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Diving Sipadan Island: What you need to know

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Sipidan Island in Borneo, Malaysia is regularly ranked as one of the best dive destinations in the world. This small island, formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, is one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Giant green sea turtles and hawksbills all over the place, tornadoes of barracudas, and hammerhead sharks are just some of the marine life you can expect to find on a dive at Sipadan island.

Diving here is nothing short of a dream. But, you should prepare in advance for a dive trip to Sipadan to make the most of it. In this post, I’ll go over what you need to know to plan the best diving trip to Sipadan Island.

History of Sipadan Island

Sipadan is an oceanic island formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, from which rises 60m from the seabed. The area became popular when ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau described it as one of the best dive spots in the world.

In the past, the diving resorts were located on Sipadan Island and divers could stay on the island.  But over time, the reefs and marine life did not cope well with the stress of so many divers. In 2004, The Malaysian Government told all resorts to relocate away from Sipadan in an effort to protect the reefs. Since 2006, a permit is required for all divers, which the government limits to 120 a day. The area is strictly policed by armed guards.

How to get a permit to go diving at Sipadan Island

Only 120 permits get issued to the 12 surrounding resorts each day, with the bigger resorts getting more permits. Each permit allows you to dive one day at Sipadan Island, and you will have to apply again for a second one if you want to dive more then one day.

If you want to dive at Sipadan island multiple days and do not have your dives booked in advance then you should plan to stay anywhere from 4-14 days so you can apply for multiple Sipadan permits while there. The application for permits is done on your behalf by the dive shop. If you plan to dive in Sipadan it’s best to arrange your dive/permit as early as possible, sometimes months in advance if you go during peak season. 

In my case, I got very lucky. My trip to Borneo was already last-minute, and while I was in Sandakan I heard about Sipadan from a girl at my hostel. Being just a few hours from one of the top dive sites in the world, I decided I had to try and go. I started frantically e-mailing dive shops and thankfully got a last-minute permit. But, I didn’t love the shop that I dived with. If I had my time back, I would have planned ahead so I could have gone with a more reputable dive shop and stay on one of the nearby islands rather then Semporna.

Where to stay while diving at Sipadan Island

Since you can no longer stay on Sipadan island the two closest options are to stay at a resort on the islands of Mabul and Kapalai, which are about an hour away. Alternatively, you can stay in the town of Semporna on the mainland.

Staying in Semporna is cheaper, but the town isn’t great. I didn’t get a great vibe from Semporna and had I planned ahead, I would have stayed at Mabul or Kapalai. While it’s more expensive to stay on the islands, it seems like a better overall experience.

Sipadan Diving Packages

Due to the popularity of Sipadan, most diving resorts will require you to spend at least two nights there if you go diving with them. Some dive resorts will also require you to do another day of diving at other nearby sites. 

Check out accommodation options in Mabul on Agoda. This is one of my favorite hotel search engines when traveling in Asia, I’ve gotten great discounted rates using it.

Whether you stay on the islands or in the town of Semporna, you need to get to Semporna first as this is where the boats leave from to go to the islands.

How to get to Semporna

To get to Semporna you need to fly Tawau airport. You can get flights to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, or Sandakan. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate daily flights. Tawau is about 90 minutes to Semporna and you can take either a public bus, taxi, or minibus between the two. I recommend searching on SkyScanner to find the cheapest flights, as it searches a wide variety of flight networks.

You can also take a bus from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan to Semporna. I was staying in the Kinabatangan River area, so I took a bus to Sandakan and then a bus from Sandakan to Semporna, which takes about three hours.

Semporna Diving
Town fo Semporna, Malaysia

Where to stay in Semporna

I found the town of Semporna uninspiring. As I booked my trip last minute, I didn’t have much choice in my dive operator as most places were full. I ended up diving with Sipadan Scuba which required me to stay at Holiday Dive Inn for two nights. There’s nothing special about this place, but if you’re looking for a cheap place to rest your head it’s sufficient.

If you’re booking accommodation on your own for Semporna, here are some options:

Budget: Cube Bed Station Hostel has excellent reviews and beds as low as $16 US/night. Semporna Sea Sports and Tours Hostel is a newer hostel but has beds as low as $6/night, and positive reviews.

Mid-range: Hippo Scuba overs private rooms for $45/night and is a central location near to restaurants and shops. Wave View Hotel looks like another good option, at $49 a night they offer private rooms, and the owner runs a dive shop next door.

High-end: Dragon Inn Floating Resort is located right on the water near the main pier of Semporna. There are a few resorts located around there and it looked to be the nicest area to stay in town.

Find more hotels in Semporna here.

Sipadan Island

As we approached the idealistic island from the boat I couldn’t get over how clear the surrounding water was. We saw so many turtles swimming in the water below!

Exploring beautiful Sipadan Island!

Nowadays, there isn’t much on the island other than an army base, which means you cannot fly a drone there. I was disappointed about this because the island would have made an epic shot. Still, the island is gorgeous and it’s nice that you get to relax on it during your breaks between dives. But what makes a trip Sipadan special is the vast amount of marine life you can find below the water.

Diving at Sipadan Island
Diving at Sipadan Island

If you don’t dive, Sipadan is also a great spot for snorkeling/freediving as the shallow part of the reef close to the island is less than 5m deep, where you can see big turtles, corals, clams, and reef sharks.

Marine life at Sipadan

There is so much marine life to see diving in Sipadan. Massive green sea turtles and hawksbill swim all over the place, parrotfish, sharks, morays, and vortexes of Barracudas, all in one dive.

More than 3000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in the waters surrounding Sipadan. It is common for a diver to see more than 20 turtles on a single dive!

sea turtles diving at Sipadan
Saw many sea turtles while diving at Sipadan!

