Big fish, turtles and ‘macro critters’ – the perfect combination

Season: Year-round diving

Visibility: 15-40 metres/50-130ft

Water Temperature: 27-30°C/81-86°F

Photographer and schooling jacks (Martin Edge)

Diving: Sea mount, turtles, coral gardens, walls, critter diving, house reef, shore diving, boat diving, caves, sharks

Snorkelling opportunites

Nitrox (Borneo Divers)

Willing to share option available at Borneo Divers

Can be combined with Lankayan or Layang Layang

Non-diving activities available include stays in a rainforest lodge, ascent of Mt. Kinabalu, Poring Hot Springs.


“No other place on this planet has more marine life than this island.”
Worldwide Fund for Nature (on Sipadan)

“I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago but now no more. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art.”
Jacques Cousteau


Twenty miles (32kms) off the east coast of Borneo in the Malaysian province of Sabah is Sipadan island. Miles away from civilization, alone in an expanse of clear blue sea, lies this tiny, green and gold, coral island. So small that it is rarely marked on any map, you can walk around it in 30 minutes! Sipadan is in reality the very tip of a precipitous sea mountain which rises steeply and majestically through the crystal waters of the Sulawesi Sea from a depth of over two thousand metres. Whilst most Malaysian islands rest on the shallow seabed of the continental shelf, it is its awe-inspiring location which gives Sipadan the unique characteristics which combine to provide a habitat for both reef and pelagic species. The most seasoned traveller and most widely experienced diver will still be overwhelmed by the magnificence and variety of life in the waters of Sipadan.

Sipadan is home to many thousands of turtles. Both Green and Hawksbill Turtles are found commonly in Sipadan’s waters and are a frequent sight on many dives: indeed the ‘turtle experience’ at Sipadan is sometimes overwhelming! From July to September is the time that the females come ashore to lay their eggs. Fragile and tiny, but perfectly formed, the newly hatched turtles scramble out of the sand and scuttle off to start their hazardous journey to the open sea. Of course there will be many turtle encounters underwater. In fact, hardly a dive will go by on Sipadan at the height of the season without the diver seeing many of these beautiful and increasingly rare creatures, perhaps resting lazily on rocky shelves or swimming gently by. Very close encounters of the turtle kind are frequent on Sipadan during most of the year!

Draping gorgonians, gigantic sea fans, sponges of every imaginable shape and design, encrusting and soft corals, and countless varieties of sea-squirts form a glorious garden of colour providing life for innumerable multi-coloured, iridescent reef fish, some only a few millimetres long, others over two metres in length. A precipitous reef wall, Sipadan’s most dramatic feature, supports schools of snappers, bright surgeonfish, bizarre, long-nosed unicornfish, Bigeye Trevallys, which hunt in huge schools, and swarms of swiftly moving fusiliers. Huge, buffalo-like Bumphead Parrotfish lunge at the coral, biting off large pieces as they feed.

Divers at Sipadan regularly encounter awesome and massive schools of Blackfin Barracuda which circle and swirl like an underwater tornado. Never far away, other large pelagic species cruise the offshore waters. White-tipped Reef Sharks constantly patrol the reef or laze in groups on sandy shelves. Scalloped Hammerheads, huge tuna and the occasional Manta Ray catch the sun’s rays as they glide by in deeper waters. At night the reef community appears to change: the octopus emerges from its lair to feed, and cuttlefish, some up to a metre in length, remarkably change colour to match their habitat.

It is the sheer number and amazing variety of fish that makes Sipadan so special. The spectacular reef walls, with some flat reef crests to explore at shallower levels, provide the majority of dive sites. Sometimes light currents, which may change at different levels, assist the diver, allowing for delightfully relaxed diving with plenty of time to search the fascinating crevices whilst larger ocean-going fish cruise by on the seaward side.

Close to the pier, just a few metres from the shore, the pale aquamarine waters covering the shallow reefs and sandy seabed change abruptly into an intense shade of dark blue marking the beginning of The Drop Off. Here a spectacular six hundred metre reef wall plunges almost vertically downwards. A dive here is sure to reward the diver with massive schools of jacks, fusiliers, batfish and Yellowfin Goatfish. A parade of huge Napoleon Wrasse, ugly and seemingly deformed Bumphead Parrotfish, Amberjacks, turtles and White-tipped Reef Sharks cruise by undisturbed by the diver’s presence. A solitary Great Barracuda frequently hovers at the crest of the reef, watching and waiting.

On the shallow reefs, where waves and coral meet, huge buttresses and majestic gullies provide homes for many thousands of species, including anemones with jewel-like colours, starfish and brittle stars, tiny, well-armoured shrimps that wave their antennae to attract fish to their cleaning stations, lobsters and crabs of all shapes and sizes, oysters with zigzag openings to their shells, clams and many other molluscs. The so-called orchids of the sea, the nudibranchs, some with filigree frills of gills, search and graze the coral. The beautiful and highly coloured lionfish with its feather-like fins and venomous spines is a spectacular and common sight. Schools of large and impressive Oriental and Harlequin Sweetlips hover near the crest of the reef as if to welcome the ascending diver returning from the depths. Coral Groupers, wrasse of many kinds, delightful schools of fairy basslets, funny little anemonefish, several varieties of triggerfish and a host of other species swirl, dance and surge around or stand guard beneath the wide tables of coral.

