After our Kinabalu trek, we were very much looking forward to our 10 hour bus ride to Semporna the following day. We got into Semporna, the ocean-front town which is the jumping off point for diving in Sipadan (many people also stay on the island of Mabul, halfway between Semporna and Sipadan, but the lodging there is much more expensive, so we opted out of that, which as explained below, ended up being a great decision) just in time to check in to our dive shop before they closed for the night.
Sipadan is known to be one of the top 5 dive sites in the world. People say that when you jump into the water you see so many sharks, turtles, etc. that you can’t even keep track. They also say that there is so much ocean life all around you that when you get under water, you have no idea where to look first. To dive Sipadan, you need a permit (there are 120 issued per day). Each dive company that runs dives there has a certain number of said permits per day. So, these permits are not easy to come by and in order to secure one, you need to book your trip months in advance. The way it works with Sipadan dive packages is that you book with a company and in order to dive Sipadan, you need to book at least 3 nights at the dive shop’s hotel and multiple days of diving, only one of which is guaranteed to be Sipadan (most companies actually require 3 days of diving and 9 dives, but we found the only one that would let us do only 2 days/6 dives). There are tons of other dive sites and islands around the area so your other days will be at one of those.
A few days before our arrival in Semporna, we heard news of a shooting/kidnapping of some local police officers by Filipino pirates on Mabul island, the island I mentioned that many divers like to stay at halfway between mainland Semporna and Sipadan.
After looking into it a great deal and contacting our dive shop to see what they had to say, we were confident that we wouldn’t be in any danger and our dives at Sipadan would still be running. The owner of the dive shop assured us that we’d be completely safe, the shop took every safety precaution, and even though there was a sea-wide curfew at 6pm meaning no boats could be out on the ocean after dark (as this is when the incident occurred), the town of Semporna itself had no curfew. He told us that there was tons of increased security on the water and we really had nothing to worry about. We felt good about it after talking to him (plus, after a year of being in Bangkok during the protests, we know that these things can be a little bit exaggerated). We did, however, thank our lucky stars that we weren’t staying on Mabul where the kidnapping/shooting occurred (Dave had originally been very upset that we couldn’t stay there and had to stay on the mainland instead).
When we booked our dive package, we had been told that our first day of diving would be around an island called Sibuan and our second day would be at the famous Sipadan. When we got to the dive shop to check in, we wanted to confirm our dives for the next two days. Much to our surprise and delight, the owner at the shop told us that there had been some cancellations because of the pirate incident and therefore, we’d actually be diving at Sipadan for both of our days. We felt like we’d found the golden ticket, won the lottery, all of that. There were lots of other divers going to different sites, but for some reason, they’d chosen us as the lucky ones to get the extra permits. What good luck – this whole pirate situation was really working out in our favor! 🙂
From what we’d read about the town of Semporna itself, it was nothing to write home about. Our guide book said that if you have to go there, don’t plan to stay very long (in fact, it said that even staying over for one night would be too much). We weren’t too worried as we knew we’d be diving all day and would probably be exhausted at night, and plus we’d rather be on the mainland than on an island with the whole pirate situation. Fortunately however,, we were very pleasantly surprised with Semporna. The hotel our dive shop put us up at was really nice (for our standards, at least) and the few blocks surrounding it had lots of cute little shops and restaurants. There was even a whole row of great seafood/Chinese places right around the corner on the water. Per our dive shop owner’s recco, we ate at one called Fat Mom’s on our first night. It was so good and the owner (we wondered if he was the “fat mom”) was so friendly and helpful that we ended up going back on our second night as well. We had fish, some Chinese chicken dishes (sweet and sour, etc) and the most amazing Asian fried noodles we’ve ever had.
We spent our next two days doing the best diving we’ve ever done. Nothing really even can compare (though we did have some great dives in the Gilli Islands a few weeks earlier). Everything that we had heard about Sipadan was completely true – you get down there and really don’t know where to look first because there’s so much going on. In fact, even before we jumped into the water on our very first dive, we saw giant sea turtles coming up to the surface for air (they need to come up for air about every 30 minutes). That’s when we knew this place would be great. We were seeing turtles even before we got into the water.
