Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text:
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).
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:
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.
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...
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].
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.
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.
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...
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...