Impressive and weird formations of limestone make a fascinating background in flooded Turtle Cavern. After entering the dark and eerie chamber, divers may first hear, and then see, the orange-gold squirrelfish which are noted for the unusual and characteristic sound that they make. (Sometimes this sound is so loud that it can be heard above the water!) Permanently guarding the entrance lies a large and solitary pufferfish. Deep within the cave lie the remains of turtles unable to find their way out before their last breath of air was used up. Divers must possess a Cave Diving Qualification if they wish to dive Turtle Cavern.

When the morning sun’s rays filter into the water, bringing light to the reef off Barracuda Point, a large school of more than 60 Bumphead Parrotfish often assembles. Below, where the blue shades darker, Grey Reef Sharks, Leopard Sharks and Scalloped Hammerheads regularly cruise by. Slumbering peacefully on a sandy shelf are groups of up to 10 White-tipped Reef Sharks, while a colony of pretty little Garden Eels shyly peep out of their holes. Frequently here, or at South Point, a school of up to 1,000 Blackfin Barracudas circle and swirl in an amazing throng. The lucky diver may enter this whirlpool of giant fish and hover in the eye of this living hurricane.

Kindly note that due to local regulations, diving on Sipadan is by permit only and cannot be guaranteed. The number of permits is limited and they are shared out between the local dive resorts. It is not possible to buy additional permits locally.


Mabul island and Kapalai are situated only a 15 minutes boat ride from the world famous Sipadan island and yet provides a completely contrasting type of diving and far better accommodation than was available on Sipadan before overnight stays were stopped at the end of 2004. Diving these small islands will appeal especially to divers seeking the fantastic variety of smaller marine life that can be found in these waters. Unlike Sipadan, around Mabul and Kapalai there are no drop-offs, there are no swirling hurricanes of jacks or barracudas and it is unlikely that you will encounter the sharks and turtles that make Sipadan diving so exciting. There is still much evidence of past dynamite fishing and many reefs bear witness to this destructive method. So why do people want to dive around Mabul or Kapalai when Sipadan may, at first sight, be the more obvious choice? Quite simply, around both Mabul and Kapalai there are a truly remarkable variety of small and strange creatures to see. The unique habitat has provided a wonderful place for fish and invertebrates to live without the pressure from the predators that are commonly associated with pristine reefs. This, coupled with the shallow water, and divemasters so dedicated to demonstrating their ability to find the unusual that they undertake a month’s training and orientation to acquaint them with the life forms around the islands before they start leading dives, has made Mabul and Kapalai the place for dedicated fishwatchers, those with a wider interest in marine biology and for the dedicated underwater photographer with the macro lens!

Dive sites around these two islands are usually at depths of between 3-20 metres, which permits unusually long dive times and a unique opportunity to study the ecology of the smaller inhabitants of the reef. The sheer variety of macro subjects is truly amazing, with both fish and invertebrate life in abundance. Many juveniles, often so very different in colour and also in shape from their adult parents, also occur in these shallow warm waters.

Paradise 1, which may be described as Mabul’s ‘House Sand Patch’, is home to a school of squid, several species of rays and a variety of gobies, shrimps and very brightly-coloured fish. Blue-spotted Fantail Rays, Blue-spotted Mask-Rays and Leopard Whiprays make this sand flat their home. Paradise ll is home to the elusive and stunningly beautiful Mandarinfish. No longer than a few centimetres, this must be one of the most colourful yet difficult to photograph species as it nips and darts about under the staghorn coral.

Ribbon Valley, as its name would suggest, is populated by Ribbon Eels that appear to snarl mildly at one from their tiny lairs. Both the gorgeous blue adults, with their gaping yellow mouths and the more difficult-to-find juveniles in elegant black will pose happily while the underwater photographer lines up his shot.

At Kapalai (an island about 2 miles from Mabul) entire sections of reef have disappeared due to the effects of dynamite fishing in the past. However, out of the devastation arises some hope: a series of exceptional and unusual creatures have managed to adapt to this new environment and, without competition from larger predators, have colonized the area. Painted Frogfish occur in many different shades and colours, perfectly matching their background and offering a real challenge to those attempting to see them. Ornate Ghost Pipefish can be found here in their elegant wedding dress-like white form, amongst others. Smart black-and-white striped Humbug Dascyllus hover over areas of surviving staghorn coral.

Mabul and Kapalai are reached by taking a short flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau on the east coast of Sabah and then a road transfer of about one and a half hours to the small port town of Semporna. From there it is about 45 minutes by boat to either island.

COMBINATIONS: It is very easy to extend your visit to Sabah in Borneo and visit famous Layang Layang island with its superb ‘open-ocean’ diving. Alternatively, why not visit Sandakan region and see Borneo’s fantastic Orang-utans and Proboscis Monkeys, or even visit the cool uplands of Mount Kinabalu. Talk to us about the possibilities.

Chevron Barracuda (Gary Clark)


Blue-ringed octopus (Alex Mustard)

Angelfish (Alex Mustard)

Green turtle (Alex Mustard)

Diver and turtle (Gary Clarke)

Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Gary Clarke)

Western Clown Anemonefish (Gary Clarke)

Mola Mola and snorkeler (Alan James)

Big-eye Trevallys (Martin Edge)

Spotted Porcelain Crab (Gary Clarke)

Bicolour Blenny (Malolm Hey)

Schooling Blackfin Barracudas (Martin Edge)

Freckled Hawkfish (Alex Mustard)

Schooling Bumphead Parrotfish (Alex Mustard)

Leopard Shark (Alex Mustard)

Gaint frogfish (Alex Mustard)

A parade of batfish (Duncan Robbins)

Green turtle and reef (Duncan Robbins)

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