I was aware of Sipadan, the famous dive site off northeast Malaysian Borneo, even before I started my Open Water course. Diving Sipadan is on the bucket list of just about every diver coming to Southeast Asia. A tiny volcanic pinnacle rising 600m from the seafloor, it is home to huge amounts of marine life.
Diving Sipadan wasn’t in my plans. It’s a lot more expensive than diving almost anywhere else in Southeast Asia. A complicated permit system helps keep the sites pristine, but it makes advance bookings a must. I was prepared to skip Sipadan in order to save time and money. At the time we were planning our trip to Borneo, Paul wasn’t yet a diver, and I was hesitant to spend a lot of money on an amazing experience that he couldn’t share. But a well-traveled American diver we met in the Banda Islands emphatically told me that Sipadan was not to be missed. Paul also encouraged me to go for it. And I’m glad I did!
Diving Sipadan, and Only Sipadan, On A Budget
I think I spent more time organizing my Sipadan trip than I spent underwater! You must have a permit to dive Sipadan. Only 120 permits are granted per day. Sabah Parks allocates permits to resorts, which then sell on the permits in an opaque process. The result for divers is that you should book your Sipadan dives early, and find an operator that can guarantee the permit.
There is no accommodation on Sipadan Island. You have two choices of where to stay: on the mainland in Semporna, or at a resort on nearby Mabul Island. Most dive shops require customers to purchase diving plus accommodation packages with multiple days of diving in order to get one guaranteed day at Sipadan. You would spend the rest of your dive days around Mabul or nearby Kapalai. I didn’t want to do this. Mabul and Kapalai are renowned macro sites, but I’m not yet at the stage where I’m excited by muck diving. Paul wasn’t going to dive, so every day that I dove would be one day where he’d be stuck at the hotel with nothing to do. And, diving Sipadan and the surrounding area is really expensive. One day was already a budget-buster.
Mabul Island looked like a nicer alternative to Semporna, but I couldn’t find a good operator that would take me just for one day. A couple of budget operators do offer one-day packages with a guaranteed Sipadan permit, but they have really bad reviews on Tripadvisor. I didn’t want my regulator to malfunction at 25m!
Finally, I went with Sipadan Scuba on Semporna, the only operator that looked like it had decent safety standards and offered a one-day Sipadan package. Sipadan Scuba was okay, but I wasn’t wild about it. The boat was bare-bones, they didn’t bring enough water for everyone, the gear was old, and the fins were flimsy snorkeling kind. The Holiday Dive Inn, the hotel included in the package, was a bit of a dive with a cell-like room. Still, Sipadan Scuba were professional and safety-conscious, and I would recommend them for divers like me who just want to dive Sipadan without committing to an expensive multi-day package.
Semporna really isn’t a nice place. For a town situated next to some of the world’s best diving, it has a strangely subdued atmosphere. It’s dirty, scruffy, and it doesn’t feel like much of the money from tourism makes its way back to the community. There’s no beach, no decent coffee shop, and nowhere fun to hang out. My advice is to get in, dive, and get out. Divers without time or budget constraints for diving Sipadan should consider booking a package with accommodation on Mabul. I didn’t visit Mabul, but it’s got to be better than Semporna!
My first dive was at the famed Barracuda Point, where lucky divers see hundreds of barracuda schooling in tornado formations. It wasn’t long before the guide banged his tank and led us to a spot where a school of barracuda were massing near the bottom. The fish swam in a spiral formation, creating a column that grew taller and taller. The school swirled up and up until it reached the surface. It looked like a strand of DNA animated by fish. Then, all the fish changed direction and shimmered downwards. It was an incredible spectacle. Before this dive, I had never seen more than one barracuda at a time, and now a huge school was demonstrating this beautiful, inscrutable behavior. The videos give a better idea of what it was like to witness.
How lucky was I to see the barracuda tornado? I’m not sure. Before the dive, the guide said that he only rarely saw barracuda at Barracuda Point. Diving websites, on the other hand, say that it’s not uncommon to see the barracuda vortices. So, I don’t know if what I saw was rare or everyday behavior, but I consider myself very lucky to have seen these magnificent fish.
The other highlight of diving Sipadan was an enormous school of jackfish. Jackfish aren’t the most colorful or eye-catching fish. They’re silver and they look like fish. But when they form a school this big and dense, it’s an amazing sight. Even better, the jacks occasionally shifted to reveal several giant trevallies in their midst. The trevallies are there to hunt jackfish, and the schooling behavior of the jacks is meant to confuse the trevallies.
The jackfish shifted and swirled, schooling around us. It was like swimming inside a cavern made of fish.
Other Cool Stuff: Sharks and Batfish
Sipadan stands out not so much for its colorful coral or reef fish, but for its huge schools of fish that you normally see in small numbers. I was never that excited by batfish when I saw them in groups of three or four. But the huge school of batfish that we drifted past was an amazing sight. Batfish hang almost perfectly still in the water.
I saw more sharks at Sipadan than I have in all my other dives and snorkels combined. Sharks are cool! They are graceful creatures with an unmistakable way of swimming away with a flick of the tail. They are sadly misunderstood. Divers typically see reef sharks, which are small and harmless to humans. Sharks should really be afraid of people, not the other way around. The disgusting practice of finning – catching a shark and slicing off its fin – is alive and well so that rich Asians can eat shark fin soup. We’ve seen shark fin soup at a food court in Bangkok, and Paul saw a family in Labuanbajo, Indonesia, butchering a shark in front of their house. Sipadan is one of the few spots with a large population of sharks because finning has decimated their numbers in many areas.
Diving Sipadan: Learning to Love the Big Silver Stuff
Sipadan is special because of its huge numbers of fish. At other dive sites in Asia, you see one barracuda if you’re lucky. At Sipadan, you can see a tornado of them. Sharks are rare in most other areas, but at Sipadan you get tired of them by the end of the day. Sipadan is also reputed to have huge schools of bumpheads, which, sadly, I didn’t see.
It was the small patches of coral and bright reef fish in the Gili Islands that first got me interested in the underwater world, but that’s not why you come to Sipadan. Diving Sipadan isn’t about colorful coral or reef fish. Instead, it’s where the big silver fish get their moment to shine. I had never thought much about barracuda or giant trevally before diving Sipadan. Now, I’m a huge fan of both fish. And swimming inside the school of jacks rates among my moments that feel like they were taken from Blue Planet. That’s the great thing about diving: every area spotlights a whole new aspect of the underwater world.