Sipidan, Malaysia

AWESOMENESS!Our relative measure of how cool this place is. COST$ = cheap $$$$$ = resort TRAVEL TIMEEstimate of how long a round trip here from California would take TRAVEL DIFFICULTYHow much effort to get here? "Low" is hop on a plane and the resort picks you up. "High" is hitchiking in a foreign language DIVINGIf there is diving here, how good is it?
good $$$$ 4 day easy very good

Jacques Cousteau doomed beautiful Pulau Sipidan some 30 years ago when he called it "an untouched piece of art". Well, it is now touched, but still a beautiful spot. The famous island itself sits in a deep water channel, attracting some bigger fish, while nearby Pulau Mabul and Kapalai reef are home to wonderful macro (little stuff) diving. I was actually a bit down on Sipidan when we left because I was so sick of whitetip sharks and turtles. In retrospect, that seems awefully greedy...


Little Pulau Sipidan sits just off the south-eastern coast of Malaysian Borneo (aka Sabah). It is not an easy spot to get to, but people do and in droves. Up until 2004 or so, the island hosted several resorts. Then the island was reclaimed for "preserve" status and the resorts were forced to move off the island. Then in 2006, a barge full of building material crashed into the reef. seems the government wants to build their own resort here! That dream seems stalled for now, but the government maintains a visible military presence on the island itself, possibly related to previous tourist kidnappings in the area.
Today, you stay either on one of the nearby islands or even on the mainland and visit Sipidan by permit. Most of the resorts are on nearby Mabul Island, but there is also a beautiful water bungalow resort on equally close Kapalai Reef. Staying on the mainland is less expensive, but just wouldn't be as magical as staying at closer by. You'd also lose the sunset and night dive options. Both Mabul and Kapalai have excellent macro diving that complement the sights of Sipidan very well. The resort dive scheme is to do two dives at Sipidan and then another one or two at Mabul/Kapalai each day.

The Diving

Sipidan offers clear water, with good wall and valley topography. Coral was ok, but not spectacular. And I wasn't kidding when I said I was tired of whitetips and turtles. They are everywhere and on every dive. We saw a bit of schooling barracuda, but not like we have in Mexico or even Derawan. There is a 5am dive to see schooling bumphead parrotfish that we didn't do, but we've heard that it's not a good sighting anymore and I don't think our groups that went even saw them. We actually passed on Sipidan our last day to do more macro diving under the Sea Venture rig. There is some macro to be seen at Sipidan, but it is nothing compared to Mabul/Kapalai. At Mabul/Kapalai, we spotted frogfish, cuttlefish, pipefish, nudibranches and more. It's not like the Lembeh Strait, but it is quite good macro. The area is a bit famous for the beautiful mandarin fish and we saw plenty of them. These cute little guys hide in rocky reefs and come up sunset to do a mating dance. Very cool.

Practical Matters

Getting There

Sipidan isn't fun to get to. The most straight forward way is to fly through Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabulu and then Tawau. From Tawau, the resorts run buses that take you an hour out to the port of Semporna. And then it's an hour speedboat ride to Mabul/Kapalai. The Roach Reef artificial island is just off Tawau, so it's a bit easier, I suppose. But it's an artificial island... Regardless, it's really worth the effort to get the very best timing you can in flights. Even then, you're most likely stranded for a night somewhere along the way.

Staying There

There's a few options here. The nicest are to stay in the Kapalai or Mabul resorts. I would go back to Kapalai just as a resort, it's so beautiful. The bungalows are absolutely massive and well apart from each other. The expansive decks have wonderful private views of the ocean and reef right below you. And the house reef is really quite good.
Sea Venture is just as great, but in a totally different way. It is not pretty, not pristine and not what you'd call a resort. It's an oil rig service platform (looks like an oil rig to you or me) converted into a dive lodge. It is most excellent and adventurous with amazing macro diving right underneath. Best part is the giant external elevator that moves you between the main deck and the waves.
The next step are the guest houses on Mabul. I don't know much about them, but they would have the same dive access to Sipidan, Kapalai and Mabul. They are certainly much cheaper than the resorts, but it would be a shame to come all the way out here and not spring for romantic Kapalai or adventurous SeaVenture.
After that are the further reaches of the Semporna dive lodges (which I haven't heard good things about, but you never know) or outlying resorts like manmade Roach Reef. All I can really say is that I absolutely loved both Kapalai and Sea Venture.
On a diving note, I wasn't happy at all with the Kapalai organization or staff. They were fairly disorganized and made several egregious mistakes (like dropping everyone into the water in the wrong place on their home reef!), had terrible briefings and weren't very good guides. But it was still worth it for the resort. The Sea Venture dive operation was run by a western divemaster and considerably better.