Sipadan is home to the best diving in Borneo, many say in the world. Famous for massive schools of fish, spiraling barracudas, massive green turtles and schooling reef sharks, diving in the pumping current here is spectacular. I was very fortunate to stay in this magical area for 3 months doing hundreds of dives. I hope this guide helps or inspires you to explore what the great Jacques Cousteau said about: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more” when he was mesmerized by this place.
What makes Sipadan so spectacular?
The island is a volcanic pinnacle covered in coral, dropping 600 meters straight down to the sea floor. It is difficult to describe the amount of marine life here without sounding like you are exaggerating. Many massive green turtles and hawksbill turtles swim all-over the place starting in the shallows, still on top the pinnacle herds of hundreds of huge bumphead parrot fish come by swimming in-line, descending on the wall passing sharks keeps your camera firing, there are resident schools of thousands of jackfish that someone can disappear in, gliding over the reef in the pumping current Sipadan is famous for enormous resident schools of barracudas, forming a vortex or barracuda tornado around you with some luck. You can really run into almost anything on this sea mount, this is just a typical day.
Sipadan Island Diving
Pulau Sipadan on the north east coast of Malaysia Borneo became famous when diving legend and ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau described it as one of the best dive spots in the world. I will recommend you make this the first item on your Sabah travel itinerary when exploring this part of Borneo.
Today you can not stay on Sipadan Island, most of the resorts are located on Mabul and Kapalai islands an hour or so away by boat. A permit is required to dive around the island and this is strictly policed by armed guards. Your options are to stay in Semporna town where there is some really cheap accommodation or to stay on the closer Mabul or Kapalai which is more pricey and dive from there.
If you stay on the nearby islands you can do many dives around Mabul and Kapalai everyday and go to Sipadan for one full day, 2 if you are very lucky. The diving around Mabul and Kapalai islands are excellent, very different from Sipadan, but also world class diving.
Up to twelve years ago diving Sipadan must have been an experience that no other location can match. From the main beach to the top of the reef wall it is only about 20 metres. Most of the resorts were located on Sipadan Island until 2004. You could walk out of your room, gear up and jump into the Drop Off!
Unreal for diving but studies showed that the reefs and marine life were not coping with the stress caused by too many divers. The Malaysian Government decided to protect the reefs and informed all resorts to relocate away from Sipadan Island in 2004. Since 2006 a permit is required for all divers wanting to dive around the island.
Getting to Sipadan
You first have to get to the town Semporna on Borneo island, there is not much to do here and it is mainly known as the gateway to the surrounding islands. Most people get here by flying from Kuala Lumpur (IATA:KUL) or Kota Kinabalu (IATA:BKI) to the airport in Tawau ( TWU, WBKW), Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate daily flights. From Tawau travel overland to Semporna, there are several options; public bus is the cheapest or you can go by taxi (about $40) or minibus for $25 Transport from Tawau to Semporna town. You can also get from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna by public bus.
The transfer from Tawau to Semporna takes 90 minutes From Semporna, to Mabul Island by resort speed boat takes about 45min.
How to get a Sipadan diving permit
Hundred and twenty permits are issued to the 12 surrounding resorts each day, larger resorts get more permits. Each permit allows a diver to dive for a day at Sipadan Island.
During peak seasons, when the resorts are full, there could be more than 500 guests collectively in the resorts, 120 permits are not enough on most days. Permits are not issued on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis, but by a rotation system Read Here how the rotation system works.
The most common tips to get a permit are:
- Stay longer at the resort (more than 3 days, long as possible)
- Book as early as possible.
- Avoiding peak seasons.
My main tip If you did not have a confirmed permit, inquire at all the resorts, ignore anybody telling you that you will never find a permit on such short notice. The first resort I dived with had no permits and told me it would be at least a 2 week wait. I dived around Mabul with them for a day, went back to Semporna and walked to every dive center. I could choose between 3 dive centers to dive with by the end of the day and even got a job offer from one, it was the start of working as a dive instructor for 3 months from Mabul for me!
Resorts and dive schools with Sipadan permits.
