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More Dive Trips

Budget Diving at Sipidan and Mabul islands, Malaysia


Sipidan, Mabul (and Kapalai) are three small islands off the east coast of Borneo, Malaysia. From Australia they can be reached by flying to Kuala Lumpar, and then to Tawau, the nearest airport, then by bus / taxi to Semporna, a coastal town from which fast boats depart for Mabul. I flew Air Asia from Perth, the return trip costing about $500. It required an overnight stop in Semporna in order to catch the early morning boat out to Mabul.
There is both budget and resort accomodation on Mabul and resort accomodation only Kapalai. To get and stay there you need to book with one of the accomodation providers in advance. This usually includes a dive package. To dive Sipidan you need a special permit as there is a limit of 120 divers per day, which can also be arranged as part of a package. Note that only some operators have these permits (although others can buy them for you at a price).





There is plenty of interesting muck (or macro) diving around both Mabul and Kapalai, as the waters have been heavily fished, although there are turtles which are protected. Some of the upmarket resorts have exclusion zones to fishing, where you can dive or snorkel only. The reef drops off rapidly in some areas and gently in others. There are also some sandy / silty areas with some artificial habitates such as sunken dive boats, tires and wooden cages to promote fish life. All diving is from boats in small groups involving short trips and is guided.
Among the many things to see are frog fish, scorpion fish, crocodile fish, moray eels, sea snakes, cuttle fish, various shrimps, pipefish, many colourful small reef fish, soft and hard corals. Off Kapalai there is a reasonably large passenger ferry that has been deliberately sunk.
Above water on Mabul, there is a huge contrast between the resorts and relative the poverty of the village life and the "sea gypsies" (stateless people who live their entire life on boats). There is also the problem of plastic on the beaches and floating around the kampong. The budget accomodation is all on stilts over the water (just like the resorts) but within the kampong (village) zone. I stayed mostly at "Billabong Homestay" which was ok (various rooms from dorms to chalets) and importantly its own permits for Sipidan. Food was basic: fish and rice or chicken and rice with a few vegetables. There was also a great massage in the kampong.





Sipidan is the highlight for most divers, and really is a must especially if you like lots of big fish, walls, hard corals and generally good viz. It is Malaysia's only true oceanic island rising from the floor 2000m below and is very small. Because (and fortunately) of its uniqueness, it has for some time been declared a marine national park with no fishing, which is enforced by the presence of the Malaysian military on land and sea. It takes about 30 mins to get there from Mabul by fast boat.
The result is an unusual amount of pelagic fish including white and black tip sharks (although none really big), barracudas including a school of juvenile barracudas, a huge school of jackfish, many turtles, plus reef inhabitants including hump heads, morays and some beautiful corals. The walls are 360 degrees round the island and are spectacular, and there are some caves



spent a week on Mabul and did a total of 15 dives, including 6 over two days on Sipadan, the total cost being about $1,200.
An interesting side trip while in Borneo is to stay overnight at a Homestay on the Kinabatangan river and do short evening and morning boat trips to spot monkeys and birds in the jungle, and crocodiles in the river, then continue on to Sandakan and visit the orang-utan rescue centre. Sandakan is a 5 hour bus ride from Semporna and has direct flights back to KL.
The overall cost of my two week trip was about $2,000.

March 2014