Posted by: Tommy | July 15, 2011

Sipadan – arguably the best diving in the world

When we originally put Malaysia on the list of countries we’d visit on this trip, it was because of an Anthony Bourdain food special that Anna watched.  The food looked really good – on par with Vietnam or Thailand (or at least, our preconceptions of Thailand and Vietnam before we left).  During the year, as we figured out that scuba diving was something we both tremendously enjoyed, Malaysia took on a new level of excitement.  Off the coast of Borneo lies tiny Sipadan Island, home to 5 of the top 100 dive sites in the world (according to with a 6th just a few minutes away.

Welcome to Sipadan!

In order to keep Sipadan as pristine as possible, the Malaysian government limits the number of divers allowed there to 120 per day.  Since we pretty much book everything last minute, we had to check with 11 dive companies before we found one that could guarantee us 1 day at Sipadan during our time in Malaysia, then we built our whole trip around that day – July 11th.  The dive shop turned out to be phenomenal – so much so that Anna’s writing about it for next week (and I say that even after we had our first stolen item of the entire trip there – my brand-new rashguard that I’d bought specifically for Sipadan.  The shop was kind enough to not charge me for a rental wetsuit during our stay.)

The 6th site that I mentioned above was actually the house reef for this dive shop, so we ended up diving there twice – plus at 4 of the 5 Sipadan sites.  The first day, we dove an orientation dive around the house reef (short, not that exciting) before eating lunch and heading to Mabul Island for an afternoon dive.  That dive showed us what we should expect for the rest of the day – previously we’d seen sea turtles while diving a total of 3 times – once each in Thailand, Egypt and the Philippines.  On our first dive in Malaysia, we saw 8 turtles!

Tommy and a Turtle

That was it for the first day – we settled into our room and prepared for the following day – dives scheduled for 8 am.  It rained all morning, so the visibility wasn’t great.  Anna’s ankle was hurting pretty bad – the day before we’d had to get up early to fly from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, then take a van to Semporna, fill out paperwork with the dive company, then take another van to a boat and then get to the room.  Any travel day like that means lots of standing and walking.  Added to the afternoon dives, she was hurting a lot.  So I went alone for the first dive – it was overcast and sprinkling, so the visibilty underwater wasn’t great.  Still, we saw a frog fish, a banded sea snake, moray eels, lots of clownfish, a Peacock Mantis Shrimp and an octopus.

The elusive, very strange Frog fish


The peacock mantis shrimp can actually break bones in your fingers if you get too close to it.

We headed back to the shop for our surface interval, where I went to check on Anna.  She was feeling better and joined us for the rest of the day.  On our second dive, we saw 3 more turtles, as well as some cuttlefish (something I’d never seen before, except for sale in the market).  After lunch, we went back for one more dive, definitely our worst dive in Malaysia – nothing bad happened ( no triggerfish, no spraining anything) but nothing spectacular happened either, which was rare for Malaysian diving.  We were pretty beat after those 3, so we rested for the rest of the day.  A Chinese guy in our group had a camera and shared these photos with me.  We went to bed early, ready to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning (5:30!) for the day at Sipadan.

There were 10 divers in our group for Sipadan – a little too large for our taste, as the interesting bits of the dive tend to get crowded.  But almost everyone was fun – two people spoke no English and one guy was a ranting, clueless idiot.  There were two dive instructors from Taiwan, a father and son, who helped everyone a lot.  One girl from Denmark who’d just completed her Open Water course and was diving for fun for the first time.  One Chinese guy who also had a camera (thanks to Tong for the rest of the pictures in this post) and a Malaysian girl.  And the aforementioned ranting idiot from New Zealand, who was extremely friendly when he wasn’t crusading against the “tyrannical” method of letting the divemaster (you know, the guy who lives here and dives Sipadan every day as his job) choosing the best sites, instead of the “democratic” method of letting us pick them (nevermind that we were always asked where we wanted to go and had no constructive suggestions, since none of us had ever been there before) or trying to convince everyone that the best thing for each dive would be to dive for 20 minutes at one site – if we hadn’t seen (insert the thing that site is most famous for – sharks, turtles, barracuda, etc.) in 20 minutes, then we’d all surface, take off our gear, get back in the boat, go to another site, put our gear back on and then continue the dive for another 20 minutes in a new location (seriously, that’s what he wanted to do.  If you dive, you know that’s ridiculous.  And impractical.  We all thought he was joking, until he insisted he wasn’t joking.  Then we had to explain to him why that wasn’t a good idea.  He kept lobbying for it the rest of the day, anyway).