- Seaventures Tours and Travel
- Sipadan Mabul Resort
- Sipadan Water Village Resort
- Borneo Divers and Seasport
- Borneo Jungle River Island Tours
- Dive Semporna
- Bharman Sipadan Dive Safari & Seasport
- Celebes Explorer Liveaboard
- North Borneo Dive and Seasports
- Pulau Sipadan Resort
- The Reef Dive Resort and Tours
- Roach Reefs Resort
Can beginners dive Sipadan?
There are a lot of myths surrounding qualifications required to dive Sipadan, technically you do not need an advanced qualification or a certain amount of dives. After your openwater course you are certified to dive Sipadan. Some of the sights, particularly Barracuda point are drift dives, with strong currents; the water next to the reef is very deep which means it can be dangerous for a newbie diver. If you do not have good buoyancy skill you could harm the precious reef. Your openwater qualification allows you to dive deep enough (18m) to see the most popular attractions around Sipadan, the barracudas, the bumpheads, the reef sharks and the big eye trevally.
You are qualified to dive here with an open water qualification, use your own judgement to think if you are ready to dive a more difficult spot, ask your instructor if he thinks you are ready. Also if you dive with a good dive leader in small groups it is safer for inexperienced divers. Some operators might require either an advanced qualification or proof of 20 logged dives, so just check with your school of choice before signing up. It is always good if you can do your advanced course following your open water, it gives you more experience and you learn valuable skills during the specialty dives.
A typical day at Sipadan, I shot this video on my last day diving before I left Mabul:
Sipadan Diving Package
Due to the limited amount of permits available most dive centers require you to stay with them for a couple of days and dive different sites to get one of their Sipadan permits. All resorts have different Sipadan Diving Packages, these packages are made up of accommodation, Sipadan dives and non-Sipadan dives. Usually you will do the non Sipadan dives around Mabul and Kapalai on these days and dive Sipadan one day, depending on the availability and length of your stay.
We mention for most resorts what the required length of stay is to qualify for a Sipadan permit. The diving on these reefs are excellent with some of the most fantastic and unusual little critters in the ocean. Many frog fish, flamboyant cuttle fish, crocodile fish, ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, sea horses and more can be seen on these world famous muck diving sites.
Sipadan is an excellent spot for snorkeling/freediving. I think 15 years ago before permits there must have been many holiday goers staying on Sipadan snorkeling. The shallow part of the reef, close to the island is less than 5m deep, here you can see many big green turtles close to the surface, spectacular coral, giant clams and herds of massive bumphead parrot fish swim in this shallow water. Reef sharks, thousands of barracudas and big eye jacks swim by close to the edge of where the reef drops in to the deep, they sometimes come quite shallow and you have a good chance of seeing them snorkeling.
If you have some freediving skills and you can snorkel deeper down the wall you will see huge jacks, sharks and game fish.
The problem with finding a snorkeling site is the few permits available, divers and snorkelers use the same permit and since diving is more expensive most operators do not take snorkelers since it is not profitable enough. I know Uncle Chang often took snorkelers along.
Marine Life around Sipadan
Most experienced divers place Sipadan high on their bucket list. One of the most diverse and protected dive sites in the world with more than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species identified. On a typical day you would see many massive green and hawksbill turtles, more than 20 is common on a good dive.
It will be a strange day that you do not see many sharks diving here, white tip reef sharks and grey reef being the most common, but with a bit of luck many divers see scalloped hammer heads on these magnificent wall dives. Eagle rays and devil rays are not always seen, but are quite common and mantas also show up from time to time. The huge residential schools of jackfish and barracudas are the standard highlight diving around Sipadan and are almost always seen, thousands of jackfish engulfing you and massive schools of Barracuda all over the place.
The Barracudas only sometimes form the classic vortex, surrounding you in a barrracuda tornado, a popular thing to do is to take a reef hook, a big hook with a piece of rope attached, when you are flying in the current and the barracudas come by, you attach the hook to a rock (not coral!) and hang in the current with thousands of barracudas swiming by. I love seeing the herds of bumphead parrot fish grazing on the reef, these massive fish usually swim in a straight line eating coral at the one end and pooping non stop at the other, creating nice white sand. The divemasters that worked with me from Mabul have seen a whale shark here, it is really one of those places where anything can happen, but this is a rare occurrence.
