Island of Semporna, Sabah
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Semporna delineates sun, sea and sand, the unambiguous combination that never ceases to summon one's vision of a tropical paradise. Coral reef, mangrove forest and tranquil coconut trees tassel the islands. Still undiscovered and undisturbed, this sublime beauty is a rare find in the restructured clutter of the present.
Semporna is a district lying on the east coast of Sabah. An hour's flight from Kota Kinabalu will land you in this heaven on earth, stretched just above the equator. Semporna is the literal translation of the Bajau and Malay word 'perfect'. Fulfilling its epithet, the panoramic view it offers united with the emotion that consumed you when you land on this paradise is nothing short of perfection. Captivating the sights from the skies, your eyes will not fail to catch the sylvan fishing villages, coral cays, tranquil seas with sea life in abundance. As the cool fresh air cares your face, gazed wandering further, you will be awestruck by the hues of the water that roll from sapphire blue to a baby hue, from grass green paling into the faintest pink altering yet again when caught by the rays of the sun.
At the heart of Semporna is the small main town, of the same name. Known to some as the town with its feet on the sea, small islands and coral reefs make its surrounding. The air is cool and breezy with a certain tinge of the salty sea. As you take in this unforgettable aroma of the islands, the villages of the sea gypsies, moored a little further out on the reefs, will catch your breath.
Semporna is home to the diving paradise of Sipadan known to many who come far and wide. A cluster of about 49 islands holding 119 villages in total, complete Semporna's string of precious pearls. This potent combination of unscathed isles make it a heaven for marine habitat. Some of these islands are uninhibited and are only occasionally visited by the distant boats of fishermen or determined nesting turtles. Enchanting blue and green coral keys and shallow reefs still subsist here.
What is most striking about this place is that it is has not been influenced by the worldly modernizations. The sailboats still sit out at sea. The waters are still as blue and calm as ever. Locals still live on the gifts of mother sea.
The Natural Wonders.
The vast richness of the sea flaunts fishes of all kind, seaweed, sea cucumbers, shells and pearls. All these have attracted tourist, seafarers and fisher-folks alike to Semporna and its islands.
Mangroves to reef flats, sea grass beds to sandy coasts and underwater caves. Each is home to its individualized inhabitants, a true myriad of science discoveries. Time and time again, new discoveries are made. Scientists have since involved themselves in searching for novel chemicals in many of these creatures that can be used in medical or material science. Tunicates, a sea animal, was discovered to have the high possibility of containing anti-cancer compound.
The biggest shellfish in the world, the giant clam is found in the waters of Semporna. Splendid at sight, some are thought to be more than 50 years old and exceeding 100 kilograms in weight. A new species of the goby was discovered just off the house reef at Sipadan Water Village. The beautiful spiral shellfish, a cousin of the extinct Jurassic ammonites roam at night. Migratory whales, white sharks and manta rays swim by ever so often.
This isolated town off the coast of Sabah records as one of the sea richest in marine life in the world till today. Indicated by the corals that make up the living reef, an Australian marine biologist, Dr Veron depicted the Semporna waters as rich in aquatic assortment.
BEST TIME TO VISIT:
Diving is possible throughout the year with visibility at 20m and above most of the time. The best time is from April to June, with visibility above 30m and up to 50m around Sipadan. From May to August, you may also be lucky enough to spot turtles laying their eggs on the beaches of Sipadan. In Mid April the district of Semporna will celebrate its 'Annual Water Festival' called The 'Regatta Lepa'.
Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) is the official language but English is widely spoken and understood. Over 95% of the population are muslim (Sunni).
Equatorial with fairly uniform temperatures year-round, ranging from 21ºC (70ºF) to 32ºC (90ºF). Humidity is high (85-95%). Annual rainfall varies from 2,000mm to 2,500mm and most rain can be expected between November and February.
Very casual. There are no dress restrictions on the islands and light cotton clothing, t-shirts and shorts would be suitable.
CURRENCY CREDIT CARDS:
The Malaysian currency unit is Ringgit (RM) and sen, where 100 sen equals one Ringgit. US$ 1 is roughly RM 3.20. Foreign currency can be converted at banks and money changers at the airport and in Semporna. Visitors are not permitted to take more than RM 1000 in Malaysian currency out of the country and no more in foreign currency than was brought in. There are no banks or ATMs on the islands. VISA and Mastercard are accepted at all resorts.
TELEPHONE AND INTERNET:
All resorts have telephone facilities, including facilities for international phone calls. The access code for making international calls from Malaysia is 00. For more information, dial 103. Most resorts have a fairly stable Internet connection available for guests. WiFi points are available throughout the town. Internet speed are good at the minimum of 384kbps.
ELECTRICITY & WATER:
Available 24 hours a day. 220V, 50 cycles using a plug with three rectangular prongs similar to UK plugs. Adaptors for other plugs can be purchased at airports and some stores elsewhere. Tap water is safe for drinking in Malaysia, provided that it is boiled first. Hotels usually provide bottled water for guests in their rooms. Enough fresh water is available on the islands with no restrictions for use and freshwater bins are provided for rinsing cameras and dive gear.
HEALTH AND MEDICAL SERVICES:
While still listed as a malaria-infected country, most literature states that malaria has been widely eradicated from most parts of Malaysia. Discuss your needs with an experienced travel doctor. Warning: divers should never take Lariam because of common side-effects including nausea and vertigo. Discuss alternatives with your doctor. The only vaccination requirements are yellow fever for those from infected areas. Resorts have basic first-aid services while the closest hospitals and clinics are in Semporna and Tawau on Malaysian Borneo.
Photo processing and video editing facilities are available at most of the resorts. A professional videographer is also on hand to make diving videos for guests and the DVDs can be purchased.
Malaysia is eight hours ahead of GMT (GMT +8.00) and 16 hours ahead of U.S. Pacific Standard Time.
DRIVING, POLICE AND THE LAW :
Visitors will need an international driving licence. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road and it is advisable to observe the speed limits, which are generally 50km/h in the city or residential areas and 80km/h or 110km/h on the highway and expressway. There are police and/or army bases on all the islands.
Visitors to Malaysia are advised that the trafficking of drugs in the country is an offence punishable by the death penalty.
