Sipadan Island is very much synonymous with deep sea diving and that is what you get when you say this to anyone who is a diver (or at least dived once!). Sipadan Island or Pulau Sipadan has been a centre of attention for various reasons. Among them include causing the tension between Malaysia and Indonesia once over dispute on who owns it. It was then concluded that Malaysia is the rightful owner of Sipadan Island while even the Philippines joined in the fray then. Besides that, there were cases of kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group although this is now very much under control from the Malaysian enforcement agencies.
On the other side of the spectrum, Sipadan Island is among the most beautiful places on earth. It was declared as a bird sanctuary while being used in movies and films. Those who have dived here would testify that they have seen some of the most beautiful hammerhead sharks, parrotfish schools and amazing reef walls, images that you usually seen only in photos and pictures.
Tourists from all over the world visit Sipadan Island
Sipadan Island has been given all sorts of title in the diver’s community. It has been known tob e one of the top 5 diving spots in the world while some even claim that it is the top. As such, foreign divers will come here whenever they can while there are various spots here catered for divers from all levels. Besides that, you will find the lush vegetation of rainforest jungle on the land with a myriad of flora and fauna like sea-eagles, kingfishers while turtles are known to come ashore to lay eggs.
When to visit Sipadan?
Located off the coast in East Malaysia, Sipadan Island experiences the usual monsoon rain of the South China Sea. This means that you should not come by around the year end from November all the way to early March. The best time to come is in the mid-year around April to August. July and August are known to be the best months for diving because you get water when they are calmest, rainfall at the lowest and the weather is perfect for a day out in the sun with very minimal rain.
Weather – Like any other places around Malaysia, Sipadan Island experiences a tropical climate all year-round. The average temperature here is about 27 degrees Celsius with heavy rainfall around the end of the year.
Communications – All the resorts come with telephone and mobile network access. You can expect some internet connections although you cannot count on them to be too stable.
Health – There are no major health threats here. However, if you are going to dive, check with your doctor on what medication to take to counter any problems. There are several clinics and health centres for basic medication treatment.
Hygiene – You can purchase drinking bottled water from most shops. The tap water is quite safe for drinking but the common practice is to boil them before consuming.
Electricity – The current here is 22V, 50 cycles using the Commonwealth plug designs. If you are from a country that uses otherwise, you should use a current converter or buy one at the convenience stores.
Language – The locals speak Bahasa Malaysia but you can very much get around with English Language as most will be able to understand and converse with this.
Drugs – Be careful with this as drug trafficking is an offence punishable by the death penalty under Malaysian Law.
Money – The currency used here (and in other parts of Malaysia) is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). You do not need to carry much cash with you when you visit Sipadan Island as there are nothing much to buy or pay for. You can change currency at the Bureau de Change or banks at the towns or the resorts. Major credit cards are accepted for payment of accommodation and other purchases although most restaurants only accept cash.
Shopping – There is nothing to buy or shop for in Sipadan Island. If you are looking for souvenirs or something to bring home with, you can find some boutique shops or retail outlets at the resorts which usually sell toiletries and daily essentials.
Clothing – There are no dress-codes implied in Sipadan Island but you have to be mindful not to wear too revealing clothing in the midst of the locals as it could be offensive to their Muslim culture.
Things to see and do in Sipadan
Sipadan Island is the best place for scuba diving. Those who visit the island will come here mainly for this reason although some can choose to just enjoy the natural wonders of the island. Besides that, there are basically nothing much you can do at Sipadan because it is relatively small and has no operating resorts.
Beach in Sipadan
What you get when you reach Sipadan is a beautiful beach area where you can just sit and wander along. The white and sandy beach here is a great place to take photographs and to enjoy some of the most scenic landscapes of the sea and land.
Water Sports in the Island
As there are no resorts in Sipadan Island, you might find it hard to get any water sports here. However, if you are around Mataking Island, kayaking is available where you can rent one of these to paddle out into the waters. Besides that, you can go with the fishing trips through special arrangements.
From the beaches of Sipadan Island, you can go snorkelling as the reef is very near. If you are lucky, you could spot baby sharks or turtles but in order to snorkel, you will need to arrange that with the dive tour operators from nearby islands or mainland at Semporna which include gear rental and transportation at around RM450 per trip.
Jungle Trekking Fans can have fun too!
If you like to get into the jungles and within the trees, you can do so in Sipadan but you will practically be going in on your own. For a more ‘guided’ trail, you will need to do so in other islands.
