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Diving in Sipadan Island

The Dive Legend of Borneo

Ever since diving celebrity Jacques Cousteau raved about Pulau Sipadan's diversity of marine life, this dive mecca has been indisputably the most famous scuba destination in Malaysia. It is located off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia's eastern most state, and lies on the north-eastern corner of Borneo, the world's third largest island.

Diving in Sipadan Island, where turtles are literally everywhere - photo courtesy of ScubaZoo
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The Sipadan legend has passed through the world's diving community to the extent that all divers with an interest in visiting the best sites in the world, have a resort stay at this small island near the top of their wish list.

Sipadan Island was at the top of Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine Gold List for 'The Top Dive Destination in the World'. In fact it shared its top spot with 2 other destinations known for the amazing diversity of their marine life - the Galapagos Islands and Truk in Micronesia.

Blue skies, clear waters, convenient diving and tropical scenery, but it is below the surface where this island really excels. The list of attractions is quite staggering and all the more exceptional as it involves plenty of big fish encounters - barracudas, large schools of trevally and marauding bumphead parrotfish. This is one of the big fish capitals of the world!

Everywhere you turn at Sipadan, you'll see turtles, munching on the sponges and algae, or lazing on the wall ledges. If you take the time to look closely at the walls you'll see a wealth of macro life and fish species to rival most destinations, although this is often overlooked due to the other major attractions vying for your attention.

South Point is a typical dive of Sipadan - colourful abundant walls, sharks, turtles and schools of fish in big numbers and all the while the possibility of seeing something really exciting such as hammerheads or thresher sharks. Cruising along you won't be sure whether it is a better idea to poke around in the wall or keep an eye out for the bigger stuff.

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As with many of the other sites, there is no hanging around in the blue doing a boring safety stop. Instead you will want the use of every breath of air in your tank as you spend the last few minutes hovering over coral gardens with as much colourful life and activity as anywhere.

Barracuda Point is one of the favourite dive sites at the island. Hordes of turtles, vast schools of jacks, bannerfish and snapper are merely bit part players on this site. A variety of sharks are also likely to be spotted but the real stars of this show are the eponymous barracuda. Find yourself in the eye of the hurricane that is the enormous vortex of barracuda here and you will be simply awestruck.

Turtle Cavern is not dived as much these days as it was before the closure of the resorts based on the island of Sipadan itself, but it is well worth doing as it is unlike any of the other sites. Before approaching the cave entrance you may well be stunned to see a marauding horde of huge bumphead parrotfish charging past you as you sink down the wall.

The cavern itself is large and intriguing. Turtle skeletons rest on the sea-bed - apparently having met their doom in the confusing passageways of the cavern. Don't worry, those passageways are much too small for you and this is an easy and interesting dive to add to the other excellent sites.

Dive Site Descriptions

Barracuda Point - There may be no guarantees in diving, but let's just say there is every chance that you can find yourself in the middle of a swirling vortex of chevron or blacktail barracuda at this north coast site, one of the most treasured spots at Sipadan Island. Show more

Normally divers roll in to the top of the wall here, at a depth of about 10 metres. There may be some current but that means there is lots of food which duly brings in tons of fish - schooling bannerfish and redtooth triggerfish are prevalent in large numbers. Grey reef sharks are always patrolling the perimeter here and hunting for lunch, and great barracuda and dogtooth tuna are frequent visitors to this part of the island too.

Cruise along the wall dropping down as far as you wish, and keep an eye out for a herd of bumphead parrotfish and turtles in every nook and cranny. Eventually the wall will level out into a sloping plateau, where the barracudas often congregate. Here you can also find Napoleon wrasse and yellow-margin triggerfish. A word of caution though, don't venture too deep to the north of this site as the currents can get very strong and sweep you downwards, out and away from the island.

Even without the barracudas this would be a most colourful and entertaining dive. But just when this thought flashes through your mind, you may be engulfed in a tornado of barracudas – several thousand strong and more than the eye can take in. A superb moment in an outstanding dive. It is little wonder that visitors who come scuba diving at Sipadan Island will leave with so many “Barracuda Point” entries in their log-books. You should have one too.