Citizens from the following countries are required to have a visa to visit Malaysia : North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and the People's Republic of China. Nationals other than those stated will receive a visa upon arrival or are allowed to enter Malaysia without a visa for a visit not exceeding one month. However, it is recommended that visa enquiries are made at the Malaysian embassy or Malaysian consulate closest to you, as regulations are subject to change. Also check http://www.imi.gov.my/ for updated information.
TOURIST INFORMATION CENTERS
Please contact the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board for tourist information. (http://tourism.gov.my)
How to get there?
1. Penerbangan Harian / Daily Flights
MAS/ AIRASIA - from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau
Fares: *check with the nearest travel agents
Duration: 45 mins
AIRASIA - from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau
Fares: *check with airasia (www.airasia.com)
Duration: 2 Hours and 45 mins
2 Bas Ekspress / Express Bus
From Kota Kinabalu to Semporna
Fares: RM58 Duration: 9 hours
3. Teksi / Taxi
From Tawau to Semporna
Fares: RM80 - RM100 Duration: 1hr 45mins
4. Bas Mini / Mini Bus
From Tawau to Semporna
Fares: RM12 - RM20 Duration: 1hr 45mins
Peta Pekan Semporna / Semporna Town Map
Once a major pottery producing site, Bukit Tengkorak or Skull Hill sits in down town Semporna. This archeological magnificence is a 30 minute track from the centre of town.
Walking up the wooden stairs on the upper forested area will lead you to the cave system. Here a museum welcomes visitors to view its historical finds. Archeological research uncovered pottery shards in layers of ash which were probably remnants of open kilns used for firing pottery. Excavations discovered clay for pottery making. Historical studies point to trading between the people of Bukit Tengkorak and other prehistoric communities along the southeastern coast of Sabah.
Archaeologists believed that long-distance sea trade and migration of people in insular SEA and the Pacific moved east from Melanesia (near Papua New Guinea) to Polynesia, leaving behind what is known as the “Lapita culture” of pottery, stone tools and ornaments.
“Our research at Bukit Tengkorak shows that 3,000 years ago, people were not only moving east towards New Britain in Melanesia but also westwards towards Sabah,” explains Dr Stephen Chia of USM’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, who based his PhD thesis on the site.
“This is one of the longest trading routes in the world during the Neolithic period,” says the archeochemist who found obsidian (a volcanic glass used to make tools) at the site and traced it chemically to Talasea in New Britain, 3500 kilometres away. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia also found stone tools and pottery similar to Bukit Tengkorak in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago and Sulawesi.
Earmarked as one of the major attractions for the district, this place will be further developed and will eventually feature heritage trails based on the Bajau theme.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park
General Information. Click here
Sabah's Underwater Treasure
Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP) are situated at the entrance to Darvel Bay, off the East coast of Sabah near the town of Semporna, it took about 45 minutes by speed boat from the jetty of this small town. Named after then the Head of State of Sabah, Tun Sakaran Dandai, it was gazetted in July 2004 as Sabah’s seventh park. The Park is the largest Marine Park and covering 340 sq kilometers of sea and corals reef and 10 sq kilometers of land.
Comprising 8 islands, their surrounding reefs, and sea. Its main objective is to protect their environment and to promote sustainable use of natural resources. Geologically, the islands are formed from Quaternary pyroclastic material, which was ejected during explosive volcanic activity. Pulau Bodgaya, Boheydulang, Tetagan, Selakan, Sebangkat, Maiga, Sibuan and Mantabuan.
TSMP is one favourite spot for divers. Rich marine life may be found when diving in this park area. There is also hills which attracts for rock climbing activity. From scientific study carried out by Dr.Elizabeth Wood for over 20 years , found that the richness of marine life in TMTS is standing on par with the marine life of ‘Great Barrier Reefs' in Australia.
The Bajau Laut (Sea Gypsies) lived a nomad lifestyle on boats adding to the uniqueness of the Park.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP) is a home for a very high biological diversity. With an area 35,000 ha, it’s an active area of spawning, breeding and growth or marine life. Based on previous studies which were done by Dr. Elizabeth Wood, a well known marine biologist based in Sabah, as many as 255 spp. of coral have been recorded in the waters of TSMP indicates the high value of coral biodiversity in this area.
Nowadays, there are 12 sites of coral reef monitoring program around the reefs of TSMP which were monitored by Sabah Park’s marine research unit. This coral reef monitoring study administered annually to know up-to-date status and other information which related to enhance the management of coral reef in this marine park. As much as 528 species of reef fish and more than 240 species of marine invertebrate also recorded in this area.
During the Marine Scientific Expedition in the year of 2009, there are six species sea grass that has identified in this area. Among them is Cymodecea rotundata, enhalus acoraides, and ahalophila ovalis. Pulau Selakan and Pulau Bohey Dulang have recorded as the highest abundance of sea grass in TSMP.
Terrestrial Fauna - includes variety of birds, reptiles, insects and small mammals.
Birds - Among feathered species recorded are the Pied Imperial Pigeon (Ducula bicolor), the Metallic Pigeon (Columba vitiensis), the Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobaria), the Tabon scrubfowl (Megapodius cumingii), the Collared kingfisher (Todirhamphus Halcyon cloris) and the Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). Others are Sea eagles, raptors, thrushes, flycatchers, sunbirds and bulbuls were also recorded .
Mammals - The commonest large mammal is the Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) which occur in mangrove and forest areas. The Bearded pig (Sus barbatus), the Sambhur deer (cervus unicolor) and Mouse deer (Tragulus) and Otter (Lutra sp) were also sharing their lives on this islands.
Reptiles - There is only snakes and lizards were common. Five species of terrestrial snake are exists namely, Green vine snake (Ahetula prasina), Dog-toothed cat snake (Boiga cynodon) and Pit vipers (Trimeresurus spp., reticulted Python (Phyton reticulatus) together with six species of sea snake. Sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) are common around the jetty on Boheydulang, while the other species occur offshore. Skinks and lizards, including the common wtaer monitor lizards occur on the main islands. The most conspicious of the lizards is the Large tokay (Gekko-gekko).