With the pumping currents and pelagic and big animal action many people never even really look down, but the coral, variety of nudibrances, small reef fish and massive cucumbers and sea stars, moray eels, lion fish and more on the reef around Sipadan are truly spectacular.
Sipadan Island resorts
Since Pulau Sipadan is a protected area all Sipadan resorts are located at nearby islands of Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking. The cheapest way to dive here is to stay in the town of Semporna, there is not much to do here and I did not like the town. You can still dive at Sipadan even if the resort you are staying at does not have permits. All dive operators dive around Mabul and Kapalai and dive operators that do not have Sipadan permits directly from the government may obtain one for you at a premium or book that day with a dive operator who can.
Instructors and dive leaders at all resorts come and go, read recent reviews.
Budget Sipadan Diving Resorts
Uncle Chang Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge
- 7 Sipadan Diving permits
- TripAdvisor 24% Excellent out of 305 reviews
Uncle Chang’s is a budget resort and one of the cheapest places to dive with on Mabul. This locally owned wooden lodge is built on stilts over the sea. There is a variety of accommodation, dorm rooms, double, family rooms and seaview chalets available. I worked as an instructor here for 3 months a couple of years ago. It is a budget lodge, read recent TripAdvisor reviews, there were some very competent instructors and dive masters working with me at the time. You can get a permit to dive Sipadan without diving a minimum amount of days as is required by many resorts.
- 6 Sipadan Diving permits
- TripAdvisor 24% Excellent out of 305 reviews
Billabong Scuba is homestay chalets built over the ocean and is another budget resort. Rooms vary between basic and more luxury with on-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning. Another resort where you can get a permit to dive Sipadan without having to dive Mabul and Kapelai for a couple of days with them.
Budget Lodges on Mabul without Sipadan Permits.
Mid-range Mabul resorts
Seaventures Dive Rig Resort
- 11 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 68% excellent from 536 reviews
Seaventures is a Dive Resort with a difference, made from a converted oil rig offering the perfect location for non-stop diving. Here everything is about diving with unlimited diving at the excellent dive site below the rig, just take the lift down and jump in. Seaventures is a PADI 5* IDC Resort offering technical diving, cave diving is done at Sipadan’s famous Turtle Tomb! The resort has 28 air-con twin and double rooms and 2 larger VIP Family rooms. To qualify to get a Sipadan permit you have to stay with them for at least 3 days.
Scuba Junkie/Mabul Beach Resort
- 7 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 64% excellent from 766 reviews
Scuba Junkie is one of a short chain of dive resorts. I stayed in Scuba Junkie on Mabul for 2 or 3 days and paid their bar frequent visits staying on Mabul. The resort caters for backpackers with dormitory accommodation, but it is more expensive than the budget resorts and are closer to western standards.The Mabul resort consists of 24 ensuite rooms situated on the beachfront. Scuba Junkie also operates Scuba Junkie Backpackers based in Semporna. The resort is one of the more eco-friendly on the island with green waste systems, solar energy and using biodegradable products. You have to stay a minimum of 3 nights to dive Sipadan with Scuba Junkie.
Borneo Divers Mabul Dive Resort
- 14 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 38% excellent from 277 reviews
Borneo Divers is a medium budget resort with 30 tropical-themed chalets each with clean, big rooms. The resort has a nice garden and beautiful white beach and a popular house reef, your stay includes unlimited shore dives here from the jetty. The private beach in front of the resort is a great place for swimming, snorkeling or for sunbathing, with the added luxury of a swimming pool area and a jacuzzi.To dive Sipadan with Borneo Divers you have to stay with them for 3 nights.
Luxury Resorts for Sipadan diving
Sipadan-Mabul Resort (SMART)
- 14 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 32% excellent from 40 reviews
Sipadan Mabul Resort is a luxury resort located on a beautiul white sandy beach on the south east side of Mabul, the resort has 45 beautifully designed wooden air-con chalets. The resort has two distinct sections, the Water Bungalows which are beautiful and expensive or the Chalets which are nice and reasonable. Sipadan-Mabul Resort is a PADI Gold Palm Resort. The dive centre also offers TDI technical diving courses. There is unlimited shore diving from the jetty and the local house reef offers some fantastic muc diving. Other facilities at the resort include a swimming pool, a jacuzzi whirlpool spa, massage services and ocean kayaking equipment for rent.
