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91307 Causeway Road,
S.O.T.C. Semporna,
Sabah, Malaysia.

Jewels of Semporna
Off the east coast of Borneo, the Celebes Sea thrives as one of the richest of marine habitats. Its jewel is the famous Sipadan Island, frequently voted as one of the world’s top ten dive sites. Meanwhile, nearby Mabul Island is gaining recognition as one of the best muck diving and macro dive sites in the world. Mabul’s neighbour Kapalai Island offers a bit of both.

SIPADAN

Does the world lie on the back of a gigantic turtle? We don’t know, but we can tell you that Sipadan just might be the centre of the turtle universe. Sea turtles are an endangered species worldwide but this is one of the very few places where close encounters are guaranteed on every dive.

It was the sea turtles that first put the island on the map when it became part of Sabah’s turtle egg native reserve in 1964. Later a 1989 Jacques Cousteau documentary called Ghost of the Sea Turtles launched Sipadan into legendary renown. The late oceanographer described it: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.” Till this day, divers speak of Sipadan as among the best diving spots on Earth, featuring many unique highlights.

The island was formed by corals growing atop an extinct undersea volcano over thousands of years. Sipadan is pretty much a column of rock rising 600m (2000 feet) from the sea floor, poking out of the ocean 10km (6.2 miles) south of the continental shelf. Enveloped in strong, nutrient-rich currents in the middle of the Indo-Pacific basin, many thousands of species converge here in this ecological city of wonders.

Some of Sipadan’s signature spots:

Drop Off

You can see for yourself the unusual nature of Malaysia’s only oceanic island most dramatically at the Drop Off. This is at the northern end of the island, where the shallow sand mere steps away from the beach plunges into a deep, vertical wall of reef that’s teeming with life and great for snorkeling and shore diving.

Turtle Cave

Near the Drop Off and 20 metres underwater is the mysterious Turtle Cave, also known as the Turtle Tomb. Skeletons have been found of turtles that had lost their way and drowned inside, earning the cavern its names and a folk belief that this was the final resting place of turtles. Proper training and equipment are required to fully explore this cave system, without which you could suffer the same fate. But swimming just a few meters into the cave is thrilling enough, if only for the majestic view of the deep blue sea out from inside.

Barracuda Point

This is a prized spot on Sipadan for the sheer mass and variety of marine life visible. As the name suggests, it’s famous for the vast schools of barracuda and also trevally forming spectacular vortex formations, a much sought-after sight to behold. Reef sharks, octopus, morays and more can be found here too.

South Point

At the opposite end of the island, facing the vast open ocean, South Point is a prime place to watch big, pelagic life forms. Sharks, rays and turtles swarm this area in legions. For macro life lovers, the reef walls here are teeming with plenty, as they do on all sides of the island.

West Ridge

The west side, the deepest walls of Sipadan, is the part best explored in the afternoon when the sun shines here, illuminating a rainbow of corals, fishes and anemones. Somewhere along here are the Hanging Gardens, where sea fans and soft corals splendidly hang down the ledges and down the walls.

MABUL

When Sipadan was stripped of all commercial structures in 2004 as a long-term measure to preserve and rehabilitate the island’s natural state, some dive operators moved to Mabul Island, located 25 minutes away, to make it their jump-off point for Sipadan dives. A whole new chapter of discovery soon opened when macro divers found Mabul itself to be a haven of exotic critters. It has since emerged from the shadow of its famous neighbour as a world-class dive destination in its own right.

While Sipadan is coral-encrusted, awash in strong currents, and known for large and swarming pelagic fauna, Mabul offers a completely different experience: mostly silt and debris in calmer waters and a bustling home of the small and strange. Muck diving is the name of the game here, where curious divers take their time to scan the floor and inspect closely for myriad interesting species including seahorses, nudibranchs, eels, and so much more. Many a photographer has surfaced from the waters of Mabul with incredibly rewarding, sometimes award-winning shots.

Some of the popular spots at Mabul:

Froggy Lair

Amid the nooks and crannies in rocks and sometimes rubbish like old tyres, there are plenty of critters thriving. Keen eyes will find wonderful varieties of nudibranchs, garden eels, mantis shrimps, and typically at this site, frogfish of many sizes and colours. Lucky divers may even encounter the M. pfefferi (Pfeffer’s Flamboyant Cuttlefish) and the blue-ringed octopus.

Crocodile Avenue

Don’t worry, no crocs here. In fact you wouldn’t spot this site’s namesake, the harmless and well-camouflaged crocodilefish usually lying on the sandy bottom, if you aren’t sharp enough. With the same attentiveness you may find a handful of seahorses hanging around in patches of weed.

Seaventure Platform

This decommissioned oil rig may be an eyesore and perhaps the last place you’d consider diving beneath, but the view underwater is a different story: the structure shelters an Eden for muck divers. Classic colourful encounters including frogfish, lionfish and nudibranchs are common, and giant moray eels are among the larger life forms here.

Old House Reef

Several dive operators collaborated to build an artificial reef, sinking old boats and multi-shaped constructions that eventually flourished into a playground of marine life. The project was such a success that the reef seemed to have become a mini Sipadan, attracting an array of fauna. Schools of trevally frequent this place and giant stingrays can be found lurking in the sand.

KAPALAI

The third point of the golden triangle, Kapalai Island isn’t exactly an island but a shallow sandbank atop the Ligitan Reef. Above water, Kapalai is best known for the resort built on stilts that appears to magically exist far out in the open sea. Under the surface, Kapalai diving is a mix of two worlds: a muck diver’s paradise in gentle waters comparable to that of Mabul, but with the higher visibility and some of the large pelagics typical of Sipadan.