“I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.” – late Jacques Cousteau
A good 35 km from mainland Semporna spouts Sipadan Island, a tropical dream. Dense with tropical greenery and velvet white sands, it may come as a shock to many that Sipadan is an oceanic island. Formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct submerged volcano, which rises 600m from the Celebes Seabed, it is the only oceanic island in all of Malaysia. Stretching for an astounding 40 acres, Sipadan is the most famous of Semporna’s islands. Resting in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, at the heart of the Coral Triangle, Sipadan has among the richest marine habitat in the world. With more than 3000 species of fishes and hundreds of coral species found. Among the most commonly sited marine life in Sipadan are Turtles, who populate its waters in large numbers that one does not necessarily have to dive to spot this elegant creature. The green and hawksbill turtles are always spotted on the island, as they gather there to mate and nest.
But when it comes to diving deep into its rich waters, divers are offered many different attractions at the many different dive spots. From exciting tornado reel patterns of barracuda fishes rushing by at the Barracuda Point, to shark infested waters at WhiteTip Avenue, to numerous sea gardens of vibrant corals. The crystal clear water of Sipadan holds a different adventure for each individual. However, Sipadan is not easy to get to. With no accommodation on the island itself and a working permit system limiting the number of divers each day to 120, it is well advised to book in advance.
Sipadan Scuba and Borneo Divers are both pioneers in the diving community in Sipadan. Founded in 1984, Borneo Divers was the first full service professional dive operation in Borneo. Following closely behind it, Sipadan Scuba is the first PADI 5-Star IDC Training Centre and National Geographic Dive Centre in Semporna. Both providing diving services to Islands around Semporna, and more notable Sipadan, leave your permits inquires and bookings schedules in their hands and await your turn to enter the deep blue of Sipadan.
It was throughout the 90’s that Sipadan boomed as a diving Mecca. But it wasn’t long before the overflow of visitors to the island was taking its toll on the corals and marine life living in its waters. As a drastic measure in salvaging the wonders of the island, the Sabah Marine Park closed the island off to resorts in 2005. Therefore, there are no more accommodations and overnight stays allowed in Sipadan. Many of the resorts moved to the close by islands such as Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and to the mainland of Semporna.
SNORKELING & SCUBA DIVING CAN BE DONE ON PULAU SIPADAN PARK.
There are 12 dive popular sites to explore on this mushroom-shaped island with the best being Barracuda Point. There may be no guarantees in diving, but let’s just say there is every chance that you can find yourself in the middle of a swirling vortex of chevron or blacktail barracuda at this north coast site, one of the most treasured spots at Sipadan Island. Normally divers roll in to the top of the wall here, at a depth of about 10 metres. There may be some current but that means there is lots of food which duly brings in tons of fish – schooling bannerfish and red tooth triggerfish are prevalent in large numbers. Grey reef sharks are always patrolling the perimeter here and hunting for lunch, and great barracuda and dogtooth tuna are frequent visitors to this part of the island too.
Cruise along the wall dropping down as far as you wish, and keep an eye out for a herd of bumphead parrotfish and turtles in every nook and cranny. Eventually, the wall will level out into a sloping plateau, where the barracudas often congregate. Here you can also find Napoleon wrasse and yellow-margin triggerfish. A word of caution though, don’t venture too deep to the north of this site as the currents can get very strong and sweep you downwards, out and away from the island.
The Drop Off is another popular site which gets its name because a 9.14 metre stroll on the beach is all it takes before one drops off into a 600 metre underwater abyss. The wall has an amazing variety of fans, corals and sponges with interesting tiny creatures making their homes there. Jacks, grey reef sharks, white tip sharks and large fishes also abound in this fascinating site.
The Turtle Cavern entrance is located about 22 meters down along the Drop Off wall. A resident giant grouper or two can normally be seen hovering about the entrance of this famed final resting place for turtles.
It was at one time speculated that the cavern was their mausoleum and that they came to this site to die. However, a more accurate representation, is that the turtles became lost in the caverns at night and drowned. Sipadan Island’s resort operators insist that all Borneo divers to this system of interconnecting caverns must be accompanied by a local dive master.
Inside the cavern you will see the skeletons of those previous entrants who failed to find the exit and perished. Deeper penetration of the system reveals the cavern as home to shoals of fish specifically adapted to the low light environment of the further reaches.
