The pontoon of Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

Divers under supervision in Sipadan


  Borneo: Indonesia + Malaysia - July 2013

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

Sipadan. An island explored by Cousteau. A dream of divers. But a dream under military surveillance, for the safety of tourists and the preservation of the reef.

For crazy diving

Sipadan, a small island off the coast of Borneo, in East Malaysia, is one of the most famous diving spots in Asia. A reputation not usurped.

Of course, you better like fish to appreciate the place as it deserves... 👌

School of jacks in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

Me, who is hopelessly addicted to bubbles and fish, returned to Sipadan, for the third time, in July 2013, after two first trips in 2006 and 2009.

I have already posted a few articles about this new 2013 journey:

For the underwater environment → Sipadan underwater in pictures
To see a shark up close → Sipadan: a video, a shark, a minute
For the details of my July 2013 trip to Borneo → Diving in the blue of Borneo

Sipadan, where is it and how do we get there?

A few practical and geographical details to start with, as I'm inundated with emails asking me for information about Sipadan... 😉

Sipadan is a tiny island located in East Malaysia, in the northeast of Borneo, close to the border with Indonesia. The island is part of the Malaysian state of Sabah.

A significant advantage of this fabulous diving spot is its easy access, via Tawau airport: there are direct connections with Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia, or Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia on Borneo (see theAir Asia and Malaysia Airlines).

Kuala Lumpur - Tawau.
Aircraft MAS Wings, a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines for domestic flights. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

Once in Tawau, it is necessary to go to Semporna, the port from where boats leave for Sipadan and Mabul, the neighboring island. The journey by road takes about an hour. There are plenty of cabs waiting at the airport.

The crossing from Semporna to Mabul by boat also takes about an hour. Then, from Mabul, it takes another 20 minutes to reach the island of Sipadan itself (be careful, if there are waves, the crossing time is easily doubled).

An oceanic island explored by Cousteau

Sipadan, when you approach, it looks like this:

Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
The pontoon of Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
The pontoon of Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

Turquoise water and white sand... "Wow" effect guaranteed when the sun is shining.

Sipadan is a very special island. It is the only oceanic island in Malaysia. This means that it is not just a landmass in the extension of a continent, but an island of volcanic origin, created by the activity of the earth's crust on the ocean floor.

Sipadan itself is very small. The island is perched on a vast coral reef, atop an ancient volcano.

It forms a dizzying underwater cliff, which sinks to about 600 m below the surface. These particular geological conditions have favored an abundance of life and an incredible underwater biodiversity. (Click on the pictures to see them big.)

Malaysians Clement Lee and Samson Shak, British Ronald Holland and American Randy Davis are considered the "discoverers" of the island's underwater riches and the "pioneers" of diving in Sipadan. In 1984, they started the very first commercial diving operation there, which still exists today, Borneo Divers.

But it is the Frenchman Jacques-Yves Cousteau who made the island famous, after his passage with the Calypsoin 1988. Amazed, he was quoted as saying: "I've seen places like Sipadan before, but that was 45 years ago. What we have here is a pristine work of art."

In Sipadan, Cousteau shot a documentary entitled The specter of the turtle (1989), whose spectacular images of the cave sheltering a turtle cemetery, with skulls and whitish carapaces on a sandy background, have marked the minds. There is a rational explanation for this turtle grave: lost in the bowels of the cave, they would have perished asphyxiated, because they could not return to the surface to breathe.

Turtle Tomb Cave. Sipadan, Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

My name is not Cousteau and I only visited the entrance of the Turtle Tomb Cave, a vast room with an intimidating darkness. I did bring back a small video, which I will post in a future article... (EDIT: the video is online, see here.)

An island under high surveillance

Sipadan is also known outside the small world of diving because of the dramatic history of hostages of Jolo, in 2000.

About twenty people - a group of foreign divers and Malaysians - had been kidnapped in Sipadan, by Filipinos of the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, then taken and sequestered on the island of Jolo, located not far from there, in the extreme south of the archipelago of the Philippines.

