Sipadan Island has often been voted by divers as being among the best diving destinations in the world. Seeing herds of Giant Bumphead Parrotfish on the first dive (they swim in a single file going in the same direction, presumably heading to an office somewhere) to looking up at a huge school of swirling Chevron Barracudas and endless variety and abundance of creatures like the sea turtles, reef sharks and trevallys is just breath taking.
The Golden Years of No Permits Required
Back in the days before 2006, you didn’t need permits to dive at Sipadan Island. In fact, a few years before that, before 2004, when most of the resorts were located on Sipadan Island, you could walk out your resort room, gear up and jump into the Drop Off.
If you could manage 7 dives a day, (oh yes, there are people who will go to that length) then its 7 dives a day for as many days as you were staying there as long as you give yourself time to off gas before flying. It was great for divers, but not so great for the eco system at Sipadan Island.
A number of scientific studies were made, notably researches led by Dr. Elizabeth Wood, Coral Reef Conservation Officer of the Marine Conservation Society, and these studies have shown that the reefs and marine life were not coping with the stress caused by too many divers on Sipadan Island.
The Malaysian Government finally decided to act and informed all resorts to relocate away from Sipadan Island by 31st December 2004. A few years later, on 1st April 2006, the government also imposed a permit requirement for all divers wanting to dive at Sipadan.
How Permits are Issued
The permits are issued by Sabah Parks (locally known as Taman-Taman Sabah), a State Government of Sabah authority charged with preserving the areas which are of geographical, geological, biological or historical significance. There are 176 permits issued each day to slected resorts in the area. Of these 176 permits a day, resorts are allocated a number depending on the size of the resort. Each permit allows a diver to dive for a day at Sipadan Island. So for the days you have permit approval, you will have 3 dives at Sipadan Island.
But the permit approval isn’t automatic. Resorts are still required to register guest names and particulars with Sabah Parks. Resorts with unused allocation of permits will surrender it back to Sabah Parks so that it can be redistributed to other resorts that require additional permits.
You only need these permits to dive at Sipadan Island. You don’t need it for diving at the other locations.
First-Come-First-Serve or Round Robin?
As you would have gathered by now, 176 permits isn’t a lot to go round, especially considering that all the resorts combined can accommodate over 500 guests during the peak season.
In the beginning, a number of resorts tried to implement a first come first serve scheduling. In this system, when divers make a booking with a resort, they are allotted which days they will dive at Sipadan Island as long as there were permits available. So, those who book late will not have a chance to dive Sipadan Island at all. This system becomes unwieldy and messy very quickly as divers make changes to their dates or make cancellations. The problem is compounded when resorts have multiple offices or sales agents and the number of assigned permits to divers isn’t in sync between them.
Later on, many resorts decided to use a simpler round robin scheduling. It was easier to manage and less likely for the resort staff to make administrative mistakes in assigning of permits. It also gave as many divers as possible a chance to dive at Sipadan Island. Bear in mind that even with this system, there is a possibility that divers will not get to visit Sipadan Island if they only stay a short time at the resort.
These days almost all resorts with permit allocation use the round robin system.
I Don’t Want A Permit, I Need A Permit!
Your best chance of getting a permit boils down to:
1. Staying longer at the resort; or stay during the low season.
2. Book your stay early.
Update: With resorts having accumulated data over the years, many now can offer you guaranteed diving at Sipadan Island with a minimum duration of stay. See our Guide to Visiting Sipadan Island for details.
Stay Longer or Stay During Low Season
Staying longer will give you the best chance of diving at Sipadan Island. This is so that in the round robin scheduling, you are in the queue long enough for your turn to go visit Sipadan Island. We recommend you stay at least 7 days / 6 nights.
If staying longer is not possible, then you should consider choosing a low season to visit Sipadan Island for your best chance of obtaining a permit.
The peak season is in July and August, and during the Christmas and New Year period, including the first week of January; Chinese New Year week; Easter holidays; and the Golden Week which is the first week of May.
Even with the round-robin scheduling, you still should book early because paperwork takes time. The issuance of permits by Sabah Parks isn’t fully computerized yet, so there’s a bit of paper shuffling that can delay the process. You also should avoid having to rush for an application during public holidays. Malaysia is among countries with the highest number of public holidays in the world.
What About Mabul and Kapalai Islands?
Too often, divers are so focused on going to Sipadan Island that they don’t realize how much the other islands have to offer too. These islands are often treated as “filler songs in an album with one hit single”.
Yes, Sipadan Island is special in that it is an oceanic island while the other islands sit on the continental shelf. So the kind of marine life you see at Sipadan Island will be different from the others. But some of my most memorable dives were at these islands. I saw the biggest green turtle at Crocodile Avenue on Mabul Island.
Best Times to Visit
The best time to visit Sipadan Island is during the dry season which occurs from April to October. However, Sipadan diving is accessible all year round.