Sipadan is home to the best diving in Borneo, many say in the world. Famous for massive schools of fish, spiraling barracudas, enormous green turtles and schooling reef sharks, diving in the pumping current here is spectacular. I was very fortunate to stay in this magical area for 3 months doing hundreds of dives. I hope this guide helps or inspires you to explore what the great Jacques Cousteau said about: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more” when he was mesmerized by this place.
For a nice island holiday with beautiful beaches, nice snorkeling and decent diving, the Perhentian islands in Malaysia is fantastic.
Updated Sipadan Dive Regulations 2023 – Sabah Parks tightened dive regulations at Sipadan island in September 2022 – Minimum Advanced Open Water certification required to dive Sipadan, one permit will only allow two dives, instead of three, per day.
What makes Sipadan so spectacular?
The island is a volcanic pinnacle covered in coral, dropping 600 meters straight down to the sea floor. The amount and diversity of marine life here is unbelievable. Many massive green turtles and hawksbill turtles, herds of hundreds of huge bumphead parrot fish, schools of thousands of jackfish and gigantic schools of barracuda (forming a vortex or barracuda tornado around you with some luck) is a typical day at Sipadan. You can really run into almost anything on this sea mount.
For something special diving Sipadan island is hard to beat, Komodo island and Sipadan are my personal favorite dive spots in South East Asia and I have dived many times at both these incredible places.
Sipadan Island Diving – How Does it Work?
Today you can not stay on Sipadan Island, most of the resorts are located on Mabul and Kapalai islands an hour or so away by boat. A permit is required to dive around the island and this is strictly policed by armed guards. Your options are to stay in Semporna town where there is some really cheap accommodation or to stay on the closer Mabul or Kapalai which is more pricey and dive from there.
If you stay on the nearby islands you can do many dives around Mabul and Kapalai everyday and go to Sipadan for one full day, 2 if you are very lucky. The diving around Mabul and Kapalai islands are excellent, very different from Sipadan, but also world class diving.
Up to twelve years ago diving Sipadan must have been an experience that no other location can match. From the main beach to the top of the reef wall it is only about 20 metres. Most of the resorts were located on Sipadan Island until 2004. You could walk out of your room, gear up and jump into the Drop Off!
Unreal for diving but studies showed that the reefs and marine life were not coping with the stress caused by too many divers. The Malaysian Government decided to protect the reefs and informed all resorts to relocate away from Sipadan Island in 2004. Since 2006 a permit is required for all divers wanting to dive around the island.
Live Aboard Diving at Sipadan
The 29m liveaboard, M/V Celebes Explorer, is the only vessel who schedules year round diving cruises and liveaboard diving to the best sites around Sipadan. Do up to 4 dives per day from the only liveaboard boat with Sipadan permits.
Getting to Sipadan
Flight From Kuala Lumpur to Tawau
You first have to get to the town Semporna on Borneo island, there is not much to do here and it is mainly known as the gateway to the surrounding islands. Most people get here by flying from Kuala Lumpur (IATA:KUL) or Kota Kinabalu (IATA:BKI) to the airport in Tawau ( TWU, WBKW), Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate daily flights. From Tawau travel overland to Semporna, there are several options; public bus is the cheapest or you can go by taxi (about $40) or minibus for $25 Transport from Tawau to Semporna town. You can also get from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna by public bus.
The transfer from Tawau to Semporna takes 90 minutes From Semporna, to Mabul Island by resort speed boat takes about 45min.
Accommodation heading to Mabul
Tawau – Country Lodge at Eco Valley Retreat
Semporna – Casa Casa
How to get a Sipadan diving permit
At the time of writing 176 permits are shared by 24 operators each day, larger resorts get more permits. Each permit allows a diver to dive for a day at Sipadan Island.
During peak seasons, when the resorts are full, there could be more than 500 guests collectively in the resorts, 120 permits are not enough on most days. Permits are not issued on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis, but by a rotation system Read Here how the rotation system works.
The most common tips to get a permit are:
- Stay longer at the resort (more than 3 days, long as possible)
- Book as early as possible.
