Sipadan IslandCelebes Sea near Semporna, Malaysia
Sipadan Island, a marine paradise, is renowned among divers for its rich underwater biodiversity, pristine reefs, and sudden drop offs into the deep blue. Regularly ranked as one of the top ten diving destinations in the world Sipadan can be found in the Celebes Sea just off of Borneo Malaysia. The wonders of Sipadan are easily accessed from the town Semporna, which is just 35 kilometres north of the island or about an hour’s boat ride away. For divers who tire of seeing big turtles and bigger sharks all day, nearby Mabul Island and Kapalai Island are just a 20-minute speedboat ride away offering hidden treasures such as small nudibranchs and pipefish.
There are few places on Earth where a diver can see schools of whirling barracuda, a dozen sea turtles of varying species, a handful of sharks, and a teeming reef of angelfish, triggerfish, morays and gobies all on one dive. At Sipadan such sights are common, with lucky divers bringing home stories of whale sharks, manta rays, and schools of hammerheads. Sipadan is well known as a hotspot for biodiversity with over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species calling the waters off this island home.
Sipadan Island’s unique geography makes it home to a number of excellent dive sites. It is Malaysia’s only oceanic island, meaning it rises straight from the seabed rather than the continental shelf. Its lush forests and white sand beaches rest on top of a prehistoric volcano rising 600 meters from the seafloor and the pristine waters surrounding the island allow for a visibility of at least 20 meters year round. However, visibility can reach up to 50 meters during the dry season.
Entry Permit Requirement
Visiting Sipadan Island requires a permit issued by Sabah Parks, a Sabah Government agency. There are a limited number of 120 permits available each day. This is a good move by the Malaysian Government in order to minimize the stress on the reefs and marine life around Sipadan. Unfortunately, this also means that not everyone will get to visit Sipadan Island every day.
The permit application will be done on your behalf by the resort you choose to stay at.
If a resort as unallocated permits for a given day, it will be returned to Sabah Parks so that it can be redistributed to other resorts that require additional permits. So, if the resort you are staying at has run out of permit allocation for the day, but another resort has available permits, you may be able to obtain these permits. Additional costs may apply.
Most resorts use the round-robin allocation method to maximize the chances of everyone visiting Sipadan Island. However, a number of these resorts will also give preferences to visitors with a longer duration of stay. Please check out the resorts below for more information on turn-around times and recommended duration of stay for diving at Sipadan Island.
You don’t need a permit to visit the other islands in the area.
Notable Dive Sites
Sipadan has twelve dive sites in all, each with its own distinctive features. Sites include the Coral Gardens, White-Tip Avenue, Turtle Patch, Staghorn Crest, Lobster Lair, Hanging Gardens, West Ridge and North Point. Yet despite the many reef sharks to be found at White-Tip Avenue and the abundance of soft corals at the Hanging Gardens Sipadan’s most notable sites are the Sipadan Jetty, Turtle Cavern, Barracuda Point, South Point and Mid-Reef.
Sipadan Jetty/Drop-Off: Your Sipadan dive can start as soon as your boat docks at the Sipadan Jetty. Located on the northern point of the island, the beach at the jetty suddenly drops straight down to the sea floor 600 meters below, making for a spectacular wall dive. As you swim along you can appreciate the hard and soft corals on one hand as schools of barracuda, mackerel, and batfish swim by on the other. Enjoy the wall’s overhangs but also keep an eye open for white tip reef sharks and the occasional leopard shark!
Turtle Cavern: Perhaps the most talked about and most eerie of the Sipadan dive sites is the Turtle Cavern – also known as the Turtle Tomb. About 20 meters down and just a short swim to the right of the Jetty is an extensive cave system. Locals say this is where turtles come to die, and indeed turtle skeletons can be found within. Fortunately though, there are plenty of live turtles still swimming about outside of the caves. Many divers lose count of the number of green turtles they see between the Jetty Drop-Off and the Turtle Cavern.
Exploring the cavern There are only 3 resorts with full time technical divers on staff available to bring divers into the Turtle Cavern. They are Mabul Water Bungalows, Seaventures Dive Rig and Sipadan-Mabul Resort.
Barracuda Point: As the name suggests, this dive site is known for its large schools of barracuda. Hundreds of barracuda congregate here and if you are lucky you may see the barracuda tornado as the schools swim in a rapid spiral forming a spinning wall of fish. Hard and soft corals along with black tip reef sharks, bump-head parrotfish, eagle rays, and triggerfish can all also be seen at this site. Barracuda Point is about a 3-minute boat ride to the right of the Jetty, and the site extends about 20 meters down. Be sure to watch out for currents here, which can occasionally get strong.
South Point: About a 15-minute boat ride from the Jetty can be found the South Point site, which is actually slightly southeast of the island. The site consists of a wall, a ledge at about 20 meters under, and then a sudden drop down. Be sure to look over the drop for rare sharks such as hammerheads and the thresher shark, which are usually only seen around 40 meters depth. White-tip reef sharks can be found in shallower waters along with banner fish, moray eels, and a variety of hard corals. Strong currents can also be found at this site so divers beware!
