Ultimate Sipadan Diving Guide (Read before you go!)

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There’s no wonder why Sipadan Island is recognized as the best diving in Malaysia and amongst the best in the world.

There are only a few places on earth where you can see huge schools of whirling barracudas that engulf you, large sea turtles of different species, lurking sharks, and jammed-packed reef of angelfish, triggerfish, morays, and gobies all in just one dive.

During this Sipadan island diving, you will see this with every dive, many divers bring home stories of large turtles, bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, or even stories of large groups of hammerhead sharks coming up from the deep blue depths.


Ultimate Sipadan Diving Guide


Sipadan Island – What’s the Big Deal?

Borneo Island in Sipadan

Sipadan Island is a marine paradise for divers tucked in the Celebes Sea, 35km south of Semporna off the coast of Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia and is internationally recognized amongst divers. 

Unlike the other islands off Sabah’s coast, Sipadan is an oceanic island and was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, which rises 600m from the seabed.

The island itself is covered in dense tropical rainforest and rimmed with stunning white-sand beaches.

How to get to Sipadan

Sipadan Island Borneo

Sipadan is only reachable by boat. Most people who plan on scuba diving Sipadan stay at a dive resort on Mabul Island. The closest airport to Sipadan is Tawau airport (TWU), Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.

Most travelers fly into Tawau from either Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. From here many travelers head right to Semporna by land that can take up to 90 minutes.

When booking your flight tickets to Tawau make sure your flight reaches Tawau before 2 P.M. otherwise you will have to overnight in Tawau or Semporna before heading off to Mabul.

You can also reach Semporna by bus from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or Tawau. Local buses are cheap and easy to purchase tickets for a trip.

We suggest that you spend a night before and after in Tawau or Semporna. This worked out great for us since it allowed for flight issues, weather issues and since we were diving up to our last day on Mabul Island.

Tawau is much bigger compared to Semporna and it is possible to continue on the same day from Tawanu to Semporna to Mabul island if everything lines up.

When you arrive in Tawau, most dive resorts will transfer you to Semporna and from Semporna you will take a resort speed boat to Mabul Island.

If you’re staying in Semporna your dive resort will take you from Semporna to Mabul Island based around when the Tawau boat comes in.

This trip can take just over two hours. Around 90 minutes from Tawau to Semporna and 45 minutes from Semporna to Mabul Island.

It is always best to check with your dive resort for scheduled times. The main times of boat transfers from Semporna to Mabul Island are 9:30 Am, 1:30 P.M. and 4:30 P.M.

Can beginners dive Sipadan?

Lina & David Stock scuba diving in Borneo
Our small dive group

To be able to dive Sipadan Island you only need to be open water certified. Many of the popular dive sites around Sipadan are only 15-18 meters deep and you can see the amazing walls of Barracudas, Bumpheads, big eye Trevally and Reef Sharks easily.

That is what makes Sipadan one of the best dive sites in the world. You don’t need to be advanced or hold any special dive certifications.

However, having spent 4 days diving around Sipadan we strongly suggest that you have your advance certification or you have dived at least 20 times due to the drift dives like the one we did on Barracuda point where the currents were so strong it could easily be dangerous for a beginner diver.

Besides strong currents, you should have good buoyancy skills since even just the littlest touch of the reef can harm it. This all goes on you as a diver, are you qualified to dive Sipadan safely without putting you or its natural habitat in danger.

A few of the dive shops are requiring either an advanced open water qualification or proof of 20 logged dives within the past 6 months. This is a requirement that a few dive shops have started to put in place, it is not a must have.

Every dive in Sipadan is led by an experienced dive master in a small group setting. We had no more than 5 total divers (Including the dive master). This will also insure your safety and they will perform a few dives before you get to dive Sipadan so they understand your skills.

If you are not a diver, you can snorkel many of the amazing dive sites in Sipadan. This isn’t as exciting as scuba diving Sipadan since you won’t be surrounded by those large moving walls of fish but it’s still an option if you are new to diving.

Choosing A Dive Shop – This Matters!

Sipadan Island Borneo

Prior to arriving in Borneo, be sure to pick a dive shop and contact them to secure permits for Sipadan, preferably months in advance as they sell out.

The 120 available permits are distributed amongst all the dive shops; so if you can’t secure a permit at one shop, then try contacting another.

