Best Diving in the World: Mabul & Sipadan
Sipadan is an oceanic island located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia. The island was formed when living coral grew on top of an extinct volcano thousands of years ago. The island itself plummets 2,000m to the ocean floor and is the only volcanic island in Malaysia. It is the coral reef found on top of the volcanic cone that is one of the richest marine habitats in the world and offers world-class diving. The strong currents sweeping past the island, allow for a gathering point for the entire marine food chain with over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species.
The overwhelming amount of marine life hits you as soon as you drop into the water and you won’t know where to look first. The island is home to several hundred nesting turtles and it is common to see more than twenty turtles on a single dive. Sharks are pretty much a guarantee, from white-tipped reef sharks to grey reef sharks and even scalloped hammerheads for those lucky enough to spot them. Eagle rays are also a popular sighting. Manta rays and whale sharks may appear when deep-water currents bring plankton closer to the reef. The gathering of thousands of barracuda and big-eye trevally provide a breathtaking tornado-like formation, and bumphead parrotfish are often seen parading in the shallows.
Needless to say, Sipidan is a diver’s paradise and will leave even a very experienced diver completely speechless.
To ensure the protection of the sensitive and unique ecosystem, Sipadan is a protected area and this means divers are required permits to dive there. Only 120 permits are issued each day and these permits are split between 12 dive resorts. A permit typically costs (MYR40) and lasts for a whole day so you can usually fit in 4 dives. Be aware that due to the limited permits available booking in advance is essential to secure a booking. For more information on obtaining a Sipadan permit click here.
Located about 15km from Sipadan lies the small island of Mabul. As the resorts on Sipadan were closed in 2002 to conserve and protect this unique ecosystem, most divers stay on Mabul Island. While Sipidan is definitely the main attraction in the area, the dive sites around Mabul provide a different aspect of diving and should not be missed. Whereas Sipidan is known for its large pelagics and huge schools of fish, Mabul is macro diving bliss. It is here that you can spot frogfish, scorpion fish, numerous types of crustaceans, crocodile fish, dwarf lionfish, seahorses and plenty more exotic small marine life.
Where to stay?
We stayed with and booked all our dives as well as an Open Water Course with Scuba Junkie. The dive base is found on the mainland in the small town of Semporna but most of their accommodation is found on Mabul Island. Although a bit more pricey than many of the other budget backpacker options, it was well worth it. The resort is incredibly well run, the staff are friendly and professional and they teach and practice sustainable diving. We simply cannot recommend them enough.
How to get there?
This is the most tiresome part as getting to Sipadan and requires a bit of effort. Most visitors fly to the town of Tawau from Kota Kinabalu (50 min) or Kuala Lumpur (3 hr). From Tawau you can get a taxi or minivan to the port town of Semporna (1-2 hr) and from there get a speed boat to Mabul or Sipidan itself (about an hour).