award-winning solo travel blogger

The Complete Guide To The Perfect Sipadan Dive Trip 

If you don’t already have Sipadan on your diving bucket list, you’re missing out on one of the best diving in Asia. Located in the beautiful Celebes Sea in Sabah, Malaysia, Pulau Sipadan is the best dive site in Malaysia, and consistently named as one of the top dive destinations in the world. Heck, even Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series lists Sipadan Island as one of its filming locations!

Sipadan offers unforgettable diving, but for me the visits to the nearby Mabul Island and Kapalai atolls made my Sipadan trip so much more fulfilling. All these islands are great diving sites in their own right, and are so different from each other. Mabul Island is often overshadowed by Sipadan, but it’s actually one of the best macro and muck diving destinations in the world. Mataking Island, on the other hand, gets the occasional whale shark stopping by as the island falls within their migration route.

Trust me, the opportunity to dive not only Sipadan, but also dive in Mataking, Kapalai and Mabul will make your diving getaway so much more varied and fun.

A perfect Sipadan diving trip, however, requires a lot of planning. You’d need to book everything in advance to secure your hotel and your Sipadan diving permit. Read on for tips to plan your Sipadan dive trip and how to secure a guaranteed Sipadan permit in advance.

Firstly, here’s the very important Sipadan dive map

Sipadan Island dive map. Photo: © Sipadan.com

Diving trips here starts from 6am to 4pm daily. Night diving is not permitted in Sipadan due to security reasons. Evening dives ending at 6pm are allowed in Mabul and Kapalai.

What to see in Sipadan

  • Barracuda swirling vortex
  • White tip and black tip sharks
  • Schools of bumphead parrotfish
  • Hawksbill and green turtles the size of dinner tables
  • Schools of bigeye trevallies
  • Longfin batfish
  • Frogfish
  • Napoleon wrasse
  • And if you’re really lucky… manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and whale sharks!

Yes, Sipadan is most famed for pelagic fishes! For macro diving, Mabul and Kapalai is a treasure trove. You’ll be able to spot mandarin fish, blue-ringed octopus, pygmy seahorse, ornate ghost pipefish, frogfishes.

Best time to dive sipadan

Best underwater visibility: Go during mid-February to Mid-November. The earlier you go during the year, the better the visibility. January to July boasts the best visibility.

Avoid the crowds: Go during the low season. The peak tourist season in Sipadan is during Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb), 1st week of May, July and August, and the 1st week of October (China Holiday).

Closed in December: Starting year 2020 onwards, Sipadan will be closed throughout the month of December and reopens on Jan 1. Like many islands around the world, Sipadan is facing the impacts of climate change and mass tourism. This closure allows the marine environment to recuperate. (Note: Sipadan will be open for diving in Dec 2019)

Where to stay around Sipadan

While you can dive Sipadan, you can’t actually stay on this island due to security and conservation reasons. Instead, divers stay at the many dive resorts located on nearby islands – Mabul Island, Mataking Island and Kapalai atoll. Trips are also possible, though more cumbersome, from the mainland at Semporna. The only liveaboard in Sipadan is the Celebes Explorer 9.

List of resorts in Sipadan and the dive trips they offer. Photo: © Sipadan.com

When picking a dive resort, you should consider:

  1. Guaranteed Sipadan permits
  2. Type of diving available: Cavern diving, Nitrox & Tec Diving
  3. Budget $$$
  4. Supplementary charge for solo travellers
  5. Activities for snorkelers if you’re travelling with non-divers
  6. What other dive trips available besides Sipadan

Sipadan permits nEeded

To protect the dive sites from overtourism, Sabah Parks allocates a daily quota of 176 Sipadan permits. You must secure the coveted permit to enter Sipadan, whether it’s to dive, snorkel or sunbathe. One permit is valid for one person, one day, and costs RM140. It can only be booked through a dive resort, and cannot be done through the government directly. Permits are not required to dive Mabul, Kapalai or Mataking.

