Diving Sipadan

If you ask a diver what is on their diving bucket list and chances are Sipadan is right on the top. Long haled as one of the best diving destinations in the world, I simply had to try it out on my trip through Borneo. It is famed for its steep wall, dropping 600 meters straight into the ocean, and riddled with corals and thousands of colorful fish and plenty of sharks and turtles around.

Diving in Sipadan is not as straightforward as many other diving places due to a variety of reasons. First of all the location: 35 kilometers of the coast of Borneo, without any possibilities to actually stay on the island itself. I decided to go to Sipadan after doing a jungle experience in Kinabatangan, and it involved being dropped off at a sandy cross-road in the middle of nowhere and hoping that that the bus from Sandakan to Tawau hadn’t passed yet. Luckily for me it hadn’t and after being collected by the bus and an uncomfortable two hour bus ride I was dropped in the less then glamorous harbor town of Semporna.

Semporna itself does not offer much to tourists except from mediocre food and slightly dodgy accommodation, but a necessary stop if you want to get to Sipadan. Before heading out to this part of the world I looked up local dive schools, and ended up with Scuba Junkie. At the time it was one of the few budget options if you wanted to dive and stay around Sipadan. I’d contacted them months in advance as getting to Sipadan is not your only challenge.

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Sipadan is a protected marine park which requires a permit to dive. At the time of writing there are a 120 daily permits available, that need to be divided between 12 local dive schools. You can find a list of the 12 dive schools with permits to dive at Sipadan here. Scuba Junkie holds 7 daily permits, which also includes the divemaster/instructor joining you on the dive. Therefore, if you decide last minute to make a stop at Sipadan check with the dive school if there is any chance for you to obtain a permit.

For me, after spending the next at the Scuba Junkie hostel in Sipadan it was time to move on to Mabul, the closest island to Sipadan with accommodation. I stayed in a small, local home stay in the village, and as my permit was for a few days ahead it meant I had some time to kill. The best way to kill time on Mabul is of course diving! As I was a very inexperienced diver, I opted to do my advanced open water with Scuba Junkie. I had a great experience as I had a private instructor all for me, and this gave me the confidence to dive in Sipadan as well, something I was quite nervous about!

The diving day at Sipadan starts bright and early, at 7am the speedboat leaves from Mabul, to ensure you can do the maximum of 4 dives on Sipadan. The night before a heavy storm had swept through the area, which meant a choppy sea and even choppier nerves for me. We had the choice between the beginner group (max 20 meters) or the advanced divers. Although I was an advanced diver I opted for the beginners group, knowing my own air consumption when I’m a bit nervous..

The we started our dive at Barracuda point, which as the name suggests is THE place to see barracuda’s. Due to the strong currents we were forced to find a rock and hold on tight while thousands and thousands of barracuda’s circle around you. Due to the springtide the night before, there was a raging river over the coral, which we unfortunately had to swim straight through. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life: my bubbles went up about 50cm, to be taken into the river and straight down into the 600m depth below us. Needles to say, I went through my oxygen pretty quickly.

Our second dive spot was Southpoint, the place to see the large stuff, and also here we were not disappointment: we managed to see loads of sharks and turtles.

After a lovely lunch on the island we went onto our third dive at the drop off/turtle cave. Turtle cave is a tunnel that goes pretty much underneath the entire island, and holds multiple skeletons of turtles that did not manage to get out in time and drowned. As I’m not a certified cave diver we only went into the beginning of the tunnel to get the idea, which was still amazing and quite spooky.

Normally for me the maximum is 3 dives a day, as I simply can’t clear my ears properly after three dives, but when in Sipadan you might as well go for the fourth dive as well (standard included in a day of diving in Sipadan). So our final dive of the day was the west side of the island. This area is the deepest (approximately 2000m, which is best not thought off whilst lying in the water) but also offers a beautiful view of the massive wall, and the corals, especially with the lowing sun exposing the corals.

