Thursday, May 7, 2009

So You Want To Dive Sipadan


Palau Sipadan
Palau Sipadan
Pulau Sipadan lies just off the northeast coast of Borneo in Malaysia. It's the only oceanic island in Malaysia. Living corals grew on top of an extinct volcanic cone to form the island. In 1989, Jacques Yves Cousteau was so taken by the diving on this island he filmed his documentary 'Ghosts of the Sea Turtle' there. To me, Sipadan is a paradise I hope to return to...very soon.


GETTING THERE

Getting to Pulau Sipadan is quite an adventure. If you're flying in from Kuala Lumpur, you can fly directly to the Tawau [Tu Wow] airport; lucky dog. From anywhere else in the world, you'll need to fly into Kota Kinabalu airport. From Kota Kinabalu airport, catch a connection to the Tawau airport. The next step involves catching a bus or a van to Semporna which takes about 1 hour. From Semporna, you'll catch a private boat to your dive resort which takes about another hour.

WHERE TO STAY

Sipadan was once the center of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. On April 23, 2000, A Filipino terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, kidnapped 21 people from a resort on the island. Eventually, all 21 victims were released. In 2002 the International Court of Justice awarded the island to Malaysia. In 2004, in an effort to conserve a balanced ecosystem on and around the island, the Malaysian government ordered all on-site resort operators to move their structures off of the island. The Malaysian military now protects the island and surrounding areas against terrorist attacks. So, since staying on Sipidan isn't an option, you'll have to stay at one of the neighboring resorts.

Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort
Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort
There are several options including three resorts on the neighboring island of Mabul, and the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort. Each of these resorts is a short boat ride to Sipadan, and each resort offers endless opportunities to shore dive, but the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Report is a magical location. If you sit quietly on it's helicopter pad, the only thing you'll hear is the sound of the breeze and the gently lapping water. This resort sits on sturdy stilts on the shallow sandbanks of the Ligitan Reefs, so there's plenty of diving all around the resort. "Planned and built in full style as an airy, comfortable, sunny water village with no land in sight, 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."

SIPADAN DIVING

Bumphead Wrasse
Bumphead Wrasse
Sipadan is peppered with dive sites all the way around, and each dive is unique. Before diving here, I was afraid of being in the water with sharks. On our very first dive we dropped down on an incredible wall dive. There were other divers below us and I lost my dive buddy amongst all the bubbles. Keeping my eyes open and scanning the area for my husband, I moved closer to our divemaster, and when we reached our maximum depth, there was a shelf where there were at least four large shark. My heart was racing and I was momentarily paralyzed. Then I noticed the sharks moving away from photographers. Every time someone approached a shark, it moved away. That was the beginning of the end of my fear of sharks. On one of our dives we were surrounded by a swirl of so many barracuda they blotted out the sun. During another dive, we lost track of the number of white tip sharks and turtle. "Normally rare diving scenes are frequently seen in the waters around Sipadan." We saw schools of bumphead wrasse, green and hawksbill turtles, gigantic schools of big-eye jacks that will swirl around you taking you to a diver's heaven. You end almost every dive atop a shallow reef with cleaning stations, tabletop coral, eel, shrimp, cowry, nudibranchs, flatworms, and tons and tons of fish.

A NOTE OF CAUTION

If you want to dive here plan ahead, travel with a dive center, and make as many arrangements as you can ahead of time. The rules for diving at Sipadan change daily. Sometimes they let five boats approach the island, sometimes four, sometimes none. A boat of divers may be allowed to do one, two, or three dives before leaving the island. The best way to be sure you'll get to dive Sipadan is to stay at one of the resorts for at least a week. That's why we stayed at the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, the diving around the resort made waiting for Sipadan worth it, and the diving at Sipadan is worth the wait!