Is it really worth to risk to dive Malaysia's Sipadan?
Frequently spoken about as one of the best dive sites in the world, Sipadan is likely to end up on your scuba bucket list!
However Mabul Island, the main gateway for diving Sipadan, has hit the news over the years after attacks by Islamic terrorists from the Sulu Sea area of the Southern Philippines.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and AU Smarttraveller advise against all but essential travel to the coastal resorts of eastern Sabah, including the islands, dive sites and associated tourist facilities, due to the high threat of kidnapping.
So... is it worth the risk?
Location, location, logistics
Mabul is a small island located an hour boat ride from Semporna, a small seaport town in the region of Sabah on the east coast of Borneo. Mostly made up of dive centres it's the best place to dive Sipidan from. We stayed at Uncle Chang's for 9 days over Christmas and New Year, during the off season, and they managed to get us three full days diving in Sipadan which was amazingly lucky.
One of the attractions for me was staying on huts built on stilts out over the water. I do have to note that the presence of armed guards was both comforting and a reminder of the concern locally!
There used to be a resort on Sipadan but now the island is closed to visitors, apart from the 120 permits issued each day to divers. While not mandatory, you should hold at least an advanced qualification to enjoy all that Sipidan can offer. There can be strong currents and the dive guides are there to lead not to supervise inexperienced divers. Due to the permit system you will need to book in advance, especially during peak season. In order to secure permits you will also need to book a few local dives around Mabul or the neighbouring islands during your visit.
You will certainly see a massive difference between the home reefs around Mabul and the protected reefs around Sipadan. For me, the highlight was Kapalai House Reef. This was incredible muck diving and I saw my first flamboyant cuttlefish. We also found ornate ghost pipefish, frog fish and even turtles. With my macro photography obsession, I would have happily spent hours on that reef!
What’s so special about Sipadan?
The protection has certainly had the intended effect because compared to many other sites we dived, the reefs seem healthy. The sheer quantity of turtles and huge schools of fish is unbelievable. You could see whale sharks, hammerheads and manta, if you are really lucky, but for me, the most spectacular sight was the resident schools of barracuda, jack fish and bump head parrot fish. We only saw these on one of our three days, which is apparently surprising because they are regular residents. It was truly remarkable to be surrounded by such huge shoals of such large fish. This video was filmed with my go pro and gives just a taste of what you can expect.
How to get there?
Connecting flight to Tawau from KL. Arrange with your dive company or resort to collect you from the airport.
Best time to go?
March to May is traditionally the peak season but good diving is found there all year-round. However, expect the worst visability and rain bursts in December to February due to the rainy season.
Where to stay?
Wherever works for your budget, but confirm Sipidan permits for the days you are there before booking.
Scuba Junkie and Seaventures both have a great reputation, but my partner had dived with Uncle Chang’s and wanted to revisit old friends.
Uncle Chang’s is also more relaxed when it comes to pre-booking dive packages.
You give them an indication of how many dives in advance but they don’t hold you to that and you just pay for what you do.
This is perfect if you want to have a lazy start to the day or hop in a hammock with a good book while the masses descend on the reefs!
What else is there to do?
If you are not a diver, activities are limited. It’s possible though to snorkel and do boat trips to nearby islands. If you are an active person who isn’t dive obsessed then I’d suggest a shorter visit and spending more of your time exploring the jungle on the mainland.
Ultimately only you can make the decision on what risks you are willing to take.
The security measures on the island were stringent and there hasn’t been an incident since 2016. The dive guides we spoke to thought the risks were overstated but did think that the military bases and increased patrols provided them with peace of mind.
For me, I visited in the off-peak period during the wet season, and even then the diving was so good that I considered it completely essential travel!