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Members' views on Sipadan

by Anthony Holley, Malcolm Hey, Hilary Driscoll and Peter Rowlands

Reproduced from in focus 57 (Sept., 1996)

Borneo, (Malaysia)

Borneo Divers have their own web site on the Internet at http:// It even includes a photograph gallery but is slow to unload because of all the graphics, including maps. The following details have been taken from the Internet information.


Sipadan is Malaysia's only oceanic island. Covering a total of 12 hectares (30 acres), it is a rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the ocean floor. Except for an encircling, narrow sand beach the island is covered in thick rain forest. It has a low profile and is less than a mile in circumference.

The island was declared a bird sanctuary in 1933 by the colonial Government of North Borneo and regazetted again in 1963 after independence by the Malaysian Government. Large numbers of birds have been seen on and around Sipadan, including frigate birds, sea eagles, reef eagr t wood pigeons, starlings, sunbirds the Nicobar pigeon.

Most notable feature of the invertebrate fauna is the large number of robber or coconut crabs (Birgus latro). They live in the strand vegetation and are voracious and robust scavengers.
Trails criss-cross the island for those who like to explore and see more of the vegetation and wildlife.

The island itself is in the care of the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development's Wildlife Department. Seven park rangers are stationed on the island to oversee affairs and minimise any disturbance to female turtles while they are laying their eggs. You have to obtain permission from them if you want to watch a turtle laying its eggs.

Collection of flora and fauna, dead or alive, is prohibited.

Director in charge of the Borneo Divers' operation is Ron Holland. Agill Bajerai is the resort manager. Accommodation is in twin-share beach huts made from local materials. They are equipped with built-in beds. Bedding and towels are provided as well as mosquito nets. Each hut has a ceiling fan, electric light and 220v power points.

There are centralised toilets and showers - the water is heated by solar panels.

Meals are served in the large dining hall, where there is a bar and ample room for getting together with other divers, dancing and staff presentations. The on-site shop stocks films, sundries and other items. There is a radio telephone for mainland and overseas communication.

The centre is equipped with a Bauer compressor and the 3000 psi/80 cu ft tanks are fitted with American-style, Kvalves. A wide variety of equipment is available for rental. A regulator with pressure/depths gauge, compass and octopus is $20.00 a day ($8.00 discounted price for those diving with Borneo Divers). BCD's are $15.00 ($6.00), shorts or wet suit jacket $15.00 ($6.00), Lycra suits are available at $10.00 ($4.00). Other items for rent include masks, fins, torches, bootees, fins and snorkels.

On their first day at the Lodge, a beach dive with the divernaster is obligatory. Divers are not allowed to go out on the boats until the following day.

Three boat dives are arranged each day, two in the morning and one in the afternoon. Beach diving is unlimited but buddies are required and everyone doing night dives must be out of the water by 10pm.

The centre requires a full, 12-hour surface interval between each day of diving.

Diving is from custom-built, fibreglass boats powered by twin 45hp outboards. Three boat dives a day are arranged. Each is accompanied by a divernaster.

These are the views of BSoUP members who have been to the island:

Anthony Holley

'Yes, it does get crowded. Yes, you can get bad vis. But Sipadan is still a great place for diving. Where else can you see turtles everywhere - quite often a dozen or more on a dive and quite approachable.

White-tip reef sharks are very common, with greys regular early morning at Barracuda Point, and hammerheads if you know where to find them - I had a 3m-one come quite close three days on the trot.

Big schools of jacks and barracuda have their regular haunts and are truly awesome, swirling all around.

A school of big humphead parrotfish cruise past as if you were not there; one girl stopped counting at 100. Cleaner stations abound and most fish are very tolerant of divers.

Yes, there can be a dozen boats at Barracuda Point at 9am. Yes, there are five resorts there and two operators come over from nearby Mabul most days but you can still see no other group on your dive.

I was there at Christmas and New Year when there were probably over 350 divers about but still had great uninterrupted dives by choosing the right site at the right time. Visibility and weather were not great for paradise but everything is relative.

Recent surveys found that the coral is in good condition, even improving, and the fish population is increasing. Most divers are very conscious of their buoyancy - few novices go, anyway -and little damage is done to the coral, especially compared to that done by feeding turtles and nesting triggerfish. Just hang and watch them sometime!

There is a limit to what the island can tolerate but the situation is constantly monitored and is not a problem at the moment.'

Malcolm Hey

'Set aside your romantic vision of a sun-soaked island in a tranquil, turquoise sea. Think instead of a 20-mile sea crossing through beating rain. But, on arrival, the sun shines, the local people smile and greet you ashore and you realise that the crossing was but a reminder to add a Pelican dry case to your shopping list.

Topside, Sipadan is, so far as the tourist-divers world will allow, an idyllic unspoiled island with dense rainforest covering all but the narrow fringing beach.

At the height of the season, there are probably 200 divers diving Sipadan three, four and even five times each day. Undoubtedly the island's waters are over-dived but the Dive Centres are well managed and organise the diving so no site is overloaded.

Underwater, Sipadan is dream territory. Turtles, of course, are synonymous with the island and rarely did we dive without having good turtle photo-opportunities. Dense shoals of fish - batfish, bump-head parrot fish, jacks and barracuda are another feature that 1 have not experienced to the same extent elsewhere.

The reefs do lack the colour of the Red Sea insofar as there is not the profusion of colourful soft corals but this is more than offset by the dramatic drop-offs and shoals of fish.

Inevitably a current flows. Gentle enough to allow photography but the water movement - and hence diver movement - means that much photoshooting is reactive rather than carefully planned. Return visits to specific locations test the skills of the boathandlers and divers ... as well as their luck!

The house drop-off is the exception. Here there is little water movement and photo subjects stay put till the next visit. The house reef is said to be the best shore dive in the world ... and few are likely to dispute this claim.'

Hilary Driscoll

'The diving is very convenient with cylinders readily available. The accommodation was clean and the sheets were changed each day. The washing facilities were immaculate though not luxurious. Fruit, biscuits, hot and cold water were available all the time.

Diving was very convenient. The interesting house reef was only ten paces from the dive centre.

The destinations for each day's boat dives were stated in advance so you could choose which ones you wished to go to. Once you had dived them all, which you could do in four days, you knew which ones you preferred.

You boarded the boats fully-kitted and it took no more than five minutes to reach any of the sites. They just whizzed you round the island from the beach.

There was a myriad of subjects, from turtles to big shoals of barracuda and jacks as well as many white-tipped reef sharks. There were also many subjects for close-up photography when you started looking.'

Peter Rowlands

Why is it always me who arrives at a time of poor visibility? Over the years I've come to accept I'm jinxed and unfortunately Spiadan was no exception, but I did see the potential of this pearl of an island after a long journey including several modes of transport.

The diving regulations at Borneo divers didn't prove flexible enough for my style of diving (in when I want, out when I want and without anyone else) but I understand their need to cater for a wide variety of capabilities including visiting divers staying for two or three days as part of their Far East itinerary.

I saw, and was impressed by, all of the promised subjects but the water clarity was not good enough to achieve good shots except in macro, so I was frustrated and disappointed with my results. Like most underwater photographers, the results dictate the memory of the location.

It amazed me that the reefs were still generally in good condition despite the highest concentration of divers I have seen anywhere.

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