Dive Sites in Sipadan

Sipadan has twelve dive sites and each has its own distinctive views of coral and aquatic life. With limited dive permits, the dive shops do their best to maximize your chance to dive.

This means you will likely have three or four dives a day planned. It is a lot of diving and they are not laid back recreational dives as the currents are strong. On my visit, we explored these three different dive sites.

Diving South Point Sipadan

Mid Reef was the first dive of the day. I wasn’t that impressed with this dive site given Sipadan’s reputation, but afterward, our guide told me that he took us there to see our skill level before the other dives.

Mid Reef had some great coral formations with black corals, sea fans, and knotted fan corals covering the slopes. I also saw white-tip reef sharks cruising in small groups in the shallows. The dive lasted 52 minutes with an average depth of 19.7m.

Reef Sharks diving Sipadan
Reef sharks on Mid Reef Dive

Barracuda Point is regularly ranked amongst the top five dive sites in the world.  When we started this dive, I began to understand why Sipadan is so famous.

This dive site has a great barracuda shoal where you can see thousands in a tornado-like formation. It was so much fun swimming through them! I also saw many sharks and turtles at Barracuda point. The entire dive was 50 mins with an average depth of 16.2m.

Baracuda Point dive Sipadan
Diving at Baracuda Point

South Point Sipadan is famous for its fantastic wall of coral formations and larger marine life such as manta rays and hammerhead sharks. It’s a deep wall dive with the wall dropping at a vertical angle into the depths. The dive lasted 38 minutes with an average depth of 15.5m.

Is Sipadan worth the cost?

As one of the top-ranked dive sites with limited permits available, Sipadan is by no means a cheap dive. For one day of diving (three dives + equipment rentals), I paid 950RM($240 USD). Plus, I had to book two nights at Holiday Dive Inn for an additional 100RM ($25 USD). For me, diving at Sipadan was worth the costs. The vast amount of marine life you can see there is incredible. Barracuda point is definitely one of the top dives that I’ve done.

diving at Barracuda point
Diving at Barracuda point was a blast!

Sipidan Diving Tips

Dive Insurance

Many dive locations are remote with minimal medical facilities. Accidents do happen, so be prepared. For diving, I recommend purchasing travel insurance through World Nomads, as they specialize in adventure activities like diving. Find out more about World Nomads Diving Insurance. Get a quote for your trip now!

Level Required for Sipadan

The shop I dived with required you to be an advanced open water diver with a minimum of 20 logged dives. Each shop has different requirements, so ask when you book what you need. Some of the dive sights are drift dives with strong currents, and the water next to the reef is very deep, which means it can be dangerous for a new diver.

Sipadan Dive Conditions

Temperatures throughout the year range between 21 and 32c. The water felt like bath water while I was there and a thin wet suit was more than enough to keep me warm. The visibility at Sipadan is not great because of the currents. It can range anywhere from 5m to 50m, depending on the day.

Sipadan Packing List

If you plan to do a lot of diving in and around Sipadan is may be beneficial to bring your own equipment. Dive shops may discount the price of the dive if you use your own equipment. Dive equipment essentials include  MaskFins, WetSuitBCD, and regulator.

I love using my GoPro to take photos underwater. A dive housing suit is required to bring your GoPro past depths of 10m.

clam at sipadan island
Photo of a clam taken with a GoPro Hero 5

Sipadan Diving Season

You can dive Sipadan all year round but the best time to go is from April to December. April until early June is high season so definitely book ahead if you plan to go then. From January to March there can be heavy rainfall which may reduce visibility.

Final Thoughts on Diving Sipadan Island

Once you dive at Sipadan it’s easy to see why this place is consistently ranked as one of the top dive sites in the world. My only regret is not planning my stay better so I could have stayed longer and dived more! Have you dived in Sipadan or Malaysia below? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Lora Pope

    Lora is a full-time digital nomad on a quest to visit every country in the world and pet as many dogs as she can along the way. Over the last 15 years, she has traveled to 70+ countries and six continents solo. She currently calls Puerto Vallarta, Mexico home and enjoys ending each day with sunset and tacos on the beach.

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  1. Hi Lora,

    Great info on Sipadan Island. Seems like it is a little awkward to get to, requires some paperwork to be able to dive there, but apparently, it could be well worth our while to investigate further. Of course, your images and video make it all look worthwhile. Nicely done.

    Cheers Sharon…

    • lora says:

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for checking out the post. The dive shops take care of all the paperwork fortunately, so it’s not too much of a hassle. It’s definitely worth it, one of the bets dive spots I’ve been!

  2. Anderson M says:

    I agree with you on the marine life. There is still marine life in there. We did go before to the place, and we did enjoy a lot. Its sad though on the coral bleaching. Maybe its more now than before.

    • lora says:

      I’m glad to hear you had a good time there and saw lots of marine life! Hopefully with the reduced permits to the island it will help restore the ocean.

  3. Anne Kepner says:

    I have dived in Sipadan last month, and it was onlt then that I really understood what a coral bleaching is. Very sad, the corals are inbad condition, not nice to see. The fishes are still there, maybe not as much as before, but also depends on your Luck. I really dont recommend, also it is really expensive- I have payed 750 ringgit. Not worthy.

    • lora says:

      So sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy it! It is sad about the coral bleaching, a problem I have seen all over the world. I still really enjoyed the dives, in particular, all of the turtles and barracudas. There’s still a lot of marine life there, although I’m sure it’s not nearly what it once was. For me, it was worth it!

  4. […] you plan to go diving at Sipadan Island be sure to book in advance, as dive permits are limited to 120 a day and space can fill up […]