The venerable French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau 'discovered' Sipadan in 1989 and, after spending three months diving around the island from his research vessel, Calypso said: “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.” Since then Sipadan has become a sub-aqua shangri-la for serious divers. It is regularly voted one of the top dive destinations in the world by leading scuba magazines. The reef is without parallel in Malaysia. But Sipadan Island is not just for scuba divers: it is a magnificent, tiny tropical island with pristine beaches and crystal-clear water and its coral can be enjoyed by even the most amateur of snorkellers.
Ins and outs
The island's tourist facilities are run by a handful of tour companies, who control everything. In 2004, after much legal wrangling, the tour operators agreed to close all resort facilities on the island to protect the environment; although dive boats can still take visitors around the island, numbers are limited to 120 tourist permits per day. Tourists can still stay on Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking, and these islands are likely to be developed further.
Best time to visit
The best diving season is from mid-February to mid-December when visibility is greater (20-60 m); most of the dives involve drift diving; the night diving is said to be absolutely spectacular.
Due to the issuing of a limited number of permits per day, visitors are advised to book a trip at least two to three weeks in advance. Those showing up without a booking are unlikely to find a slot.
While Sipadan may win lots of points from dive enthusiasts, it has also been in the news for less savoury reasons. In April 2000 Abu Sayyaf, a separatist group in the Philippines, kidnapped 21 people including 10 foreign tourists from the island. Abu Sayyaf, linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, spirited the hostages to the Philippine island of Jolo. Here they remained under guard and threat of execution while the armed forces of the Philippines tried, sometimes incompetently, to rescue them. The hostages were freed in dribs and drabs with the final batch being released in September 2000, but it wasn't the sort of publicity that Sipadan was looking for. There is a heavy Malaysian navy presence on the island and around Semporna.
The island is disputed by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments. Indonesia has asked Malaysia to stop developing marine tourism facilities on Sipadan. Malaysia's claim to the island rests on historical documents signed by the British and Dutch colonial administrations. Periodically the two sides get around the negotiating table, but neither is prepared to make a big issue of Sipadan. Occasionally guests on the island see Indonesian or Malaysian warships just offshore. A third party also contests ownership of Sipadan: a Malaysian who claims his grandfather, Abdul Hamid Haji, was given the island by the Sultan of Sulu. He has the customary rights to collect turtles eggs on the island, although the Malaysian government disputes this.
Pulau Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia; it is not attached to the continental shelf and stands on a limestone and coral stalk, rising 600 m from the bed of the Celebes Sea. The limestone pinnacle mushrooms out near the surface, but a few metres offshore drops off in a sheer underwater cliff to the seabed. The reef comes right into the island's small pier, allowing snorkellers to swim along the edge of the coral cliff, while remaining close to the coral-sand beach. The edge is much further out around the rest of the island. The tiny island has a cool, forested interior and it is common to see flying foxes and monitor lizards. It is also a stopover point for migratory birds, and was originally declared a bird sanctuary in 1933. It has been a marine reserve since 1981 and a large wildlife department and anti-poaching group is now permanently stationed on the island. In addition, the island is a breeding ground for the green turtle; August and September are the main egg laying months. With the exception of the beach close to the jetty, beaches now also have restricted access in order to protect turtle nesting sites.
Sipadan is known for its underwater overhangs and caverns, funnels and ledges, all of which are covered in coral. A cavern, known as the Turtle Cave, is located on the drop-off in front of the island's accommodation area. The cave originally acquired its fame due to turtles being encountered deep within the cave's depths - some of these turtles had become disorientated and died in the caves and, with the deaths of a few panicked divers, venturing far into the caverns is now reserved for experienced divers only. The island's geography and location focus nutrient-rich upwellings towards the island, and in areas such as the South and Barracuda Points, large pelagic (open sea) species such as grey reef sharks and sometimes even hammerheads are spotted.
Mataking and Kapalai
Located between Semporna and Sipadan, this island of 21 ha is considerably larger than Sipadan and is partly home to Bajau fishermen who live in traditional palm-thatched houses. In contrast to Sipadan's untouched forest, the island is predominantly planted with coconut trees. Diving has been the most recent discovery; an Australian diver claims it is “one of the richest single destinations for exotic small marine life anywhere in the world”. It has already become known as the world's best muck diving, so called because of the silt-filled waters and poor visibility (usually around 12 m, which is quite reasonable compared with many other places in the
area). The island is surrounded by gentle sloping reefs with depths from 3-35 m and a wall housing numerous species of hard corals. Since the closure of Sipadan's luxury resorts, several companies have moved their accommodation to Mabul, only 20 minutes away by fast boat. Places to stay at affordable backpacker budget places are available with island homestays or Semporna tour operators. Bajau culture remains fairly traditional on the island and while visitors will be
stared at, especially women in Western dress, people are friendly, albeit in an intense manner.
Mataking has only been open as a dive resort for a few years, but with the closure of Sipadan its popularity is almost guaranteed to rocket. There are about 30 good dive sites around the island including various reefs (plenty of good shallow ones making it an ideal spot for beginner divers), a sea fan garden, a 100-m crevice called Alice Channel that runs to Pulau Sipadan and Sweet Lips rock, a good night-diving spot. Accommodation is at the upmarket
Mataking Island Reef Dive Resort.
Kapalai is a sandbar, heavily eroded and set on top of Ligitan Reefs between Sipadan and Mabul. Semporna tour operators take people diving in Sipadan and in the shallow waters around Kapalai.
is a volcanic, mountainous island east of Semporna, reminiscent of many Thai islands in the Andaman Sea. You pass its thickly forested slopes if heading for dive sites or resorts at Mataking, Bohayan or Mantabuan. The area is exceptionally beautiful above and below the waves.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF