Sipadan Island is both famous and infamous. A tiny, tropical forest-covered island of only thirty acres floating in the royal blue of the Celebes Sea, it has been declared both a protected area and a bird sanctuary by the Malaysian government. The island is indisputably the most famous dive destination in Malaysia, with diving giants like Jacques Cousteau praising enthusiastically the wonderful diversity of its marine life.
Sipadan was at the top of Scuba Diving magazine’s Gold List for The Top Dive Destinations of the World, a distinction it shared with two other destinations known for an equal diversity of their marine life - the Galapagos Islands and Truk in Micronesia. It is surrounded by a sand and coral shelf which, at an average distance of a couple of hundred meters out from the shore, plummets dramatically to drop off down a vertical wall for some eight hundred meters. Nearby Mabul Island is similar.
Sipadan Island is located off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia's eastern-most state which lies on the north-eastern corner of the world's third largest island - Borneo Island. Sabah and another Malaysian state, Sarawak, share Borneo with a neighbour, Indonesia.
There are eleven popular dive sites around Sipadan, another half-dozen around Mabu, and two or three at a third nearby destination, Kalapai Island, a sandbar which completes the triangle, and boasts its own dive resort, so the choice for diving in the area is extensive.
Not all the sites are of equal appeal, however. The Kalapai Island sites, for instance, have poor visibility because of the sandy bottom, as do several around Mabul. These sites are best for shallow slow dives searching out the abundant macro life. At the top of the list however, is an extraordinary Sipadan site, Barracuda Point. If you are lucky, and the water conditions are right, you will witness here a remarkable vortex of thousands of Chevron Barracuda swirling like an underwater tornado; hence the name of the site.Barracuda Point is also home to dozens of huge Green Sea Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles which are completely unfazed by divers and which one can approach very closely. Here too, White Tip Reef Sharks are common.
On one dive we saw seven, the big ones swimming out in the blue and the smaller ones of one to two meters close to the reef wall. Grey Reef Sharks, Scalloped Hammerheads and Leopard Sharks are also common. On the same dive we looked out into the blue and saw a Pygmy Devil Ray swimming gracefully past.
Later, near Barracuda point we dropped in the water again to swim with a school of thousands of silvery Jackfish, or Big Eye Trevally, twisting and flashing in the aquamarine water. Smaller sea life includes Bannerfish, Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Cornetfish, Parrotfish, Mandarin Fish, Sea Horses and Pipefish,Crocodilefish, Frogfish and Stonefish, Octopus, Eels, Spiny Shrimps and lobsters, Cuttlefish and huge, brilliant nudibranch.
My favourite was the Pyramid Butterflyfish, a common, but dramatically beautiful reef resident mostly seen on small schools of several dozen.
Another colourful resident is the Redfin Anthias, often seem with more common orange Anthias. This beautiful little fish has a lemon yellow body with a purplish red dorsal fin, tail and body. The abundance, colour and variety is amazing.
I saw a school of Yellowback Fusiliers pass a pair of bright Foxface Rabbitfish dancing an elaborate courtship. Then a Harlequin Sweetlips Juvenile, all white polka dots and oversized fins, propelled itself in frantic wriggles under me like an eager puppy.
Beautiful too are the coral gardens which grace the top of the reef. They are a cornucopia of mauve, deep-purple, lime-green, red and yellow soft corals. Our trip organizer, Aryani Arshad of Planet Scuba in Kuala Lumpur, credits Sipadan’s popularity to this abundance of sea-life, the best in the world. Also, she adds, the shallowness of the coral gardens make them ideal for snorkelers. It is a macro heaven on earth.
An unusual dive was under a former oil platform now converted into a dive resort, Sea Venture, just off the shore of Mabul. The site was rich with Stonefish, Frogfish and smaller sea life. Most amazing were a pair of paper-thin Razorfish swimming nose down in a circular hunting pattern. Like many other local sites there was some current here although surface sea conditions were very calm. Sipadan can be dived year round because it is not affected by the Monsoon rains which seasonally close dive sites in western Malaysia, but it is not for everyone. Occasional strong currents and the extreme depth and vertiginous nature of Sipadan’s drop-offs suggest that you should be of some experience before attempting to dive here.
A huge benefit of diving Sipadan is the climate. Because of its position, Sipadan, as well as Mabul and Kalapai, escapes the monsoon rains. The daytime temperature varies between 28 to 34 degrees Celsius; the cooling sea breezes negate any humidity. Water temperature is a balmy 27 degrees Celsius which means that a three mil shortie is more than adequate; in fact, diving without a wet suit is a good option and an enjoyable experience.
Arriving at the Mabul dive resorts is an adventure in itself. Arrangements, beyond the plane, are best left to a professional like Aryani of Planet Scuba. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau in eastern Sabah takes about two hours and fifteen minutes. Both Air Malaysia and the cheaper, no frills, Air Asia, fly to Tawau which boasts a small but attractive and efficient airport. There Aryani takes over; you will be met and whisked by bus or van to Semporna, a sea-side town about an hour and fifteen minutes away where you will board a fast boat propelled by two huge 100 horse power outboards for an hour long cruise to Mabul.
There a welcoming drink, a comfortable room, a pleasant shower and a delicious Malaysian meal await you. You will fall in love with the local people on Mabul, a group of the Bajau Laut who belong to the world’s only nomadic tribe of sea gypsies. A walk through the village will bring you many wide smiles and happy greetings from its charming and beautiful residents. Put Sipadan on your list of places to visit soon.Believe me, you won’t regret it
by David Lavoie