Sipadan is, just like the gilli islands or Komodo, one of those destinations always coming back in top ten places to go diving. I wanted to figure out why myself, so I added this place quite high on my list and had the chance to go diving there in November 2019. More than worth it!
Sipadan, Mabul – Target of terrorists and pirates?
Sipadan is an island, off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. It is quite small, recognised as a marine park and nowadays not open to stay on overnight. All the resorts have been kicked off the island and all that remains is a lunch place with tables and an army base. To dive sipadan, you can stay at neighbouring island Mabul, where the resorts have moved to.
It has not always been like this, there have been resorts on Sipadan in the past… There also have been violent terrorist attacks on those resorts where tourists were kidnapped (the so called “2000 kidnappings” – year, not number -, see this video if you want to know more). In fact the whole Sipadan area (also the neighbouring small islands) are considered as “ do not go unless it is very necessary – orange regions- “ by west European foreign affairs. The Malaysian government reacted on the kidnappings by putting army bases on the islands (like on sipadan, like on Mabul) and patrolling the sea to intercept possible fillipino kidnappers. It seems to work cause the last 4 years no single terrorst have been seen… And divers like myself consider it still a “ it is necessary that I go there” area…
With a guarded resort and an army base nextdoor, I think no pirate/terrorist is stupid enough to even attempt a kidnapping..
Permission to dive Sipadan
Apart from the safety situation, there is another difficulty when wanting to dive Sipadan… There is a divers limit and you have to get a day permit to dive Sipadan! There are only 120 permits a day, distributed by an (old) agreed arrangement between resorts. Talking to the diveguides it seems a bit like a mafia.. Resorts can rent out permits to whoever if they dont fill them themselves, there are still permits for dive centers that don’t even exist anymore and nobody knows what happens with those and so on.. However, bottomline is… you have to get a permit. If you have a permit for that day and you don’t dive, the permit is lost since it is on name.. Flexibility in changing is non existing. So you better fix your permits. And dive on that day! I heard stories about people being too wasted and missing out on their permit… How.on earth..
So how to get a permit? Hope and pray if you want one on the spot (but that might not work out especially not in high season) or book a package deal in adavance… A lot of resorts guarantee some sipadan day diving if you book a package with them. Exactly what I did. I booked a 3 days no sipadan diving and 2 days sipadan diving with scuba junkie. Their organisation is very good, so check them out!
A sipadan diving day consists as from october 2019 of 3 sipadan dives. I was lucky cause I was still falling in the old system and having 4 sipadan dives a day! (boat 2 of scubajunkie was not, they only had 3 dives).
I did two days of Sipadan diving, a total of 8 dives. How it was? Pretty amazing! The marine park around Sipadan has amazing colours and there are so many reef fish around. Dive spots I did were south point, barracuda point, drop off, coral garden
One of the highlights was the huge schools of fish (jacks and barracudas) where you can get lost in.. Never seen so many fish together…
The amount of sharks is also completely unbelievable. I had Sipadan dives where I spotted more than 20 black/white tip reefsharks in one dive. Every dive I saw sharks.
Turtles, morrays, barracudas, napoleon wrasse, bumpheads,.. I even saw a sailfish cruising above us, which was a first for me. On a macro level, I spotted some nice shrimps and tons of nudi’s. But the focus here is clearly the big stuff.
The absolute highlight however was going out in the blue on a hunt for hammerhead schools.. We tried it 3 times and one time we were lucky! There were 7 sharks below us and at least one was a hammerhead. No footage unfortunately since it went sooo fast, but it is a moment I won’t forget ever again.
If you book a package, you ll have some no sipadan dives as well. There are some good dive spots at Mabul and Kapalai island … I did 9 dives (3 a day) and found them ok till nice as well. Dont expect the sipadan level however.. no big stuff apart from the single turtle, but you can have nice dives with lots of reef fish. I also did a small wreck, the blue liberty, (on request),with a lot of swim throughs which was nice.
In general, both on mabul and Sipadan,the visibility wasn’t always that great with sometimes only 8-10m (I m feeling a bit ashamed saying this as a Belgian diver). I think the off seasons (and rainfall) had an influence on this. For the rest were the conditions very easy… no current, 30 degrees celsius… Easy diving!
Sipadan is worth of going to. It is really a worldclass diving destination. It felt very safe as well, so don’t worry about that. However… I feel Komodo was still better than Sipadan. (sorrynotsorry) Stay tuned, I ll write a comparison between both to explain why!
Thanks to scubajunkie.com for all the diving!