After our 2nd of 6 dives, we had already lost count of all the sharks and turtles we’d seen, plus countless other species of fish. We have no idea how this place got to be so filled with amazing underwater life – Actually we do know – when you’re on the island of Sipadan, which is 36 km away from Semporna, you walk out into the water and for about 10 meters it’s up to your knees. Then all of the sudden, there is a drop of 600 meters. Around the whole island is an amazing wall, 600 meters or 1,800 feet deep, covered with amazing coral, all of which the sea creatures can feed on. And that is how this magical little underwater oasis came to be. Throughout our time there, we literally felt like we were swimming in an aquarium or on a ride that you kind of just float through (the current pulls you along) to see some of the world’s coolest marine life. It was spectacular. Unlike Mt. Kinabalu, which left us feeling very disappointed, Sipadan was completely worth the trip and the money.
During our two days there, we had 6 dives at 5 different sites. We saw (and I quote from our log books) hundreds of white tip sharks and sea turtles, schools of thousands of jack fish and barracudas, humphed wrasse, garden eels, lion fish, bump head parrot fish, clown trigger fish, grey sharks, moray eels, and tons of other species of fish that we can’t even name. If you don’t know what any of these things are, look them up, as they are all very beautiful and amazing.
Of the 5 different dive sites we visited around Sipadan, Barracuda Point (the most popular) was the by far the best. This is the site where there were so many different things around, it was almost overwhelming because you didn’t know where to look. Several times in your dive there would be several or more sharks, turtles, and other big creatures all within 10 meters or so. This was the site where I went through my air the fastest both times we went there because I was so excited and breathing so heavily the whole time.
The only site that was a little disappointing was mid reef. We did our first dive there, saw loads of turtles, but that was really it. When we were done with that dive I was so worried that Sipadan wouldn’t be worth all the money but thankfully, right after that we dove Barracuda Point. We also Dove Turtle Patch, South Point, and Drop Off. At all of them we saw lots of sharks and turtles, some really beautiful coral, and tons of other sea life. Again, overall, the diving was spectacular. And we feel so lucky that we were able to dive there for two days as opposed to just one which is the norm for everyone else. The only downside is that now, after diving there, it will be very hard or probably impossible to beat. But, I guess that’s a good problem to have.
In Semporna, when we weren’t busy diving, and after getting home after 5 every day from our dives, we had the next part of our trip to plan to Sandakan/Sepillok to see the famous orangutans of Borneo (the most popular place on Earth to see orangutans in their natural habitat). The biggest holiday here (Hari Raya), which celebrates the end of Ramadan, just happened to fall on the one day we needed to leave. This meant that no buses were running that day. We were short on time as it was, so we couldn’t waste a day just sitting around Semporna waiting for a bus (plus there would have been nothing to do for a whole day; the whole town revolves around scuba diving, at least for tourists). The only other options were a) try to arrange a ride with a local van or even just a local heading in that direction, or b) book a flight. We looked into option (a) but the vans wanted to charge us close to $150. Considering we could both fly for around $100, and we also found a couple from our dive trip to split the taxis to/from the airport with, this seemed like the better option. The only caveat was that the flight was on Malaysia Airlines (how in the world this airline is still running I know not). We went back and forth as to what we should do but considering the flight was only 40 minutes (and domestic) and the other option was basically hitchhiking, we opted for the flight. Fortunately, when we got to the airport, we found out that the flight wasn’t even really on Malaysia Airlines, instead it was on MAS Wings (perhaps a subsidiary or something).
After a pretty disappointing trek to Kinabalu, we were so happy that Sipadan ended up being so amazing. Plus, we had heard such great things about the orangutan rehabilitation center we were about to visit in Sepillok, and we were also able to arrange a 1 night/2 day tour on the Kinabatangan river (staying in a jungle lodge with an afternoon and morning river boat cruise and a jungle night walk, where we were supposed to see a plethora of wildlife, which is Borneo’s main claim to fame), so things in Borneo were really starting to look up for us!