Sipadan April 2004


Sipadan is an island off the east coast of Borneo in the Celebes Sea. You get there by flying into Kota Kinabalu. Most airlines don't fly directly to KK so we took Air Malaysia from Kuala Lumpur. From KK you fly to Tawau, then drive for 1 to 2 hours to Semporna, where you get on a speedboat that brings you to Sipadan. When people say Sipadan they usually mean one of three islands, Sipadan, Mabul or Kapalai. We decided to stay on Mabul. We did not want to stay on Sipadan itself since we had heard bad things about overcrowding and dive schedules. Kapalai is basically a pole village on top of a reef, there is no actual island left (we visited Kapalai and it seems pretty nice also, and a little cheaper than Mabul). On Mabul we stayed at a resort called Sipadan Water Village. It's a very nice pole village with private cabins which stand on top of a reef. There is something about waking up in the morning, walking onto your private deck, and watching the fish go by 6 feet below you.

When we arrived we were welcomed by a flurry of people. Before we knew it people had taken our luggage to our cabin and we were asked to just drop our gear outside the cabin and come to the dive platform. So we did, and a nice divemaster gave us a brief explanation of the rules and schedules and told us to gear up (which had been brought over). The first dive you do is a 'checkout dive'. They want to make sure you can dive. They make you do a few basic skills (mask clearing etc) and then they take you on a 30 minute tour of the jetty surroundings. Now this sounds pretty basic but when we came out of the water we were in awe. In those 30 minutes we had seen it all. Sea horses, pipefish, ghost pipefish, lionfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, you name it (we figured they must have been fakes attached to strings :) This was going to be a lot of fun.

ghostpipefishDiving starts at 7:15 am. This means breakfast is at 6:30. Even though we had stayed a few days in Kuala Lumpur I was still jetlagged and didn't sleep much. (Something I had to fix with sleeping aids the next few nights). During the day, everything is done for you except for setting up your camera. I use a D100 in a Subal D10 housing, 12-24mm, 60mm, 105mm and 2 YS90DX strobes. Julia uses a Nikonos V with 15/28/35mm, a YS30 and a YS125 strobe. Once your camera is set up you put it on the boat and off you go. The normal dive schedule consists of 2 dives around the island of Sipadan and one around Mabul or Kapalai . But it's no problem changing it and doing whatever you want to do. Between dives you normally go on land, either at Sipadan or Mabul depending on where your next dive is.

mantaThe first 2 dives around Sipadan were wide angle dives. We saw schools of jacks, barracuda, lots of sharks and turtles. On one dive we must have seen more than 50 turtles. No kidding. At one point I saw about 8 turtles in 1 field of view. Now I like wide angle, but my preference is macro. So I mostly just enjoyed the scenery (a lot) and took a few snapshots. The third dive was around Mabul and since Mabul is mostly a macro site I enjoyed it more. Especially since the divemasters are experts at finding critters. The second day we again did Sipadan,Sipadan,Kapalai. This despite the fact we really prefered to have done 2 dives at Kapalai or Mabul. Luckily we didn't. The highlight of the whole trip happened the second day. Sipadan is known for its larger critters, sharks, turtles, schools of barracudas (lots of macro there too btw, but it's hard to concentrate when you have several blacktips just asking to be photographed :)

On a deeper walldive with lots of sharks the divemaster Alan suddenly started to slowly and gracefully wave his arms. We were at about 80 feet and as I looked up I saw my first ever Manta Ray. It seemed really interested in us and stayed with us for 1 to 2 minutes circling around our group. The Manta was pretty shallow so I got some nice natural light pictures. On our second dive at Sipadan Alan kept doing his Manta waving routine, trying to call out the Manta (he explained to us that he tries to call out Mantas, because he doesn't see them often and when he does it's special for him too). Rationally you know it's a coincidence, but it's pretty mystical when during his Manta calling suddenly a Manta shows up. We got to see a Manta not once but twice. Our trip was already a success.

frogfishOn the second day we also did a dusk dive to see a couple of Manderin fish mating. Unfortunately this was a bit of a let down. They try and cram a bunch of divers around a small area, all with camera gear, trying to take a picture of the Manderin fish mating. Since no lights were allowed (they don't mate otherwise) focussing was a challenge, even using manual focus. Needless to say no one got a spectacular picture. If I had known I would have left my camera on the deck and just watched it.

The third day we asked to do 2 dives at Mabul and 1 at Sipadan. We both prefer macro and Mabul and Kapalai are some of the best macro sites in the world. We saw lots of nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, ribbon eel, crocodile fish, scorpion fish, snake eel, different types of clownfish, the list goes on. You don't necessarily need the help of a spotter, we were able to spot most stuff ourselves.There is just an abundance of everything. We both got a lot of nice pictures. Unfortunately I also had a serious accident on the third day. I had gone in alone at the jetty to take pictures of some of the wonderful stuff around the jetty.

As I was photographing a Lionfish I didn't realise there was another Lionfish next to me (there are dozens around the jetty). As I moved my hand away from the camera I got close to the one next to me and it shot its spines into my hand. At first it just really hurt and I crawled back on the deck. The divecrew told me to put my hand in scolding hot water, so I did. Over the next hour the pain became unbearable. I have never felt anything so terribly painful. I didn't know for a fact how bad a poison it is, so Julia got our laptop and researched it on the internet (did I mention that SWV has wireless internet?). Phew, it's not deadly, just extremely painful :) After several hours of agony it slowly subsided. As I write this, a month later, I still have a few sore spots. No one to blame but myself. I didn't let it taint my Sipadan experience.

hammerheadThere were some negative points. We didn't like the factory style diving as much. We felt like numbers, not people. They also weren't as careful with our cameras as we had expected. They even damaged the glass on my domeport, luckily not serious enough to see in a photo.

Any form of social interaction was not encouraged. Even when we wanted to sit with other people at dinner, they tried their best to put us on a table by ourselves. While diving they grouped us with 7 Japanese divers, who barely spoke a word of english. There is a lot of talk about the resorts around Sipadan being environmentally friendly, but the divemaster did nothing as people were grabbing, breaking, kicking and walking on the reef (yes, walking, I didn't think it was possible either).

This wasn't the only environmental problem we encountered. While we were underwater we heard and felt the shockwave of a dynamite explosion. Dynamite fishing is supposed to be illegal, but I guess no one really cares. During our stay a BBC crew was actually doing a documentary on shark finning and other problems. Coincidentally a local fisherman just happened to come along with several dead hammerheads providing the perfect shot. Supposedly they weren't killed for their fins but used completely. It wasn't the hammerhead picture I was hoping for though. I'll spare you the closeups.

But all said and done Sipadan is a great place to go. You'll experience some of the best diving in the world. The people are friendly, helpful, great at finding marine life. And marine life is something there is plenty of. Big, small, abundant, elusive. No matter what you like, you're almost certain to find it.

Cor & Julia