Sipadan Island Travel Guide

Overview of Sipadan Island

Spectacular Sipadan Island, meaning “Border Island”, is located on the north-eastern edge of Malaysia in the state of Sabah. It is the only oceanic island in Malaysia formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone rising 600 metres from the seabed. Voted as “The Top Dive Destination in the World” by Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine Gold List, its reputation and uncountable species of marine life and corals is a must-visit for any scuba diving enthusiast.

Visitors from around the world flock to Sipadan’s shores to sight its impeccable marine life including a variety of shark species, schools of jackfish and barracudas, as well as the majestic humphead parrotfish. This lavish ecosystem is also a congregation spot for green and hawksbill turtles which mate and nest on its beaches. Besides the divine diving experience to be explored, this 30-acre well-preserved island is also blanketed with pristine untouched tropical rainforest.

The unique marine life of Sipadan Island granted its status as a protected park, and thanks to diligent conservation efforts, has remained an immaculate haven for marine biodiversity. Since 2004, staying on Sipadan Island has been prohibited and all resorts have since relocated to the surrounding islands of Mataking, Kapalai and Mabul.

For further measure, in 2005, the Sabah Parks authorities implemented a permit system to limit the number of daily visitors diving at Sipadan. Only a total of 120 dive permits are allocated each day.

Where To Go

With so much to explore and not much time depending on permits and luck, it is encouraged to come prepared, know the sought-after dive sites and plan your dives in advance.

Barracuda Point

Barracuda Point is by far the most famous dive site in Sipadan; aptly named due to the bevvy of chevron and black tail barracudas that circle around this point with the strong current. You can also find hammerhead sharks and batfish at this dive site. The Advanced Open Water Diving Certification is required for Barracuda Point.

The Drop Off

Drop Off is considered one of the more popular dive sites in the park. About 10 metres away from shore, the wall drops 600 metres straight to the bottom keeping divers enthralled, as well as the incredible marine life here - sharks, turtles, humphead parrotfish and barracuda.

Turtle Cave

Come swim with the green and hawksbill turtles of Turtle Cave and explore the mysterious ‘Turtle Tomb’, made famous by explorer Jacques Cousteau who first visited the dive site in the late 1980s when making his documentary film around the island. This turtle graveyard is not a location for beginners; Advanced Open Water Certification is required to visit Turtle Cave.

Turtle Patch

Dive amongst turtles, parrotfish and giant table corals here. Reef sharks also frequent the patch. Open Water Certification is required to dive here.

Hanging Gardens

This is a great spot for underwater photography. The current is usually calm and a kaleidoscope of soft corals greets you at this wall dive with dusty rose, lavender and lemon coloured corals. Open Water Certification is required for Hanging Gardens.

Lobster Lair

Crustaceans galore can be seen hiding around this point and while looking around, you may also come across sharks and manta rays drifting by. Advanced Open Water Certification is required for Lobster Lai.

Staghorn Crest

Another wall dive specifically with a large stretch of breathtaking staghorn hard corals in the shallows. The current is usually stronger here and therefore is a good place to spot schools of barracuda and jacks. Sharks and turtles can be found feeding here too. Advanced Open Water Certification is required for Staghorn Crest.

South Point

A dive site for shark lovers, South Point has your best chance for shark sightings such as hammerhead sharks. Advanced Open Water Certification is required for South Point.

Coral Gardens

Coral Gardens is an underwater meadow of vibrant hard and soft corals, filled with colourful shoals of fusiliers and reef fish . This dive site offers a diverse plethora of marine life, from turtles and reef sharks, to soaring eagle rays and manta rays. Open Water Certification is required for Coral Gardens.

Whitetip Avenue

For divers who love the thrill of spotting large marine life, here you can dive amongst black & whitetip reef sharks, grey sharks, manta rays as well as massive green and hawksbill turtles. Whitetip Avenue has also been known to feature large schools of barracuda. Open Water Certification is required for Whitetip Avenue.

