October 26, 2008

Sipadan, a divers dream come true

The island of Sipadan is located in the Celebes Sea, off the Southeastern side of Malaysian Borneo. For years, divers have been coming to the island for the pristine coral reefs and abundance of marine life. Formed on top of an extinct volcano, the walls drop down to 600 meters on all sides. In 2004, the government kicked out the island resorts and limited the daily divers. Two months ago the government limited the daily numbers again to one hundred and twenty people, so I was lucky, and thankful to get a permit.

After meeting tons of travelers who recommended Sea Ventures, I booked a three night, two day package on their live aboard oil rig, off the coast of Mabul island. The rig was set up as a housing station for oil drillers, but the project never took off, and so it became a live aboard for dive enthusiasts. The rig is located less than a kilometer off the shore from Mabul island, which is now the closest island with resorts to Sipadan. For about $350 USD, I had a private room with amazing meals, and unlimited diving of local reefs.

I was only able to get a one day permit for Sipadan, but I squeezed in three morning dives to the sites of Barracuda Point, Coral Gardens, and Hanging Gardens. The first dive we did to Barracuda Point literally blew my mind. This is what diving was made for. We dropped down between a school of jack fish, with hundreds of them swimming around us in a circle. Below us were four white tip reef sharks, and in the distance I saw 2 sea turtles. All this within the first thirty seconds of the dive. After descending we quickly made our way to see the famous barracuda that are found early in the morning. Before we knew it, we were looking up to see about a thousand barracuda circling around us. I was in heaven. Not since I learned to dive in the Red Sea did I feel so alive and privileged to witness this underwater world. I've been let down too many times by over hyped dive sites that claim to be world class. The blue hole in Belize, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, just to name a few. But this place lived up to the hype. I literally lost count of the number of sea turtles and sharks I saw on each dive. The coral was better than Fiji, so vibrant and alive, with tons of fish. More fish than I've ever seen in one area. This is what a healthy reef is supposed to look like. The difference is night and day when you dive Sipadan, then dive around Mabul with it's dead coral. I'm happy the government has limited the number of daily divers, it's the only way to protect the reefs.

Between each dive we relaxed on the shores of Sipadan. The island is tiny and the former resorts have been turned into army barracks, for the soldiers stationed there to protect it and the tourists. If I could live on an island, this is where I would go. Beautiful white sand, turquoise water, palm trees, and silence.

Seriously, if you can take a week off of work and don't mind a little jet lag. Fly to Kuala Lumpur, then catch a cheap flight on Air Asia to Tawau. From there it's a two hour drive to Semporna where the speed boats will take you to resorts on Mabul or Sea Ventures oil rig. Once you are here you can relax, dive, and repeat. After working on the live aboard in Australia, it was actually nice to be a customer for once.

Take my advice, and book well in advance to ensure more than a day of diving at Sipadan. I did several dives around Mabul Island and Kapalai on the days I couldn't get a permit, and it wasn't the same. I had Sipadan envy. These sites do have some cool artificial reefs with decent marine life, and wrecks, but the corals are mostly dead, and I felt like I was just killing time with these dives.

Here are my photos of diving Sipadan and Mabul. The underwater photos are courtesy of Susan an instructor at Sea Ventures.

Some other dive operators that visit Sipadan are Scuba Junkie, and Sipadan Scuba. If you want ultra luxurious, try staying at the Sipadan Water Village, or the Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART).


Hostel Valencia said...

i wish i could go to sipadan, the only oceanic island in Malaysia, did you have problems there with terrosists? they say there a large number of them......i once was in singapur, not far away from there, i coudnt go, next time it will be different!!

Sipadan said...

Sipadan is safe now and great for diving :)