Insects - Butterflies (Lepidoptera) were particularly well represented, with a total of 52 species and about 5% of the Borneo fauna. While, Beetles (Coleoptera), sucking insects of herbacous plants (Hemiptera and Homoptera) and stinging insects (Hymenoptera) are also fairly common.
By virtue of their position at the extreme south-western and of the Sulu volcanic arc, the TSMP have interesting plant communities not found in other regions in Sabah or Borneo. The five main vegetation communities are present on the islands.
Coastal Mixed Forest - This is the richest plant community found on the islands, represented by at least 95 species of tree found in 63 plant families. There are only three species of dipterocarps namely Shorea guiso, Hopea beccariana and H. sangal which can reach 30-40 m tall. Although, the smaller trees included individuals of Antirhea edanoi, growing to about 5 m tall, a new record for Borneo and previously known only from Tawi-Tawi, Philipines.
Scrub Vegetation - A scrub-like community is well developed on the two main islands, forming on the top of the major rock outcrops, on near-horizontal or gently sloping surfaces. The most distinctive life forms apart from a few dominant tree species in this scrub community include the yucca-like Cycad (Dracaena multiflora) commonly growing to 10 m tall and a new record for the Bornean flora, previously documented only for the Philipnes, palm-like Cycas rumphii and the Cactus-like succulent (Euphorbia lacei).
Rockface Vegetation - The vegetation on rockfaces includes small patches of scrub, established on narrow ledges and in broad cracks, as well as a distinctive community that includes the true lithophytes (rock plants). Selaginella tamariscina, a small plant only 4-5 cm high, growing on exposed to partially shaded gently sloping rockfaces on both Bodgaya and Boheydulang. Cheilanthes javensis is the small brown fern that grows in completely open conditions, forming thick tussocks in cracks and depressions on the rock face. Both are the new species record for Borneo (and Malaysia).
Beach Vegetation - The typical sandy shore elements include a range of plants, but typical shore elements on the TSMP sandy beaches such as Pandanus odoratissimus, Pandanus dubius and Ipomoea pes-caprace were exceedingly rare. Other beach elements are Casuarina equisetifolia, Argusia argentata and Barringtonia asiatica. But a new genus and species record for Borneo of a slender climber are Rhyssopteris timoriensis.
Mangrove Vegetation - Like sandy beach vegetation, mangrove vegetation occurs mainly in spots around the islands sheltered from strong currents and in enclaves where some deposition of silt and mud is possible.
This is another high island formed from volcanic rocks, and has an area of 313 hectares. It is separated from Bodgaya by shallow channel. The ground slopes upwards from the shore, in some places very steeply. There is a ridge running along the length of the island and has three separate peaks. The Boheydulang Peak is the highest (353m). There are a number of rock pools on the east side linked by a stream. The pools are 2-3m across and some are fed by small waterfalls. Other streams form if there is heavy rain.
Mantabuan is located about 2.5km from the north coast of Bodgaya, at the southwestern corner of the Mantabuan reef. It is the smallest island in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, with an area of 10.08ha. The island is flat with a sandy beach running all the way round. The ground in the corner of the island is hard and compacted.
Sibuan is located at the southwest corner of a reef stands alone to the northwest of Bodgaya. It covers an area of 15.13 hectares. The island is a sandy cay that has probably built-up entirely from the eroded remains of the adjacent coral reef. It has an elevation above sea level of about 1-2m. Limestone beach rock has formed in several places, particularly at the northern end of the island. There are separate outcrops at various levels on the beach.
Located north of Pulau Selakan, it covers an area of 20.16 hectares. Maiga is low, sandy island, rather than a raised limestone platform. However, it appears to be linked to the Sebangkat-Selakan formation, and presumably there may be volcanic rock many metres beow the surface, with a crap of pld reef limestone on top. There is a sandy beach running right round the island and deeper water fairly close to the shore. Erosion is occurring along the eastern side, especially in the south where the sand and soil at the back of the beach is cut away to a height of about 0.5m. There is sand and spit at the southern end of the island, and it is possible that the island is slowing growing in this direction.
The island is located on the southeast corner of the Sebangkat-Selakan reef complex. It covers an area of 32 hectares. The island consist of coral limestone, raised a few metres above sea level. The limestone bed has been eroded and undercut to form a rocky shoreline around much of the island. There are small stretches of sandy beach around the village, and also at north end of the island. Patches of mangrove occur along the northwest coast.
Sebangkat is located on the southwest corner of the Sebangkat-?Selakan reef complex. It covers an area of 51 hectares. There are two tiny islets of reef limestone to the north of Sebangkat, in the middle of the reef top plateau. The island consists of coral limestone, raised a few metres above sea level. The limestone bed has been eroded and undercut to form a rocky shoreline around much of the island. There is a good sandy beach at the southwest corner of the island and stretches for some distance along the south coast.
This island is separated from Bodgaya by a shallow channel and has an area 30.24 ha. It is considerably lower that other two islands, with maximum elevation of about 80m. The slopes rise fairly steeply and in places rock are exposed. The shoreline is rocky in many places, with naarow beach along the northwest side. This extends into a sand spit at the northern tip of the island.
At 8km long and 1.5km wide, Pulau Bodgaya covering an area of 796.4 ha is the largest of the eight islands. This is a high island formed from volcanic rocks. The ground slopes steeply upwards from the shore, leaving a narrow, wave-cut shingle terrace. The main rock outcrops have steep slopes which begin at elevations of between 1100m above sea level and have average inclination of 45-60°. Mt. Bodgaya (one of two peaks) reaches a height of 455m at the western 'arm' of the island, while another peaks at the eastern 'arm' reaches a height of 366m. The two 'arm' are separated by a valley, which cuts through from the north to the south side of the island.
The sheltered slopes and valleys have the richest vegetation and tallest trees. Mangrove is well established along much of the coastal fringe. At the north side, a number of freshwater stream flows on the island.