Getting to Sipadan Island
Location of the Island – Sipadan Island is located off the coast of Borneo Island which is part of Sabah. Visiting Sipadan Island is through the sea where you will jump off at Semporna town while there are connections via Mabul and Kapalai islands as well. Whether you are coming here to dive or just to enjoy the island’s natural attractions, you need to pay a RM40 per person daily permit. On top of that, you need to come here with only licensed diving operators.
Fly In – You cannot fly into Sipadan Island. However, you can fly into the Kota Kinabalu International Airport before making your way by road to Semporna and get into a boat from there. To do this, you will need to connect to Tawau which is the nearest major town to reach Semporna. If you have pre-booked your accommodation, inform the resort of your arrival to arrange for shuttle which is usually a minivan. Flights to Kota Kinabalu and Tawau are mostly served by AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines. The advice here is to try and arrive earlier if you plan to hop into Sipadan on the same day as there are no boats at nightfall.
Dive Boats – If you are staying in the resorts around Sipadan Island, they will most likely have dive boat services that come to Sipadan. From Mabul, the trip takes slightly less than half an hour while it is half that duration if you are travelling from Kapalai Island. Coming from the mainland, dive boats will take about 30 minutes to reach Sipadan while such services are provided from Mataking and Pompong islands which are about 1 to 2 hours ride away. Most visitors will take the time to enjoy the beautiful sights along the way or getting ready for your dive.
Speedboats – Semporna is the best place to start if you want to take speedboats to Sipadan or the nearby islands. Most of the islands like Mataking, Kapalai, Pompong and Mabul are all about 30 minutes away. You can find some speedboat operators in the town or if you are staying in any of the resorts, they would have such services.
Transport Inside the island
Sipadan Island is known for its size and nature. It is actually a very small island with limited resources where it is very much a destination for scuba divers around the world. Renowned for being one of the top 5 dive sites in the world, it was once a luxury to stay in Sipadan Island itself but this has been revoked for safety reasons and as a precautionary measure. This means that there is a limit as to how many visitors can come to Sipadan Island each day which is at 120. There are no roads in Sipadan Island for vehicles which means you are very much on your own once you reach.
Once you have hopped off at Sipadan Island, you are very much on your own to get around on foot. The island is very small which means that if you take your time, you could very much explore the land area within a few hours of walking. The best places around here are chalets that are built on stilts where you can walk around and enjoy the sights or you can explore into the island where you will see some very interesting flora and fauna.
Travel On Sea
Getting around in Sipadan Island is possible by boats but this is basically to get you to other nearby islands. In most cases, those coming here for scuba diving will engage dive boats from their respective resorts. They will take you between the islands like Mabul which is about 25 minutes ride away. Meanwhile, if you are planning to head to Kapalai Island, the boat ride takes about 15 minutes while there are islands like Pompong and Mataking which are both located further away, taking about 1 to 2 hours to reach. Besides that, a boat ride from Semporna town in the mainland takes about half an hour. Another way of getting around here is by using chartered speedboats which will get you around Sipadan Island. They are usually available for trips to the nearby islands as well where you can decide the time of travel and where you would like to hop-off.
Diving in Sipadan Island
This is perhaps the highlight of your trip to Sipadan Island. Anyone who has dived here previously will be able to tell you how beautiful the waterbed can be. Touted as one of the best dive sites in the world, what you get is dive spots catered for just about anyone. Being a protected site, the government of Malaysia has heightened its effort to preserve the island from contamination and pollution, enforcing a law that limits only 120 divers per day between 8.00am to 3.00pm each day. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned diver, operators are always available to bring you here and enjoy the deep sea water-life. Just be sure to get your permits beforehand.
As a dive site, you can expect a myriad of beautiful sea creatures and coral reefs around its vicinity. In fact, images you have about beautiful islands with clear, blue skies and pristine water would most likely be taken from here. From one point of Sipadan Island, you can see some of the most scenic seascapes ever imagined. From within the waters, you will encounter small fishes in large schools and groups to the larger ones of barracudas, bumphead parrotfish and even turtles all within the natural habitat of one of the largest fish capitals you can ever find.
Where to dive?
Hanging Gardens – This is basically a wall dive which goes about a meter down and then down into quite a deep end. Very popular with seasoned divers who like the terraces if sealife along the way.
Barracuda Point – As the name implies, this is where you will most likely find barracudas and is among the most popular dive spots among the experienced divers.
Coral Garden – A common spot for those who like underwater photography, the reefs here are simply breathtaking while you will most likely find almost every type of species in the water here.
The Drop Off – This name speaks for itself. It is very near to the beach area which makes it ideal for beginners.
Midreef – Known to house the green turtles and they come in droves.