So, did Sipadan live up to its immense reputation? For me it definitely did! At the time I hadn’t dive too much, but now a couple years, and some amazing dive sites later, I still have to say that Sipadan is my firm number 1 location for various reasons:

  • The amount of sea life both big and small is absolutely amazing. I’ve seen anything from Clownfish to groups of sharks and turtles all around
  • Where else can you swim between thousands of barracuda’s?
  • The corals are some of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world
  • The fact that Sipadan is so remote, the journey to get there is amazing and terrifying at the same time: as most dives are drift dives you cover quite a large distance. I had to come up 1 dive earlier by myself, realizing it felt like I was being alone my myself in the ocean, a few hundred meters from Sipadan, with approximately 2000m of water underneath me without a boat or other human being in sight

So, if you’re into scuba diving and you are looking for an epic dive location and you have at least a week to spare in South East Asia, definitely head out to Sipadan!


Practical information

So now you know how great it is to dive in Sipadan! Below all the information on how to arrange your trip to Sipadan.


Dive schools and permits

In order to dive at Sipadan you need to get a permit for the national park. At the moment 120 daily permits are available, and are divided between 12 dive schools. Therefore in order to dive at Sipadan ensure you go with one of the providers listed on this page. Depending on the dive school, they might either opt for a first come, first served basis, or use a rotational system to divide the number of permits, as especially in high season there are not enough permits to go around.

I personally dived with Scuba Junkie, a more budget provider with their own resort at Mabul island, close to Sipadan. At the time of writing Scuba Junkie had 7 daily permits to dive at Sipadan, so contacting the dive school several weeks in advance to secure a spot is advisable.


Other dive sites

As mentioned Sipadan is amazing, but there are loads of other really interesting dive sites and islands around. I stayed at Mabul, which has amazing diving it is on right (world famous for muck diving). Other islands include Kapalei, Sibuan, Mantabuan and Mataking. A description of the individual islands and top dive sights can be found here.


How to get there and away

Sipadan itself does not have any accommodation, which means you have to stay close by and come in by boat. I stayed with Scuba Junkie on the island of Mabul. You can get here several different ways, but it will always involve you taking a speedboat from Semporna, an unattractive grubby harbor town.

By bus

A lot of tourists like me combine Sipadan with a larger trip through Borneo and will generally come from a trek at the Kinabatangan River. If you come from the same road you will be dropped by the tour company at the major cross road in this area, where the bus to Semporna will collect you. The journey will take approximately 1.5 hrs from the moment the bus picks you up.

By plane

The closest airport to Sipadan is Tawau, and flying in is probably your best bet if you’re short on time. Airasia has frequent flights from both Kuala Lumpur (approximately 60 euros return if booked on time) and Kota Kinabalu (approx. 35 euros). From Tawau airport it is approximately 75 minutes to Semporna. If you’ve booked with a local dive school changes are they can arrange an airport pick-up, which I would highly recommend as it makes life easier. Depending on the number of passengers Scuba Junkie charges anywhere between 20 euros (if you’re the only one) to 5 euros (if you’re 5 or more).


Where to stay 

If you want to dive Sipadan I recommend staying on Mabul island. However, chances are you arrive too late to make it to Mabul on the day of arrival, forcing you to stay in Semporna for a night.

Semporna

Semporna is not the best place to find good price/quality accommodation. If you’re going to dive with Scuba Junkie your best bet is with Scuba Junkie itself: a dorm is 5 euros, and a double room with shared bathroom is 17 euros. Another option in town is the Ocean Inn, which comes with good reviews, and 27 euros per night for a double room.

Mabul

Mabul has several options suiting all price classes. The most common is to stay at the Scuba Junkie dive resort, which has private rooms, including 3 meals a day for 40 euros per person, providing you share a room. However, if you want to dive Sipadan a package is probably best value, and it will include accommodation at the Scuba Junkie resort (either dorm, double or triple with fan or AC).

If you decide against a package and you travel solo its probably better value for you, setting you back approximately 18 euros a night, including three meals.  Even if you stay at a home stay, you can still have a drink at the Scuba Junkie bar, probably the only bar on Mabul.


Cost 

As you’ve probably gathered by now diving Sipadan is not cheap. As mentioned it is probably best value to book a diving package that includes Sipadan, non-Sipadan diving and accommodation. The cheapest 4D/3N package includes accommodation in the dorms, 9 non-Sipadan dives, 4 dives at Sipadan, and 3 meals a day for 518 euros pp.

If you want to splurge you can also stay at the Mabul Water bungalows. A 4D/3N package sets you back 1500 euros, however, this excludes diving at Sipadan. If you want to make use of one of their permits, you need to stay at least 5 nights, setting you back approximately 2200 euros (that includes the additional 85 euros required for 3 dives at Sipadan).


 

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