Mid-Reef: One of the most colourful of the Sipadan dive sites, the emphasis here is on corals rather than pelagic creatures. East of the island, the site is about 10 minutes from the jetty by boat, with dive depths of 15-20 meters. Colourful sea fans, Moorish idols, and anemone fish dominate the scene. Be sure to keep your eye out for green turtles as well.
Choosing a Resort We've put together an infographic to help you choose which resort is right for you.
Best Times to Visit
- Best times: March - October
- Temperature: 26°C - 34°C (78°F - 93°F)
Scuba diving occurs all year round at Sipadan Island with decent visibility to be had throughout the year. However, for the most breathtaking experiences, with dive visibility reaching up to 50 meters, you will have to visit during the dry season which occurs between March and October. Divers are sure to enjoy their surface intervals as temperatures throughout the year range between 26°C to 34°C (78°F to 93°F).
Originally known as Siparan, this island was named after a local group of the same name. The Siparan people would often come to the island to collect turtle eggs and named the island after themselves. Over time the name became Sipadan, however, the local Bajau ethnic group continues to call the island by its original name.
Although Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island) is known for its diving the island itself is well worth exploring. The Pulau Sipadan Lighthouse was built by the Malaysian government in 1962 and is still standing today. The lighthouse helped Malaysia gain sovereignty over Sipadan in a dispute with Indonesia that was finally settled by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Today Sipadan’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems are appreciated throughout the world and the island could soon be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sipadan’s history has been marked by a constant struggle between environmental conservation, tourism, and economic gain. For decades people came from around the world to see Sipadan’s pristine beauty, yet reckless tourism often threatened the very marine life people came to see. Fortunately, in the past few years the Malaysian government has taken great strides to protect Sipadan’s delicate ecosystems – but getting to this point was not easy.
Little is known of Sipadan’s history before the twentieth century. The first mention of the island in Western documents occurs in Dutch government papers from 1878. However, it was the Sultanate of Sulu, a Muslim State that ruled over many islands south of the Philippines, which had control over Sipadan at this time. In the 1800’s the Sulu Sultan granted tribal leaders on Dinawan Island the exclusive right to collect and trade Sipadan’s turtle eggs. Conservation was not at the forefront of people’s minds at this time.
The first step towards conserving Sipadan’s wildlife occurred in 1933 when British colonists declared the island a bird sanctuary. Sipadan was an important stopover for migratory birds such as the greater sand plover, wood sandpiper, and common sandpiper. Bird watching continues to be enjoyed by visitors today thanks to this important conservation step.
In 1964 Malaysia’s Sabah State took further steps to protect Sipadan’s wildlife by including the island in a conservation plan to protect turtle eggs. However, this plan was ill prepared for the full force of Sipadan’s tourism boom. Although Borneo Divers began dive trips to Sipadan in 1983, the tourism industry truly exploded once Jacques Cousteau released his movie “Borneo: Ghost of the Sea Turtle”. The film documented Sipadan’s beauty and lush marine life, bringing the island international fame. Jacques Cousteau famously said of Sipadan “Now we have found an untouched piece of art”.
Once the word was out, Sipadan did not remain untouched for long. By 1990 five resorts stood upon a narrow stretch of Sipadan’s beach and conservationists began to notice tourism’s effects on the surrounding ecosystems. In 1992, coral reef conservationist, Dr. Elizabeth Wood of Britain’s Marine Conservation Society, began to monitor the deterioration of the coral reefs surrounding Sipadan. No longer pristine, the coral had been damaged by careless divers and snorkellers, while boats stirred up silt that choked the delicate coral polyps.
In 1996 Tropical Storm Greg hit Sipadan Island destroying shallower parts of the reef. The corals couldn’t recover from the storm as unfiltered waste from the island’s resorts seeped into the sea, choking coral polyps and allowing algae to take over. In 1997 the Malaysian government made a half hearted effort to protect Sipdan’s reefs by announcing restrictions on the number of tourists allowed to visit the island. However, these restrictions were not enforced and few dive operators took notice.
Sipadan had long been a point of political contention – for decades Indonesia and Malaysia argued over who had sovereignty over the island. In 2002 the International Court of Justice declared Sipadan part of Malaysia, which allowed Malaysia to firm up its conservation efforts in the following years.
The year 2004 was a great year for the conservation movement. The Government of Malaysia ordered all structures to be removed from Sipadan Island by the end of the year and in 2005 the island was officially declared a protected marine reserve. The number of tourists allowed to visit the island was also effectively monitored. At last, Sipadan was recognized for the gift it is and real efforts to protect it for future generations had been made.
Today Sipadan remains exceptionally rich in biodiversity. However, it is important to remember how fragile marine ecosystems can be. The wildlife at Sipadan’s dive sites must continue to be protected and treated with respect so that its beauty can be enjoyed for years to come.
See photos of Sipadan Island.