Lazily decend to your required depth down the vertical wall that forms Sipadan Midreef, then just drift along with the current, whichever way it takes you – north or south. Once you begin your dive, it won’t belong before you come across this sites most discernable guests – dozens of large green turtles, by now very habituated to inquisitive divers.
Drifting along the wall you’ll soon be kept busy inspecting the dominant soft corals, navy knotted sea fans and orange gorgonian fans that hang from the ledges. Pygmy gobies and whip gobies are in abundance here. Forster’s hawkfish are often seen hanging out, resting motionless on the small sponges. 5-lined cardinalfish and harlequin sweetlips move furtively under the many ledges and overhangs. Sulu fangblennies, known only to northern Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago, form aggregations among the gorgonians.
As with nearly all the Sipidan dive sites, Midreef can have quite strong currents, with an added tendency to push you upwards too. This occurs most often in the presence of cold water thermoclines rising from the depths. The trade-off though is that the adverse conditions bring with them higher densities of fish life. Large schools of moorish idols, redtooth triggerfish, unicornfish and bannerfish race along the wall. Smaller schools of round batfish pass by and Napoleon wrasse are regular visitors to this part of Borneo too.
The 6 metre hard coral flats that top the reef make an ideal safety stop. Small hardy stubbly table corals, and porites corals dominate here, and these form the staple diet for packs of bumphead parrotfish, sometimes 40 or so strong. Moving like a herd of African buffalo, munching their way through the dense bush, these largest of all parrotfish are a terrific sight and safety stops often become very long here!
At this Pulau Sipadan dive site, you will find yourself beginning with a gentle descent along the drop-off, followed by a gradual diagonal descent along the wall, at the shallow end of which there is a garden of staghorn corals. Photographers take note – this site has brilliant light conditions during the afternoons which offers excellent illumination for superb underwater images.
On the face of the wall, take a close look into the numerous cervices, balconies, cavities and protruding vaults where you will see a profusion of marine life which have made their home there. You will find red seawhip corals, black corals, barrel sponges and a plethora of reef fish. In particular, watch out for groupers, nudibranchs, angelfish, gobies, grunts, shrimps and triggerfish. Due to the untouched nature of the Sipadan reefs, the coral formations have grown to huge sizes; the black corals in depths between 15 and 40 metres have bushes that have grown up to 2 metres wide.
Because of the variable currents which can be strong at this Sipadan Island diving spot, novices should stick close to the divemaster. However, more experienced divers with a yearning for adventure can strike out to about 30 metres away from the wall towards the expanse of the open sea. Here, you will come across giant manta rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks, rare fox sharks and Leopard sharks.
Although you can make a typical Sipadan-style wall dive, perhaps the best way of taking in Turtle Patch is just to let the current take you along the shallows, and then you can take in the scenery as it unfolds at its own natural and leisurely pace before your eyes.
This is because, similarly with Coral Garden, the main attraction for divers here is the shallow terraces at the top of the eastern wall. This is also the attraction for a large number of giant turtles that come here to rest on the sandy bottom or feed on the sponges. The turtles are so used to inquisitive divers that many seem oblivious to their attentions, and you really can get quite close without disturbing them.
The reef here has some outstanding acropora staghorn coral stands, leather corals and small table corals. Hiding out here you can find spotted sweetlips and pufferfish, such as the mappa puffer moray eels are also common here. In the rocky areas, orange spinecheek anemonefish watch you from the safety of their magnificent anemone homes of orange, green and purple. And with a bit of luck and if you’re observant, you may spot a leaffish swaying slowly in the current.
Turtle Patch is located in the southeast corner of Sipadan Island, just to the northeast of South Point. Since it is located along the east coast, its wall is best dived in the mornings, however, the shallows are exposed to sunlight throughout the day.
Although the temptation of the drop-off is always there, this site is a haven for the underwater photographer. The health and diversity of the coral growth in the shallows atop of the wall, combined with the fact that almost every species to be seen in Pulau Sipadan’s waters is on view here, makes this site ideal for long dives devoted to both macro and wide angle compositions.
