Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island), Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
Sipadan is found in almost every „top dive sites in the world“ list. The small island is surrounded by reefs and only 120 divers are allowed to visit per day.
What to see: White tip reef sharks, turtles, schooling jacks, barracudas and bumphead parrotfish, cave with turtle bones
Diving: The island is reached by speed boat, boat diving and drift diving
Level: From advanced to experienced diver, open water certified divers need at least 20 dives to visit, cavern diver certification is required to visit the first part of the turtle cave and cave diver for the tunnels
Who should go there: Divers who are looking for larger stuff like white tips, turtles and schooling fish. There is not much macro life here. For experienced divers and underwater photographers the sites around Mabul and Kapalai might be more interesting.
Only 120 divers are allowed to Sipadan every day. So make sure you are one of these by booking in advance, stay longer and visit outside of high season.
The permits are distributed among the different resorts and dive shops, each getting a certain number per day according to the resort size. During low season when not all permits are sold it might be possible to obtain permits from another resort or to be booked with another operator. Make sure before booking that you will have a chance to actually visit Sipadan.
While not all of the operations mentioned below do obtain permits directly from the government they can get them off other operations. When visiting during high season it might be better to stay with one that does get the permits directly.
How to get there: Either from Mabul/Kapalai (30 min by speedboat) or Semporna (1 hour by speedboat).
Flight from Kuala Lumpur (3 hours) or Kotakinabalu (40 min) to Tawau, transfer to Semporna by car (50 min), boat transfer to Mabul or Kapalai (45 min).
Where to stay and dive: For a special experience on a Rig with Sea Ventures, in the Bajau village on stilts with Billabong Scuba or for a romantic water bungalow holiday with Sipadan Kapalai Resort. While the diving around Mabul and Kapalai is resort based it is possible to stay in a hotel or hostel in Semporna. A higher variety of options is available here including budget accommodation. On Mabul the budget option are Scuba Junkie and the homestays Billabong Scuba and Uncle Chang.
Rates: When staying on Mabul or Kapalai you normally book accommodation and dive packages. Depending on the resort a minimum stay is required for a guaranteed visit to Sipadan. For example three nights and two diving days (one in Mabul/Kapalai, one in Sipadan) starts at RM 1700 (USD 410), a day trip to Sipadan at RM 600 (USD 140). The permit to Sipadan is RM 40 (USD 10). If you prefer to book the whole trip through an agency I can recommend sipadan.com.
Climate: Between 28°C and 32°C, the temperature can drop down to 22°C at night
Water temperature: 27°C to 30°C, some colder thermoclines
Visibility: 10 to 30 m
Season: All year round, the sea can be rougher between January and March
Favorite dive sites: Barracuda Point where lucky divers can encounter huge „barracuda tornadoes“ and Whitetip Avenue for the whitetip reef sharks and turtles
I flew from Kotakinabalu to Tawau. From there the Resort we were staying at (Sipadan Mabul Resort, SMART) organized the transfer.
The staff was wonderful and friendly. The diving groups were split according to diving level providing the best possible experience. I can fully recommend „SMART“ if traveling as a couple or in a group. As a single traveler it might get a bit lonely at this resort, then better choose Scuba Junkie, the Rig or one of the homestays.
We were lucky enough that baby turtles hatched while we were on the island and we could see them walking back into the ocean.
Look out for deals in low season. I can’t remember how much we paid but it was a great offer. We had the chance to visit Sipadan three times during a 10 days stay and we could have visited even more often.
We felt like we saw all there is after three days in Sipadan. I enjoyed the diving around Mabul and Kapalai with all the incredible and rare critters even more than Sipadan. I have met many experienced divers who were a bit disappointed by Sipadan. Not everyone agrees that it is one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.
The white tip reef sharks, the turtles, the schooling jacks, barracudas and bumphead parrotfish are amazing. Yet these are things people find in other destinations too.
I would recommend Sipadan to divers with an intermediate level of experience. Experienced divers might wanna spend more days diving around Mabul and Kapalai plus one or two days at Sipadan.