Coral Garden - Although the temptation of the drop-off is always there, this site is a haven for the underwater photographer. The health and diversity of the coral growth in the shallows atop of the wall, combined with the fact that almost every species to be seen in Pulau Sipadan’s waters is on view here, makes this site ideal for long dives devoted to both macro and wide angle compositions. Show more

In depths between 5 and 10 metres, you can observe dozens of green turtles feed on the edges of the wall, and encounter featherstars at every turn. If you are looking for an encounter with a wrasse then the humphead wrasse will oblige. Triggerfish of the clown and titan varieties are plentiful and may even allow you to take their photo without attack on their mind. Good luck!

The reef shallows here are so lively, colourful and in good shape that you don't really need to venture down the ever-present bordering wall. Butterflyfish, such as the blackspot and teardrop, and masked and regal angelish are present at every turn. Humpback unicornfish can be found in the throws of mating in pairs.

Sipadan, it is often said, has everything that the Indo-Pacific has to offer and for the macro photographer, Coral Garden will occupy many a pleasure-filled hour.

The Drop Off - This site is in many ways the signature dive of Sipadan. When the island had resorts stationed on it, this site was a mere stroll off the beach where a 600 metre drop would welcome you to the underwater world. Show more

The site was widely regarded as the best beach dive in the world ... until the resorts were removed from Pulau Sipadan and it became a boat dive. The underwater photographs always include schools of fish (jacks / trevallies or barracudas) circling above the diver and you may think that this is purely for the benefit of the promotional literature. However within 5 minutes of entering the water you are likely to see several hundred jacks circling overhead and a squadron of bumpheaded parrotfish charging around. These can prove a serious distraction from the ubiquitous whitetip sharks, grey reef sharks and green turtles.

The wall itself has a wide variety of coral and sponges and although there is an astonishing line-up of large fish around, you will find the Drop-Off to also be a great night diving spot as every nook and cranny in the walls is worth investigating for crabs, shrimp and various other nocturnal sub-aquatic wonders.

Hanging Gardens - In a nutshell, this is a wall dive which begins with a drop-off just over a metre from the surface, descends gradually to a terrace at about 70 metres and then plunges into an abyss. This is the topography here - hence its name 'Hanging Gardens'. The terraces, filled with a proliferation of Dendronephthya Alcyonarians in various pastel colours of lemon, lavender and antique rose overflowing down to the next level, harks back to the mythological Babylonian gardens after which it is named. Show more

To the underwater photographers out there, take a close look at the alcyonarians and gorgonian fans which adorn the wall - among them you'll find various microlife nestling in its branches and polyps.

Within the cavities and crevices on the wall, you'll find colonies of sweetlips, gobies, hawkfish, emperor angelfish, moray eels and coral groupers lurking around. Turtles are a common sight at Sipadan Island and this dive site is no exception; in particular, green turtles and imbricate turtles. Don't be surprised if you come across dozens of ribbontail stingrays as well.

Spend some time watching out towards the open sea as well, where you can find schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, and occasionally, if you're lucky, the extremely rare thresher shark, or fox shark. If you do come across it, the thresher shark, with its long upper tail which it uses to beat or thrash its prey, is a difficult sight to miss.

Midreef - Lazily decend to your required depth down the vertical wall that forms Pulau Sipadan's Midreef, then just drift along with the current, whichever way it takes you - north or south. Once you begin your dive, it won't belong before you come across this sites most discernable guests - dozens of large green turtles, by now very habituated to inquisitive divers. Show more

Drifting along the wall you'll soon be kept busy inspecting the dominant soft corals, navy knotted sea fans and orange gorgonian fans that hang from the ledges. Pygmy gobies and whip gobies are in abundance here. Forster's hawkfish are often seen hanging out, resting motionless on the small sponges. 5-lined cardinalfish and harlequin sweetlips move furtively under the many ledges and overhangs. Sulu fangblennies, known only to northern Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago, form aggregations among the gorgonians.

As with nearly all the Sipadan dive sites, Midreef can have quite strong currents, with an added tendency to push you upwards too. This occurs most often in the presence of cold water thermoclines rising from the depths. The trade-off though is that the adverse conditions bring with them higher densities of fish life. Large schools of moorish idols, redtooth triggerfish, unicornfish and bannerfish race along the wall. Smaller schools of round batfish pass by and Napoleon wrasse are regular visitors to this part of Borneo too.

