A Diver’s Guide to Sipadan Island (and a good excuse to post more great pictures).

Last week I posted a geological history of, and introduction to diving at, Sipadan Island, one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite dive spots. Today I’d like to offer some advice to intrepid divers considering a journey to Sipadan.

A batfish photo-bombs a picture of a Sipadan coral reef.

In 2005 Sipadan was declared a national park, an enormous win for conservationists. The designation not only banned fishing* and development on the island, it also curtailed diving. Today, diving at Sipadan requires a permit, and only 120 permits are issued daily. Demand far outstrips supply, and, although it’s possible to sneak in off the waiting list, tourists should make reservations with a dive shop and secure their permits several months in advance. The waiting list is a dicey proposition: we saw many waitlisters  sitting glumly on the verandas of their bungalows, like grounded passengers in a snow-bound airport.

*Fishing at Sipadan is prohibited, but the no-take zone only extends for less than a kilometer around the island. Trawlers stalk the horizon, prowling for fish who stray from the protected area. Consequently, while divemasters claim that protection has helped those fish whose ecology keeps them close to the reef, the pelagic, or open-ocean, fish haven’t bounced back.

Thanks to the permitting system, most divers are only able to visit Sipadan for a day or two. Maximize your brief trip by making sure your shop takes you to the following three sites: 

Drop-Off / Turtle Cave

Geography: Back when resorts still held the island hostage, this was considered the best beach dive in the world. Now you start from a boat, but it’s still incredible – a precipitous plunge down to Turtle Cave, a maze of limestone caverns filled with the skeletons of turtles who got lost in the labyrinth and perished. Unfortunately you can’t enter the cave proper unless you have cave-diving certification (silly turtles), but all divers get to hang out in its mouth, which is still pitch-black and eerie and un-freaking-believably cool.

Trevally pour from the mouth of Turtle Cave. I may or may not have written this blog post as an excuse to post pictures.

What to Watch For: The mouth of the cave is home to a school of trevally, and seeing the fish gleam silver in the darkness is chilling and gorgeous. After emerging from the cave, we saw harlequin sweetlips and midnight snapper in large numbers. Watch out, too, for longnose hawkfish, pinkie-length orange fish which take up residence in Gorgonian sea fans. Despite their benign appearance, they’re fearsome predators, at least if you’re a larval crustacean.

Mild-mannered longnose hawkfish by day, cold-blooded devourer of all things swimming by night.

Barracuda Point

A black-tipped reef shark chillaxes in the currents of Barracuda Point.

Geography: The main draw at Barracuda Point is the famous “barracuda tornado,” a schooling vortex of thousands of great barracuda, and the dive begins wherever the tornado is. If the boat driver can’t find the tornado, as was the case during both of our dives there, you follow a rock wall for half an hour and then slowly make your up a broad, sandy-floored valley with steep coral embankments.

What to Watch For: The barracuda, dummy. (Check out this totally great barracuda ID guide for a good fish-related time, by the way.) We didn’t dive amongst the ‘cuda, but we did manage to snorkel with them. Barracuda detest divers, and it’s actually possible to get closer snorkeling than diving; so we didn’t get shafted by any means.

The Point is also home to enormous schools of jacks and innumerable black-tipped reef sharks. Strong currents whip through the valley, and the sharks lie contentedly on the sandy channel floor and enjoy the salutary effects of water rushing through their gills.

A lone chevron barracuda wonders how exactly he got separated from like 3000 of his friends.

Hanging Gardens:

Geography: Classic Sipadan drift dive, with some of the island’s fastest currents. The Conveyor Belt of Awesomeness is almost too fast on this dive, and at times it’s impossible to examine organisms along the coral wall without being whisked away by the inexorable currents. But the gorgeous, radiant garden at the dive’s conclusion more than makes up for being hustled along on the way there.

What to Watch For: Maybe we caught Hanging Gardens on a good day, but the quantity and diversity of life here surpassed any other site. Sightings included a school of bumphead parrotfish, enormous bucktoothed coral grazers that cruise reefs like marine bison, leaving contrails of crushed coral in their wake.

A zeppelin-sized parrotfish cruises the reef, looking, as always, for something crunchy to devour.

We also spotted a Napoleon (aka Maori) wrasse: a truly immense fish, pushing two meters long, that zoomed past us against the current. Napoleon wrasse are experiencing a precipitous decline – like another massive sea creature, the blue whale, the wrasse’s huge size engenders long lives, slow metabolisms, and, unfortunately, birth rates too low to rejuvenate depleted stocks. We were fortunate to see one.

A fish market in Sabah, Malaysia.

All Sipadan trips are based from nearby Mabul Island, itself a muck-diving haven. On Mabul, traditional fishing villages uneasily cohabit with a dozen or so dive shops – uneasily, because the villagers over-harvest species, practice shark-finning, don’t always respect no-take zones, and generally fish in ways that are inimical to a paradisaical diving atmosphere. Then again, if I were a Malaysian villager, I wouldn’t want to abdicate my family’s traditional grounds just so white people could spectate there, either. To both parties’ credit, it seems like the shops and the fisherpeople have taken steps to cooperate on conservation initiatives, and live more harmoniously now than they once did.

We dove with a shop called Scuba Junkie, which has one big thing going for it: it begins its Sipadan trips an hour earlier than any other shop, meaning that you can squeeze in four daily dives instead of three. That alone is enough to recommend SJ – which, for the record, has lots of other stuff going for it, including great equipment and amenities, a nerdily enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, and glorious quantities of buffet food.

The takeaways from this post: dive with Scuba Junkie; visit Turtle Cave; develop a healthy fear of longnose hawkfish.  (That last point was really intended for all my larval crustacean readers.)

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3 Responses to A Diver’s Guide to Sipadan Island (and a good excuse to post more great pictures).

  1. Allan says:

    This is a great review. I have also dived with SJ and enjoyed there hospitality.

  2. bgoldfarb09 says:

    Thanks a lot for reading, Allan, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Hi Ben,

    You’re right in highlighting the uneasiness and paradoxical position of eco-tourism and fisheries on Mabul.

    However, what’s interesting about the current trend is that (dive) resorts on Mabul and surrounding islands are employing large numbers of local islanders (mostly ex-fishermen and their family members). The employment, in return, opens up the locals to the idea of protecting/conserving coral reefs for tourism and using the marine environment more sustainably (as their food source).

    Hopefully, eco-tourism in the long run will lift these hardcore-poor villagers into better livelihood in the future, as well as avaoiding any harm on the reefs.

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