Why you've never seen a dive site like Sipadan
By Karla Cripps
For hardcore divers, the number of sites capable of inspiring that rare one-in-a-lifetime thrill is fast shrinking.
Overfishing, pollution, coral bleaching and seabed dredging have all contributed to the slow ruin of many of what were once the world’s top dive destinations.
Near the top of the list of remaining global greats is Malaysia’s Sipadan Island.
A contender on any dive publication's list of the "world's best dives," Sipadan lies 35 kilometers off the coast of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.
"Sipadan is the stuff of divers' dreams, where you see turtles, sharks, barracuda, huge schools of jacks and many more, not just fleetingly but in your face all the time,” says Asia-based scuba journalist and author Chris Mitchell.
Steve White, editor in chief of adventure travel magazine Action Asia, agrees that it's deserving of its rep as one of the top dives on the planet.
"The coral and fish diversity in Asia far outstrips that of the Caribbean," he says.
"The steep drop-offs mean that you get to combine the sights of a bustling tropical reef with blue-water pelagics on the same dive."
In other words, divers get the best of both aquatic worlds.
Sipadan's rocky recent history
The sites below the surface might be the stuff of scuba dreams, but Sipadan's real fame comes from a less-than paradisiacal period filled with courthouse battles and armed struggles.
First there was the hostage crisis of 2000.
Abu Sayaff, a Filipino Islamic separatist group, kidnapped 21 people from the island. The hostages -- 10 tourists and 11 resort workers -- were taken to a camp on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.
Over the following months they were released, allegedly after ransoms of up to $1 million per hostage were paid to the kidnappers.
In 2002, following an intense territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia,the International Court of Justice ruled that Sipadan is Malaysian.
Few could deny Malaysia's fight for rights was at least partially motivated by the tourism value that comes from having ownership of such a rare island.
In order to protect Sipadan's fragile ecosystem, in 2004 the Malaysian government ordered all dive resorts off the island, banned night dives and set a limit of 120 divers per day.
Regardless, the divers kept coming.
Even Monsieur Cousteau was impressed
"There was some cynicism about the government moves at first -- especially when that barge sunk on the reef [in 2006] -- but banning resorts and instituting a permit system were necessary steps and appear to be working reasonably well," says White of Action Asia.
"Operators are respecting the limits, helped by the fact that there are many other good dive sites within reach, so not getting a permit one day doesn't mean you don't dive at all. Pressured dive sites elsewhere should look at the model."
Today, Sipadan seems to have a handle on its preservation, as the surrounding waters continue to teem with life.
"Jacques Cousteau raved about Sipadan when he first dived it [in 1989] and he was a hard man to impress,” says Mitchell.
“If you can imagine being the only people on this tiny island, camping on the beach and then wading into the gin-clear waters to see a smorgasbord of underwater life, you can understand why he would have been so thrilled."
Despite its burgeoning popularity these days, Mitchell says Sipadan's abundance has been preserved.
That said, local rangers need to remain vigilant and equipped with proper gear to track and intercept potential dangers to the island.
"As with everywhere else in Asia, governments need to invest more in careful monitoring of reef health, fund scientific research and come down hard on overfishing."
In East Malaysia, Sipadan is the country's only oceanic island.
This means it rises from the deep-sea floor, unlike a continental island, which is an unsubmerged part of the continental shelf.
According to Sabah tourism officials, Sipadan was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano that rises 600 meters from the seabed.
For divers, this is the main attraction -- a 600-meter wall dive just 15 meters from the shore that looks off into the deep blue.
Sipadan's waters are home to a reported 3,000 species of fish, hundreds of species of coral, an abundance of rays and sharks and large populations of green and hawksbill turtles.
There are 12 dive sites off Sipadan Island -- the most popular are Barracuda Point, Turtle Cavern, South Point and Hanging Gardens.
The island is open for divers from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- no night dives allowed.
The number of divers allowed to access Sipadan has been limited to 120 per day in an effort to preserve the island’s pristine state.
Sipadan is an ideal dive destination year-round, though most dive operators in the area say the best months to visit are April to December.
"Scouring forums like ScubaBoard.com can be invaluable in finding the best times of year to avoid the crowds at Sipadan," says Mitchell.
Where to stay
Divers aren't allowed to stay on Sipadan Island itself, but they can stay closeby at over-water resorts or nearby islands.
Visitors are recommended to book dives through resort operators well in advance to ensure they secure a permit.
Top options include: Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, built on stilts over the water; Sipadan Pom Pom Resort; and Sipadan Water Village Resort on Mabul Island.
From Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, fly to Sabah capital Kota Kinbalu. Flight time is about two and a half hours.
Then take a 55-minute flight from Kota Kinbalu to the town of Tawau. An hour’s drive gets you to the even smaller township of Semporna, where you can catch a speedboat for the 40-minute ride to Sipadan.
For more info, check out Sabahtourism.com.