Sipadan Water Village
- 14 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 34% excellent from 200 reviews
Sipadan Water Village is a luxury resort standing stilts on the island of Mabul. Fringed by white sand beaches and having 2 well known dive sites on the house reef makes for excellent shore diving! Choose from 4 Grand Deluxe chalets, 2 Deluxe chalets and 29 Standard chalets in this top luxury resorts.
Kapalai Dive Resort
- No Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 66% excellent from 579 reviews
Kapalai Dive Resort is a luxury water village built on stilts over the sandbanks of the Ligitan reefs and located only a short ride by boat from Mabul islands From this comfortable, sunny water village there is no land in sight, you can walk or sunbath alone on a mile-long sandbank at the resort. The local house reef offers excellent diving, with many big fish, Moray eels and fantastic macro life ghost pipe fish and frog fish. If you stay longer than 3 days you have a good chance of a Sipadan permit being organized for you.
There are many black tip reef sharks swimming all around the island.
Sipadan diving season
Diving at Sipadan is fantastic all year round.
- The best time is from April to December with excellent sea conditions. April until early of June being the perfect time but this is also the High season so make resort bookings in advance.
- From January to March, there can be heavy rainfall and lower visibility.
Sipadan Island Diving Sites
There are 11 commonly dived sites around Sipadan island, all are Wall Dives. The following are brief descriptions of some of the sites and marine life you can expect to see.
Right against the shore, about 10m away the wall here drops 600m straight to the sea bottom, when there were still resorts on the island this was the best shore dive in the world. A huge variety of coral, many turtles abound and a multitude of lionfish & smaller reef dwelling fish live on this wall. The entrance to the turtle cave is at about 20m down on this site. This incredible cave goes all the way through the island. To be explored you need cave training. There is resident Giant Barracuda and some white tips that can sometimes be found close to the entrance. There is a massive resident school of thousands of Big Eye Trevally hanging around about 100m from the mouth of The Turtle Cave.
STAGHORN CREST / SOUTH POINT
On the opposite end of the island to Barracuda Point. Strong current normally present at this site. Diving in the current here can take you through three of the marked sites. The place to see pelagics! Very large shoals of Barracuda, Jacks, Sharks and many turtles normally feed here.
Great spot for photography. This wall is covered in a multitude of soft coral. Hawksbill & Green Turtles live on the ledges at this site and the current is usually quite calm.
Famous for being home to a huge number of Hawksbill & Green Turtles. Many reef sharks also frequent this site.
This is the most famous site at Sipadan and the place to see large schools of pelagics; Barracuda, Jacks, Grey and White Tip Reef Sharks. Current is strong. It is a fast moving, large schools of fish.
WHITE TIP AVENUE
Many Black & White Tip Reef Sharks, Grey Sharks, massive Green & Hawksbill Turtles as well as large shoals of Jack & Barracuda.
Recommended gear for Sipadan
All photos were taken with my trusty Canon G12, this has long been discontinued and replaced with the awesome Canon G7x I have used several underwater housings and will always recommend an ikelite housing for a camera in this price range. I am using my Go Pro often, I am super chuffed with my Hero 6 which has recently been replaced by the Go Pro Hero 7 you will also need a Scuba Suit housing to dive deeper than 10m with your Go Pro.
Here are some small things worth packing, Sipadan is drift diving I never dive without my SMB on such dives!
SMB+REEL | RASH VEST | HOODED RASH VEST | ORCA TORCH | BUFF | KEY CHAIN O-RING KIT | ANTI-FOG | SILICONE SACHETS | SURF HAT | MICROFIBER LENS CLEAN KIT | POLARIZED FISHING SUNGLASSES | WATERPROOF DIVE LOGBOOK
My Dive Sipidan story
Travelling around South East Asia for a year or two diving Sipadan was high on my To-Do-list. I arrived at Mabul island to dive Sipadan. While shopping for a well priced dive operator I was offered a job as a Scuba instructor on Mabul Island. Working here, getting paid to see some of the world’s most alien creatures every day and dive these amazing places was an unreal experience!
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