Scuba Diving & Snorkel
Tun Sakaran Marin Park provide as much as 21 prestigous scuba dive sites such as Tabah Siramba (Church Reef), Kapikan Reef, Ribbon Reef, Mantabuan, Sibuan Reef and more. Divers satisfaction is assured with opportunity to meet with various attractive marine life such as turtle, eagle rays, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, nudibranchs and some type of sponges that were only recently discovered. It is difficult to describe the thrills that divers experiences when encounter with marine's macro life in Bodgaya lagoon. For visitors that do not possess a scuba diving licence, marine life can still be appreciated by snorkeling among the coral reefs. However, for safety reason all snorkelling activity need to be informed to the TSMP management.
Bohey Dulang Nature Trail
Visitors are encouraged to ascend the forest track in Pulau Bohey Dulang. During one hour journey climbing lava rock volcano, visitors often meet with common wild animal such as snakes, birds, and monkeys. From the top of the rock visitors will be delighted to the beutiful view of insular formation of the islands of TSMP.
At present, there is no accommodation on Tun Sakaran Marine Park islands. However, beside the resorts, there are one rental chalet facility for visitors in TSMP complex. The chalet is equipped with kitchen, bathroom facilities and furnitures. The chalet can accommodate 6 people at any one time, although there are rooms for 3 to 4 guests.
The main take off point from the mainland to Tun Sakaran Marine Park is by way of a tourist jetty at Kg. Bangau-bangau, Semporna. It takes about one hours to travel by fast boat. Jetty were available at all islands except Sibuan, Maiga, Bodgaya and Tetagan.
Soccer Field/Court Games
There is a soccer field in Tun Sakaran Marine Park complex and court games (sepak takraw, badminton and volleyball) which is regularly used by sabah parks staffs. However, visitor that keen to use it (rent), please obtain permission from park warden / officer in-charge.
Sipadan Marine Park
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Situated in the middle of the Celebes Sea, the island itself is 40 acres and was once described as looking like a mushroom shooting upwards. Just 30km from mainland Semporna lays this tiny island.
Sipadan is the most famous of Semporna's islands. Rated as one of the world's top ten dive destinations, many come here to indulge in the island's opulence. For the true diving enthusiast, the island nees no introduction. Sipadan is unique as the only oceanic island in Malaysia. Its geographical position in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, places Sipadan in the centre of the richest marine habitat in the world.
More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this rich ecosystem. Trigger fish, moray eels and anemone fish mingle copiously. Sipadan was internationally recognized as a native reserved in 1919. In 1933 it was pronounced as a bird sanctuary. Large flights of Imperial pigeons, swallows and sea eagles often crowds the sky in spectacular swirls.
This ravishing island is protected by regulations imposed on islanders and visitors alike, in an effort to preserve its natural life. No one is allowed to collect turtle eggs here, even the natives. This island is also renowned for its spectacular large population of the ever graceful green and hawksbill turtle, which gather to mate and nest. Another unique find is the turtle tomb where many skeletal remains of turtles are found.
Rising 600 meters from the seabed, this island provides fantastic wall dives and features hundreds of underwater gardens. Unusually large schools of barracuda and big-eye trevally invade the water, placing themselves in whirlpool-like formations. Mantas, eagle-rays and whale sharks are aplenty. The creatures of the sea here incredibly varied.
The natural treasures of this island are its greatest assets. Here, you can still find wild deer in secluded coves. Dugongs, a cousin of the American manatees were known to swim the tides. Now they are hardly ever seen but are still held as one of Semporna's secrets.
Diving Sipadan's reefs, Jacques Cousteau was spellbound. "Go to Sipadan to see the schooling barracuda, to Mabul to see the seahorses and the erodes reefs of Kapalai to marvel at the detrius-like leaf fish" divers were told. Still today you will find turtles nesting under your beach hut on stilts and giant coconut crabs climbing the branches of a coconut palm. It has been said that the number of creatures on these reef surpass that of the tropical rainforest.
The coconut palm which grows in abundance here is precious to the people. The flesh and juice of a young fruit quenches the thirst. Sugar is made from the palm nectar and its wood is excellent for construction. Palms are thatched for roofing and leaves are weaved into baskets.
The natural glory of Sipadan remains. An arising awareness of the frailty of its natural wonders has rallied the defence of the island.
Sipadan jetty / drop-off: Steep wall with overhangs. If you stay at Sipadan you can jump right off the jetty and there is one of the nicest dive sites right there. You always encounter large schools of fish like mackerels or barracudas or groups of batfish. On one dive here we were lucky to see a large leopard shark.
Turtle Cavern: Some meter to the right of the jetty is also the entrance to a large cave. Without a certificate in cave diving (most dive operators offer cave diving courses) you can't go inside. I have seen photos, and there are skeletons of turtles inside the cave, that haven't found their way out anymore and died there. If you make a nightdive, be cautious not to dive down to the level of the cave (18m), you might enter it by mistake like a dive buddy of mine did. She said it was the scariest dive ever, because she didn't realize she was inside the cave until she already was well in the back of it. Luckily she didn't panic and managed to get out again!
Sipadan South Point: Steep wall, ledge and then drop-off. Divers liked this site a lot, because they had seen a group of hammerhead sharks there at about 55m depth. I went down as well, but actually you have to swim out first to the ledge and then go down, otherwise you don't have enough bottom time.
Sipadan Barracuda point: Wall, then flat valley on about 20m. The dive site has suffered some though, and there are a lot of broken corals because it is the dive site everybody wants to go. Large schools of barracuda consisting of several hundreds animals nearly always hover there, forming huge spirals, which become vortices and form high walls. If you don't make any abrupt movements and keep level in the water you might end up in the middle of a circular wall of huge adult barracudas. An exhilarating feeling! Currents can be strong here at times with down currents possible.
A Brief History of Pulau Sipadan
1800s - On Dinawan Island, the tribal leaders celebrate (in 19th century Borneo style) the fact that they have just received from the Sultan of Sulu exclusive rights to collect and trade in sea-turtle eggs from nearby Sipadan Island.
1933 - Sipadan is declared by the British as a bird sanctuary, being an important stopover for migratory birds like the greater sand plover, common sandpiper and wood sandpiper.
1964 - Pulau Sipadan becomes part of the turtle egg native reserve of Sabah - an important step in protecting the very species that would make Sipadan famous. Although dive trips to the island were being run by Borneo Divers as early as 1983, Jacques Cousteau's film, 'Ghost of the Sea Turtles' brought international fame to Malaysia's only truly oceanic island. When the charismatic Frenchman announced, "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art", marketing bods all over the world took note and have duly been repeating the mantra ad nauseum ever since.
