Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Borneo, Malaysia
Visited: August 2018
The tiny islands of Sipadan, Mabul, and Kapalai are known around the world for having some of the best scuba diving anywhere on earth. Located just East of Borneo in the Sabah region of Malaysia, Sipadan Island is the only oceanic island in Malaysia.
Sipadan was first made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau when he filmed his movie “Ghost of the Sea Turtle” there in the 1980’s. More recently, BBC featured the island’s sea turtle population in an episode of “Blue Planet II.” Mabul and Kapalai are both located 30-45 minutes from Sipadan by boat, and the majority of scuba divers stay on one of the two islands. While not as well-known as the nearby Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai host some great dive sites of their own.
Hump head parrot fish, Sipadan
Diving at Sipadan Island is all about the big stuff. Large pelagic species gather in huge numbers. It is common to see schools of bumphead parrotfish, jackfish and big-eyed trevally numbering in the thousands, hawksbill and green turtles seem to be everywhere you look, and white tip reef and grey reef sharks continuously patrol the perimeter of the blue on almost every dive. Sharks resting on the seafloor during the day is a typical sight in the valleys between the coral wall drop-offs. Lucky divers occasionally see scalloped hammerhead sharks, thresher sharks, and even whale sharks.
School of Barracuda, Sipadan
Barracuda Point is the most famous dive site in Sipadan for a good reason; it is home to a massive school of great barracuda. Here divers can witness a resident school of thousands of barracudas as they swirl into a tremendous plumed vortex that looks like a barracuda tornado.
Here is a map of all of the dive sites near Sipadan, courtesy of Seaventures Dive Rig.
Mabul and Kapalai are everything that Sipadan is not. While Sipadan is the place to see sizeable deep-water fish, Mabul and Kapalai have an abundant variety of tiny sea-critters. The muck diving at Mabul and Kapalai is fantastic. Nudibranchs, frogfish, and pipefish are common sights in the cloudy waters surrounding the islands. Cuttlefish can be seen hanging around the artificial reefs in both islands, and crocodile fish, eels and scores of other small creatures can be found.
Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Mabul
My personal favorite dive-site was “Lobster Wall.” This sunny, gently sloping reef wall was full of healthy coral, and brightly-colored sea sponges. In just about every nook and cranny, there was an entire world to explore. Mabul and Kapalai are a macro photographer's dream come true, at least when the sea is calm and not stirring up the sandy bottom.
Diving in Sipadan, Mabul, and Kapalai is possible year-round, but the best time to dive there is February through June. During this time, the seas are calm, and the visibility is at its best. November and December are also a good time for visibility, but the water can be a little colder.
Swimming with a school of jackfish, Sipidan
Up until recently, scuba divers could stay right on the tiny island of Sipadan. Unfortunately, as tourism on Sipadan grew in popularity, the island’s ecology began to suffer. Today, only limited day trips are allowed (see permit information below). The majority of divers stay on nearby Mabul or Kapalai.
Once a small offshore oil rig, the Seaventures Dive Rig has been “upcycled” into a world-class dive platform. Parked just offshore of the island of Mabul, Seaventures Dive Rig is an excellent choice for serious scuba divers.
Seaventures Dive Rig, Mabul
Pete Hamerton heads the dive shop on the rig, and I will say that the entire staff is first-rate. Every dive master that we went out with was a fantastic guide and pointed out just about everything that there was to see in the reef. The equipment was impeccably maintained, and safety was the priority. The rig offers unlimited “shore diving” under the platform, and all guests must do a checkout dive before diving in buddy pairs.
The house reef is 18-meters deep and home to great macro, as well as the occasional barracudas and bumphead parrotfish. Currents can be swift under the rig, but the staff is extremely attentive, making sure conditions are safe before allowing divers to take the elevator down to the water.
At the mouth of turtle tomb, Sipidan
Staying on the rig was comfortable but not glamorous. Most of the rooms are simple but have everything that you need. My only complaint is that the windows do not open in the guest rooms, and the rooms can get a bit damp with wet clothes and dive gear.
