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Diving in Kapalai

Life on a Sandbank

Kapalai is a shallow reef upon which sits a stilted resort located around 20 minutes from Malaysian dive mecca, Sipadan. Kapalai diving is about more than just going to Sipadan every day; it also offers a lot of its own dive sites, some of which can be accessed by striding off the resort's own diving platform.

Diving in Kapalai: Emperor Shrimp, photo by Kentrick Chin
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The beautiful wooden resort looks more like people's idea of honeymooner's favourite the Maldives, than like Borneo and there is something undeniably romantic about falling asleep with the sea breeze wafting in through your cabin as the shallow water gently laps below.

Living right on top of a coral reef is Kapalai's chief feature and that you can dive some excellent critter sites by simply striding off the resort is worth a special mention. To think that there is so much life and activity going on right below you is something unique to scuba diving at Kapalai. Crocodilefish, frogfish, mantis shrimps and cuttlefish all live near your room. And if you drop in at sunset you can witness the sexual union of several pairs of beautiful mandarinfish!

There are several great sites within easy reach of the resort whether they be small walls, shallow reefs or sandy flats with little rocky outcrops where life seems to be concentrated. Just like nearby Mabul Island, some people come to dive only Sipadan and find themselves choosing instead to dive frequently at Kapalai to enjoy the fascination that macro diving here creates.

Dive Site Descriptions

Cleaning Station - Like the majority of dive sites here, you will find Cleaning Station a nice and easy dive. The entry point is about 100m away from the dive station and you initially descend to the top of the reef at about 5m depth before gently making your way down the slope. You can then cruise along in the typically mild current at about 16m checking out various colorful nudibranchs, as well as the resident turtles hanging around an old wooden boat wreck. Show more

You may also encounter one or more cuttlefish hovering in the water. You can watch as pulses of colour play over its back and it watches you, seemingly with as much interest as you are watching it. Inspect the sand too for the large holes inhabited by jawfish. These are a more common sight around Kapalai than they are in many other places.

The dive sites of Kapalai generally run from one into the next, so you might find yourself starting at one site and ending on another. Someone here at the resort definitely has a sense of humour - several of these sites have mock electricity pylons, small huts and rock piles to decorate the site and attract the marine life.

The Cleaning Station offers a small and interesting surprise at every turn. This gentle drift drive is ideal for beginners and yet still extremely satisfying for the experienced diver. Cruise along the reef and see which unusual creatures you can tick off your wish list.

Gurnard Point - This is another site which is abundant in sea life. Having back-rolled off the boat, you can choose to explore either the lively reef wall or the sandy rubble bottom or ... both. Show more

The sand is home to hundreds of mantis shrimps, watchful garden eels and pipefish and there are also plenty of opportunities to watch the symbiosis between partner shrimp and gobies. With such a plethora of activity going on you could easily spend a whole dive covering just a small patch of sand.

On the reef itself you'll find rare and colourful nudibranchs, and several of the resident fish that call Kapalai home. These can include several varieties of boxfish, moray eels and batfish to name but a few. There are also quite a few of the eponymous flying gurnards around. They seem to walk around on the sea floor sometimes spreading their 'wings', especially when approached.

Normally a dive here will take in both the reef and the sand where there is also a small wreck with a giant frog fish at home along with few moray eels. Next to it you might see some sting rays on the sandy plateau.

If you take your time and rest on the sandy floor here you can see the garden eels slowly edging higher and higher in the water, rise a little or approach them and they will start to retreat into their sandy burrows. This can be agony for a photographer but good entertainment for the fun diver, who will be more than happy with their experience at Gurnard Point.

Lobster Rock - Diving at Lobster Rock normally means an easy cruise along the reef enjoying the colourful landscape of soft and hard corals. There is a lot to see among the hard corals, such as nudibranchs and small pipefish but you have to look hard as they are well camouflaged. As the name suggests, lobsters are fairly frequent, especially at night. Show more

You can also spot jawfish on the sandy patches. Needless to say, turtles abound all around these reefs so you may see 3 or 4 on each dive, especially in the shallows. There seems to be almost nowhere on earth where turtles are so common as this part of Malaysia.

As is the norm with diving in Kapalai, you will descend and almost immediately start seeing things of interest. This usually means it takes a while to get down to the maximum depth of the dive. From the shallows you will swim along the reef looking for those rare fish that are well camouflaged in the coral beds, sea fans and on the sandy bottom. Your dive guide may take a few minutes to stop at some sea fans looking for pipefish which can be very tricky to spot.