1990 - Now world-famous Sipadan Island, a mere half km in length and 200 metres in width has five resorts rubbing shoulders on its northern beaches. Sipadan's fame is bringing divers in their droves to its reefs every day, lusting to gorge themselves on the underwater smorgasbord of marine excess that are Sipadan's waters. But would this greed come at some expense?
1992 - Dr Elizabeth Wood, a coral reef conservation officer with Britain's Marine Conservation Society begins her constant watch and monitoring of the state of Sipadan and notes an obvious deterioration of the quality of the reefs over the years. While pronouncing the reefs generally healthy, she does sound a note of caution that they are not exactly pristine. Careless diving and snorkelling activity is causing increasingly obvious coral damage and, where there is a lot of boat and diver traffic, silt and sediment have been stirred up, choking and suffocating coral polyps.
1996 - Sipadan is lashed by the vicious tropical storm Greg which demolishes some shallower parts of its reefs. This rubble can still be seen today - unable to recover due to further abuse by global warming and increased water temperatures (leading to the great coral bleaching phenomenon of 1998). Another sign that the writing was on the wall for Sipadan's dive resorts was the sight of nutrient-indicator algae on this rubble, proof of untreated wastes filtering into the sea from the island's sanitation activities.
1997 - Pulau Sipadan is now well recognised as not only a major tourist draw for Malaysia but also a place of outstanding natural beauty under threat. The Malaysian government announced restrictions on the number of tourists visiting the island but fail to follow up on this with any sort of enforcement or master plan and no-one takes much notice.
2000 - Quite a lot of people take notice of Sipadan for the wrong reasons when Abu Sayaff guerrillas raid the island and kidnap 21 dive tourists and resort staff. Most are held for a year, and then slowly ransomed off for millions of dollars. Divers stayed away in the aftermath of this event, slowly regaining confidence that they are becoming increasingly well protected by a reassuring Malaysian army and navy presence.
2002 - "Sipadan is part of Malaysia!" declares the International Court of Justice. The court awarded territorial ownership to Malaysia rather than Indonesia, based on "effective occupation".
2004 - The Government of Malaysia orders all on-site dive and resort operators of Sipadan to move their structures off the island by the 31st of December 2004, and this time they mean it! The move is declared as a victory for conservation over greed. However some operators with no alternatives are left with very little in the way of compensation. Others hurry to improve their resorts on nearby islands realising that these would now become the places to stay and from which to dive Sipadan. Many express doubts that Sipadan will remain free of resorts for long and fear that someone with 'connections' might come from nowhere to be awarded rights to operate a dive resort on the island.
2007+ - What does the future hold in store for Sipadan Island? Will someone suddenly arrive and start building a resort on the island despite all the assurances to the contrary? What other measures will be put into place to protect the environment and will they be enforced?
No-one really knows, or at least, no-one is saying. What is sure is that there will be more ups and downs for this incredible little island and the countless sea creatures that call it home. Through it all: violent weather, thousands of visitors and several acts of human lunacy, it remains an exceptionally rich and fascinating spot which should continue to be protected and enjoyed for generations to come.
The Long Term
The long term goal is twofold:
- To have Sipadan recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This bid, supported by PADI and driven by a number of groups within the Malaysian government and the tourism industry, would guarantee more funding and protection for the island should it succeed.
- To have Sipadan gazetted as a national or state marine protected area/marine park under the management of Sabah Parks.
So it seems that the twin issues of recreational diving and marine conservation have combined to bring this tiny, remote island well and truly into the modern world in the hope that its future could turn out to be a little less turbulent than its past.
It is Malaysia’s only oceanic island, rising 600 metres (2,000 ft) from the seabed and formed by living corals growing on top of a volcanic cone. It lies in the Celebes Sea just off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo, close to the borders of Indonesia and the Philippines. Although, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem. Sipadan has been rated by many dive journals as one of the top dive destinations in the world. Above water, the island is a covered in lush jungle and home to tropical birds such as kingfishers, sea-eagles, sunbirds, starlings and wood pigeons.
There are also fruit bats and monitor lizards and at nightfall a turtle may come to lay her eggs on the beach while coconut crabs scurry into the water at the slightest sound. It was declared a bird sanctuary as early as 1933 and in 2004, Sipadan was gazetted as marine park and all accommodation facilities on Sipadan were closed to further protect this pristine natural treasure. The island is about 45 minutes from Semporna town by speedboat in calm seas.
As one of the top dive sites in the world, Sipadan Island has been blessed with a myriad of reefs amidst crystal clear blue water. With visibility of between 60 and 200 feet, the island is a perfect habitat for over 3000 species of fish. Beautiful hard and soft coral thrive abundantly, almost untouched by the spoils of civilization.
This is the perfect feeding ground for reef fishes of various shapes, sizes, breeds and color. In fact, turtles are common sight here, as they rest and feed in peace within the ledges of the Drop-Off. As colorful parrot fish, butterfly fish, angel fish, and hundreds of other colored fishes play amongst the corals, divers will also marvel at the passing schools of barracudas, parrot fish or needle fish. Search within staghorns, and you may be able to catch a glimpse of a tiny clown fish foraging for food. Looking between the rock crevices, you will see hiding eels or even a small shrimp. Sea cucumbers and star fish line the floor of the sea, while small fishes and eels hide under large boulders.
The abundance of small fishes also attracts the presence of larger predator fish, such as the small Black Tipped Reef Sharks, Hammerheads, manta rays and even large cuttlefish. Even turtles seeking for jellyfish can be seen gliding gently over the seabed, although the sheer abundance of the turtles in Sipadan will surprise you! If you are taking a night dive, you may even catch a glimpse of the lion fish, leaf fish and frog fish, possibly taken aback by the light you use to shine on them.
Of course, night dives bring out a foray of different type of marine life, such as the Bumphead Parrot Fish, all types of crabs and nudibranchs amidst the vivid colors of the corals at night
The compact and luxuriant rain forest contains all manner of exotic plants and animals. Huge hardwood trees towering 30-40m above the forest floor provide a habitat for many types of birds, while in the dense undergrowth below is a great variety of insects and other small animals.