There are a number of different dive shops, so do some homework and choose the one that suits your budget and style. We dove with Scuba Junkie and had a fantastic time.

We stayed in their divers lodge in Semporna, which is located near the jetty and then purchased a 4 day dive package out of their Mabul resort that included one permit each for Sipadan.

Our dive package included lodging, all meals, dive equipment rental, 9 dives around Mabul and Kapalai, 4 dives at Sipadan and our Sipadan Permits.

Once we arrived, we also got an added bonus of a day trip to dive Siamil, so we actually did 3 dives at Mabul, 3 dives at Kapalai, 3 dives at Siamil and 4 dives at Sipadan over 4 days.

The costs will vary depending on if you want a luxury, middle or budget experience.

We opted for a budget option, although we found the accommodation more mid-range, and I won’t lie, it was pricey, but how often do you have a chance to dive a World-class dive site? We don’t regret it and thought it was worth every penny.

Where to Stay to Dive at Sipadan

Mabul Island Scuba Junkie Borneo
View from the Scuba Junkie Resort on Mabul Island

There are many great places to stay when scuba diving in Sipadan. However, it is best to book in advance. Below we will highlight the best places to stay when scuba diving Sipadan based on budget, midrange, and luxury.

Budget: Mabul Backpackers

If you’re someone who is visiting Sipadan just for its diving and you just want a basic, clean, comfortable, and quiet place to stay on Mabul Island while not spending much, you should stay at the Mabul Backpackers.

Mid-range: Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort **We stayed here**

The Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort is one of the best midrange places to stay at while scuba diving Sipadan. Their private rooms with outdoor terraces built around an amazing tropical garden-like atmosphere are the perfect place for someone who wants to dive but also wants to enjoy this slice of paradise without breaking the bank.

Luxury: Sipadan Water Village Resort Tawau

If you’re looking for a luxurious resort to stay while scuba diving Sipadan you should stay in one of the overwater bungalows at Sipadan Water Village Resort.

Not finding the right dive shop or resort for your scuba diving trip to Sipadan? Check out our custom hotel aggregator where you can find the perfect place to stay.

Best Time to Dive Sipadan

Sipadan beach

Sipadan is one of those scuba diving locations where the diving is great year-round. However, the best time to dive Sipadan is between March to October during the dry season.

During those times of the month when scuba diving Sipadan visibility can reach up to 50 meters.

You will enjoy the surface intervals as temperatures throughout the year range between 21c and 32c (70f – 85f), it’s like bathwater.

April through September is when the Sea turtles (Hawksbill and Green Turtles) are nesting. This means when scuba diving Sipadan during this time you can expect to see larger numbers of turtles along with white-tip sharks, barracudas, Jacks and Parrotfish.

From January to March there’s heavy rainfall in the Sipadan area which reduces the visibility dramatically.

Also, keep in mind with today’s unpredictable weather it is really hard to predict the diving seasons in advance. With more rainstorms comes pour visibility and with water tempters changing that affects aquatic life it’s hard to 100% say that it will be the best time.

Sipadan Island is not known for the clearest waters of visibility before of its currents. It can range from 5 meters to 50 meters depending on the day even if you are diving between March to October.

Sipadan’s peak tourist season is during the Chinese New Year, July, August, Chinese Golden Week (1st week of October), Japanese Golden Week (beginning of May), Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year (between January and February).

Most of the dive resorts are booked up in advance for those months so if you are planning on diving in Sipadan then you will want to book everything way in advance or dive during other times of the year.

Animals You’ll See While Diving Sipadan

Jackfish school in Sipadan Borneo
Huge school of Jack Fish seen on one of our Sipadan dives

The location of Sipadan makes it the center of the richest marine habitat in the world and the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin.

More than 3000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem.

Sipadan is well known for its unusually large numbers of green and hawksbill turtles and it is not unusual for a diver to see more than 20 turtles on each dive.

Related Article: The Best GoPro Accessories for Adventure Travel

It also boasts a residential school of barracuda and big-eye trevally, which often gather in the thousands forming tornado-like formations, this being one of the highlights of every diver’s Sipadan trip.

As if that is not enough, divers have the possibility of seeing pelagic species such as mantas, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale shark; making each dive at Sipadan a thrilling event.