- Avoiding peak seasons.
My main tip Don’t be discouraged. If you do not have a confirmed permit, inquire at all the resorts. I did not have a permit, several people told me I will never get a permit at such short notice, I got more than one offer to dive Sipadan walking to all the resorts.
Resorts and dive schools with Sipadan permits.
- Seaventures Dive Resort
- Borneo Divers Mabul Resort
- Kapalai Pulau Sipadan Resort
- Sipadan Water Village Resort
- Sipadan-Mabul Resort – Mabul Water Bungalows
- Celebes Explorer – Sipadan Liveaboard boat
- Mataking – The Reef Dive Resort
- Roach Reefs Resort
- Billabong Scuba (Bharman Sipadan)
- Borneo Jungle River Island Tours
- Scuba Junkie (Dive Semporna)
- North Borneo Dive
- Asiatic Travel and Tours
- Sen Alijah Travel and Tours
- Bum Bum Borneo Travel and Tours
- Seahorse Sipadan Scuba
- Arung Hayat Sea Adventure
- Noble Inworld Scuba Resort and Tours
- Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge
- Borneo Speed Dive and Tours
- MO Travel and Tours
- Dreamland Discovery
- Oceanic Dive Travel and Tours
- Luxury Megaway Tours
Can beginners dive Sipadan?
This rule recently changed, since September 2022 an advanced dive qualification is a requirement to dive at Sipadan. If you come to Mabul without any dive qualification and you want to dive at Sipadan you will now need at least one week of training to complete both the Open water (3 to 4 days) and Advanced (2 to 3 days) qualifications while diving around Mabul.
For dive training I think Koh Tao Island in Thailand is one of the best spots to go in South East Asia. See our review on Dive Schools on Koh Tao.
Sipadan Diving Package
Due to the limited amount of permits available most dive centers require you to stay with them for a couple of days and dive different sites to get one of their Sipadan permits. All resorts have different Sipadan Diving Packages, these packages are made up of accommodation, Sipadan dives and non-Sipadan dives. Usually you will do the non Sipadan dives around Mabul and Kapalai on these days and dive Sipadan one day, depending on the availability and length of your stay.
We mention for most resorts what the required length of stay is to qualify for a Sipadan permit. The diving on these reefs are excellent with some of the most fantastic and unusual little critters in the ocean. Many frog fish, flamboyant cuttle fish, crocodile fish, ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, sea horses and more can be seen on these world famous muck diving sites.
There are many more amazing places to see when exploring Sabah Borneo! Don’t miss our Complete Guide to Climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest point in Malaysia.
Sipadan is an excellent spot for snorkeling/freediving. The shallow part of the reef, close to the island is less than 5m deep, here you can see many big green turtles close to the surface, spectacular coral, giant clams and herds of massive bumphead parrot fish swim in this shallow water. Reef sharks, thousands of barracudas and big eye jacks swim by close to the edge of where the reef drops in to the deep, they sometimes come quite shallow and you have a good chance of seeing them snorkeling.
If you have some freediving skills and you can snorkel deeper down the wall you will see huge jacks, sharks and game fish.
The problem with finding a snorkeling site is the few permits available, divers and snorkelers use the same permit and since diving is more expensive most operators do not take snorkelers since it is not profitable enough. I know Uncle Chang often took snorkelers along.
Mabul and Kapalai snorkel tour from Semporna
Marine Life around Sipadan
Most experienced divers place Sipadan high on their bucket list. One of the most diverse and protected dive sites in the world with more than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species identified. On a typical day you would see many massive green and hawksbill turtles, the herds of bumphead parrot fish grazing on the reef, white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, the huge residential schools of jackfish and the barracudas are the standard highlight diving at Sipadan
With the pumping currents and pelagic and big animal action many people never even really look down, but the coral, variety of nudibrances, small reef fish and massive cucumbers and sea stars, moray eels, lion fish and more on the reef around Sipadan are truly spectacular.
With a bit of luck you can run into just about anything diving here.
