It had been several years since I had last visited Sipadan, the jewel in the crown of Malaysia diving. After about an 18 month postponement due to COVID, finally the day came when I was heading back to this little gem of an island.
The first thing to know is this is a new boat. It is not the old run-down smelly Celebes Explorer. This is an entirely new boat and it is spacious clean and comfortable - a proper liveaboard and the ONLY one in Sipadan.
The Celebes Explorer 9 looks kind of similar from the outside but once you step on board you will be pleasantly surprised. Stepping up from the dive platform to the kit up area you will enter the main saloon/dining area. Comfortable cushioned seating surrounds the central serving table in this air-conditioned social space. There is also a self-service drinks station and a TV room leading off from the saloon. The 2 double bed cabins are on this main deck towards the bow. Below deck are the 6 twin bed cabins.
On the upper deck you will find the bar and the outdoor lounge where guests sit in the shade on sun loungers enjoying the breeze and the changing views. There is also a sun deck above this accessed by a spiral staircase. Possibly in the future this will be partially covered and with sun loungers, as it is currently an under-used space.
Since the boat is built for 16 guests and takes only a maximum of 10, you will notice how spacious it feels and how there are more crew on board than guests.
Meals are enjoyed in the main deck saloon/dining area. They are served buffet style and normally consist of 1 meat dish, 2 vegetable options (1 cooked, 1 salad), 1 or 2 carbohydrates (rice plus noodles, pasta or potatoes) and fresh fruit. While nothing fancy, the food is fresh, well-prepared and plentiful.
Condiments and snacks on our trip were a little disappointing with limited sauces and dressings. Some biscuits, bread, local peanut butter/butter and jam were the limited snacks available. This was a little light. Some ever-present bowls of fruit and a big bunch of bananas would have been an improvement. So you may want to bring some snacks of your own if you are an incessant grazer, like me! Iced water and local sweet tea are on hand as drinks or you can purchase wine or beer from the bar.
Most guests on my trip agreed the cabins were a better standard than they expected. Liveaboard divers are often crammed into narrow bunk cabins where there is barely room to stand. Here the cabins are spacious, well appointed and very comfortable. They are more like bedrooms of a small hotel than cramped, pokey boat cabins.
The 2 double bed cabins on the main deck have large seaview windows and are handily on the same deck as both the saloon and kit up area, making it easier to dash to your own shower after a dive to wash off the salt while others use the 2 dive platform showers. These 2 cabins should really be a higher price. At the time of my cruise all cabins were the same price.
The 6 lower deck cabins were also quite impressive with 2 single beds side-by-side, small portholes and lots of storage space. All cabins have a desk and chair, lots of charging points, reading lights, air-conditioning and well-appointed ensuite bathrooms.
The crew will unpack your dive gear and assemble it before placing it on the dive boat. In the kit up area plastic storage baskets are assigned to each diver. Here you can keep your booties, masks, and smaller bits and pieces. You get into your wetsuits (if you feel them necessary for me shorts and a rash vest were fine) and step into the dive boat where all else is in place.
Briefings (emphasis on the brief) are given on the mothership and guests gear up and backroll in from the speedboat, normally in 2 groups with 1 guide each. I found the dive boat fine except for a couple of pain points - literally pain points. There is a central ridge in the ceiling of the dive boat where tall people might bang their heads. My big baldy head ended with a few red marks from repeated collisions. Also taller people might want to step off the dive boat from the stern since the central section is also a potential head/back banger, especially in choppy conditions.
The dive ladder too was a pain point for me. Unlike most ladders that drop straight down, this was L-shaped with a base that required taller people to kneel on it before pulling themselves up to standing position. Not a big deal but a bit awkward and an unnecessary inconvenience.
The dive crew are very attentive helping you lift your tank (air, not nitrox) from its hole, getting in place for backroll, rinsing masks, and taking hats/sunglasses before the entry. They also are helpful taking fins and helping you back into the boat and to your station.
Upon returning to the liveaboard, guests can rinse in the platform showers, hang their wetsuits up and use the rinse tanks. We had no photographers on board so it wasn’t clear how someone would cope with a large camera rig. I imagine a table in the saloon would be used for fiddling, although I didn’t see a separate rinse tank for cameras. Fresh towels are on hand for you to dry off, allowing you to enjoy your surface interval in comfort.