Since then, the Malaysian army has deployed men to Sipadan and the surrounding islands. They are there permanently, patrols criss-cross the waters of the region. The security of the tourists is thus (in principle) ensured, but it's still a bit strange to see guys with guns and fatigues on the white sandy beaches... I was already talking about it during my first stay in 2006.

UPDATE: Security in Semporna / Mabul / Sipadan. I receive a lot of questions on this subject, I remind you that this article, originally published in December 2013, is about my stay there in July 2013. I added in comments new information, in response to readers...  

June 15, 2014After new kidnappings of tourists that occurred in November 2013 and April 2014, in two isolated resorts of the region, I published a first long comment under this article, compiling several infos and updates on this subject, that you can read at the end of this link :

August 26, 2017I published a new comment, in response to a reader, compiling the latest information I found on the situation at that date, to be seen by clicking on this link:

A soldier on duty on the small island of Sibuan, off Semporna. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2006.
A soldier on duty on the small island of Sibuan, off Semporna. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2006.)

Various measures were also taken for the environmental protection of Sipadan and its reef, after the island, subject of a dispute with neighboring Indonesia, was officially awarded to Malaysia in 2002: closure of the few hotels built on Sipadan itself in 2004; introduction of a quota of divers and snorkelers (swimmers in fins-mask-tuba) limited to 120 per day, and now increased to 176 per day [info of 2019].

Inside the Sipadan registration desk, the list of authorized dive operators, with the number of permits for the day for each. Total: 120. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.)
Inside the registration office of Sipadan, the list of authorized dive operators, with, for each one, the number of permits granted for the day. Total: 120. That was in 2013. The quota has increased to 176 now (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.)

Today, most dive tourists stay on Mabul, the neighboring island of Sipadan - where accommodations, from the cheapest to the fanciest, are crammed around the village. Others make the day trip from Semporna, the mainland port in Borneo.

Read also → A brief history of Pulau Sipadan

Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

The only permanent residents of Sipadan are now military rangers and some lizards and not fierce lizards ...

The military-rangers' post at Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Varan in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

These measures seem to be bearing fruit - as far as I can tell from my three visits, every few years (2006, 2009, 2013)...

In terms of safety, tourists have returned - and an impressive business has developed around diving in Mabul and Semporna.

From an environmental point of view, the underwater life on Sipadan Reef has remained spectacular! It's comforting, after my disappointment in Maratua and Sangalaki, Indonesian side of Borneo.

Signs on the Sipadan pontoon remind us of the rules to observe in the island's marine reserve. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Signs on the Sipadan pier remind people of the rules to observe in the island's marine reserve. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

Controlled freedom

At Sipadan, each visitor must first disembark and sign the permit book, before being allowed to dive, swim or walk around. Each boat is given a flag for the day to identify it as being authorized to sail around the island.

Signature of the register at Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.

It is forbidden to circulate on the island beyond a perimeter restricted to the large beach near the pontoon and to the area set up for divers under the trees - with tables, wooden awnings and sanitary facilities. This is both to ensure the tranquility of the turtles that lay their eggs on the sand around the island, and to keep tourists within sight.

The atmosphere is more unusual than heavy. We return on the island between the dives to eat, to rest, to take photos memories...

Beach portion allowed to tourists, in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Beach portion allowed to tourists, in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)
Lunch break between two dives on Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
Lunch break between two dives on Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)

On site, the military rangers, often in flip flops but with weapons at hand, monitor the comings and goings of tourists between two naps.

Sometimes the siren sounds, when an intrepid or giddy person ventures beyond the limit. It is better not to joke with this, warn the guides before disembarking a group. One infraction and the whole boat is not only expelled but also forbidden to dive...


Admit that it would have been a shame...

A white tip shark in Sipadan. Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013.
A whitetip reef shark (or coral shark) in Sipadan. (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2013)

(Thanks to one of my diving companions, Vicente Garcia, for the picture above, where I can be seen filming a coral shark! And the video that goes with it is here.)

  Borneo: Indonesia + Malaysia - July 2013