Monday, March 21, 2005

Sipadan, Borneo, Malaysia, March 2005

Diving around a small oceanic island rising 600m from the deep.


trip report

Malaysia - info sheet

VisumBelgian citizens, among others, automatically get a three months visum upon entry.
Transport• Flight from Copenhagen to Tawau: 21-26h (via Amsterdam & Kuala Lumpur)
• Mini-bus from Tawau airport to Tawau city: ½h
• Mini-bus from Tawau airport to Semporna: 1h
• Speed-boat from Semporna to Mabul: ¾h
TimeSabah time = Copenhagen winter time + 7 hours
WeatherAir temperature: 30°C (in the shade). Water temperature: 28°C.
Currency1 USD = 3.7 RM (Malaysian Ringit)
LanguageEnglish is spoken by most.

Tawau - Semporna

Upon arrival in Tawau's small national airport, we are welcomed by an employee from the resort and immediately transferred to our hotel in Tawau: The Belmont Marco Polo. The fanciest hotel in town, with all modern amenities one might expect in a business class hotel.

Standard rooms cost 160 RM for two, including buffet breakfast. Cheap maybe compared to European price levels, but actually quite expensive when just around the corner you can e.g. get a meal for 2,5 RM from a night market food stall. Which is what I did straight away, trying out nasi campur, a plate of rice with all kinds of local dish samples. The outside world is quite a contrast really with the hermetic feeling of total isolation you have inside the hotel.

The next morning, our ride is waiting for us at 6:30 am, for the transfer to Semporna, a one hour drive through endless palm tree plantations. In Semporna, the minibus drives straight up to a comfortable speedboat, that zips us to Mabul island in less than 45'.

Sipadan-Mabul Resort

SMART is a very efficiently run resort, with a capacity of 90 in about 45 chalets of varying comfort levels, not counting the deluxe water-bungalows, of which more are under construction.

We got upgraded from the standard twin-share chalet we'd booked to a stand-alone chalet just like that, probably because of the length of our stay and having booked directly. A very nice gesture indeed, worth 300 USD or so, which we've appreciated a lot, now having a private hut in stead of a shared one in the back.

The hut, it doesn't look like much more than that from the outside, is pretty nice indeed and has both fan & AC, ensuite bathroom and a private terrace overlooking the gently waving palm trees and the sea.

A lazy stroll away, the large buffet style dining hall serves excellent Asian food 3 times a day. Coffee, tea & water are availale all day and included in the full-board price, while soft-drinks, beer & alcohol can be bought at the pool-, jetty- or dining room bar, where e.g. a can of soda costs 1 USD.

While the resort maintains a high standard despite the number of tourists, the dive operation suffers a bit from its emphasis on quantity in stead of quality. Though they've got plenty of powerful twin engine dive boats, they still cram as many as 10-12 divers in a single boat. Another thing that struck me, is that several boats will drop their divers at the same time at the same site, in stead of choosing another site or waiting 5-10'. Three of our dives were basically ruined by the sheer number of divers in the water at the same time, reminding of similar situations in the Red Sea around Hurghada, where the sea periodically turns into a giant jaccuzi of exhalation bubbles.

Some of the dive masters seem burnt out by their factory style working conditions. It's hard to care and remain personal when you get exposed to too many new faces every day. Breefings covered the bare minimum and no extra information was ever volunteered unless explicitely asked for.

SMART offers full service, meaning that gear is carried to and from the boats, set-up and rinsed afterwards, without you having to do anything. A service I'd rather do without, as I prefer to handle my gear myself. But that isn't quite an option. Unfortunately some of the (non-diving) staff doesn't quite know how to properly handle & set-up gear, and the rinsing isn't much more than a quick dip in a tub. Another problem is the state of the tanks. Too many are leaking, sometimes in a disturbingly noisy way. And several times we had minor problems with the outboard engines on the way to or from Sipadan. Clearly indicating that it's not only the dive masters that are overworked.

In theory you can dive with nitrox if you want to, but in practice it's not that easy to obtain and at 35 RM per tank very expensive indeed. Considering the number of divers, they should have a dedicated nitrox fill station and offer it for free. Now, that would be a service I'd appreciate!