We had perfect weather that morning as we left the resort for the 20 minute trip to Sipadan Island.  We got registered at the guard booth and were ready to go.  Our first dive, at Coral Gardens, would be the only dive of the day not listed on the top 100 list.  And it was great.  3 turtles, 2 white tip sharks, a black tip shark and huge schools of massive bumphead parrotfish.  And 60 ft. of visibility – perfect.

Bumphead parrotfish - weird...and huge.


White Tip Shark

After the dive, we headed back to the island for an hour of breakfast.  The pre-packed breakfast included both Asian and Western breakfast options, so after I ate my breakfast, I went around to most of the Asian folks and ate the Western part of their breakfast.  Delicious!  We headed to Hanging Garden next, for what turned out to be, in my opinion, the best dive we’ve ever done.  We started out the 45 minute dive by going 100 ft. underwater to look for hammerhead sharks (Kat, our leader, heard that a group had seen them schooling at the site earlier in the day).  We didn’t find any, but we did find dozens of white tip, black tip and grey reef sharks.  After 20 minutes of looking at sharks, we went shallower and headed back to the reef wall.  There, we saw turtles galore!  At least a dozen, maybe more.  So many we lost count.  And they’d just swim right up to you – at some point, I reached out and touched the shell of one (lightly, I don’t think it noticed).  We saw giant tuna, several different pufferfish, some lobster and a massive ray swimming above us, silhouetted by the sun.  All in all, an incredible 45 minutes that made the price of Sipadan worth it.

Swimming sea turtle

Anna didn’t enjoy that dive as much as I did – her ankle was hurting too much.  We ended up staying on the boat for the surface interval while everyone else hung out on the beach or snorkeled in the shallow water.  She elevated her ankle for the hour, took some Advil and felt better afterwards.  Which was good, because for the 3rd dive we were heading to Barracuda Point, the #3 divesite in the world according to the Top 100 list.

And it didn’t disappoint.  Anna now lists Barracuda Point as her favorite dive of all time.  Half a dozen turtles, a ton of sharks – more than 20, a huge school of Great Barracuda, some non-attacking triggerfish and a school of Jackfish.  It was very relaxed, but we didn’t go more than 4 minutes without seeing something mind-blowing.  The water was warm, the visibility was incredible (25 meters, 75 feet) After an exciting 45 minute dive, we headed back for lunch.  Seaventures (our dive shop) includes 3 dives in their Sipadan day, but gives you the option to pay for an extra boat trip in the afternoon that includes 2 more dives and is cheaper the more people that go.

Barracuda at Barracuda Point

At lunch, we sat with our diving group from the day and discussed the extra trip.  7 wanted to go (the Taiwanese dive instructors, Camilla the Danish girl, us and New Zealand campaigner guy and his son, who’d skipped the morning with an earache). Kat gave us our choice of sites, but I couldn’t remember the name of the others on the list so we asked him to pick (again, upsetting the Kiwi campaigner – who had no better options, but still wasn’t satisfied).  Kat suggested Southpoint and Turtle Cavern – and we agreed (well, most of us did.)

Southpoint’s visibility was a little worse (12 meters) but we still saw 4 turtles, more than 20 sharks – white tip, black tip and reef sharks.
Goat fish, large tunas, and huge schools of barracuda, parrotfish, some
puffers and bannerfish.  We also saw several of what we called “3
pattern fish” – making a note to look them up in the book when we got
back that evening.

Anna was heartbroken to learn that her favorite fish - our "three pattern fish" is properly known as "Clown Triggerfish" - a species of her least favorite fish.

