Wow, just wow. I had heard of Sipadan as a world-class diving destination, but our 4 days there surpassed all my expectations. The amount of underwater life we were able to see was unbelievable, and the absolute highlight of our time in Malaysia.
Sipadan is a small island in the Celebes Sea, off the coast of Borneo. It was formed by corals growing on an extinct volcano, and as a consequence, boasts one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. Luckily, the Malaysian government realized the gem they had in their hands, and about ten years ago, dismantled all the resorts in the island and established a quota system for diving. This is working amazingly well to preserve the ecosystem. It has one downside though: getting permits to dive became much harder. Resorts in the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai, and budget operators in Semporna, can only guarantee 1 day of diving Sipadan for every 3 or 4 days you dive with them. The remainder dives are done around Mabul, and are good, but not comparable to the real thing (more details on permits here).
A better alternative is to get on the only liveaboard in Sipadan, the MV Celebes Explorer, which gets to dive Sipadan every day! The boat is quite old and basic, and you’ll find lots of negative reviews online. But trust me: it’s not that bad, and it’s totally worth it. The cabins are decent. The food is tasty and abundant. The dive masters are not particularly service-oriented, but they are solid divers and great at finding creatures. We did the half-week option (you could also do the full week), and with 3-4 dives per day, were able to check out all the famous sites: Barracuda Point, Coral Garden, The Drop-off, Turtle Patch, Whitetip Avenue, etc. It worked out perfectly.
It’s hard to pick the highlights, but let me try to choose my top three memories: the famous barracuda tornados forming in front of our eyes, a crocodile fish I was able to spot on my own (the first and only one I’ve ever seen), and the time we found a lobster under the coral, then realized it was packed with orange eggs, then realized it was surrounded by 4 more lobster… and then saw an eel swim through them 🙂
But there was so much more: massive schools of jackfish (sometime we would drop from the boat and descend through them, losing sight of each other), frogfish, leaf fish, a color-changing octopus, giant shrimps hiding in the sand, all sorts of nudibranchs, whitetip and blacktip sharks, hermit crabs, lionfish, lots of turtles, clownfish in anemone, huge puffers, scorpion fish, bumpheads and humpheads (finally got to differentiate them), moray eels, leopard fish, trigger fish, trumpet fish, a bluespotted ray,…
The days flew by with the strict cadence typical of a liveaboard: wake up, eat breakfast, listen to a quick briefing, dive, get out for a surface interval and short boat ride (all the sites are close to each other), listen to another quick briefing, get back in the water, eat lunch, doze, rinse and repeat, gobble up dinner, exchange stories with other divers…
Every evening, the boat would ride out of the Sipadan waters and to Mabul Island for the night. We would either go snorkeling with the giant turtles that hang out in front of the stilted houses, kick back at one of the resorts marveling at the crystal clear water, or venture into the village where we encountered lots of kids and some giant lizards.
Diving Sipadan with the MV Celebes Explorer was an amazing experience. Maybe our liveaboard in the Great Barrier Reef still takes the top spot because of the ‘royal treatment’ Mike Ball Expeditions provided. The marine life is definitely on par at Sipadan, but the coral is more impressive in Australia, and the operators light-years ahead in terms of service. Also, at the time of our trip, booking the MV Celebes online was not very straightforward, having to go through an agency. But don’t be discouraged. We used Asia Diving Vacation and they were very responsive, even refunding us for some issues with the snorkel gear. All in all, Sipadan liveaboard is a must do if you call yourself a diver.