If you search on google for ‘World’s Best Dives’ the top result is scubatravel.co.uk and their list of the “100 Best Dive Sites of the World”. A tiny island called Sipadan off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo garners 5 of the top 100 spots on the list. The coral island was formed over thousands of years on the top of an extinct volcano resulting in spectacular 600 meter walls rising out of the blue.
Jacques Cousteau said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now, no more. Now, we have found again an untouched piece of art…”. This quote is used quite often in the marketing for Sipadan and it is a perfect introduction for what I want to tell you.
Getting There & The Basics
My journey to Sipadan started with a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau. Once again, Air Asia is your friend. Their flights out of KL are generally plentiful and inexpensive. Furthermore, their excess baggage charges are reasonable for divers IF you pay for your baggage when you book online.
I was met at the airport by a transfer from the Scuba Junkies dive operation that took me to Semporna, a little over an hour away….(after being briefly detained by border control for some unspecified problem with my arrival/departure card…).
The Surrounding Islands
There are currently only 120 permits per day issued to dive at Sipadan. Many of the dive operations even require you to dive the surrounding islands one day for every day you are granted a Sipadan permit. In my case, I did not have a permit and Scuba Junkies was sold out. So, my only option at that point was to dive the other islands and hope something good happened on the cancellation list.
The islands that I dived at near Sipadan included Mantabuan, Sibuan, Kapalai, and Mabul all in the Celebes Sea. These islands excel in “macro” or “muck” diving. This means that you are looking for small things like Nudibranches, Shrimp, Crabs, Frog Fish, Pipefish, Seahorses, and more.
I enjoyed diving these islands for several days but I was definitely in the mood to see something bigger and started getting more proactive trying to find a permit for Sipadan.
Seaventures Oil Rig & Sipadan
Some divers that I met in the Perhentian Islands told me about a converted oil rig close to Mabul where you could stay and dive Sipadan. In fact, when I was staying on Mabul diving with Scuba Junkies, it was directly in front of the resort. It turned out that Seaventures had a room on the rig available as well as two permits for Sipadan!
I spent the next two days in air conditioned comfort diving at Sipadan. Barracuda Point is the most famous site at Sipadan (the #3 dive in the world according to the ScubaTravel list). It definitely did not disappoint. The schools of Bumphead Parrotfish, Barracuda, Trevally, and White Tip and Grey Reef Sharks are truly impressive.
A shark cruising at Barracuda Point but check out that school of fish on the righthand side of the photo. Very nice.
Barracuda Point was like a good movie that friends have told you about. I knew pretty much what to expect and it met my expectations.
My absolute favorite dive on Sipadan was the one that surprised me at South Point. It’s not like South Point is any slouch of a dive site. It’s the second highest rated at Sipadan and #23 in the world according to the ScubaTravel list. (Let me point out now that I’m not a big believer in ‘ratings’ for dive sites. My favorite dives have mostly been at sites that do not appear on any lists. However, it is convenient to have ~some~ relative idea of what we are dealing with).
I had a couple things going for me the first afternoon I was at South Point. First, there was just one other diver on the boat for the afternoon trip. On the day that you have a Sipadan permit, Seaventures allows the permit holders to share the cost of the boat returning to Sipadan for two more dives. Only two of us were lucky enough to make that choice.
Next, while we were on the island doing our surface interval the soldiers starting running around hectically. (There is a machine gun nest and small military force present to protect tourists after a terrorist incident in 2000). The first translation that we got was that “the president was coming”. This turned out to be untrue and it took me another day to find out that all the commotion was about a former governor of Sabah of royal descent. In fact, I found out during my research that he was responsible for encouraging and building up tourism around Sabah and Sipadan. This explained why he stopped to speak to me and the photographers seemed quite pleased for the photo opportunity with a tourist.
Technically our permits expired at 5PM but because we had to wait for the entourage to leave the dock we essentially got an early evening dive on Sipadan by royal decree. The timing was perfect. The amount of life on the reef was tremendous. Sharks cruising both above and below us, turtles everywhere, trevally starting their evening hunt, more reef fish than I think I have ever seen, and beautiful healthy dense coral sitting on top of a wall where you could stare 600M into the abyss. I still remember exactly what I said when I surfaced, “Wow, wow, wow, that’s why I dive!”.
And Now for Something Completely Different
I started this post with the quote from Jacques Cousteau that included a bit about “…but now, no more”. When I was diving in and around Sipadan I was continually reminded that we are in the middle of a relatively silent and unseen battle. When the dive guide asked me what I wanted to see, I said, as I always do, “sharks”. His answer, when we were at Mantabuan was sadly, “There used to be sharks here but now, no more”. He was not talking about the 1960′s or “45 years ago” as Cousteau was. He was talking about diving there in 2006. We are in the “but now, no more” phase even at places just minutes from “protected” world class sites like Sipadan.
On Mabul, next to resorts full of divers, there were several shops absolutely full of beautiful shells that had been harvested from local waters. Shells that any diver would have loved to have seen in the water. While in the water, I saw ONE large shell that was still alive in the 20+ dives I did. Yet another example where a sustainable balance has to be found and that is if it is not already too late.
Trash in the water around several of the islands was very discouraging. Aside from the obvious dangers from plastic especially for the turtles in the area, the trash was so common in some places that it made the dive unpleasant. Some of the dive operators in the area are trying to improve the situation but it seems like a very tough fight.
While we were on a surface interval at Sibuan, I saw the fishing boat pictured here, anchored on the reef in an area where it was not supposed to be in the first place. The guide said it was simply due to lack of enforcement.
When I got to the airport I waited in the queue watching box after box of fish being x-rayed and checked into cargo presumably headed back to KL on my flight. Once again, is this a sustainable balance? It sure did not feel that way on many of the sites I dived.
The most shocking thing that happened while I was diving near Sipadan was twice I was startled underwater by powerful explosions from dynamite fishing. This is illegal in Malaysia but was supposedly happening on nearby islands that were either in the Philippines or just simply not patrolled. Dynamite fishing not only destroys a lot more fish than it allows the fisherman to harvest, it obviously destroys the habitat. The absolute epitome of unsustainable.
I started this with a quote from Cousteau mentioning an “untouched piece of art” and told you about some wonderful things I saw but I’ll leave you with the quote from Bill Hicks that kept going through my head as I tried to lower my heart rate after the explosions.
“People suck, and that’s my contention. I can prove it on a scratch paper and pen. Give me a f***ing Etch-a-sketch, I’ll do it in three minutes. The proof, the fact, the factorum. I’ll show my work, case closed. I’m tired of this back-slapping “Aren’t humanity neat?” bull****. We’re a virus with shoes, okay? That’s all we are.”
The oceans are not an inexhaustible resource. The “…but now, no more” reality of what we are dealing with is here right now and I have seen it firsthand in one of the most beautiful undersea places on this planet. Please take an active role, even if it is just in making informed choices about the seafood you eat.