The 6 metre hard coral flats that top the reef make an ideal safety stop. Small hardy stubbly table corals, and porites corals dominate here, and these form the staple diet for packs of bumphead parrotfish, sometimes 40 or so strong. Moving like a herd of African buffalo, munching their way through the dense bush, these largest of all parrotfish are a terrific sight and safety stops often become very long here!

South Point - This is a good place to get a bit deeper in the morning as long as you don't mind a thin layer of narcosis-on-toast for breakfast. South Point is one of the more likely sites at Sipadan for rare shark sightings such as hammerheads and thresher sharks, both of which tend to stay at depths here of 40+ metres. Show more

On this dive you will descend down to a ledge and then fin out gently into the blue, scanning the waters for a glimpse of action. If you are lucky enough to encounter hammerhead sharks or threshers you will be the toast of the resort and the object of envy.

Then, often you'll hear them coming nearer, long before you see them. The noise comes through the water like a riot in a school dining room, the enormous bumphead parrotfish grinding and munching the corals for the algae. At 85 kg and easily more than 1 metre long, the fish have humped and scarred heads, small eyes, and jutting teeth-like fused beaks. They excrete white exhaust plumes of pulverised coral sand, like a locomotive train. Watch as they take pizza-sized bites out of the table corals and then march on by.

The wonder of Pulau Sipadan is that visitors get used to countless turtles, white-tips, bump-headed parrotfish and massive schools of other fish, that the crossbar is always raised, and South Point is often the site for the crowning glory.

Staghorn Crest - At this dive site, you will find yourself beginning with a gentle descent along the drop-off, followed by a gradual diagonal descent along the wall, at the shallow end of which there is a garden of staghorn corals. Photographers take note - this site has brilliant light conditions during the afternoons which offers excellent illumination for superb underwater images. Show more

On the face of the wall, take a close look into the numerous cervices, balconies, cavities and protruding vaults where you will see a profusion of marine life which have made their home there. You will find red seawhip corals, black corals, barrel sponges and a plethora of reef fish. In particular, watch out for groupers, nudibranchs, angelfish, gobies, grunts, shrimps and triggerfish. Due to the untouched nature of the Sipadan reefs, the coral formations have grown to huge sizes; the black corals in depths between 15 and 40 metres have bushes which have grown up to 2 metres wide.

Because of the variable currents which can be strong at this dive spot, novices should stick close to the divemaster. However, more experienced divers with a yearning for adventure can strike out to about 30 metres away from the wall towards the expanse of open sea. Here, you will come across giant manta rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks, rare fox sharks and leopard sharks.

Turtle Cavern - The cavern is a complicated site with the entrance to the cavern located at about 18 m. Sipadan diving is famous for its population of both green turtles and the smaller hawksbill turtles. Show more

It was at one time speculated that the cavern was their mausoleum and that they came to this site to die. However, a more accurate representation, is that the turtles became lost in the caverns at night and drowned. Sipadan Island’s resort operators insist that all divers at this system of interconnecting caverns must be accompanied by a local dive master.

Inside the cavern you will see the skeletons of those previous entrants who failed to find the exit and perished. Deeper penetration of the system reveals the cavern as home to shoals of fish specifically adapted to the low light environment of the further reaches.

Turtle Patch - Although you can make a typical Sipadan-style wall dive, perhaps the best way of taking in Turtle Patch is just to let the current take you along the shallows, and then you can take in the scenery as it unfolds at its own natural and leisurely pace before your eyes. Show more

This is because, similarly with Coral Garden, the main attraction for divers here is the shallow terraces at the top of the eastern wall. This is also the attraction for a large number of giant turtles that come here to rest on the sandy bottom or feed on the sponges. The turtles are so used to inquisitive divers that many seem oblivious to their attentions, and you really can get quite close without disturbing them.

The reef here has some outstanding acropora staghorn coral stands, leather corals and small table corals. Hiding out here you can find spotted sweetlips and pufferfish, such as the mappa puffer. Lionfish and moray eels are also common here. In the rocky areas, orange spinecheek anemonefish watch you from the safety of their magnificent anemone homes of orange, green and purple. And with a bit of luck and if you're observant, you may spot a leaffish swaying slowly in the current.