Moving along deeper and closer to the sandy bottom, there may be a few juvenile banded pipefish in the area. You need to move slowly here since if you get too close, too quickly they can dart away from sight. Similarly, if you spot any jawfish resting at the top of its burrow on the sandy flat, try not to approach too quickly of they will disappear from view only to emerge again when the threat of the big, bubble-blowing creatures has passed.

Mandarin Valley - Slowly descending down a coral slope on your left shoulder. Don't go too fast or you will miss the more camouflaged residents such as stonefish and frogfish watching you go by. Like all of the dive sites here, both small rare fish and invertebrates are in abundance, living without the threat of Sipadan's many dangerous reef predators. The Ligitan Reefs of Kapalai also act as a nursery for juveniles of many species. Show more

As you get down to the floor you may find several cuttlefish. To watch the responses of the cuttlefish to your movements, as its skin pulsates and flashes into different camouflage patterns, is a great interaction between man and aquatic creature. It is also worth keeping an eye out so as not to miss the chance to see squadrons of their squid cousins jetting by.

The cuttlefish often tend to linger near the wreck of a small fishing boat found in around 18 metres of water. Naturally the wreck provides shelter to various other wonders such as ghost pipefish in various colours including reddish-orange. Also often spotted here are the photogenic longnose hawkfish, crocodilefish and nudibranchs.

Over the channel amidst the corals and sponges, you can hunt at dusk for vibrantly coloured mandarinfish merrily dancing this way and that, among the black spines of sea urchins. The list of small critters to be found here is endless. Add to this the few large sharks and crayfish that put in an appearance after the sun has set and you can see why this site is so highly regarded.

Due to its relatively shallow profile and the prolific list of critters that live here, Mandarin Valley is a very popular site for photgraphers, since they can stay under for long periods of time.

Spotted Ray Channel - As with all the dives at Kapalai, this is a nice relaxing wander in relatively shallow water. Sink down here in the bath-warm water and cruise along a sandy channel leaving the reef to your side. If you have a keen eye you can find all manner of Kapalai's sea-life, including ribbon eels, stonefish, ghost pipefish and a beautiful lavender coloured frogfish. Show more

There is little need for you to exhaust yourself finning to cover ground as it seems that in every crevice there is another small joy waiting to be discovered. Crossing over the sandy channel which gives the site its name the dive normally proceeds to an underwater garden of extraordinary richness.

Here you can catch sight of many beautiful and rare nudibranchs among other wonders including, if you are lucky, a tropical octopus. The most highly prized sight in this dive however is the dragonfish or pegasus, found in pairs on the sandy floor. If your group finds them just wait for the excited post-dive chatter on the wooden sundeck of the resort.

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How to Dive Kapalai

Ornate ghostpipefish are found in Kapalai - photo courtesy of ScubaZoo

You don't have to stay on Kapalai to experience these dive sites. However, if you do stay in Kapalai Resort you can dive here every day (and night) if you wish. Special local rates apply for Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates living in those countries with work permits.

The resorts of Mabul Island and the MV Celebes Explorer, the only liveaboard in the area, also run trips to dive here.

Diving Season

The year round settled conditions mean that the dive sites here can be visited all year round. The best time is probably from March to October; outside this time (during the rainy season) the visibility varies although you don't need clear water to wonder at the small creatures that live around here.

Kapalai's dive sites typically have sandy bottoms so visibility will be reduced unless conditions are very calm. However, the visibility is often a lot better than the "as standard" low visibility experienced at some other classic muck-diving destinations. Water temperatures are reasonably constant between 26 and 30°C, with November to February being the months with cooler water.

The main creatures of Kapalai such as mandarinfish, frogfish, ribbon eels and other smaller creatures are resident and therefore present all year round. There is no seasonal variation when it comes to underwater encounters.

Kapalai is a popular resort and there is a risk, during certain times of the year, of the resort being fully booked. These periods, where advanced booking is necessary, include March to August, Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year. If you wish to travel at these times please let us know as soon as possible.

Reef Summary

Good for: Small animals and beginner divers
Not so good for: Non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - 20m
Visibility: 5 - 15m
Currents: Gentle
Surface conditions: Can be a little choppy
Water temperature: 26 - 30°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: 18
Distance: 10 km (18 minutes) north east of Sipadan and 5 km east of Mabul
Access: Dive resorts
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 14 days, including the Sipadan, Kapalai and Mabul sites

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