With 50m visibility and an abundance of marine life, Sipadan is the undoubtedly the best Malaysian scuba diving destination, and is often ranked as one of the top dive spots worldwide. In this guide to scuba diving in Sipadan we’ll look at the best dive sites, what you can see and why all divers should visit.
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in East Malaysia. It is located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin it’s at the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
Rising 600m from the seabed, Sipadan Island was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. Above the surface it is a small desert island, but beneath the waves it is throbbing with life and the best Malaysian scuba diving has to offer.
What to see scuba diving in Sipadan
The ecosystem features more than 3,000 classified species of fish, plus hundreds of coral species. There are around 20 outstanding dive sites dotted around Sipadan, where it’s possible to see sharks, including hammerheads, turtles, manta rays, eagle rays and even whale sharks.
Diving here is great for walls, drop offs and drift dives. It is claimed that the waters around Sipadan have the largest turtle population anywhere, with multiple green turtles seen on most dives. This is no surprise as they nest on the island, something I experienced when staying there in 2001.
A big draw are the enormous schools of barracuda in tornado-like formations – looking up through the eye of a barracuda tornado is still one of the best dive experiences of my life. You’re also likely to see large schools of big-eye trevally, and the ugly, yet somehow charming, bumphead parrotfish.
I love the small stuff too and Sipadan has it all, including nudibranchs, frog fishes, leaf fishes, and the ridiculously gorgeous pygmy seahorses. The coral is apparently pristine, with shallow coral gardens and deeper, sea gorgonians fans and barrel sponges along the walls.
Best Malaysian scuba diving
Amazingly – and many would say thankfully – it was only discovered as a dive destination in 1984. But scuba diving in Sipadan only became popular when Jacques Cousteau spent several weeks filming there in 1989 and said “I have seen other places like Sipadan… 45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art.”
As a result Sipadan quickly became the best Malaysian scuba diving holiday destination. When this popularity looked like it could start damaging the ecosystem the Malaysian government stepped in. To preserve its rich marine diversity, the island was declared a protected national park reserve from January 2005.
All resorts based on the island of Sipadan have now closed, so I feel lucky to have spent a week on the island back in 2001. Now the best way to dive Sipadan is from one of the local resorts on the neighbouring islands of Mabul and Kapalai, or on day trips from Semporna on mainland Borneo.
Scuba diving in Sipadan: Top dive spots
The corals and the ecosystem are still very well preserved, so it is no great surprise that scuba diving in Sipadan regularly appears in lists of the world’s best diving destinations. There are over 20 incredible dive sites around Sipadan, but these are the highlights to enjoy during the best Malaysian scuba diving holidays.
The Drop Off is probably Sipadan’s most famous dive site – and the easiest to access. Just ten metres from the beach this abyss drops down over 600m and teems with life. It has been rated as the best beach dive of the world.
Just snorkeling the edge of the drop off is a great experience with plenty of fish in the shallows including young white tip reef sharks. Once you go over the edge there is a slight current, making it an easy drift dive in most conditions.
The wall is covered in many varieties of coral that changes as you get deeper, so it is worth diving here a few times at different depths. Some big pelagics visit the area, keep a lookout for grey reef sharks and white tips plus and hammerheads in the deep blue.
There will undoubtedly be huge schools of jacks circling above you, a truly magical sight on this fantastic wall of marine life. This spot is also popular for scuba diving in Sipadan at night, where huge bumphead parrotfish, turtles and other sealife can be seen sleeping on the wall, and nighttime fish come out to play.
There is also a cave called turtle tomb that is about 20m below the surface. The coral cave leads 200m from the entrance, on route you’ll see skeletons of a dolphin and a marlin before reaching the turtle tomb littered with the bones of the many animals that ended up here.
We have included South Point as this is the area where there is the best chance of spotting something big. Deep waters and strong currents have been known to bring in manta rays, hammerhead and thresher sharks to this spot. Though they are usually at around 40m, so for advanced divers only.
Although Whale sharks are rare, during the krill season from March to June it is still worth finning off the wall into the open water a little way for the hope of a glimpse. Watch the currents though they can be pretty strong.
You can also experience strong currents at Barracuda Point. They are laden with food that attracts thousands of fish to the area to feed, including huge schools of chevron barracuda. The topography hee is interesting, starting with a wall which merges into a ledge at around 22m – where resting white tip sharks can be seen.
Watch out for grey reef sharks, eagle rays, turtles and bumphead parrotfish. The sheer numbers of fish are astounding here and drift diving is the best way to explore this absolutely awesome dive site. And if you get to look through the eye of the barracuda tornado you’ll never forget it.
We hope you found this guide to the best Malaysian scuba diving in Sipadan useful. Be sure to check out or other Malaysia scuba diving articles.