Sipidan Island in Malaysia’s state of Sabah is regularly ranked as one of the world’s best dive destinations. This small island, formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, is one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
Giant green sea turtles and hawksbills, tornadoes of barracudas, and large groups of hammerhead sharks are just some of the marine life you can expect to find on a dive at Sipadan Island.
Diving here is nothing short of a dream. In this post, I’ll go over what you need to know to plan the best diving trip to Sipadan Island.
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What to Expect from Sipadan
As we approached the idealistic island from the boat, I couldn’t get over how clear the surrounding water was. We saw so many turtles swimming in the water below!
The island is gorgeous, and relaxing on it during your breaks between dives is nice. It reminded me of the white-sand beaches in Mexico. But what makes a trip to Sipadan special is the vast amount of marine life you can find below the water.
If you don’t dive, Sipadan is also an excellent spot for snorkeling/freediving, as the shallow part of the reef close to the island is less than 5m deep, where you can see giant turtles, corals, clams, and reef sharks.
Marine life at Sipadan
There is so much marine life to see diving in Sipadan. Massive green sea turtles and hawksbill, parrotfish, sharks, morays, and vortexes of Barracudas are all in one dive.
More than 3000 fish species and hundreds of coral species have been classified in the waters surrounding Sipadan. It is common for a diver to see more than 20 turtles on a single dive.
Dive Sites Around Sipadan Island
Sipadan has twelve dive sites, each with distinctive coral and aquatic life views. With limited dive permits, the dive shops do their best to maximize your chance to dive.
This means you will likely have three or four dives a day planned, and the currents are strong, so rest well the night before. On my visit, we explored these three different dive sites.
Mid Reef was the first dive of the day. I wasn’t that impressed with this dive site, given Sipadan’s reputation, but afterward, our guide told me that he took us there to see our skill level before the other dives.
Mid Reef had fantastic coral formations with black corals, sea fans, and knotted fan corals covering the slopes. I also saw white-tip reef sharks cruising in small groups in the shallows. The dive lasted 52 minutes with an average depth of 19.7m.
Barracuda Point is regularly ranked amongst the top five dive sites in the world. When we started this dive, I began to understand why Sipadan is so famous.
This dive site has a great barracuda shoal where you can see thousands in a tornado-like formation. It was so much fun swimming through them! I also saw many sharks and turtles at Barracuda Point. The entire dive was 50 mins with an average depth of 16.2m.
South Point Sipadan is famous for its fantastic wall of coral formations and larger marine life, such as manta rays and hammerhead sharks. It’s a deep wall dive with the wall dropping vertically into the depths. The dive lasted 38 minutes with an average depth of 15.5m.
How to get a permit to go diving at Sipadan Island
Only 120 permits are issued to the 12 surrounding resorts daily, with the larger resorts getting more permits. Each permit allows you to dive one day at Sipadan Island, and you will have to apply again for a second one if you want to dive more than one day.
If you want to dive at Sipadan Island for multiple days and do not have your dives booked in advance, you should plan to stay anywhere from 4 to 14 days to apply for multiple Sipadan permits while there.
The application for permits is done on your behalf by the dive shop. If you plan to dive in Sipadan, arrange your dive/permit as early as possible, even months in advance if you go during peak season.
In my case, I got very lucky. My trip to Borneo was already last-minute, and while I was in Sandakan, I heard about Sipadan from a girl at my hostel.
Being just a few hours from one of the top dive sites in the world, I decided to try and go. I started frantically e-mailing dive shops and thankfully got a last-minute permit. But, I didn’t love the shop that I dived with.
If I had my time back, I would have planned further ahead so I could have gone with a more reputable dive shop and stayed on one of the nearby islands rather than Semporna, which brings me to the next point.
Where to stay while diving at Sipadan Island
Since you can no longer stay on Sipadan island, the two closest options are to stay at a resort on the islands of Mabul and Kapalai, which are about an hour away. Alternatively, you can stay in the town of Semporna on the mainland.
Staying in Semporna is cheaper, but the town isn’t impressive. I didn’t get a great vibe from Semporna, and had I planned ahead, I would have preferred to stay at Mabul or Kapalai.
