1 week Borneo
Sipadan - On every scuba divers bucket list
1 week Borneo "Sipadan Itinerary"
A Quick Summary:
Kuala Lumpur/ Singapore - Metropolis
1-3 days: Book your stay here!
Sipadan - Number 1 diving destination in Asia
3-10 days: Book your stay here!
Where is Sipadan & How to get there?
Sipadan is a very small island about 1,5 hours by boat, south of Semporna. It's right in the middle of the Celebes Sea, between 2 large volcanic plates.
To the north side of Sipadan, the ocean drops to 600 meters deep, while on the south side it drops to a mind-blowing 2000+ meters deep!
These incredible depths mean, small but also, very big fish have a chance of showing up, and actually regularly do, hence why Sipadan is so famous.
To get to Sipadan Island you will want to enter Borneo/ Sabah from either Kota Kinabalu or Tawau. You can fly to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu has an international airport servicing flights from most places in Asia.
If you decide to start your Borneo adventure in Kota Kinabalu, you must fly to Tawau since it's easy and cheap.
From Tawau, you can get a taxi or bus to Semporna. A taxi will cost you between 90 and 120 ringgits (20-25$) for a 90 minutes drive. Buses are cheaper but much more uncomfortable. Roads between Tawau and Semporna are well maintained, so relatively comfortable.
Once in Semporna, you might have to stay the night, because boats to different resorts might have a very early departure time.
I do not recommend staying in Semporna! This town hasn't got a lot to offer, is very poor and very, very polluted.
There are many resorts on the island of Mabul, Kapalai, and even islands further away like Mataking will service Sipadan. However, Mabul is by far(!) your best choice!
Why should you go to Sipadan?
Sipadan is currently ranked as the number 1 diving spot by CNN in Asia. Its unique location, beautiful clear waters, and sometimes challenging currents can bring some (literally) big surprises!
There are 2 dives with pretty much, guaranteed sightings of barracudas by the 1000s and at South Point, you will see schools of jackfish schooling by the 100s as well.
Barracuda point and South point are incredible dive sites, and the other 12 dive sites will not be visited as frequently, however, do not let yourself be discouraged by this. The other 12 dive sites are wall dives, all very similar to another with 1 exception: Drop-off/ Turtle cave.
What does scuba diving in Sipadan entail?
At the time of writing
Scuba diving in Sipadan can only be done by obtaining a permit. These permits are valid for 1 day and 1 person and are registered by name.
You need to book your trip in advance. For the dive centers and/ or resorts to organize these permits!
You will usually leave early in the morning 5:45 or 6:45, to travel to Sipadan Island by boat in about 30 minutes.
Once on Sipadan Island, you will register at the park office, where they will check your passport & dive certificate. Fail to bring these (every single day you visit the island) and risk being asked to leave!
We did 3 dives per day, starting as early as 7.30 AM, between dives, there will be snacks, coffee, tea, and lunch served.
Expect to do your last dive of the day between 1.30 and 2.30 PM before heading back to your resort.
The Future of scuba diving in Sipadan as of October 1st, 2022.
As of October 1st, 2022, Sipadan park has decided the following:
- Permits increased per day from 176 to 500
- Prices of permits increased by a factor of 1.5
- Only 2 dives are allowed per diver, per day.
- Advanced divers and above are required to go diving.
These decisions are obviously made from a money-making standpoint. Increasing the number of divers on the island by 3 and increasing the prices, while simultaneously reducing the number of dives allowed.
I feel lucky I got to visit this beautiful place before October, but I'm sad about what it might become in the future.
An impression of the diving scene.
Like I said before, Mabul is probably your best choice for accommodation. There are quite a few resorts on the island, most of them offering all-inclusive packages for diving Sipadan, 3 meals per day, and accommodation. The small villages on the island sell basic goods like coffee, candy, drinks, etc.
Diving around Mabul is also quite good. With plenty of macro life for you to enjoy, some wrecks to explore, and artificial reefs to admire!
This is not actually an island, but more a sandbank, where they built a resort on top off. The resort is quite expensive, and permits are acquired, however, not too many. If you decide to stay here, you will probably be diving around Kapalai quite a lot, which should not be your main reason for coming to this remote part of the world.
Diving is excellent though! Macro life is the keyword here and you will find an abundance of rare nudibranchs, octopuses, shrimps, and crabs. Flamboyant cuttlefishes, my personal favorite can also be found here, regularly.
The map below shows all dive sites, but usually, there will be a simple choice:
Kapalai north or south. And you will most likely visit 2-4 dive sites in a 1-hour dive.
This is your main reason for coming here. While Mabul and Kapalai are more focused on smaller marine life like shrimps, crabs, and cuttlefish. Sipadan is all about the big stuff!
Turtles, sharks (Hammerhead, reef, white tip, whale), barracuda, and trevally can, and will be seen here every day!
The number of fish around this island is simply amazing, with turtles passing you by, every minute or so and checking you out. Sharks underneath, and tornadoes of barracuda in front of you!
You will also probably do the so-called: blue dive. This type of diving is quite interesting, dropping you close to the reef, and then swimming out, into the blue, trying to lure the elusive and famous hammerhead sharks to come and check you out. If you're lucky you'll see 1 or 2, if you're very lucky, you might see a school of 30!
Where to go after Sipadan?
Sangalaki is a place in Indonesia, run by Scuba-junkie. You can fly to Kalimantan from Manado or even Tawau. Or take a boat and car from Semporna to get to this remote heaven of diving.
Dive & Stay Packages | Scuba Junkie Sangalaki - check out this link for prices and transfers.
Kota Kinabalu is a great option to stay in before or after your Sipadan trip. Is diving as good as Sipadan? Probably not, but you can go on multi-day jungle trips as well as dive into the plethora of diving sites offered here.
Kota Kinabalu also has an international airport, so getting to and from here is very easy.
Mataking island is actually a resort, like Kapalai, a bit further away from the other islands. The diving is pristine and shore diving, night diving, and even Sipadan trips can be organized from here. Expect to pay for this service though, as this is not as affordable as most other options listed here!
The future for Sipadan island diving.
Permits, prices & number of dives:
Like I said earlier, rules are about the change for Sipadan. This is a very sad change, unfortunately, as there will be 3 times the number of divers on and around the island.
The major changes:
- Permits from 176 to 500
- Number of dives allowed per day: 2 instead of 3
- A price increase of 50%
- Advanced divers and above only, are allowed to come diving.
A day permit right now already costs 450 ringgit (100+ dollars) per person. The price increase will make it harder for a lot of people to be able to afford this beautiful diving scene.
My biggest problem is the reduction from 3 to 2 dives per day per person. I don't mind paying more for an exceptional experience, but reducing the quantity feels just unfair.
So, we have to buy more permits, to enjoy the same number of dives in the end.
I understand the policy to exclude "open water divers" in a sense, some (most certainly not all) open water divers, aren't as experienced with currents, deeper diving, etc.
However, experience has taught me, advanced and above-divers are in no way guaranteed to be better divers than the "basic" open-water diver.
I hope they will eventually turn back some, if not all of these changes, however, my experience is, that they will not be keen on making less money than before...
Getting there, and away:
To get to Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai book your stay with your resort. I highly recommend Scuba-Junkies. They are the most experienced, their service and communication are excellent, and they offer the most permits.
If needed, they will help you with transfers, hotel bookings in Semporna, and onward trips.