Diving in Sipadan, Malaysia

sally taking it in

sally taking it in

After 5 days away diving in Sipadan, we are back ‘home’ in the mad house in Penang… truth be told, we have kind of missed these guys J We were greeted with the slightly crazy bare-chested Ihock who revved a pretend motorbike in the air when he saw us and shouted us to our room. Ali was no where to be seen which concerned us to start with, but then we heard a loud snorting/shouting noise which sounded like pigs and/or dogs fighting which we finally identified as Ali sleeping. Westy came scurrying out of his room, walked around the reception area clutching his coffee cup laughing and then returned back to his room but Hussein the blind man is nowhere to be seen… hopefully he will pop up again soon…

So, Sipadan…. a place that has been raved about as having some of the best diving in the world (like most places are) where the water is warm and the visibility is ‘amazing’. The water was warm and that was fantastic. The visibility very average but I don’t believe in good visibility anymore so I wasn’t too disappointed, the diving was great, we saw some really cool stuff, many things we hadn’t seen before, a huge diversity of sea life and lots and lots of turtles… but was it worth the money it cost and the effort it took to get there? Probably not, and having dived in Komodo a couple of months ago for half the price, we were a little spoilt.

Sipadan Island, Malaysian Borneo

Sipadan Island, Malaysian Borneo

What’s it like to dive at Sipadan?

We backroll into the water from the too-high-to-backroll-from boat, and consequently I’m met with a hard slap on the back of the head from the water… GOOD MORNING SIPADAN!!!

As i surface air is gushing from my regulator and I’m still fumbling around trying to find it and then turn it over to stop the air bubbles, when Sal says “Look into the water!”

I pull on the mask and stick my head under to see a school of Trevally closeby, hundreds, no thousands of fish, thick in the water in a tight group slowly circling in the warm waters just off the coast of Sipadan Island.  They’re smallish as far as Trevally go, maybe 50cm long, silvery coloured, with black stripes and dark eyes looking around.

DCIM100DRIFT

schooling trevally

The divemaster mutters something and disappears below the surface before I can even put my regulator into my mouth, he has a camera and is off to take some pics… we’re not feeling much love from him.

Anyway, the water is 29 deg warm and we’re diving what’s supposed to be one of the top 5 places in the world, so we’re happy anyway. We play with the Trevally for 10 mins taking lots of pics as they slowly circle around us, before moving onto the wall nearby which we follow for the rest of the 45m dive. 

sally surrounded by the trevally

sally surrounded by the trevally

There are more sharks than I can count, out in the blue off the wall, they come to say hello and then glide away, turtles too, either diving or resting in any of the series of small caves in the wall, really beautiful.

sea turtle at sipadan

sea turtle at sipadan

For some reason (“it’s just the rules”) our dives are limited to 45mins, which is frustrating  when it’s this expensive, (and we keep coming out of the water with half full tanks!), but on the upside it means we can fool around a bit more in the water without trying too hard to control our breathing.  So I’m often off chasing a puffer fish, or trying to get a bit closer to a sleeping shark for a picture, or just rolling around on my back facing the sky, where the silver shimmer on the surface looks like some magical mercury ebbing and flowing in the rippling waves. 

the shimmering surface of the ocean from underneath

the shimmering surface of the ocean from underneath


a porcupine fish saying hello

a porcupine fish saying hello

I sometimes stay a little behind and watch Sal and the other divers suspended as if in mid air by wires, it’s unlike any other experience you can have, really special.  Most of the dives in Sipadan are bottomless, that is, the bottom is at more than 100m so you can’t see it, and when you’re deep enough you can’t see the top either, so it just feels like you’re floating in mid air alongside the vertical coral wall.  I feel a gush of excitement as a big school of fish pass by, or a turtle swims past on it’s way to the surface. Diving can be a stressful panic stricken affair sometimes, but at times like this it’s bliss, and I feel really privileged to be in such a place, seeing such amazing things. 

lots of reef sharks here, not at all dangerous

lots of reef sharks here, not at all dangerous

At one point our divemaster has completely disappeared for a few minutes, and then returns wanting to show me the pics he’s taken of a couple of giant mantas that were ahead of us – nice of him to be looking out for us like that!!  We get the air pressure check symbol from him, I’m at 100bar (1/2 a tank), Sal has 120 but the other diver is at 50 so we have to ascend to do the safety stop and end the dive.  Even at only 5m depth though we still see more sharks and turtles, I even saw an octopus, which was a real highlight.  It sneaked away from me and under some coral before I had a chance to take a pic, amazing creatures, it changed colour from dark blue to grey, then back again, and hid back under the fan coral with a series of little lights glowing on and off along all it’s tentacles, what a crazy little light show. 

The ‘divemaster’ gives us the ok, then thumbs up symbol, it’s time to surface.  We pop out back into the normal world, and inflate our vests to wait for the boat to come pick us up…  “did you see that shark? ….  what about that turtle on the pinnacle… that snapper was amazing! 🙂 DM

So the dive operators were very disappointing, there was no ‘dive vibe’ and it questionable if the dive masters were actually properly trained and accredited. Still it was some of the best diving we have done and we’re really glad we went.  Unfortunately the island (Mabul) that we (and every other diver) stayed on has been, and continues to be completely ruined, which made us really sad.

They have built accommodation on stilts in the water surrounding the island as there is not enough land to accommodate all the tourists, and in true Asian style it has been done really poorly with little regard for the wildlife and environment surrounding it.  They also have no real sewage system on the island so every bathroom has a hole in the floor and everything goes straight into the sea, right under your room – and there are a lot of bathrooms so the smell is pretty bad! Along with general plastic litter in the water there are also nappies, backpacks, petrol containers, toilet paper and other nice toiletries floating around.

our accommodation huts, oretty but it's  a shame they dump sewer directly to the ocean

our accommodation huts, oretty but it’s a shame they dump sewer directly to the ocean

They have even built some ‘exclusive’ accommodation (that looks like an oil rig!) right on top of a reef, and are in the process of building an underwater restaurant commissioned by someone senior in the Malay Government… It is just so sad as it doesn’t seem that anybody sees the value of the beauty they have at their fingertips.

local kids from Mabul paddle over to the huts to beg for money

local kids from Mabul paddle over to the huts to beg for money

After walking around the island in search of a place that sold beer (as it’s mostly run my Muslims), we came across one of only two bars – ‘Scuba Junkie’, another dive operator, no doubt run by westerners – which had the dive vibe… and a nice bar.  We ended up spending all night there trying to forget about the rest of the mess in Mabul. We’d decided against diving with them when we were booking as they had a minimum diving package which was more than we wanted to do, but if we were ever to go back again, we’d go with those guys, as for us diving is about the whole experience, not just the time underwater.

sunset from Mabul

sunset from Mabul

After two nights on the island and two nights in Semporna we commenced the long journey of taxis, planes and buses back to Penang where we arrived last night.

Tomorrow we are back on the bike and we head up to Thailand and then on to Siem Reap where we will meet up with Hannah’s parents and leave Betsy with them for a few weeks while we fly to the Philippines! SC

 

 

 

 

 

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