The crown jewel of Southeast Asian diving beckons with its epic marine life of over 3,000 species of fish and coral but keeps its marine environment firmly intact as a protected park area.
By Dave Stamboulis. Photos by Dave Stamboulis and Sabah Tourism.
Travelers to Thailand often ask me where to go diving on their vacation to Southeast Asia, usually expecting to hear recommendations for Koh Tao, or perhaps some smaller islands off the coast of Trang. While these places may have their merits, they pale significantly when placed against the islands of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, with the islet of Sipadan leading the charge. Sipadan gets listed with Pulau, the Galapagos, the Red Sea, and a few other spots as one of the world’s premier diving destinations. Its marine life is epic, with over 3,000 species of fish and coral, and as a protected park area, keeps its marine environment firmly intact. Famed undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau once said of the island, “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art.”
Sipadan, and its accompanying phenomenal dive islands Mabul and Kapalai, are located out in the Celebes Sea, off the coast of eastern Sabah in Borneo. While Borneo often conjures up images of a wild and remote jungle, the Malaysian sides of Borneo are far from this and getting to Sipadan these days is actually quite easy. From Kuala Lumpur, daily flights come in to Tawau, on Sabah’s east coast from where it is a short drive to Semporna, a rather grubby port town filled with dive operators and tourist services. Fast boats can reach the islands from here in around an hour, and visitors have the option of either doing day dives from Seporna (which is what the budget travelers or those pressed for time do), or else sleeping on Mabul or Kapalai islands, diving both there and over on Sipadan. This is a far more preferable option.
Sipadan used to have resorts on it but the Malaysian government has forbidden any overnighting for over a decade now, keeping the island as pristine as possible, and trying to preserve the marine ecosystem for future generations. Only about 12 hectares around and covered in dense rain forest, the isle does have a lovely white sand beach, but the main attractions on Sipadan lie off the shore, where a volcanic wall plunges 2,000 feet down into the sea, covered in coral and home to thousands of fish.
Highlights of Sipadan dives include the regular spotting of tornado formations of barracudas, scalloped hammerhead and whale sharks, big-eye trevallies, manta and eagle rays, schools of humphead parrotfishes, and one of the world’s largest concentrations of Hawksbill and green turtles. Even snorkeling here is like being in a living aquarium, with tunnels of colorful fish surrounding swimmers up on the surface of the water.
Sipadan is well managed environmentally and only 120 permits are given out per day to dive here. Diving is only allowed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the permits are distributed between the dozen dive operators, which manage the resorts on Mabul, Kapalai, and in Semporna. This does require travellers to do a bit of advance planning, but this doesn’t differ too vastly from a normal vacation. During the high season between May and October, the resorts fill up, and most people booking a room will also book a few days of diving at the same time.
Even for non-divers, the area is fantastic. Kapalai island has one of the region’s most beautiful resorts, with wooden chalets built on stilts set over turquoise water, home to abundant macro marine life, pretty much accessible right from the deck of your room.
Over at Mabul Island, there is a more budget friendly array of accommodation. Most of the mid-range options can be found here, and there are even budget homestays available — in the Badjao fishing village. Mabul is home to a large population of refugee Badjao sea gypsies, most of whom have fled strife in the Sulu Sea of Southern Philippines. The Badjaos can be seen going out to fish in their dugout canoes, and lend a bit of a human element to this deep-sea paradise.
There is even a bit of the wacky to be found out in the midst of all this beautiful water. A former oilrig platform has been recycled to its present use as a mid-range divers’ resort. Sitting just off the coast of Mabul, Sea Adventures Dive Resort offers up fairly spartan rooms and rather gritty industrial charm, but makes up for it with coral reefs right below the rig. The owners of the resort bought the oldrig in Singapore and had it towed to Borneo.
Borneo and Malaysia seem to often fall off of the Southeast Asian travel circuit, but if you are looking for phenomenal diving and unscathed tropical island bliss, better start making your plans now.
Both Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have daily flights to Tawau, the closest jumping off point for Sipadan, Mabul, and Kapalai. Minivans do the trip from Tawau to Semporna in just under an hour. Semporna has offices for all the dive operators and resorts in the area, as well as plentiful accommodation and tourist services. Speedboats go to Mabul and Kapalai from here in around one hour.
Accommodations: On Kapalai, the Sipadan-Kapalai Resort (www.sipadan-kapalai.com) is one of the most gorgeous spots in the area. On Mabul, the Mabul Water Bungalows (www.mabulwaterbungalows.com/en/) is the most luxurious resort for miles. For something novel, try the converted oilrig hotel Sea Adventures (http://seaventuresdive.com).