The food on the rig is great, and there is plenty of it. Meals included a selection of western and Chinese cuisine, along with some local Malaysian favorites. Coffee, tea, water, and snacks are available free of charge 24-hours a day, and the rig even has a dedicated pastry chef turning out delicious cakes and puddings. Beer and wine are available at reasonable prices (about USD$4-5 for a local beer).
We happened to stay on the rig during Project Aware Conservation Week 2018 and were impressed with the ecology efforts and activities planned by Seaventures. During our stay divers could volunteer to plant artificial coral nurseries and pick up trash under the rig, and on the beach in Sipadan. Every night, Seaventures arranged for conservation speakers to give presentations on topics that are affecting the area and general sea health.
Seaventures Dive Rig
Address: Wisma Sabah, Jalan Tun Razak, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone: +60 88-251 669
White tip reef shark resting on the seafloor
If you are looking for an upscale resort experience while diving around Sipadan, SWV is your place. The resort consists of long rows of bungalows on stilts over the water surrounding Mabul.
I have not stayed here personally, but I have heard good things from fellow divers who frequent the place. We dove the house reef around SWF several times during my stay, and I will say that the resort does look first-rate. The diving at the house reef wasn’t bad either.
Sipadan Water Village Resort
Address: Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone: +60 6089751777
Huge Grouper, Mabul
Scuba Junkie is probably the most prominent company with a resort near Sipadan. I’ve heard a lot of great things about their resort, and some of the conservation efforts they lead on Mabul. Scuba Junkie pays the local people a reward of RM$1000 if they discover turtle egg nests. The eggs are then re-located to Scuba Junkie’s turtle hatchery, where the baby turtles have a much better chance of survival. This not only ensures a healthy turtle population in the area but also provides an incentive for the local people to protect the turtles rather than sell them for food.
Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort
Address: Pulau Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone: +60 89-785 372
Scuba diving on Sipadan Island is strictly limited to 120 divers per day. Due to availability, most resorts can only guarantee one permit per diver for a 4-day stay or 2 permits for a 7-day stay.
The permits are good for an entire day, and we dove in Sipadan 5 times per day. We also got lucky and were able to dive Sipadan 3 times during our 7-day trip. All divers must check in at the ranger station on Sipadan and register with their passport before diving any of the nearby dive sites. At the time of writing Sipadan dive permits were RM$40, be sure to check here for current permit information.
Eel with googly eyes, Mabul
Sipadan has had some security concerns in the past involving the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf. In 2000, the group kidnapped ten tourists and eleven resort workers. More recently a German couple was attacked on their private boat in 2016.
Today, the resorts near Sipadan (including Seaventures Dive Rig) host Malaysian special forces counter-terrorism officers every night. On Sipadan, there is an entire police station dedicated to keeping divers secure, and while driving around the nearby waters, we frequently saw military patrols. I was apprehensive planning our trip, due to past events, but I felt very safe while diving around Sipadan due to all the security forces nearby.
School of batfish, Sipadan
The best way to get to Sipadan is through Kota Kinabulu (KK) in Northern Sabah, Malaysia. The international airport in KK has regular flights to Singapore, Kuala Lampur, and other Asia airport hubs. From Kota Kinabulu, you can catch regular flights to Tawau, Malaysia for about USD$20 each way. Your resort will usually arrange land transport for you from Tawau to Semporna, and then a boat transfer to your resort on Mabul or Kapalai.
The dive sites around Sipadan host some truly fantastic diving. Having the chance to see such a healthy marine ecosystem, filled with sharks, turtles and large fish was a real treat. Mabul and Kapalai house some great macro diving which complimented the diving on Sipadan perfectly. If you are looking for a spot that showcases the best of what scuba diving in Asia has to offer, Sipadan, Mabul, and Kapalai is the trip for you.