Sipadan is a tiny island located in the Celebes Sea. It’s the only oceanic island in Malaysia and was formed by the living corals that grew on top of an extinct volcanic cone. In 2009, Sipadan was declared a National park and as a result, visiting the island requires a permit issued by Sabah Parks. It is no longer possible to remain on the island, as all resorts have been closed in order to maintain the island’s pristine state.
Sipadan claims to be the best diving location in the world, and it quite possibly be that it is. The island was popularized by renowned sea-explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau, who said “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art”.
Note that Sipadan is not considered suitable for beginners, and this is largely due to the currents you can encounter here. While you may still be able to dive in Sipadan with only a basic Open Water certification, this destination is typically recommended for those with an Advanced Open Water (and up) certificate. Some dive operators may require proof of 20 to 50 logged dives before they take you diving in Sipadan.
The permits to dive in Sipadan are distributed among the dive schools. There are only 120 permits available per day. It’s important to make a reservation beforehand to ensure you get the permit, as it is (in theory) not possible to get the permit on the spot, although some tourists have been lucky enough to be given one on the same day. Each permit allows the diver to dive for only one day at Sipadan Island.
Sipadan coral reef teeming with life. Photo by William Warby
Diving in Sipadan is possible year-round, but the best diving season runs April through December when you’ll find ideal diving conditions. April through June is considered the high season, so make sure to book in advance if you plan on traveling to the area during those months.
The water temperature in Sipadan ranges from 26° to 30°C/79-86° F, which makes diving pleasant year-round.
The waters surrounding Sipadan are known for being passed by strong currents. The currents here change frequently, hour-to-hour. Some dive sites may not always be suitable for diving due to extreme conditions.
The water visibility in Sipadan is not the clearest due to the currents. However, it can range from as low as 5 meters to 50 meters (16-160 feet), depending on the day.
One of the highlights of diving in Sipadan is seeing the thousands of chevron barracudas coming together to form an incredible vortex in the strong currents. The vortex ranges in size from half a meter to one meter long. The best place to see this phenomenon is at Barracuda Point, often ranked amongst the best dive sites in the world. But be aware that you will need to be at least an Advanced Open Water diver to be taken here.
Schooling barracudas. Photo by Chen Wu
Sipadan is a shark haven. The creatures are everywhere and you can see them at just about any spot you choose to dive. Most of the sharks here are white-tip, black-tip, and grey reef sharks. These species are rarely aggressive to humans, so diving alongside them – granted you don’t do anything that can provoke them - is safe. During the day, they can be seen sleeping along coral reef ledges and in the caverns. Sharks are more active during the night when it’s hunting time.
One of the best dive sites in Sipadan, Turtle Cave features stunning geological formations and the turtle and dolphin skeletons of the unfortunate creatures that entered the cave but could not get out and drowned here. The giant cavern is found at a depth of about 20 meters (66 feet) and consists of a multitude of chambers.
Turtle Cave is a dive recommended for experienced divers as it is considered an overhead environment cave penetration and requires special equipment. Part of the reason why the spot is a difficult one is the maze of cave chambers connected by narrow, curved tunnels. And since the bottom of the cave is covered in silty sand, it’s important to have good buoyancy so you don’t stir it up. Once stirred, the visibility can quickly be reduced to zero.
If you’re looking for big stuff, then South Point is the place to be. South Point is a deep wall dive that goes down to 40 meters (130 feet). The strong currents have made it a magnet for schooling grey sharks and hammerhead sharks, but manta rays, eagle rays, and devil rays are also spotted here. But it’s not just the big stuff that draw divers here; the spot is also a good place to see many other sea creatures of all shapes and sizes. Schooling barracudas, trevallies, sea turtles, and Moorish idols can also be seen here. South Point is also famous for its stunning coral-encrusted wall which drops into the deep blue.