The diving however is great, even though visibility was rather poor, varying between 10-15m around Sipadan and rarely exceeding 5m around Mabul. Turtles are still abounding on many dives and cruising or resting white-tips are a regular sight. We didn't get to see the large circling school of barracudas, but this time I did get two glimpses of an investigative hammerhead. Muck diving is in, and though the term is slightly misused here, critters can be found: harlequin file fish, flamboyant cuttlefish, clown frogfish, leaffish, devil scorpionfish, real and false stonefish, etc

Sipadan island has been closed off since january this year and the old resorts are slowly being broken up, in order to restore a semblance of natural peace, the island being an important nesting ground for the turtles it became famous for.

Only armed marine guards are now allowed to overnight on the island, to protect the precious source of income that well-to-do visitors are, rather than the turtles, whose eggs they now can dig up and sell without annoying witnesses. During the day their main pass time is watching the 100s of tourist divers crowding one of the old resort piers during the in-between-dives break, and making sure they don't wander off too far. All these divers now come from neighboring islands like Mabul & Kapalai, and even from Semporna on day trips or live-aboards. So I doubt the ecological impact of too many divers will be lessened in any way by the closure of the old resorts on Sipadan.

The island has definitely become much more accessible than 10 years ago. Resulting in more and more divers now crowding the place and feeling like great adventurers... but under water they're just clumsy humans trashing into the corals without a care. A sad sight. Despite explicit warnings that divers not respecting the fragile environment will be forbidden to dive, I never saw a dive master admonish anybody.

On several occasions during our stay, I heard muffled blasts while diving around Sipadan, as if something heavy had been dropped in the water above me. Once it unmistakenly felt like an explosion. Pretty near. But then, shock waves travel long distances under water. According to our guide they're caused by dynamite fishing in the Philippines. Not a very pleasant thought. I've previously seen the ghastly desolation of coral reefs totally destroyed by dynamite fishing in Indonesia. A sight I imagine one can compare with the utter devastation of an atomic bomb dropped upon a vast city.

Sipadan - Mabul - Kapalai

Sipadan - Mabul - Kapalai, three small islands forming a pretty ideal combination of game & treasure hunting.

Two hours after setting foot on Mabul island, we were in the water for a check-out dive, during which I got surrounded by small yellow tail barracudas, maybe mistaking me, with my yellow fins, for their big brother.

A normal dive day consists of two morning dives around Sipadan, between breakfast and lunch, followed by an afternoon dive around Mabul or, exceptionally, around Kapalai.

Besides or in stead of the boat dives, it's also possible to do unlimited jetty dives from the water bungalows pier, as long as you've got a buddy.

Rides from Mabul to Sipadan take anything from 15' on a calm day with a powerfull twin-engine (115hp) speedboat, to more than 30' on a rougher day with a smaller twin-engine (85hp) boat.

Sipadan offers better visibility and more action, while Mabul and Kapalai are known for the small stuff.

Flying turtles

Turtles are all over the place around Sipadan: sleeping in wall crevices, swimming over the reef, seeking food among coral rubble, slowly rising in the blue towards the surface for a precious gulp of air...


Several times I had at least 4 of them within my field of vision! They're not always there in numbers though, and sometimes we only saw one or two. But hey, some places you're lucky if you see one in a whole week's diving.


More often than not however, there were more of them than I could care to count. Small and large. Hawksbill and green. And I had close and personal encounters more than once, with turtles swimming right up to me, barely avoiding a collision.

Circling barracudas

On our first Sipadan dive, at Mid reef, we passed a small school of circling barracudas. But we never met them again afterwards. However, around Mabul, to my delight, I got surrounded by small yellow tail barracudas twice.

Huddling humpheads

Also on our first Sipadan dive we were lucky to see a tightly packed school of about two dozen sleepy humphead parrotfish. They look kind of prehistoric to me. With their big coral crunching beak-like teeth, oversized heads and small flapping pectoral fins. Normally you have to get up real early to see them, but then, you may be so fortunate as to see hundreds of them, as did a Japanese girl during our stay.