South Point – If you can take deep dives, then South Point is your forte where you might spot hammerhead and thresher sharks.
Staghorn Crest – Not for the beginner where it starts off quite easily before going deep.
Whitetip Avenue – The spot to go if you are looking for some whitetip reef sharks.
When to dive?
You can practically come here throughout the year for diving. However, April to September would be the best months to come with July and August being the ideal when waters are calmest with the least likelihood of rain. If possible, try not to come here in the year end which is the rainy season or if you are planning to see the hawksbill turtle, the months are April all the way to September. Another issue which you must consider is getting a permit which can be quite difficult during the peak seasons.
Food in Sipadan Island
One thing to note, as there are no resorts in Sipadan Island, finding food is almost impossible. This is mainly for preservation purposes to avoid visitors throwing rubbish into the sea waters or around the island which has happened in the past. If you are visiting Sipadan Island on a day trip here, you will have to bring your own food or pack a meal or two and then bring the waste back with you. The only places you can find locations for a decent meal would be at the spots where you came from.
The best food in the island, Semporna Town
Seafood and Chinese – As it is naturally a coastal town, you will find some very nice restaurants that serve seafood. Sipadan Inn 2 is one of the places you can go to savour the local seafood cooking but this place can be quite pricey though.
Around Semporna, there are quite a lot of Chinese seafood restaurants which are located around the seaside of which some are connected to the dive operators’ outlets. The same concept applies here where you must check the price before dining. One place to take note of is at the Ocean Treasure Live Seafood Restaurant which is just next to Sipadan Inn 2 where the pricing is quite decent.
Snacks – When you are wandering around Semporna town, take note of certain stalls by the roadside where you could spot some that sells the local favourite, pisang goreng or fried banana. This is an extremely cheap snack which is usually less than 50sen each. Along these stalls, you could spot some who sell Bakso (a type of Indonesian soup with noodles) and the Nasi Kuning or Yellow Rice very popular for breakfasts. At nightfall, you can find roasted chicken and grilled fish too.
Western – You can find a nice place to enjoy continental dishes and seafood at Arthur’s Bar around the same vicinity as Scuba Junkies but this can be quite pricey or head out to Scuba Junkie Bar & Restaurant which is quite popular for its pizza and steaks as well as drawing the crowd in on Fridays with live music.
Mabul and Kapalai Islands – There are no dedicated restaurants or places to eat in the islands. What you get here are basically food that are provided at the places to stay which are usually included in the package you opted for. You can request for additional items to be packed and brought with you during your trips to Sipadan though as it is a very common practice.
Hotels & Accommodations in Sipadan Island
For preservation and safely reasons, all the resorts in Sipadan Island has been closed. As such, visitors are no longer allowed to stay in Sipadan Island for more than a day. It must be noted that visiting Sipadan Island requires a permit which is limited at 120 per day. As such, you would need to apply for the permit before being allowed here. Coming to Sipadan Island means that you will be here only for diving or just to enjoy the natural wonders here from the likes of Semporna or other islands like Mabul. If you are looking for a place to stay, your best chance is to stay in the resorts and hotels in those towns.
This island is located about half an hour’s boat ride from Sipadan Island. There are quite a lot of dive resorts here while you could even stay in the fishing communities there. The My Scuba Diver is a great homestay option which comes with PADI course or you can choose the Billabong Scuba known for being a backpackers’ favourite. From RM60 per night, you can choose the Noble Inworld Diving or at Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge which comes with a night’s stay inclusive of meals. Meanwhile, the Mabul Beach Resort is a great place to stay with an amazing view or if you are looking for something more exclusive, head out to the Mabul Water Bungalows and Sipadan Water Village Resort.
Staying in Semporna town is quite common but it has been receiving quite a lot of negative reviews lately on hygiene and cleanliness. Nevertheless, it is still a convenient place to stay if you plan to head out to Sipadan as this is the first hop-off point. The Mutiara Inn provides rooms of different range while those travelling on a budget can opt for Semporna Backpackers which starts at RM30 per night, the Atine Semporna Backpackers Hostel, Dragon Inn and the Borneo Global Sipadan Backpacker, among others. If you are looking for something more luxurious, then, the Holiday Dive Inn, Sipadan Inn and Singamata Reef Lodge Adventures could be good options as well.
At Kapalai Island, the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort is a luxurious resort where you get some very nice wooden chalets on stilts.
Here, you will be welcomed by The Reef Dive Resort which provides you with a Malay-inspired water chalets which are only limited to 70 people at any time with a great view of the waters spreading out to the horizon.