While staying on the islands is more expensive, it is a better overall experience.
Sipadan Diving Packages
Due to the popularity of Sipadan, most diving resorts will require you to spend at least two nights there if you go diving with them. Some dive resorts will also require you to do another day of diving at other nearby sites.
Whether you stay on the islands or in the town of Semporna, you need to get to Semporna first, as this is where the boats to the islands leave.
How to get to Semporna
To get to Semporna, fly to Tawau airport. You can get flights to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, or Sandakan. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate daily flights.
Tawau is about 90 minutes from Semporna, and you can take a public bus, taxi, or minibus between the two.
You can also take a bus from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan to Semporna. I was staying in the Kinabatangan River area, so I took a bus to Sandakan and then a bus from Sandakan to Semporna, which took about three hours.
Where to stay in Semporna
I found the town of Semporna uninspiring. As I booked my trip at the last minute, I didn’t have much choice in my dive operator as most places were full. I ended up diving with Sipadan Scuba, which required me to stay at the Holiday Dive Inn for two nights.
There’s nothing special about this place, but it’s sufficient if you’re looking for a cheap place to rest your head.
If you’re booking accommodation on your own for Semporna, here are some options:
Mid-range: Hippo Scuba offers private rooms in a central location near restaurants and shops.
High-end: Dragon Inn Floating Resort is located right on the water near the main pier of Semporna. A few resorts are located around there, and it looks to be the nicest area to stay in town.
Sipidan Diving Tips
Many dive locations are remote, with minimal medical facilities. Accidents do happen, so be prepared. I recommend purchasing travel insurance through SafetyWing for diving, which covers adventure activities like diving.
Diving Certification Required for Sipadan
The shop I dived with required you to be an advanced open-water diver with a minimum of 20 logged dives. Each shop has different requirements, so ask what you need when you book.
Some of the dive sights are drift dives with strong currents, and the water next to the reef is very deep, which can be dangerous for a new diver.
Temperatures throughout the year range between 21 and 32c. The water felt like bath water while I was there, and a thin wet suit was more than enough to keep me warm.
The visibility at Sipadan is not great because of the currents. It can range from 5m to 50m, depending on the day.
Sipadan Diving Season
You can dive in Sipadan all year round, but the best time to go is from April to December. April until early June is high season, so book ahead if you plan to go then. From January to March, there can be heavy rainfall, which may reduce visibility.
History of Sipadan Island
Sipadan is an oceanic island formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct underwater volcano, which rises 60m from the seabed. The area became popular when ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau described it as one of the best dive spots in the world.
In the past, diving resorts were located on Sipadan Island, and divers could stay there. But over time, the reefs and marine life did not cope well with the stress of so many divers.
In 2004, The Malaysian Government told all resorts to relocate away from Sipadan to protect the reefs. Since 2006, a permit is required for all divers, which the government limits to 120 daily. Armed guards strictly police the area.
Is Sipadan worth the cost?
As one of the top-ranked dive sites with limited permits available, Sipadan is by no means a cheap dive. For one day of diving with equipment, I paid over 250 USD. Plus, I had to book two nights at the Holiday Dive Inn.
Still, for me, diving at Sipadan was worth the costs. The vast amount of marine life you can see there is incredible. Barracuda Point is one of the top dives that I’ve done.
Once you dive at Sipadan, it’s easy to see why this place is consistently ranked as one of the top dive sites in the world. My only regret is not planning my stay better so I could have stayed longer and dived more!
More Malaysian Islands
Slow down on the Mantanani Islands with off the north-east coast of Sabah.
Explore the Langkawi Archipelago with over 100 islands off Peninsula Malaysia.
Discover the gem of Penang with great food and beaches just south of Langkawi.
Discover these top destinations in Sabah, staying close and exploring further.
Author Bio: Lora is a full-time digital nomad on a quest to visit every country and pet as many dogs as possible. Over the last 15 years, she has traveled solo to 70+ countries and six continents. She currently calls Puerto Vallarta, Mexico home, where she runs the website Take Me To Puerto Vallarta.