The lush fauna within has helped this island earn its status as a bird sanctuary as declared in 1933. Bird watchers are able to catch glimpses of the white-collared kingfisher, sea eagles, olive-backed sunbird and pigeons.
Flowering fig trees perfume the air, attracting fruit bats which fill the night with their chattering as they feed hungrily on the sweet offerings. Small lizards abound, the lucky visitor will get a glimpse of giant water monitors which swim or run with equal agility. Coconut Crab/Robber Crab (Birgus latro) - On the ground, monitor lizards and coconut crabs also make Sipadan their home. Commonly there are two types of coconut crab - yellow and blue coconut crabs. It was estimated that between 300 and 500 coconut crabs inhabit Sipadan Island and the only spot in Malaysia where the coconut crab can be found.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving can be done on Pulau Sipadan Park. Dive site:
There are 12 dive popular sites to explore on this mushroom-shaped island with the best being Barracuda Point. There may be no guarantees in diving, but let’s just say there is every chance that you can find yourself in the middle of a swirling vortex of chevron or blacktail barracuda at this north coast site, one of the most treasured spots at Sipadan Island. Normally divers roll in to the top of the wall here, at a depth of about 10 metres. There may be some current but that means there is lots of food which duly brings in tons of fish - schooling bannerfish and redtooth triggerfish are prevalent in large numbers. Grey reef sharks are always patrolling the perimeter here and hunting for lunch, and great barracuda and dogtooth tuna are frequent visitors to this part of the island too.
Cruise along the wall dropping down as far as you wish, and keep an eye out for a herd of bumphead parrotfish and turtles in every nook and cranny. Eventually the wall will level out into a sloping plateau, where the barracudas often congregate. Here you can also find Napoleon wrasse and yellow-margin triggerfish. A word of caution though, don't venture too deep to the north of this site as the currents can get very strong and sweep you downwards, out and away from the island.
The Drop Off is another popular site which gets its name because a 9.14 metre stroll on the beach is all it takes before one drops off into a 600 metre underwater abyss. The wall has an amazing variety of fans, corals and sponges with interesting tiny creatures making their homes there. Jacks, grey reef sharks, white tip sharks and large fishes also abound in this fascinating site.
The Turtle Cavern entrance is located about 22 meters down along the Drop Off wall. A resident giant grouper or two can normally be seen hovering about the entrance of this famed final resting place for turtles.
It was at one time speculated that the cavern was their mausoleum and that they came to this site to die. However, a more accurate representation, is that the turtles became lost in the caverns at night and drowned. Sipadan Island’s resort operators insist that all Borneo divers to this system of interconnecting caverns must be accompanied by a local dive master.
Inside the cavern you will see the skeletons of those previous entrants who failed to find the exit and perished. Deeper penetration of the system reveals the cavern as home to shoals of fish specifically adapted to the low light environment of the further reaches.
Lazily decend to your required depth down the vertical wall that forms Sipadan Midreef, then just drift along with the current, whichever way it takes you - north or south. Once you begin your dive, it won't belong before you come across this sites most discernable guests - dozens of large green turtles, by now very habituated to inquisitive divers.
Drifting along the wall you'll soon be kept busy inspecting the dominant soft corals, navy knotted sea fans and orange gorgonian fans that hang from the ledges. Pygmy gobies and whip gobies are in abundance here. Forster's hawkfish are often seen hanging out, resting motionless on the small sponges. 5-lined cardinalfish and harlequin sweetlips move furtively under the many ledges and overhangs. Sulu fangblennies, known only to northern Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago, form aggregations among the gorgonians.
As with nearly all the Sipidan dive sites, Midreef can have quite strong currents, with an added tendency to push you upwards too. This occurs most often in the presence of cold water thermoclines rising from the depths. The trade-off though is that the adverse conditions bring with them higher densities of fish life. Large schools of moorish idols, redtooth triggerfish, unicornfish and bannerfish race along the wall. Smaller schools of round batfish pass by and Napoleon wrasse are regular visitors to this part of Borneo too.
The 6 metre hard coral flats that top the reef make an ideal safety stop. Small hardy stubbly table corals, and porites corals dominate here, and these form the staple diet for packs of bumphead parrotfish, sometimes 40 or so strong. Moving like a herd of African buffalo, munching their way through the dense bush, these largest of all parrotfish are a terrific sight and safety stops often become very long here!
At this Pulau Sipadan dive site, you will find yourself beginning with a gentle descent along the drop-off, followed by a gradual diagonal descent along the wall, at the shallow end of which there is a garden of staghorn corals. Photographers take note - this site has brilliant light conditions during the afternoons which offers excellent illumination for superb underwater images.
On the face of the wall, take a close look into the numerous cervices, balconies, cavities and protruding vaults where you will see a profusion of marine life which have made their home there. You will find red seawhip corals, black corals, barrel sponges and a plethora of reef fish. In particular, watch out for groupers, nudibranchs, angelfish, gobies, grunts, shrimps and triggerfish. Due to the untouched nature of the Sipadan reefs, the coral formations have grown to huge sizes; the black corals in depths between 15 and 40 metres have bushes which have grown up to 2 metres wide.
Because of the variable currents which can be strong at this Sipadan Island diving spot, novices should stick close to the divemaster. However, more experienced divers with a yearning for adventure can strike out to about 30 metres away from the wall towards the expanse of open sea. Here, you will come across giant manta rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks, rare fox sharks and Leopard sharks.
Although you can make a typical Sipadan-style wall dive, perhaps the best way of taking in Turtle Patch is just to let the current take you along the shallows, and then you can take in the scenery as it unfolds at its own natural and leisurely pace before your eyes.
This is because, similarly with Coral Garden, the main attraction for divers here is the shallow terraces at the top of the eastern wall. This is also the attraction for a large number of giant turtles that come here to rest on the sandy bottom or feed on the sponges. The turtles are so used to inquisitive divers that many seem oblivious to their attentions, and you really can get quite close without disturbing them.