It is not only the big fish that amaze divers at Sipadan but the macro life is equally a highlight. Garden eels, leaf scorpion fish, mantis shrimps, fire gobies, and various pipefish are guaranteed at various dive sites.

This diversity and abundance of marine life gives Sipadan its reputation of being one of the top five dive locations in the world.

Do I Need A Permit?

Signage on Pulau Sipadan

The diving wonders of Sipadan are easily accessed from Mabul and Kapalai Islands. You are no longer able to stay directly on Sipadan Island, so if you wish to dive there you must stay on either Kapalai or Mabul and visiting these islands requires a permit.

Since 2004 there has been a daily limit on permits in an attempt to preserve and protect the island’s fragile ecosystem.

Permits are limited to 120 permits per day in total, meaning you should make arrangements far in advance if you wish to dive at Sipadan during your visit. The application for permits is done on your behalf by the dive shop you choose to dive with.

The diving is quite good at the surrounding islands with more dive sites then you will be able to dive on a stay.

A recommended length of stay is 4-14 days and you may apply for multiple Sipadan permits, there is just no guarantee that you will get one. However, the minimum stay requirement for a chance to dive Sipadan is 4 days.

Permits issued are only for Sipadan Island and you do not need a permit to dive around the other islands in the area.

Sipadan Dive Sites

Sipadan dive site

Overall, Sipadan has 12 dive sites and each has its own distinctive view of coral to aquatic life.

Sites include the Coral Gardens, Turtle Cavern, Barracuda Point, Sipadan Jetty, South Point, White-tip Avenue, Turtle Patch, Staghorn Crest, Lobster Lair, Hanging Gardens, West Ridge and North Point.

The conditions at Sipadan are ever changing, so you do not get to select the sites you want to dive. Your dive sites are based off the currents that change frequently from day to day and hour-to-hour.

They can even change on your boat ride out from the island. So do not get your heart set on diving one site. Many of times you only can dive a few dive sites due to the overwhelming currents and conditions.


Our Dive Trip to Sipadan


Preparing diving around Sipadan

With Sipadan permits being sought after and limited, the dive sites do their best in maximizing your opportunity for diving. This means you will likely have a four-dive day planned.

It is a lot of diving and you should be prepared for it, as they are not laid-back recreational dives.

The currents are strong and require physical work at times but the diving is extremely rewarding.

The dive masters are incredibly knowledgeable of the dive sites and have the dive plan for Sipadan days mapped out perfectly with adequate rest and surface intervals to make the day enjoyable.

The day of our permit was a current gamble day, where we literally would have currents change direction in between dives and have to scout other dive sites enroute.

This made for an interesting day but we saw some amazing things, even though we dove one site twice. It was different both times.

Here is a breakdown of our trip by dive site:

Dive 1 – South Point

diving with turtles

South Point is famous for its colorful wall of coral formations and pelagics such as large manta rays and hammerhead sharks. The colorful wall drops straight down into the dark blue unknown.

What did we see? Grey reef sharks, Unicorn fish, White Tip reef sharks, large coral fans, Hawksbill turtles, Green turtles, several Napoleon Wrasse, Red Tooth Triggerfish, several Moorish Idols and a host of massive marine life.

This wall drop reaches maximum depths of 600 meters. We started our day with a 30-meter deep dive on this wall. Visibility was a moderate 10-15 meters with a snow-like look due to the currents.

Dive 2 – Hanging Garden

scuba experience

Hanging Garden is one of the best dives of Sipadan Island. This endless reef wall is very colorful and is covered in soft corals, enormous sea fans and large barrel sponges.

What did we see? White tip reef sharks, more Napoleon Wrasse, loads of Hawksbill and Green Turtles, several varieties of box and puffer fish. We couldn’t possibly list out everything we saw, just know it’s good, very good, diving here.

Again, visibility was moderate with same conditions as the first site, 10-15 meters and snow-like. Our maximum depth was 25 meters.

Dive 3 – Barracuda Point

white tipped reef shark at sea floor

Barracuda Point is regularly ranked amongst the top 5 dive sites in the world. This top ranking dive site has a great barracuda shoal (thousands) often seen in a tornado-like formation.

What did we see? Jack Fish, Giant Trevally, Grey reef sharks, Unicorn fish, several White tip sharks, Bluefin Trevally, huge Parrot fish, huge Green and Hawksbill Turtles.