Turtle Patch is located in the southeast corner of Sipadan Island, just to the northeast of South Point. Since it is located along the east coast, its wall is best dived in the mornings, however, the shallows are exposed to sunlight throughout the day.

Whitetip Avenue - With a name like "Whitetip Avenue", you're probably wondering, does it live up to its name? Well, yes, it does. You can look forward to numerous encounters with schools of gentle whitetip reef sharks. This, however, is only one of the many amazing underwater sights this dive site holds for you. Show more

A coral reef located at a shallow depth before plunging into the 600 metres vertical abyss, Whitetip Avenue is full of unexpected encounters. You'll find yourself in the middle of a huge silver school of bigeye travellies or within a colourful palette of gigantic bumphead parrotfish.

The route you take will be determined by your dive guide, depending on the direction of the prevailing current. Either way, you will find the wall on one side and the open sea on the other.

The wall is full of terraces, crevices, ledges and vertical chimneys which are worth a look into - you'll find sponges of all shapes and colours, black coral colonies and gorgonian fans. Among this rich coral life, you'll find reef and den fish circulating merrily. Watch out for groupers, emperor angelfish, moorish idols, triggerfish, parrotfish, clownfish, boxfish, scorpionfish and butterflyfish. You may also find yourself cavorting with a friendly turtle (or 10!).

The open sea on the other side holds encounters with the predators of Sipadan like the grey reef shark, and naturally, whitetip reef sharks. Novice divers are not encouraged to venture into the deep side of the drop-off.

How to Dive Pulau Sipadan

There are several excellent nearby resorts from which to dive here. The closest resorts are on Mabul and Kapalai. There is only 1 liveaboard in the area, which stays overnight in Mabul. See more on all the options in our Malaysia resorts section. Special local rates apply at many of these resorts for Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates living in those countries with work permits.

Whitetip reef shark with schooling jacks. Diving Pulau Sipadan - photo by Eric Madeja

The resort islands also boast some excellent macro dive sites which are a great complement to the breathtaking big fish action of Sipadan.

Visits to Sipadan operate on a permit basis and are restricted to 120 diving permits issued per day. We recommend staying at least 4 nights to allow greater opportunity to dive at the island (normally 4 dives a day). The longer you stay the greater your chances of having more visits to Sipadan.

Permits are not allocated in advance so no-one, including the resorts themselves, can make guarantees about the number of days you will visit Sipadan Island, unless your stay is for longer. When you book with Dive The World, we will apply for entry permits to the restricted area on your behalf. This will give you the same chance (or better) of obtaining dive permits as booking elsewhere.

With some resorts Dive The World can arrange, in advance, for you to pay for extra permits, subject to availability. It is not a guarantee but is the best way possible to increase your chances of multiple days of diving at Sipadan.

Diving Season

The Sipadan dive season is year round and most normally expressed as having the best conditions from April to December, especially July and August. Surface conditions are normally calm, sometimes glass-calm, but there can be small waves making the speed-boat ride to the island a little bumpy, particularly in the rainy season.

The rainy season tends to be from December to March when unsettled weather may result in a decrease in visibility, however in recent years the timing of the rainy season has been less than certain. The most likely months for unsettled weather are January and February. These months represent the middle of the wet season and although Pulau Sipadan and Mabul seldom experience much rain, the water and air temperature can be towards the cooler end of the usual range.

Traditionally green and hawksbill turtles come ashore onto the island of Sipadan to nest between April and September. To visit and dive here during these months should mean an even higher number of turtles, although these creatures are ever-present around the island. In fact Sipadan has a high proportion of ever-present creatures, rather than seasonal visitors. The jacks, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and white-tip sharks can be said to be residents of this oceanic island.

This legendary island is very popular and at certain times of the year there is a greater risk of the diving resorts being fully booked. If you wish to visit during these periods you should book well in advance or, alternatively, select other dates. The busiest periods are March to August, Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year.

Reef Summary

Good for: Large animals, wall diving, drift dives and advanced divers
Not so good for: Wrecks, beginner divers and non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 30m
Currents: Can be strong
Surface conditions: Can be choppy
Water temperature: 26 - 30°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: 12
Distance: 12 km (25 minutes) south from Mabul, and 10 km southwest from Kapalai
Access: Mabul and Kapalai dive resorts
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 14 days, including the nearby islands

More information on: history of Sipadan Island




 
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