Several dive resorts offer guaranteed sipadan permits if you book a dive package with them. The dive resorts with the largest share of Sipadan daily permits are:

  • Sipadan Mabul Resort + Mabul Water Bungalows: 12 permits
  • Borneo Divers Mabul Resort: 12 permits
  • Kapalai Dive Resort: 12 permits
  • Sipadan Water Village: 12 permits

Budget dive centers with Sipadan permits: 

  • Bharman Sipadan: 6 permits
  • Borneo Jungle River Island Tours: 6 permits
  • Scuba Junkie (Dive Semporna) (with Mabul Beach Resort): 6 permits
  • North Borneo Dive: 6 permits
  • Asiatic Travel and Tours: 6 permits
  • Sen Alijah Travel and Tours: 6 permits
  • Bum Bum Borneo Travel and Tours: 6 permits
  • Seahorse Sipadan Scuba: 6 permits
  • Arung Hayat Sea Adventure: 6 permits
  • Noble Inworld Scuba Resort and Tours: 6 permits
  • UC islanders Adventure: 6 permits
  • Borneo Speed Dive and Tours: 6 permits
  • MO Travel and Tours: 6 permits
  • Dreamland Discovery: 6 permits
  • Oceanic Dive Travel and Tours: 6 permits
  • Luxury Megaway Tours: 6 permits

How to get a guaranteed Sipadan permit

I am absolutely in awe of Sipadan

  1. Stay as long as possible: Dive resorts usually provide a guaranteed Sipadan permit when you book a dive package of 4 days or more. The longer your stay with a dive center, the bigger your chances of getting a one-day or even multiple days Sipadan permits!
  2. Book as early as possible: The early diver gets the Sipadan permit, especially during the peak season.
  3. Stay a minimum of 3-days, 2-nights: You’ll need a full day to dive in Sipadan, so you won’t be issued a permit on your arrival or departure day.
  4. Go during the low season: If you can only afford 3 days, your chances of securing a permit is best during the low season. Low season trips also means you have a higher chance of getting multiple Sipadan dive days, despite not having the best diving conditions. When I dived with Seaventures Dive Rig in early Feb, it was the low season and I managed to get two dive days in Sipadan! The other days were spent critter-spotting at the Seaventures house rig, Kapalai and Mabul.
  5. Ask about add-on permits: If you’re lucky, you can get additional dive days in Sipadan subject to availability.

A list of dive resorts in Sipadan and the Sipadan permits they offer. Photo: © Sipadan.com

If you can’t get a Sipadan permit, don’t sweat it and make the most of Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking.

Diving license & specialities

Minimum number of dives: Some dive centers, such as Kapalai Dive Resort, require divers to have a minimum 20 dives to dive Sipadan. Make sure to enquire.

Experience: I highly recommend getting a few good dives under your weight belt before attempting Sipadan. The currents in Sipadan are unpredictable; I was hit with really strong currents, washing machine currents, intense thermocline… The only reason why I was able to still enjoy the dive was because I’m an experienced and confident diver.

If I were an Open Water newbie, I’d be struggling with the currents and my buoyancy too much to really enjoy the beauty that is Sipadan. I’d miss the sharks and turtles and octopus!

Diving the turtle tomb: Once upon a time, divers could enter the turtle tomb without any special certification. But the diving requirements here are safer and stricter now, which means divers must have the Cavern Diver certification in order to enter the mystical turtle tomb. Seaventures Dive Rig and Kapalai Resort offers Cavern Diving Courses.

Dive resorts that offer Nitrox: 

  • Sipadan-Mabul Resort (Tec-Diving)
  • Mabul Water Bungalows (Tec-Diving)
  • Borneo Divers Mabul Resort
  • Mataking Island Resort
  • Seaventures Dive Rig (Tec-Diving)
  • Sipadan Water Village

Budget dive centers in Sipadan

Mabul is full on fun stuff like this!

Admittedly, diving in Sipadan does not come cheap. A full-board 4-day dive package with a mid-range dive resort in Mabul can come up to around RM3,000.

Here are some budget dive resorts to look into.