Whale Sharks – swimming with these enormous creatures is a bucket list item for many divers. They are not often seen around Sipadan. Want to know more about diving with Whale Sharks in the Philippines ?
Sipadan Island resorts
Since Pulau Sipadan is a protected area all Sipadan resorts are located on nearby islands of Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking. The cheapest way to dive here is to stay in the town of Semporna (not a very exciting place). You can still dive at Sipadan even if the resort you are staying at does not have permits. The resorts often organize for you to dive with another operator that has permits.
Instructors and dive leaders at all resorts come and go, read recent reviews.
Budget Sipadan Diving Resorts
Uncle Chang Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge
- 6 Sipadan Diving permits
- TripAdvisor 28% Excellent out of 357 reviews
Uncle Chang’s is a budget resort and one of the cheapest places to dive with on Mabul. This locally owned wooden lodge is built on stilts over the sea. There is a variety of accommodation, dorm rooms, double, family rooms and seaview chalets available. I worked as an instructor here for 3 months a couple of years ago. It is a budget lodge, read recent TripAdvisor reviews, there were some very competent instructors and dive masters working with me at the time. You can get a permit to dive Sipadan without diving a minimum amount of days as is required by many resorts.
- 6 Sipadan Diving permits
- TripAdvisor 24% Excellent out of 305 reviews
Billabong Scuba is homestay chalets built over the ocean and is another budget resort. Rooms vary between basic and more luxury with on-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning. Another resort where you can get a permit to dive Sipadan without having to dive Mabul and Kapelai for a couple of days with them.
Mid-range Mabul resorts
Seaventures Dive Rig Resort
- 10 Sipadan permits
- Best Rated according to TripAdvisor reviews with 69% excellent from 619 reviews
Seaventures is a Dive Resort with a difference, made from a converted oil rig offering the perfect location for non-stop diving. Here everything is about diving with unlimited diving at the excellent dive site below the rig, just take the lift down and jump in. Seaventures is a PADI 5* IDC Resort offering technical diving, cave diving is done at Sipadan’s famous Turtle Tomb! The resort has 28 air-con twin and double rooms and 2 larger VIP Family rooms. To qualify to get a Sipadan permit you have to stay with them for at least 3 days.
Scuba Junkie/Mabul Beach Resort
- 6 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 68% excellent from 1021 reviews
Scuba Junkie is one of a short chain of dive resorts. I stayed in Scuba Junkie on Mabul for 2 or 3 days and paid their bar frequent visits staying on Mabul. The resort caters for backpackers with dormitory accommodation, but it is more expensive than the budget resorts and are closer to western standards.The Mabul resort consists of 24 ensuite rooms situated on the beachfront. Scuba Junkie also operates Scuba Junkie Backpackers based in Semporna. The resort is one of the more eco-friendly on the island with green waste systems, solar energy and using biodegradable products. You have to stay a minimum of 3 nights to dive Sipadan with Scuba Junkie.
Borneo Divers Mabul Dive Resort
- 12 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 39% excellent from 305 reviews
Borneo Divers is a medium budget resort with 30 tropical-themed chalets each with clean, big rooms. The resort has a nice garden and beautiful white beach and a popular house reef, your stay includes unlimited shore dives here from the jetty. The private beach in front of the resort is a great place for swimming, snorkeling or for sunbathing, with the added luxury of a swimming pool area and a jacuzzi.To dive Sipadan with Borneo Divers you have to stay with them for 3 nights.
Luxury Resorts for Sipadan diving
Sipadan-Mabul Resort (SMART)
- 14 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 32% excellent from 40 reviews
Sipadan Mabul Resort is a luxury resort located on a beautiul white sandy beach on the south east side of Mabul, the resort has 45 beautifully designed wooden air-con chalets. The resort has two distinct sections, the Water Bungalows which are beautiful and expensive or the Chalets which are nice and reasonable. Sipadan-Mabul Resort is a PADI Gold Palm Resort. The dive centre also offers TDI technical diving courses. There is unlimited shore diving from the jetty and the local house reef offers some fantastic muc diving. Other facilities at the resort include a swimming pool, a jacuzzi whirlpool spa, massage services and ocean kayaking equipment for rent.