Turtle Cavern, the next dive, would be our last at Sipadan.  We’d read about the Turtle Cavern ahead of time – it’s a huge cave where, inexplicably, turtles go to die.  It’s filled with turtle skeletons.  We couldn’t go all the way inside the cave – that requires special training and gear – but we could go in the first 30 feet or so and see a few things.  Anna says, “It seemed kind of eerie and pirate-y”.

About half way through the dive, Kat and I were swimming at the front of the group and saw a HUGE turtle land on a small sandy platform sticking out from the wall.  We’d seen a lot of turtles on these sorts of platforms, mostly sleeping.  But this one had a small swim-through right next to it, so Kat descended a bit and swam through.  I decided that if he did it, I could do it too, so I followed him. One problem though – he had startled it and as I was swimming through, it decided to leave.  There was barely room for the two of us (mostly him, he was bigger than me) in the small passage – so when Anna and the rest of the group caught up to us, it looked like I was “riding” on the back of the turtle as we both exited the hole.  I wish I had a picture of that!

The rest of the dive was uneventful until the final 10 minutes, when we came upon a 1000+ school of jackfish near the surface.  Kat was well in front and as we came up to him, he was encircled by this giant mass of shimmering silver fish.  They were circling all around him – and then started circling around us.  We played with them for about 10 minutes, swimming as quickly as possible into what looked like a solid wall of fish, having it part elegantly and then close quickly around us.  Joe, one of the Taiwanese instructors, got a video of the whole interaction.  We watched it later and saw each individual diver surrounded by their own group of hundreds of silver, shiny 18 inch fish.  And that ended our time at Sipadan.  As we surfaced, we were all raving about the interaction of the final dive.

Tons of jackfish

When we got back to the shop, I pulled out the laptop to look at the top 100 list and compare it to the dives we did.  I was thrilled to see that Kat had taken us to 4 of the 5 divesites on the list.  This didn’t make Mr. New Zealand happy – he looked at the list over my shoulder, then responded “yeah, but who makes that list, anyway?”.  He taught us a valuable lesson – it’s not a good idea to be that guy. He was so concerned about “getting his money’s worth out of Sipadan (his explanation for wanting to see 10 divesites for 20 minutes each)” that he didn’t take into account what the rest of the group wanted to do and he didn’t trust the fabulous dive shop to do anything but screw him.

That night, 7 of us, with Anna sitting out (ankle) and replaced by Matt (an Aussie that Anna and I made friends with) decided to go for a night dive at the house reef to top off a 6 dive-day. We were all exhausted after that, doing directly to bed after dinner.  Anna and I would have 2 dives the next morning before catching our boat-bus combo back to Tawau and the end of our Sipadan adventure.

On those two dives, at Kapalai and Mabul islands, we saw a lot of small fish.  Pipefish, frog fish, several of the peacock mantis shrimps, some lobsters, a pygmy seahorse!, and the coolest thing we saw that day – the orangutan crab.

The hairy Orang Utan Crab

All in all, our Sipadan adventure was rightfully the highlight of our Malaysian experience so far and the best dives we’ve ever done (sorry, Dahab).  Next up for diving, one day on the Great Barrier Reef, then 5 weeks in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Us, underwater.


  1. So very, very, cool. I’m very jealous. I sure hope Anna’s ankle heals up soon.

  2. Jealous

  3. Reading along on your adventures has been very cool, and you two are having some awesome experiences. But really, rub in the diving experience, along with awesome pictures. lol
    The diving looks so clear and awesome, it must have been incredible for you two.
    Continue to have great adventures and be safe.


  4. Thanks for sharing, the pictures are awesome!

    Aunt Sandy

  5. Those “Us, underwater” fish look familiar. I think I have seen them in Cedar Creek Lake at Gun Barrel City, Texas.

    Looks like a terrific experience. Glad you got some pictures from the other divers.

  6. Awesome . . .but what is it witih you and sharks???

  7. Love the picture of you two! What a great coup to have gotten that. And the diving sounds soooo amazing. Sharks — whew! That you are not afraid makes me feel only a little better.

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