  • Uncle Chang’s Mabul Lodge $
  • Sipadan Scuba $
  • Scuba Junkie $
  • Billabong Scuba $
  • Borneo Divers Mabul Resort $$
  • Seaventures Dive Rig $$$

For solo travellers, some resorts charge a compulsory single supplement charge. Ask about group discounts if you’re travelling in a group of 10 or 11!

Best resorts around Sipadan

Seaventures dive rig

For hardcore divers: Seaventures Dive Rig
Unlimited house reef dives!!! And the buffet here is delicious. Read my full ‘eat, sleep, dive, repeat’  Seaventures review here.

For couples: Mabul Water Bungalows
Mabul Water Bungalows is a luxury floating resort that overlooks Sipadan.  The suites here have a private jacuzzi on the balcony… need I say more?!

For families: Sipadan-Mabul Resort
There’s a peaceful white sand beach, a swimming pool, and a house reef for snorkelling.

For divers and non-divers: The Reef Dive Resort
Mataking Island resort takes good care of both divers and non-divers with lots of activities for all! Most of the guests here don’t dive, so there’re lots of Sipadan permits for non-divers.

Safety & security

Armed guards keeping the resorts safe at nigh. Pic taken in 2018.

Due to its proximity to the Philippines border, there have been a few kidnap-for-ransom cases in the islands off Semporna by pirates and Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen. These cases mostly involved fishermen and sailors in open seas, but there have been a couple of cases involving hotels.

Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world continue to flock here with no problems. The security presence here is very heavy and there are precautions in place to ensure tourists’ safety. The Sabah Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) was established in 2013 to protect the waters of Sabah. There are special armed guards stationed on Sipadan Island, and they also heavily patrol the tourist areas. When I dived with Seaventures, I even met some military men who stayed on the dive rig overnight. There is also a curfew here – no one is allowed to be in the water from 6pm to 6am, hence no night diving.

Thanks to security upgrades, there has not been any kidnappings in the hotels the past 5 years. Several foreign government, however, still lists Sipadan in its travel advisory. Many, including the local government, argue that it’s an overprotection.

If you’re really paranoid, the mainland in Semporna is the safest place to stay.

Getting to Sipadan

Getting to Sipadan Island. Photo: © Sipadan.com

To get to Sipadan, you’ll need to fly in to Tawau Airport from wherever you are. From Tawau, it’s a 1.5 hour car ride to Semporna jetty. Then, you take a 45-minute boat ride to Mabul and Kapalai, where most of the dive resorts are located.

Most resorts here provide land and boat transport, so it’s pretty convenient.

Final Sipadan tips

giant moral eel at mabul

  1. The water gets cold, so bring a full suit or dive cap.
  2. Supplies on the island are limited, bring your own booze and munchies!
  3. Dive computer is compulsory for Sipadan, bring your own. Check your batteries!
  4. A dive torch will come in handy when exploring the caves.
  5. Don’t kill the corals and keep your plastics on land! Sipadan Island Marine Park is a strictly protected site and a no-glove zone. Please be careful when diving, leave your grabby hands to yourself and don’t accidentally kill a coral. Sometimes marine park dive marshalls will join in the dive to monitor divers’ behaviour, so don’t get yourself or your DM in trouble by stepping on corals.

A big thank you to Sipadan.com for sharing these information! Pro-tip: Ask them about last minute or early booking discounts on the resorts or liveboard you’d like to visit. Use the promo code SIPADANPROMO2019 for 15% off Sipadan-Mabul Resort and 20% off Mataking Resort until end of Dec 2019. (I don’t make a commission from this)

Surface interval at the gorgeous Sipadan Island.

Read more diving stories:

Make Brunei your next dive trip: Everything you need to know
An honest review of diving Sipadan’s legendary Seaventures Dive Rig
Swimming With Humpback Whales In Tonga 

I’m dedicating meimeichu.com to honest travel stories that’ll teach and inspire. If you like travelling through my stories and photos, do follow my personal Facebook and Instagram profiles for more armchair travels. <3