The reef here has some outstanding acropora staghorn coral stands, leather corals and small table corals. Hiding out here you can find spotted sweetlips and pufferfish, such as the mappa puffer moray eels are also common here. In the rocky areas, orange spinecheek anemonefish watch you from the safety of their magnificent anemone homes of orange, green and purple. And with a bit of luck and if you're observant, you may spot a leaffish swaying slowly in the current.
Turtle Patch is located in the southeast corner of Sipadan Island, just to the northeast of South Point. Since it is located along the east coast, its wall is best dived in the mornings, however, the shallows are exposed to sunlight throughout the day.
Although the temptation of the drop-off is always there, this site is a haven for the underwater photographer. The health and diversity of the coral growth in the shallows atop of the wall, combined with the fact that almost every species to be seen in Pulau Sipadan’s waters is on view here, makes this site ideal for long dives devoted to both macro and wide angle compositions.
In depths between 5 and 10 metres, you can observe dozens of green turtles feed on the edges of the wall, and encounter featherstars at every turn. If you are looking for an encounter with a wrasse then the humphead wrasse will oblige. Triggerfish of the clown and titan variety are plentiful and may even allow you to take their photo without attack on their mind. The reef shallows here is so lively, colourful and in good shape that you don't really need to venture down the bordering wall, an ever-present at all of the Sipadan sites. Butterflyfish, such as the blackspot and teardrop, and masked and regal angelish are present at every turn. Humpback unicornfish can be found in the throws of mating in pairs.
Pulau Sipadan, it is often said, has everything that the Indo-Pacific has to offer and for the macro photographer, Coral Garden will occupy many a pleasure-filled hour.
In a nutshell, this is a wall dive which begins with a drop-off just over a metre from the surface, descends gradually to a terrace at about 70 metres and then plunges into an abyss. This is the topography here - hence its name 'Hanging Gardens'. The terraces, filled with a proliferation of Dendronephthya Alcyonarians in various pastel colours of lemon, lavender and antique rose overflowing down to the next level, harks back to the mythological Babylonian gardens after which it is named.
To the underwater photographers out there, take a close look at the alcyonarians and gorgonian fans which adorn the wall - among them you'll find various microlife nestling in its branches and polyps.
Within the cavities and crevices on the wall, you'll find colonies of sweetlips, gobies, hawkfish, emperor angelfish, moray eels and coral groupers lurking around. Turtles are a common sight when you're diving Sipadan and this site is no exception; in particular, green turtles and imbricate turtles. Don't be surprised if you come across dozens of ribbontail stingrays as well. Spend some time watching out towards the open Sipadan sea as well, where you can find schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, grey reef sharks, and occasionally, if you're lucky, the extremely rare thresher shark, or fox shark. If you do come across it, the thresher shark, with its long upper tail which it uses to beat or thrash its prey, is a difficult sight to miss.
This is a good place to get a bit deeper in the morning as long as you don't mind a thin layer of narcosis-on-toast for breakfast. South Point is one of the most likely sites for the more rare sharks such as hammerheads and thresher sharks, both of which tend to stay at depths here of 40+ metres.
On this Sipadan dive you will descend down to a ledge and then fin out gently into the blue, scanning the waters for a glimpse of action. If you are lucky enough to encounter hammerhead sharks or threshers you will be the toast of the resort and the object of envy.
Then, often you'll hear them coming nearer, long before you see them. The noise comes through the water like a riot in a school dining room, the enormous bumphead parrotfish grinding and munching the corals for the algae. At 85 kg and easily more than 1 metre long, the fish have humped and scarred heads, small eyes, and jutting teeth-like fused beaks. They excrete white exhaust plumes of pulverised coral sand, like a locomotive train. Watch as they take pizza-sized bites out of the table corals and then march on by.
The wonder of Pulau Sipadan is that visitors get used to countless turtles, white-tips, bump-headed parrotfish and massive schools of other fish, that the crossbar is always raised, and South Point is often the site for the crowning glory.
With a name like "Whitetip Avenue", you're probably wondering, does it live up to its name? Well, yes, it does. You can look forward to numerous encounters with schools of gentle whitetip reef sharks. This, however, is only one of the many amazing underwater sights this Borneo Sipadan site holds for you.
A coral reef located at a shallow depth before plunging into the 600 metres vertical abyss, Sipadan diving is full of unexpected encounters. You'll find yourself in the middle of a huge silver school of bigeye travellies or within a colourful palette of gigantic bumphead parrotfish.
The route you take will be determined by your Dive Master depending on the direction of the current. Either way, you will find the wall on one side and the open sea on the other.
The wall is full of terraces, crevices, ledges and vertical chimneys which are worth a look into - you'll find sponges of all shapes and colours, black coral colonies and gorgonian fans. Among this rich coral life, you'll find reef and den fish circulating merrily. Watch out for groupers, emperor angelfish, moorish idols, triggerfish, parrotfish, clownfish, boxfish, scorpionfish and butterflyfish. You may also find yourself cavorting with a friendly turtle.
The open sea on the other side holds encounters with pelagics of Sipadan like the grey reef shark, and naturally, whitetip reef sharks. Novice divers are not encouraged to venture into the deep side of the drop-off.
All accommodation facilities in this island were closed in 2004 to protect its pristine treasures. Tourists can still easily dive its spectacular waters from the nearby resorts on Mabul Island or Kapalai.
The main take off point from the mainland to Pulau Sipadan Park is by way of a tourist jetty at Kg. Bangau-bangau, Semporna. It takes about one hours to travel by fast boat.
There is a shelter and restroom for visitors especially divers on Pulau Sipadan Park.
General Information. Click here
Most people go to Mabul to dive Sipadan, that great pelagic sea mount made famous by Jacques Cousteau, home to the turtle tomb, thousands of live turtles and millions of schooling pelagics.
The island of Mabul is a 20 minute boat ride from Sipadan. Closer to the mainland, it houses a military base, large sea gypsy village and a few dive resorts. Uniquely, the undawater setting here is different from that of Sipadan. Mabul is recognized as one of the world's best muck-diving sites, with one of the riches seas in exotic small marine life. Here you will see an intriguing array of reefs and more unusual creatures like mimic octopus, mandarin fish, snake eels, juvenile batfish, frog fish and razor fish.
