For a scuba diver, Sipadan is as close as it gets to Mecca. This tiny coral atoll off the coast of Malaysian Borneo is pure scuba diving heaven.
Sipadan lies 36 kilometers off the coast, and to get there you must first go to the small town of Semporna, which is where most of the boats leave from to take you out to Sipadan. Many divers base themselves in Semporna itself and travel to and from each day by boat. Or you can opt to stay on one of the many islands that surround Sipadan – a much more relaxing option.
But don’t think you can just rock up and dive in Sipadan. Access to the island is strictly controlled, and only a certain number of dive permits are given per day. Just 120 permits are available each day, and demand is huge from the many dive resorts in the vicinity. Your hotel or dive set-up will arrange the permits for you – and remember: you can no longer spend the night on Sipadan. Be prepared to not be diving every day during busy holiday periods. The system is fair and organized, however, and the authorities really do try and accommodate everyone. They know that’s why you’re there.
The island is just the tip of a huge limestone pinnacle that rises a sheer 600 meters from the sea bed. It is home to a breathtaking variety of corals, tropical fish, and, deeper down, more sensational (and possibly scary) inhabitants of the sea.
Diving on the near vertical “wall” is an extraordinarily dizzying experience. As you dive, you look down below you and there is nothing. Literally nothing but an increasingly dark blue nothingness below you.
The reef is home to a dazzling array of corals, which are home in turn to an equally dazzling range of tropical fish. You regularly see schools of barracuda and tuna, many reef sharks, including hammerhead sharks, but the most special sightings of all are of the turtles.
The turtles swim lazily by, amazingly close, and certainly not frightened of humans. The temptation to reach out and touch these beautiful, endangered creatures is strong – but the dive masters keep a watchful eye on you. To swim alongside such a magnificent creature is truly a privilege.
Pulau Sipadan (Pulau means island in Bahasa Malay) is possibly the best known island in Borneo. It is also, sadly, one of the most infamous islands, as well.
The handful of pretty coral islands, of which Sipadan is the undoubted jewel in the crown, lie virtually on the maritime border between Malaysia and the Philippines, and have been the subject of disputes over the years. Nearby Indonesia also claimed sovereignty over the island, and all of this tension came to a head with the high-profile kidnapping of tourists back in 2000.
The resultant fall-out has been increased policing of the islands and Sipadan is now safer and more protected than ever before. This visible policing has had the add-on benefit of discouraging maritime poaching, over-fishing, and most importantly the illegal hunting of the endangered sea turtles and their eggs. It is now one of the safest and most protected places to dive, for both humans and wildlife.