Portions of this dive involved navigating a strong channel current and at one point we all thought we would not make it across.

The straight current pushed you towards a wall plunge where a notorious down current acts like a waterfall, pulling you into the depths.

It was very strong and took a lot of hard work to cross but we all made it and it was a great adventure. Visibility was better here once we got past the current channel to the reef and our max depth was 17 meters.

Dive 4 – Barracuda Point

scuba diving at Sipadan

Yes, we dove this site again due to the ever-changing currents. What did we see? We saw pretty much the same as the previous dive, but in different concentrations.

On this dive we encountered a group of thousands of Jack Fish that we spent time swimming through and playing with. It was one of the highlights of our day.

Visibility was the best on this dive as we stayed shallow and over the reef for the dive, no current crossing this time! Maximum depth was 16 meters.

Sipadan Island takes and never gives back…..

Sipadan Experience
Still smiling, even though I lost my ring!

After diving for a couple days I had lost water weight in my fingers from the salt water.

We were diving along a large wall that dropped off 600 meters into deep dark water, looking for aquatic life along the reef while keeping an eye out for hammerheads.

I noticed something floating near my hand and instinctively pulled my hand away. Within a second I realized what it was and I quickly made a grab at it with my hand but that only propelled it farther away.

As it flipped around in the water I realized it was my wedding band. As it sunk out of my reach, I gave a yell into my regulator to Lina, who was under me.

She looked up and saw the ring sinking past her. She didn’t realize it was my wedding band, thinking it was a piece off the GoPro and by the time she realized, it was too far from her reach. We both watched it sink out of sight into the deep black depths of Sipadan.

Already being at a maximum depth of 30 meters for our dive, we knew there was no hope of recovering it. This is the second time I have lost my wedding ring and unfortunately for me, I won’t be recovering it this time!

Overall View on the Sipadan Diving

Military Base on Sipadan
Military base on Sipadan Island

Four dives was a lot of diving in one day for us. However, the surface intervals were spent on the island and we had tea, water and food on offer between each dive.

The island has a small area with facilities including bathrooms, picnic tables and beach chairs.

The rest of the island is a military base with armed men and machine guns.

Armed guards watch your every move from both sides. These are not guard guys with little guns, they are equipped with fully automatic machine guns making sure every boat and person is accounted for.

When you first arrive on the island, all permits and identification is verified prior to your first dive.

Swimming with the large groups of Jackfish is like no other experience. You will get consumed in a large rotating fish tornado. Many people superman though them or try to do a special dive though the fish.

We even lost one of our divers for ten minutes in the large mess of fish. On our day the visibility was poor and the currents were strong due to a storm system that hovered in the area that day.

Although we were told currents are always a challenge in this location.

More on Borneo:

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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4 thoughts on “Ultimate Sipadan Diving Guide (Read before you go!)”

  1. I loved diving in Sipadan though one should really add that it is not suitable for beginners. I only had 15 dives at the time and I struggled. Luckily I had an amazing DM who took care of me and also took it easy aka not doing 4 dives per day when my body needed a break. I was on the MV Explorer, the only liveaboard in the area. They are exempt from the permit situation (or included in the count, I am actually not sure) and we got to dive at Sipadan every day weather conditions permitting. However, I must add that I absolutely loved the muck diving around Mabul – really not a bad second option at all!

    Reply
    • Not suitable for beginners at all. you are required to have a minimum of 50 dives on an Open Water Cert or an Advanced certification to dive at Sipadan. Strong currents there and knowledge of buoyancy necessary! I loved the muck diving around Mabul also. 🙂

      Reply
      • THANK YOU, I’ve been looking for clarification about whether I can actually dive at Sipadan as a beginner. Is it worth the trip to Tawau to do an open water course and dive Mabul and the other surrounding islands? I plan to travel through Kota kinabalu and Sandakan, is there good beginner diving there?

        Reply
        • You’re welcome! Sipadan is no place for beginners. However, yes, the diving around Mabul and Kapalai is fabulous and beginner friendly. We only dove near Mabul and Sipadan, but I heard the diving up near Kota Kinabalu is ok. Not sure what the conditions are like for learning. I recommend contacting some of the local dive shops, I’m sure they would be happy to chat with you about it.

          Reply

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