Sipadan is no discovery, it's been around for a while now, but the real discovery is the diving around Mabul itself, home to the world's best "muck diving". "Muck diving" is an expression that was coined in Papua New Guinea to describe the diving to be had under a liveboard boat while it is on safe anchor for the night. Usually a protected inlet somewhere, the water underneath the boat is shallow and the bottom is either silt, sand, dead coral or clumps of dirty coral on a silty bottom. The visibility is almost always limited.
Mabul is the esteemed spot for macro photographers who came here to take in the bizarre sea life. Mabul is a definate magical macro site!
For non-divers, couples and newly-weds - Pulau Mabul of Semporna, Sabah is one of the top 'honeymoon destination' in Malaysia.
Mabul, Crocodile Avenue: Flat sandy area from 5m to 20m. Remains of some palmtrees. Some divers hate this dive site, I love it. It is a sandy area, so there are empty stretches of sand with oases of life. Our diveguide found some seahorses there every time. The absolute record were 8 seahorses found by Ben. Then there are sand eels, double-ended pipefish, crocodilefish, special tube anemones, ghostpipefish (Harlekin- and Seagrass-), cowfish etc. I even saw some turtles, humpback parrotfish, barracudas, mackerels and a small eagle ray there. Night dives are also very good here. We found lots of sepias, cuttlefish and special nudibranchs (for example the Spanish Dancer, Asteronotus c.) and lots of crabs. One of the highlights was a small boxer crab, that Alex found on some rubble.
Mabul, Seaventure Platform: Flat sandy area on about 17m. Some coral blocks, pillars of concrete, piles of metal rods. This is a old oil platform that has been converted into a hotel owned by Seaventures Dive Resort. It stands on huge pillars. You dive underneath in 17m of water (Deco after more than 60min dive!). An amazing dive site! There are several piles of metal rods, look close, and there are always several frogfish (yellow to red, black and gray) sitting on them. Inside the largest pile there is a huge moray eel. His head must have a diameter of about 15cm! I couldn't make out the tail, but it must be several meter long. Then we also found: ghostpipefish (Harlekin and seagrass), waspfish, nudibranchs (Halgerda, Cromodoris etc.), stonefish, flying gunard and close to the pillars always lots of batfish and flutefish.
Mabul, Lobster Wall: Wall, some small caverns. Lot's of hydroids. The place is not that nice to look at, but it is again a place for many nudibranchs, anemones, shrimps and in a small cave I even found a babycowfish. Great nightdives.
A few minutes by boat from the island of Sipadan and Mabul but a full world away from it lays the exhilarating Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort, sitting on its sturdy stilts on the shallow sandbanks of the Ligitan Reefs. Planned and built in full style as an airy, comfortable, sunny water village with no land in sught, it boasts a mile-long sandbank of powdery white sand where one can suntan at complete leisure while gazing out to the miles of brilliant turquoise stretching into the horizon offering the purest image of natural serenity.
Dive spots are extremely close and can be reached in just a few minutes by speedboat and some of them, actually, just by swimming from the dive center pier. For those who are ready to venture more and aside from the tiny marvels of the macro life of Kapalai can, in just a few minutes, dive in Sipadan (where big fish and turtles abound) or in Mabul (where silky and muddy bottoms offer different and equally pleasant experience and opportunities to the lovers of "muck diving").
If you've never tried macro diving before, then you're in for a treat - what a place to start! Shore diving at Kapalai is free of charge, as is the wonderful snorkeling, where you can watch the spectacularly colourful mating mandarin fish, right under the resort jetty. It's easy to fall in love with macro diving when it's this simple!
With a combination of sun and water in a unique and serene setting, Kapalai is an ideal destination for diver and non-diver alike seeking a great holiday experience!
Kapalai is similar to Mabul, but there is no actual island, only a large sandbank. The most well known dive site here is Manadrin valley, but several of the other dives sites are well worth a visit.
Kapalai, Mandarin Valley: Slope to about 20m. Hard corals, then sand. Small underwater mound. This dive site has its name from a dragonet that can be found there and that has a beautiful color like the clothes of the Chinese mandarins. It lives during the day under the spines of sea urchins. Also very interesting were the that I found there. Go out to the small underwater mound - there were several leaf fish there last time. Leaf fish can shed their skin and in such a way adjust to the surrounding reef. I saw one, where some yellow ascidians were growing on his skin right over the eye. There is also a mushroom coral (Heliofungia a.) on the sand with some white anemone pipefish (Siokunichthys n.) living inside. Check it out.
Kapalai, Ray Channel: This is a sandy channel with the reef on one side. The special fish, you find here and nowhere else in Mabul is the dragonfish (Pegasus). This small animal lives in pairs on sand and feeds on invertebrates. Actually, I have spent half an hour at just one coral block here. There are some leaffish here, a spiny devilfish lives close by, and there is a small baby-anglerfish here. I observed, how it changed from gray to red in only 4 days.
Mataking Island sits an hour and a half from Sipadan Island. East of Semporna, this island is about 40 acres in size. Lying on the edge of the continental shelf, Mataking is surrounded by fringing reef of hard and soft corals. Sharing the same Alice Channel as Sipadan Island, it offers just as much magical and tropical underwater treasure.
The waters here are inhabited by exclusive species of corals such as staghorn, brain and many more. Rainbow runners, leaf fish, sweetlips, gobies and the occasional whale shark on their migration route roam the water here.
The island is sheltered by exotic trees. This sanctuary is where birds and butterflies choose to rest. Coconut crabs scurry around busily on the white sands. The barracuda point, turtle playground and picturesque reef make every veteran diver's list.
Famed for its beauty even before the days of Sipadan, Sibuan Island is incomparable where underworld splendor is concerned. This small island situated 30 minutes away from Semporna mainland is best known for its untouched magnificence. Regal coconut trees border the island and entice you from afar.
This snorkeling heaven is second to none when sought after by sun bathers and leisure seekers. Bestowed with abundant water attractions above and below, the isle's crystal blue waters are a sight for sore eyes. The water is crystal clear and its visibility will stretch your gaze into its lively depths. Corals and fishes will glimmer and flicker at you as you watch from above.