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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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sipidan Diving Tips
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 Mask, Fins, WetSuit, BCD, and regulator.
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!