If you want to dive at Sipadan specifically, there is no better choice than this liveaboard. Rather than Sipadan diving being part of your vacation, as it is if you stay at a resort, the lucky liveaboard guests are at Sipadan every day for 3 dives. You can almost feel the envy of the resort guests for whom a Sipadan dive day is gold-dust!
Your diving experience will centre around the Sipadan dive sites like Barracuda Point, South Point, Barracuda Point, Turtle Cave, Barracuda Point, Mid Reef and Barracuda Point. Did I mention Barracuda Point? It is the main spot because it is where a lot of the action is concentrated. Varying current conditions can result in very different dives too, so although you may dive here multiple times you are unlikely to get bored of it. It always delivers something different. The eponymous barracudas will sometimes be spotted here in their hundreds a little off into the blue where giant trevally and tuna also cruise and in the shallows is where the big school of meaty bumpheads charge around. The renowned school of Sipadan jack fish are more frequently sighted at South Point.
As always with Sipadan, turtles are present in laughable numbers. There are sometimes turtles above, below and beside your simultaneously. I was struck by the low numbers of sharks however. In previous visits it was sharks and turtles galore. Now however, only a few distant white tips and grey reef sharks put in fleeting appearances. A disease, evidenced by white fungal markings on the heads of white tips has apparently caused their numbers to dwindle. Why there are so few grey reef sharks was unexplained but I suspect COVID lockdown may have created opportunities for the unscrupulous. We also heard a fish bomb on at least 1 dive which is disheartening.
Despite these flies in the ointment, a mere 2 days of diving were crammed with excellent moments and the divers in our group were generally very impressed with the richness of the waters and the sheer biomass of marine life. At times in the shallows it feels like you must be in an aquarium such is the concentration of life. Here are large schools of unicornfish and batfish, as well as innumerable trevally, grunts, groupers, rabbitfish, parrotfish, cleaner wrasses, hawkfish, Moorish idols, butterflyfish, angelfish, damsels and fairy basslets.
We also did 1 sunset dive at Paradise 1 in Mabul as the 4th dive of day 1. This was an exercise in scouring the sand and sunken artificial reefs for macro wonders. We saw quite a few: filefish, crocodilefish, bluespotted ray, blackfin snake eel, jawfish, anemones with clownfish, porcelain crab, peacock tail cleaner shrimp, banded coral shrimp and banded spider crab. The star of the show was the impossibly cute and fascinating flamboyant cuttlefish - a delight!
You may have to make your own way from Tawau airport to Semporna as I did. I used Grab (Asian Uber). As soon as I exited the building my driver was there waiting. It took 1 hour 20 mins and cost me RM 100. I noticed how much Semporna has developed since my last visit several years ago. It still isn’t a great spot, but is much larger now with many more dive shops, eateries and accommodation options.
The keyword for your driver is: Starbucks; there is only 1. It is on the water’s edge. Directly opposite is the Adventure Journey World office where you walk in and announce your arrival and they will check your name on the guest the list. You will likely then cross the road for an Americano Grande as you wait for the 3 pm speedboat transfer to the boat.
Sipadan remains a top spot. Very few places in the world can assure you of such wondrous moments. Even when it is not at its best it is still great. We crammed in as many memorable encounters in 2 days as other big name destinations would be pleased with over the course of a week.
With this liveaboard, the Sipadan to Mabul dive ratio is about 3:1. At best the resorts could manage 1:3. Often more like 1:4 or 1:5. That alone tells the story of who should choose this liveaboard. In the past this meant sacrificing comfort and cleanliness but now that has changed. The Celebes Explorer 9 is in no way a sacrifice. It is in fact a very clean and comfortable liveaboard which I expect will improve over time. I would not be surprised if this became the top choice for serious divers and they will be prepared to pay a premium for the Sipadan focus. For now this liveaboard represents excellent value for money and an amazing way to cram some serious quality diving into a short space of time!
Written by Gavin Macaulay, August 2022