“They came from the other side of the island. They were breakaway terrorists, came all the way from the Philippines.” One of my dive partners casually tells me over lunch, as I glance across the beach at the sandbags and the camouflage shrouded gun emplacements of the Malaysian Security Forces. He’s referring to the kidnappings of several locals and foreigners from Sipadan island by Islamic militants, about 15 years before my arrival.

The scene is horribly at odds with the pristine white sand beach and stunning blue water. “They took hostages, took ‘em a while to get them back too. But Malaysia has this area so locked down that there really is nothing to worry about, they even have a 6pm curfew!” “Hmmm I say” still trying to come to terms with juxtaposition of the spectacular beauty and former international terrorism spot.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

I suppose it’s almost to be expected that someone would want to fight over a place like this. I sit on as perfect a beach as can be imagined, in the middle of the Celebes Sea, which separates the islands of Borneo with the tail of islands that swing off the bottom of the Philippines, on the island of Sipadan. This small, flat, green spec in the beautifully clichéd turquoise sea is surrounded by some of the most pristine and untouched islands and coral reefs in Asia. I’m here for one reason and one reason only, to dive as much as possible.

Sharks, turtles, hammerheads, barracuda, octopus. The lists of species so often touted in dive destinations to promote a given scuba tour can go on and on – overselling the experience – and leaving many divers sorely disappointed.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

Sipadan, however, flaunts her underwater diversity in ways I have never seen; it is simply everywhere. You can float still, pushed along by the afternoon currents and drift past anything from giant turtles, to mating sharks, to octopus, to enormous bait balls of barracuda. It is a riot of life and diversity that is sadly missing or in decline on so many reefs. It is truly a gem in the crown of Malaysian Borneo.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

A journey to Sipadan is not for the faint of heart. It is a maze of flights, connections, and rides through the empty swaths of Borneo that are far from relaxing but ultimately well worth the struggle.

Flights to Borneo are numerous and from there you can get to most major cities on the island. The closest flight to Sipadan, however, is from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau. Take a taxi, car, or mini-bus to Semporna, the largest town on the Celebes Sea coast. From here you can coordinate dive trips, tours, or lessons. Some tours operate their own bus service into the town, which will be cheaper than a taxi, and provides a great opportunity to meet other dive enthusiasts.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

While accommodation is a bit of a challenge in Semporna, where your options are limited and more often then not, pretty basic, it’s the ideal spot to base yourself for diving in Sipadan. Keep in mind that you’re there to dive, and your room is good for little more than a place to sleep and dry your gear.

When booking your tours and accommodations online, note that many are based on the island of Mabul. While this is the closest island to Sipadan and might appear as the best home base for your dive trip, it is small, crowded, and features lacklustre accommodations. Also, the northern islands that are easily reachable from Semporna are not accessible from Mabul, a complication as you have to boat to all of your dive sites.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

Dive tours are another tricky hurdle. Online research will give you a broad a range and more varied opinions than can ever be helpful. We dove, stayed, and did classes all with Sipadan Scuba and they were good all around. There are other options like Scuba Junkie, but they are considerably more expensive yet offer both similar dives and courses. As always, it pays to do your research.

Security in the area is very good as well. The threats of the early 2000’s have been dealt with by the Malaysian authorities and your dive guides will have all the local knowledge and knowhow you could ever need. Of course, as is the case in any location, be sensible, respectful and keep an eye on any new situations should they arise.

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

If you’re looking to dive, I could not recommend Sipadan and the Celebes Sea more. It is one of the most incredible locations I, or anyone I spoke with, have ever been to, and should be at the top of any diver’s bucket list.

For a closer look at what it’s like to visit and dive in Sipadan, Borneo, here are a few more of my photos.

Sipadan Borneo Photos

Fish Market Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

Fish Market Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

IMG_8697

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

Diving Sipadan Borneo Malaysia

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James MacDonald

James MacDonald

James MacDonald is a Canadian photographer, photojournalist, cinematographer and multimedia producer who has been bouncing around Asia, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Americas. James first picked up a camera in 2004 following high school, as he traveled and worked his way through Europe. While completing university and working more and more behind a camera, he soon realized that a history and anthropology degree could only hold his interest for so long. Following a year working as the photo and graphics editor for the University of Guelph's newspaper the Ontarion, an internship with Canadian Geographic Magazine in Ottawa, and then an internship with The StarPhoenix in Saskatoon, he moved back to Toronto to begin freelancing full time, and has been lucky enough to be making pictures since. James moved to Asia in the fall of 2013 to continue freelancing, as well as to work on and develop long term regional stories and projects. He is currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experiences. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time and energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.

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Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experience. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time & energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.

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