Sipadan: Borneo’s Underwater Jungle

As the boat sped across the Celebes Sea, a smile tugged at my lips and I shimmied into my wetsuit. We were on our way to Sipadan, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. Rising 600 meters from the ocean floor, the sheer walls are covered in healthy coral and the waters are teeming with life. Some consider it the top diving site in the world and even more place it in the top ten. If the stories were true and luck on my side, I’d be in for a memorable day of diving.

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Thousands of turtles reside at Sipadan and yes, they come this close

When we reached Sipadan, we eagerly jumped off the boat to check in at the park office.¬†Only 120 divers or snorkelers are permitted in the waters of Sipadan each day (plus guides) and the spots are allocated well in advance. As our group took turns signing in, matching ourselves to our permits, I had my first glimpse of the island and realized it’s not just an underwater playground.

sipadan-beach

No one told me the beach at Sipadan looks like this!

As nice as the beach is, we were there to dive so it wasn’t long before we were kitted up and rolling into the water. Our first dive gave me a taste of what was to come: healthy coral as far as the eye could see. Visibility was a bit murky but I could make out a few black tip reef sharks and the outlines of other fish. With current controlling the speed and direction of our dive, I let myself drift and enjoyed being underwater. Our next site was requested by a member of our party: Turtle Cave, the entrance to Turtle Tomb. The latter is named for the skeletons found within as turtles enter then can’t find the path out, especially when a down-current or other hazard moves in. I would love to see Turtle Tomb but this is a complicated site requiring professional-level skill, excellent buoyancy control, comfort with heightened risk, a trusted buddy and guide, and a working torch in everyone’s hands. Our group had a variety of experience and skill levels so we stayed within the entrance cave and did not venture into the tomb.

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This photo is unedited to show what it’s really like down there

As we exited the cave, the real fun of Sipadan began. Everywhere I looked, there were turtles, white and black tip reef sharks, schools of fish numbering in the thousands, colorful coral, huge barracuda, and myriad tropical fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors. A dive where no one needs to point out anything because we’re all looking at something is always a great dive.

After a long surface interval with lunch and a walk on that beautiful beach, we returned to the water for our best dive yet. Thousands of fish and more turtles and reef sharks than I could count entertained us and a hammerhead shark briefly graced us with her presence. Spotting that beautiful animal had me dancing underwater. If you’re wondering, no, I was not scared. We are intruders in the ocean and while sharks sometimes approach out of curiosity, they are not interested in a human meal. If we treat their environment with respect and leave them in peace, they tend to do the same with us. I love seeing these majestic fish in their natural habitat, just as I love seeing a lion in the African bush or an orangutan in the trees of Borneo.

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Reef sharks like this are quite common, fairly small, and completely harmless

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Visibility need not be crystal clear to watch turtles

We had two snorkelers in our group and they saw loads of turtles, schools of fish, and a few reef sharks. One, a former diver, remarked that with snorkeling that good, he didn’t miss diving in the least. Seeing massive schools of fish while snorkeling is amazing but I find that watching from within is mesmerizing. I could happily hover for ages watching schools like these:

Islands like Sipadan that are both far enough from inhabited land to not be harmed by man-made pollution and rise from the deep far from other islands are rare. Most can only be reached by liveaboard dive vessels requiring both time and deep pockets to access. Sipadan can be visited from nearby Mabul or Kapalai islands or even from the “mainland” of Borneo in Semporna. Permits are allocated to dive centres and resorts so minimum stays are imposed in order to guarantee one day of diving at Sipadan. While this may seem extreme, it keeps reef damage to a minimum which is good for marine life and visitors alike. The diving at Mabul and Kapalai on the days when you aren’t diving Sipadan is excellent.

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On the Kinabatangan River, you see crocodiles. At Mabul, you look for crocodile fish

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This nudibranch is smaller than my littlest finger

The waters of Sipadan are known for attracting large pelagic life such as rays and sharks. In contrast, divers at Mabul and Kapalai delight in tiny creatures. A variety of nudibranchs, commensal shrimp, crabs, pipehorses, and more await the patient diver with a good eye. The underwater dance I did at Sipadan on seeing a hammerhead was repeated at Mabul after watching a pygmy squid dart between coral. It was gone in an instant but the thought of it still makes me smile. Mabul’s macro-rich dive sites and Sipadan’s pelagic-filled waters means that divers of all skill levels and preferences can find something to enjoy. When combined with a trip down the Kinabatangan River, there’s a good chance you’ll see orangutans, orangutan crabs, crocodiles, and crocodile fish during a holiday in Borneo.

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Orangutan crabs cling to bubble coral

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Crinoid shrimp (less than 1cm long) on a fragile feather star

If you’re looking for the luxury element of this region, look no further than Mabul Water Bungalows. I joined their team for a day of diving at Mabul and can attest to their expertise, safety standards, and high levels of service. Not surprisingly, the overwater bungalows are nearly always full so I stayed at their sister property, Sipadan Mabul Resort. While the resort is nice and has a swimming pool and beach, the water bungalows are the better choice. Guests can use the facilities at each so why not stay over the clear aquamarine water and luxuriate on your own balcony?

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Just an ordinary day on Mabul

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There are no roads on Mabul, only sand paths

Staying on Mabul for a few days is a pleasure, even if you don’t dive Sipadan. You can walk around in less than an hour and although you’d think it’s easy to find your way, there are a surprising number of places to get lost. Villages dot the island and paths cut through residential areas, sometimes ending at a home. Nowhere did I encounter an unfriendly face and my wanderings were met with smiles and happy shouts from children.

There are safety concerns with visiting these islands and I recommend that everyone research those risks before going. Speaking with foreign residents and others who call Mabul their home set my mind at ease and I felt very safe during my time in the region. I appreciated seeing five security forces patrolling the islands but everyone has a different tolerance for risk so it’s worth reading up before committing.

Diving at Sipadan was a dream come true for me, one that I will cherish forever. If you’d like to know more about it or to plan a trip to Mabul or elsewhere in Borneo, please drop me an email. I’m always happy to talk about diving, Borneo, and travel in general. I’m even happier when I can help you experience it firsthand!

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