Sipadan Island is famous in the SCUBA world because it remains one of the most pristine underwater adventures on the planet. This is the destination for those who want to see the astonishing views and vividly colored fish usually only found in National Geographic photo shoots. Because of this, the island, located off the Malaysian coast of Borneo and 200 miles south and east of Vietnam, has become a once-in-a-lifetime destination for divers of all kinds.
The island itself is protected and there are no overnight facilities allowed. Malaysian authorities are very sensitive to environmental issues (and they are keen to preserve those resources which generate tourist dollars). But with proper planning, a memorable family vacation can be had in even this remote part of the world.
This is the draw, and here on Mabul (the closest island with facilities) most packages are set up with day trips to dive in mind. Dive trips are regulated and only a limited number are permitted — this needs to be confirmed when reservations are obtained. With top resorts (ranging from$2,000 to $2,500 a week per person US$) this will be included, but it helps to check specifics.
Equipment rental is easy. Pay a little extra to rent from a reputable dive shop or expect to know enough to check out your equipment. From there, day trips to Sipadan leave in the morning and are universally loved.
Expect to be surrounded by clear blue water and more colors than your eyes can register. Sea turtles abound and we have other large reef animals like barracuda, bumphead parrot fish and sharks mixed in with the aquarium-quality “little guys.”
Training is available for new divers who want to try out the experience and some lifelong diving aficionados have been created here on Mabul with just a few classes and a stunning first dip.
I’d like to point out that there are poachers — non-permitted dive boats — who will offer trips and equipment if the price is right. The reason I mention it is that these should be universally avoided. The resorts fight hard to maintain high quality operations and while they do charge more, you don’t want to get caught up in illegal activity. Ask about permits and certifications, especially if you are coming from the main island.
For SCUBA diving, the main attraction, the cut-off is 10 to 12 years of age. This depends somewhat on the physical stature of the child and whether they have experience. The result is that families with very young children need to investigate other activities before they commit to a particular resort.
Resorts usually focus on adults who are after the diving adventure — this is the main selling point for the area. Plan on a split vacation where one adult is left in charge for a non-diving adventure, swapping days to balance things out. There is a transient Philippine population here for the tourist industry and it is also possible to hire a dedicated au-pair to watch very young children.
I have seen, over the years, more and more families arrive here in with the expectation of finding resorts that cater to all age groups. Many were disappointed with the lack of facilities for young children. This is slowly changing, but it needs to be addressed.
That said, there are activities available for younger folks and non-divers. The beaches are wonderful. Many children find exploring and playing in the water enough to occupy their time. Sea kayaking is a neat way to get out on the water (quite shallow) with snorkeling popular as well.
Tourists aren’t expected to be familiar with these activities and instruction is part of the package. You can also take day trips to explore a real jungle and perhaps catch a glimpse of an orangutan. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, on the main island of Borneo, is a popular destination for the adventurous, but this too requires permission and should be set up in advance.
Where to Stay
Resorts are divided into two main types: those that primarily meet the needs of divers and those that are expanding into more family friendly experiences. The first will be on the water (Mabul Island) — sometimes literally, with stilt-legged buildings. They don’t usually have much in the way of non-diving activities (although, even here, snorkeling is popular). With the diving centered places, you may be able to find someone to watch the kids while the parents are away diving, but again, it is important to ask before you book anything.
The second type of resort will be off the sand and usually offer more in the way of family activities. These include volley ball, hiking and boat trips to see wildlife and explore. The main island is five miles away by boat and there are many daytrip style tours available. Again, I would recommend checking ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
What To Expect
Weather is a big issue. If you are going inland, expect it to be hot and humid. Here on the island, the water moderates our temperatures and we usually get a sporadic cloud cover with short, but intense rains. The scenery will knock you over and this is why people come here. Whether it is the teeming underwater life or the raw beauty of unspoiled nature above the waves, the intense colors give visitors a sense of what paradise must be like.
As with any new experience, make sure to do your homework and don’t grab the least expensive offering. For diving fans, an eight-day package will probably just meet their desires. For others, a three- or five-day package will suffice, with the rest of a vacation spent traveling out of Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere in Malaysia or Indonesia.
Jacob Mojiwat is passionate about the ocean and water sports. Currently he is sharing the wonders of diving in malaysia with others. His website, www.asiadivingvacation.com, has comprehensive information about Asian dive locations such as Sipadan Island and the area dive resorts to help diving enthusiasts plan unparalleled scuba diving vacations.
Your mention of dive poach operators is so important as dive tourists need to be aware that these poachers might to a large extent not be certified and thus increasing risk to divers. Keep mentioning this and maybe the poachers could be pushed to start operating in a legal and CERTIFIED way.