In depths between 5 and 10 metres, you can observe dozens of green turtles feed on the edges of the wall, and encounter featherstars at every turn. If you are looking for an encounter with a wrasse then the humphead wrasse will oblige. Triggerfish of the clown and titan variety are plentiful and may even allow you to take their photo without attack on their mind. The reef shallows here is so lively, colourful and in good shape that you don’t really need to venture down the bordering wall, an ever-present at all of the Sipadan sites. Butterflyfish, such as the blackspot and teardrop, and masked and regal angelish are present at every turn. Humpback unicornfish can be found in the throws of mating in pairs.
Pulau Sipadan, it is often said, has everything that the Indo-Pacific has to offer and for the macro photographer, Coral Garden will occupy many a pleasure-filled hour.
In a nutshell, this is a wall dive which begins with a drop-off just over a metre from the surface, descends gradually to a terrace at about 70 metres and then plunges into an abyss. This is the topography here – hence its name ‘Hanging Gardens’. The terraces, filled with a proliferation of Dendronephthya Alcyonarians in various pastel colours of lemon, lavender and antique rose overflowing down to the next level, harks back to the mythological Babylonian gardens after which it is named.
To the underwater photographers out there, take a close look at the alcyonarians and gorgonian fans which adorn the wall – among them you’ll find various microlife nestling in its branches and polyps.
Within the cavities and crevices on the wall, you’ll find colonies of sweetlips, gobies, hawkfish, emperor angelfish, moray eels and coral groupers lurking around. Turtles are a common sight when you’re diving Sipadan and this site is no exception; in particular, green turtles and imbricate turtles. Don’t be surprised if you come across dozens of ribbontail stingrays as well. Spend some time watching out towards the open Sipadan sea as well, where you can find schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, and occasionally, if you’re lucky, the extremely rare thresher shark, or fox shark. If you do come across it, the thresher shark, with its long upper tail which it uses to beat or thrash its prey, is a difficult sight to miss.
This is a good place to get a bit deeper in the morning as long as you don’t mind a thin layer of narcosis-on-toast for breakfast. South Point is one of the most likely sites for the more rare sharks such as hammerheads and thresher sharks, both of which tend to stay at depths here of 40+ metres.
On this Sipadan dive, you will descend down to a ledge and then fin out gently into the blue, scanning the waters for a glimpse of the action. If you are lucky enough to encounter hammerhead sharks or threshers you will be the toast of the resort and the object of envy.
Then, often you’ll hear them coming nearer, long before you see them. The noise comes through the water like a riot in a school dining room, the enormous bumphead parrotfish grinding and munching the corals for the algae. At 85 kg and easily more than 1 metre long, the fish have humped and scarred heads, small eyes, and jutting teeth-like fused beaks. They excrete white exhaust plumes of pulverised coral sand, like a locomotive train. Watch as they take pizza-sized bites out of the table corals and then march on by.
The wonder of Pulau Sipadan is that visitors get used to countless turtles, white-tips, bump-headed parrotfish and massive schools of other fish, that the crossbar is always raised, and South Point is often the site for the crowning glory.
With a name like “Whitetip Avenue”, you’re probably wondering, does it live up to its name? Well, yes, it does. You can look forward to numerous encounters with schools of gentle whitetip reef sharks. This, however, is only one of the many amazing underwater sights this Borneo Sipadan site holds for you.
A coral reef located at a shallow depth before plunging into the 600 metres vertical abyss, Sipadan diving is full of unexpected encounters. You’ll find yourself in the middle of a huge silver school of bigeye travellies or within a colourful palette of gigantic bumphead parrotfish.
The route you take will be determined by your Dive Master depending on the direction of the current. Either way, you will find the wall on one side and the open sea on the other.
The wall is full of terraces, crevices, ledges and vertical chimneys which are worth a look into – you’ll find sponges of all shapes and colours, black coral colonies and gorgonian fans. Among this rich coral life, you’ll find reef and den fish circulating merrily. Watch out for groupers, emperor angelfish, moorish idols, triggerfish, parrotfish, clownfish, boxfish, scorpionfish and butterflyfish. You may also find yourself cavorting with a friendly turtle.
The open sea on the other side holds encounters with pelagics of Sipadan like the grey reef shark, and naturally, whitetip reef sharks. Novice divers are not encouraged to venture into the deep side of the drop-off.