July 26th, 2004
Divers are flabbergasted at the fact that they virtually have to push all the sharks and turtles out of the way to see anything else in the hotbed of biodiversity that is Sipadan Island. This tiny island off the coast of Borneo is world renowned for sightings of large pelagic species that come in mind-boggling numbers. Sipadan hit the world stage in 1984 when Jacques Cousteau chose it as the site for his film Ghost of the Sea Turtles. The same Turtle Cavern can still be visited today and houses tens of skeletons of sea turtles as well as a dolphin skeleton or two. Because the island is so small (taking only 20 minutes to walk full circle), and the fact that only 100 guests are allowed on any given night, Sipadan evokes an air of a Summer Camp for Divers. In this respect, it is like no other dive destination in the world. The only problem is, divers can only enjoy this unique experience until the end of the year when the government will cease to allow overnight stay on the island. (Unfortunately, this has already happened)
Sipadan Island is a result of a geologic structure resembling the shape of a mushroom, with the shaft rising 1000m from the ocean floor and the tip of the mushroom cap protruding just above the surface. This arrangement leads to a ‘drop off’, where divers literally walk a few paces out from the beach and swim out over a submerged ledge, beyond which lies the abyss. Diving consists of a mixture of shore diving from the drop off and boat diving at various sites around the island.
Experts claim that Sipadan Island and the surrounding waters are home to the world’s densest population of sea turtles. This fact is probably why divers are hard pressed to complete a single dive during their stay without seeing at least a dozen turtles and a handful of sharks. Highlights of a stay on the island might include sightings of hundreds of hammerhead sharks circling below in the deeper waters, schools of over a thousand barracuda creating a veritable roar underwater as they pass by, and a perhaps a rare thresher shark or manta ray caught from the corner of an eye. Add to this, encounters with crocodile fish, leopard sharks and swarming schools of gleaming jackfish and you’ll be finning back to shore just to catch your breath.
Topside, the island does not disappoint. By day you can witness coconut crabs climb palm trees to retrieve coconuts, cracking them open with their gargantuan claw, or catch a sighting of a 4’ monitor lizard shuffling along. By night, you can go on a ‘turtle walk’ and watch a turtle lay her eggs up close and personal. These eggs are then collected and the babies are released once a week, a sight not to be missed, as the little buggers scurry off into the surf. Perhaps the most charming part of it all is the close-knit atmosphere of chatting with other divers during surface intervals and sharing stories of that day’s sightings at night under a blanket of stars, cold beer in hand. Everyone on the island has a twinkle in their eye, knowing full well the short-lived privilege they enjoy by being one of the last few to visit Summer Camp for Divers.
The most economical way to get to Sipadan Island is on Air Asia, flying into Kota Kinabalu. After an overnight stay, fly from KK to Tawau and from there take land transportation to Semporna where you will go by speedboat to the island of Mabul.
Three recommended dive operators in the area
Sipadan Dive Center – probably the best quality of the three
Borneo Divers – the original dive operator in the area
Pulau Sipadan Resort – smaller but I’ve heard good reviews
The best rate can be had by walking into one of their offices and bargaining. You’ll have to stay on nearby Mabul Island, now that the government restricts overnight stay, and make daytrips to Sipadan. A reasonably good deal is $100US per night including accommodation, all meals, 3 boat dives a day, unlimited shore diving and all transfers to and from Tawau airport.
Entry Filed under: Travel