What To Do

Scuba Diving

The main reason anyone visits Sipadan Island is for world-class diving. It is considered the best diving destination in Malaysia and top in the world, alongside the Galapagos Islands and Truk in Micronesia.

The huge variety of coral species are accompanied by an incomparable array of marine life such as schools of big-eye trevallies, humphead parrotfish, tunas, tornado-like formations of barracudas, sea turtles, giant mantas, eagle rays, and many species of sharks including hammerheads, and if you’re lucky, migrating whale sharks.

While waiting for your dive permit, there are diving sites on nearby Mabul Island and Kapalai Island that offer a different experience of micro treasures with muck and wreck dives as the seascape.

Snorkelling & Freediving

For those who do not have scuba diving certification, you can enjoy snorkelling to catch a glimpse of the jewel that is Sipadan. The shallow areas of the reefs closer to the island shore are less than 5m deep. Here you can see many big green turtles, an array of corals, giant clams and parrotfish.

For those who are interested in free diving, they can do so at the Hanging Garden Site.

Dive Site Hopping

If you plan it well, you can cover a whole range of dive sites during your visit to Sipadan depending on luck with permits as well.

Where To Stay

As resorts are no longer allowed on Sipadan, you will need to book your accommodation on the nearby islands or in mainland Semporna. With Sipadan being a world-class dive destination, rest assured there are ample accommodation types available.

For those with a preference for luxury resorts, there are water bungalows in Mataking Island and Kapalai Island.

Mabul Island has a wider range of options from affordable backpacker style lodges to relaxing resorts including mid-range and luxury water bungalows.

Budget travellers may opt to stay on the mainland in Semporna Town with an even larger selection of affordable accommodation such as dormitory rooms, standard hotel rooms and guesthouses or homestays. It is advisable for those on a budget to survey and book a room in advance as they get snapped up fast.

How To Get Your Permit?

You cannot dive in Sipadan Island without a diving permit. The diving permits are not obtainable beforehand or upfront and must be obtained through either one of the surrounding resorts or dive companies. Only 120 permits are distributed each day. The permits are not allocated on a first-come-first-serve basis but on a rotational basis, therefore luck does play a role in whether or not you can get hold of a permit.

The best way to secure a diving permit is to stay as long as possible so plan for a longer trip.

While waiting for your permit, both Mabul and Kapalai Island have their own dive sites to explore. Different from Sipadan but still equally renowned dive sites.

When Is The Best Time To Go

Diving in Sipadan is open throughout the year with the supposed peak season between April and December. The wet season between December to March can result in choppier waters and divers may encounter stronger currents with slightly poorer water visibility. During the slightly off-peak season, you may come across cheaper deals and have better chances at getting dive permits. For turtle lovers, April to September offers the best chance of sightings.

How To Get To Sipadan

You may fly from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or Kuala Lumpur into the town of Tawau. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia have daily flights. There are flights running throughout the day but it is advisable to catch a morning flight. Resorts that offer pick-ups usually prefer the morning for pick-up.

It is almost a 2-hour drive from Tawau to the coastal town of Semporna. Depending on the sea and weather conditions, it is about a 45-minute boat trip from Semporna harbour to your accommodation destination, either Mabul or Kapalai Island. From your selected accommodation island to Sipadan, it should be a 25-minute boat ride.

What You Should Know

  • One dive permit is for one day of diving.
  • Gloves are required for diving.
  • Observe the maximum depth of 40 metres.
  • The certification requirements for the dive sites differ, some require Advanced Open Water Certification and for others Open Water Certification is sufficient.
  • The starting price for a 1-day dive is approximately RM800 per person and that usually includes diving equipment, lunch and boat transfer.
  • Other islands do not require permits for diving and are just as awesome!
  • Be persistent and do not get discouraged, the jewel that is Sipadan will be yours to explore.