Kapalai Dive Resort
- 12 Sipadan permits
- TripAdvisor 65% excellent from 620 reviews
Kapalai Dive Resort is a luxury water village built on stilts over the sandbanks of the Ligitan reefs and located only a short ride by boat from Mabul islands From this comfortable, sunny water village there is no land in sight, you can walk or sunbath alone on a mile-long sandbank at the resort. The local house reef offers excellent diving, with many big fish, Moray eels and fantastic macro life ghost pipe fish and frog fish.
There are many black tip reef sharks swimming all around the island.
Sipadan diving season
Diving at Sipadan is fantastic all year round.
- The best time is from April to December with excellent sea conditions. April until early of June being the perfect time but this is also the High season so make resort bookings in advance.
- From January to March, there can be heavy rainfall and lower visibility.
Sipadan Island Dive Sites
There are 11 commonly dived sites around Sipadan island, all are Wall Dives. The following are brief descriptions of some of the sites and marine life you can expect to see.
Right against the shore, about 10m away the wall here drops 600m straight to the sea bottom, when there were still resorts on the island this was the best shore dive in the world. A huge variety of coral, many turtles abound and a multitude of lionfish & smaller reef dwelling fish live on this wall. The entrance to the turtle cave is at about 20m down on this site. This incredible cave goes all the way through the island. To be explored you need cave training. There is resident Giant Barracuda and some white tips that can sometimes be found close to the entrance. There is a massive resident school of thousands of Big Eye Trevally hanging around about 100m from the mouth of The Turtle Cave.
STAGHORN CREST / SOUTH POINT
On the opposite end of the island to Barracuda Point. Strong current normally present at this site. Diving in the current here can take you through three of the marked sites. The place to see pelagics! Very large shoals of Barracuda, Jacks, Sharks and many turtles normally feed here.
Great spot for photography. This wall is covered in a multitude of soft coral. Hawksbill & Green Turtles live on the ledges at this site and the current is usually quite calm.
Famous for being home to a huge number of Hawksbill & Green Turtles. Many reef sharks also frequent this site.
This is the most famous site at Sipadan and the place to see large schools of pelagics; Barracuda, Jacks, Grey and White Tip Reef Sharks. Current is strong. It is a fast moving, large schools of fish.
WHITE TIP AVENUE
Many Black & White Tip Reef Sharks, Grey Sharks, massive Green & Hawksbill Turtles as well as large shoals of Jack & Barracuda.
All details and tips on packing for this dive trip ↓ ↓↓ ↓
Going on a dive trip? – Dive Trip Packing List+Tips
My Dive Sipidan story
Travelling around South East Asia for a year or two diving Sipadan was high on my To-Do-list. I arrived at Mabul island to dive Sipadan. While shopping for a well priced dive operator I was offered a job as a Scuba instructor on Mabul Island. Working here, getting paid to see some of the world’s most alien creatures every day and dive these amazing places was an unreal experience!
More on Diving around South East Asia
With some of the best surfing and diving in the world, the island country Indonesia is one of my favorite countries to travel in the world. We have traveled Indonesia for diving extensively, see the Best Diving in Indonesia.
Bali is probably the most popular tourist island in Indonesia, it offers some nice wreck dives and muck diving – Complete Guide to Diving in Bali. Dive with the incredible mola mola and mantas from Nusa Penida Island. Nusa Penida Dive Guide
The large island Sulawesi is home to some of the best diving Indonesia has to offer; great muck diving at Lembeh strait, a fantastic hidden island experience at the Togian islands and a variety of critters at the famous Wakatobi and less well known Bira in the South.
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The strong half of Stingy Nomads, a nomadic aquaman that would be happy to spend all his life in the water diving, surfing and spearfishing but often has to compromise with Alya and go hiking instead. Campbell is responsible for all our marine adventures and following them with write-ups. He loves traveling, braai (BBQ in South Africa), red wine and spending the day in a wetsuit.
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