunately though, with the introduction of non decomposable plastics and I’m not sure if its lack of education, different cultural attitudes, a combination of the two or what but the locals both on Mabul, the Sea Gypsies that pass by and those on the mainland at the nearest town of Semporna mean that the level of rubbish and plastic on the ground in the village, in the sea around some parts of Mabul and floating in the oceans between Mabul and the mainland is absolutely disgusting.  Most dive operations do their bit to pick out of the ocean what they can but I really fear for the future of the marine life around Mabul if a solution isn’t found soon enough.   While sat on the beach outside Scuba Junkie (who if anyone is thinking of going to Sipadan would definitely be the best value top choice if you can get a permit with them), I noticed that not only do they have their own project to encourage locals to sell them turtle eggs for them to keep in their own hatchery but they were also chatting to the locals to try to organise a beach clean up.  It really saddens me as one of the main causes of turtle death is ingesting items of rubbish that finds its way into their habitat.

All that aside, the three dives we did around Mabul and the neighbouring island Kapali were ace.  The first Dive Master I had was a bit lame (no buddy checks, no dive brief, didn’t point out many fishies) but thankfully I had decent equipment and know how to do my own safety checks.  The second two dives I joined Will and an Aussie couple after they had done their scuba reviews and our DM was much better.  There’s tonnes of macro stuff on Mabul that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know where to look, like banded box shrimp and beautiful ornate ghost pipe fish that just look like a  bit of seaweed floating until you look carefully (actually one of the seahorse family).  We saw turtles on every dive too and a massive giant moray eel curled under a rock.

The following day we headed off to Sipadan.  As you approach to island you know you are in for something special.  Even looking over the side of the boat you can see the beautiful coral landscape and plethora of beautiful multicoloured tropical fish below.  It truely is an underwater paradise.  Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia and was formed by corals forming on top of an extinct volcano.  Off the continental shelf is a massive drop off into the depths and so much of the diving there, as at Mabul, are wall dives.  Due to the strong currents you get loads of big things there too so we saw sharks on every dive and got to do our first drift dives.  At one point there were 2 sharks  circling maybe 10 metres below us that were around 7 feet long so quite big, but I got too excited and forgot I had a camera in my hand.  We saw white tip, black tip and grey reef sharks, 2 eagle rays which looked so graceful as they glide past you through the blue, loads and loads of turtles including two mating which although beautiful to watch their little mating dance in the water did at one point make us feel like maybe we should give them some privacy ;-), and loads of my favourite bat fish who are always so curious and cute and aren’t bothered by you at all. 

In between dives you get to go and sit on the beach on Sipadan for your snacks, tea and lunch and to have a swim in the turquoise waters there.  It is a protected island now though and so you are not allowed to wonder off to explore it.  Having seen the litter accumulating in Mabul I think it is a good thing that this island is now being preserved. In his film 'Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle'  Jacques Cousteau said, "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art."  It was a real priviledge to go there, and I really hope we can return one day as its totally addictive!  I also hope that it remains preserved and no more damage is done to its reefs.

Our only complaint of the day at Sipadan was again our DM.  He seemed to have little regard for usual diving standards and sent half the group off with an a local who is an advanced diver not a DM!  He also led us all into the blue at baracuda point, got lost and wasted half our dive swimming through blue nothingness – a tad frustrating.  The rest of it totally made up for that though and also inspired us to buy our own dive computer so we can monitor our own safety levels in the future.

The evening after Sipadan there was a party at our homestay as two dive instructors were leaving to do a season in the Similan Islands in Thailand so there was free Filippino rum all round.  Also a DM in training had to do her snorkel test so it was entertaining to watch that too.  (For you who dont know – the snorkel test is the last test you have to pass to become a dive master, and so to simulate drowning a bottle is attached to the top of a snorkel and a concoction of whatever has been mixed up by their fellow diver community (this one was a mix of rum, gin, condensed milk, ketchup, soy sauce, lemon juice.... you get the idea?) and poured into said snorkel until it is all gone)  I have to take my hat off to Marie the Spanish girl who was subject to this as she failed it first time round but asked for a second chance, passed, didn’t vomit and was still standing several hours later!).

Sad to leave island paradise we got the night bus back to KK where we relaxed and did pretty much nothing for a few days before our next and last adventure in Borneo, Gunung Mulu National Park....
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