Streaming jacks

On two of our dives around Sipadan, at South point & Turtle patch, we got to submerge right into a fairly big school of silver jacks, endlessly streaming in the shallows, as if in a hurry to nowhere. Quite an hypnotic sight, and one of my favourites. I could hang out there in a trance with them forever.

There's also a large gang of young jacks hanging around the water bungalows pier.

Cruising sharks

On most Sipadan dives, we saw white-tips cruising around or resting on the bottom. But unlike the turtles, these predators are rather shy and usually moved away each time I tried to sneak closer.

One day, we also came upon a fairly big leopard shark, who inevitably also got tired of too much attention, and slowly swam away.

On our one and only 6am early morning dive, I was lucky to twice get a glimpse of an inquisitive hammerhead coming out of the blue to check out the commotion, but deciding it wasn't worth calling his friends.

I noticed at least one grey reef shark during a drift dive, but not close enough to call it a good sighting. Too bad, for these dudes look like real sharks, unlike the not-quite-so-serious-looking white-tips.

Walking critters

Twice I found a big mean looking stonefish basically fully in the open, which is rather unusual as they prefer to dig themselves in the sand or hide themselves among coral outcrops they try very hard to simulate.

In front of the water bungalows jetty an artificial reef consisting of wooden structures and hollow concrete blocks is a good place to look for frogfish, several of which have made it their home as it attracts a lot of small fish seeking refuge. There're at least three rusty red frogfish pretending to be harmless sponges. Mika, a Japanese dive master, also found a yellow clown frogfish for us. The cutest little (10cm) thing I've ever seen. It kept trying to walk away from us using its fin-feet, in the most comical cartoonlike way. The next day we witnessed a bigger black frogfish doing the same slow-motion wobbly moon-walk down a sandy slope. While slowly gulping in water as if out of breath. What a wonderful world!


Also around Mabul, two small flamboyant cuttlefish were crawling over the sand, maybe in order not to be blown away by the current, after in vain having tried to get away from us big madly flashing monsters. The comparatively big reef cuttlefish also shows up now and then.

Lisa, a Philippina dive master and probably the best spotter of the dive resort, dug up a devil scorpion fish out of the sand (using her handy pointing stick). After which it crawled around on its claw-like fins, seeking a more peaceful place.


On several occasion we saw leaf fish, some yellow, some black. They're another "I'm not there" kind of pretender found in various locations.

Crocodilefish, big and small, can be seen on most dives around Mabul, usually on sandy bottoms, but I also got to shoot a picture of one perched on top of a coral boulder.

Besides the above mentioned critters, we also saw nudibranchs, ribbon eels, snake eels, moray eels, mantis shrimp, cleaner shrimps, colony shrimps, anemone crabs, octopus, lobster, cowry shell, etc. And, though I didn't see them, there are mandarin fish both around Mabul & Kapalai.

Semporna - Tawau

We spent two nights drying out & off-gassing in Semporna, a harbor town with an impressive fishing fleet of small-medium sized boats, all setup with large arrays of big lights for attracting fish.

The boats' fishing lights are clearly visible at night from Mabul's beach, and slightly annoying when you just want to gaze at the starry Milky Way.

Semporna, though not what I'd call a nice place, is worth a look around, if only to get some local flavor and a sense of daily life, especially around the market place, but also in the town's commercial streets.

The first night we stayed in the Dragon Inn, a picturesque place built on stilts above the water. Standard rooms, placed in long rows, only cost 66 RM for two including a very basic breakfast, but are not very pleasant, being rather dark and way too musty for me. The huge stand-alone VIP bungalows, at 135 RM are nicer, but offer no peace from the constant roaring of outboards cruising by, nor from the nearby mosque's early morning chants.

So we moved to the new Seafest Hotel for our second night, which besides actually being cheaper, at 97 RM for two, offers modern comfort, satellite TV and a nice buffet breakfast. A delicious buffet dinner in the hotel set us back 14 RM pp. Otherwise you can have a decent lunch for 5 RM. A can of soda or a 1,5l bottle of water cost 1,5 RM only.