Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. My apologies for the weird sentences and the funny mistakes that could gave been generated during the process. If you can read French, the original and correct version can be found here:
A few small practical and geographical details to start, because I am inundated with emails asking me for information about Sipadan ... 😉
Sipadan is a tiny island, located in eastern Malaysia, in northeastern Borneo, near the border with Indonesia. The island is part of the Malaysian state of Sabah.
A great advantage of this fabulous diving spot is its ease of access, via Tawau airport: there are direct connections with Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia, or Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia on Borneo (see the sites ofAir Asia and Malaysia Airlines).
Once in Tawau, you have to go to Semporna, the port from which boats leave for Sipadan and Mabul, the neighboring island. The journey by road takes about an hour. There are many taxis waiting for the client at the airport.
It takes about an hour to cross Semporna to Mabul by boat. Then, since Mabul it takes another twenty minutes to reach the island of Sipadan itself (be careful, as long as there are waves, the crossing time is easily doubled).
An oceanic island explored by Cousteau
Sipadan, when we approach, it looks like this:
Turquoise water and white sand ... "Wow" effect guaranteed when it's sunny.
Sipadan is a very particular island. It is the only oceanic island in Malaysia. This means that it is not just an emergent zone in the extension of a continent, but an island of volcanic origin, created by the activity of the earth's crust at the seafloor.
Sipadan herself is very small. The island is perched on a vast coral reef, atop an ancient volcano.
This forms a vertiginous underwater cliff, which sinks to about 600 m below the surface. These particular geological conditions have favored an incredible abundance of life and underwater biodiversity. (Click on the pictures to see them big.)
Malaysians Clement Lee and Samson Shak, Britain's Ronald Holland and American Randy Davis are considered "discoverers" of the underwater riches of the island and the "pioneers" of diving in Sipadan. In 1984, they started the first commercial diving operation, which still exists, Borneo Divers.
But it is the Frenchman Jacques-Yves Cousteau who made the island famous, after his passage with the Calypso, in 1988. Amazed, he would have said, in essence: "I've seen places like Sipadan, but it was 45 years ago. What we have here is an intact 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 whitish skulls and carapaces on a sandy bottom, have made their mark. There is a rational explanation to this tomb of turtles: lost in the guts of the cave, they would have perished there suffocated, for lack of having been able to return to the surface to breathe.
My name is not Cousteau and I only visited the entrance to the Turtle Tomb Cave, a vast room in the dark intimidating. I still brought a small video, which I will post in a future article ... (EDIT: the video is online, to 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 20 people - a group of foreign divers and Malaysians - were kidnapped in Sipadan by Filipinos of the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, then taken away and sequestered on the nearby island of Jolo. extreme south of the Philippine archipelago.
Since then, the Malaysian army has deployed men to Sipadan and the surrounding islands. They are there permanently, patrols plow the waters of the region. The security of the tourists is thus (in principle) assured, but it is always a little odd to see guys with weapons and trellises on the white sand beaches ... I already talked about it during my first stay in 2006.
UPDATE: Security at Semporna / Mabul / Sipadan. I receive many questions on this subject, I remind you that this article, published initially in December 2013, concerns my stay there in July 2013. I added in comments new information, in answer to readers ...
Diverses mesures ont été prises aussi pour la protection environnementale de Sipadan et de son récif, après que l’île, objet d’un litige avec l’Indonésie voisine, a été officiellement attribuée à la Malaisie en 2002 : fermeture des quelques hôtels construits sur Sipadan même en 2004 ; instauration d’un quota de plongeurs et snorkelers (nageurs en palmes-masque-tuba) limité à 120 par jour, et désormais passé à 176 par jour [info de 2019].
Today, most of the tourists-divers stay on Mabul, the neighboring island of Sipadan - where the accommodations, from the cheapest to the most chic, pile up around the village. Others make the day trip from Semporna, the port on the mainland in Borneo.
In Sipadan, each visitor must first land and sign the permit register before diving, swimming or strolling. Each boat receives a pennant for the day, identifying it as being allowed to sail around the island.
It is forbidden to travel on the island beyond a restricted area to the large beach near the pontoon and to the area provided for divers under the trees - with tables, wooden awnings and sanitary facilities. As much to ensure the tranquility of the turtles that lay on the sand all around the island, as to keep tourists within sight.
The atmosphere is more unusual than heavy. We return to the island between dives to eat, rest, take souvenir photos ...
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 daze ventures beyond the limit. Better not to laugh with this, warn the guides before landing a group. An offense and it is the whole boat that finds itself not only expelled but prohibited from diving ...