Before we arrived in Semporna, the jumping off point for diving Sipadan island, we’d taken an overnight bus to Tawau, arranged a 60-day visa to Indonesia, and bussed it back to Semporna. We had bloodshot eyes and nowhere to stay. In other words it was business as usual J.
We quickly found a great new and yet unnamed hotel, cranked the air-conditioning, and fell sound asleep. It seemed like I barely blinked and we were on a boat at 7:00am the next morning headed to Mabul. We did three dives, none spectacular in the way of corals or large fish but they were great for eccentric creatures. The next day was more of the same except on the second dive we saw a flambouyant cuttlefish, a first for both of us, and it was incredible. We were excited to do our next dive at a more advanced and reportedly more spectacular dive under a decommissioned oil rig about 100m offshore. At the last minute though, an instructor doing an Open Water course jumped on board and our hopes of doing that dive were dashed. We voiced our disappointment but he, being senior to our divemaster, got the last call. No matter, tomorrow we were diving Sipadan!
We left at 5:00am. There were eight people on our boat. We were paired with two experienced divers. On the first dive they had very poor air consumption and were put in the other group with the new divers allowing us to stay down longer. The dive was nothing special but we did see a few sharks and turtles. On the second dive we were paired with a girl who, despite being a new diver, was a champion on air and very comfortable in the water. Our divemaster was very keen to see a hammerhead shark and we agreed to do part of the second dive in the blue. In truth we spent the entire dive in the blue. The guide, Ki, was a Malaysian local and despite my misgivings half way through the dive I figured he knew what he was doing. We saw nothing the whole dive. After reflecting and chatting to other Sipadan guides I realize I should have listened to myself and demanded to go back to the reef. Given that there was no thermocline (a layer of cold water) and we were not able to go very deep, because of the new diver, our chances of seeing a hammerhead were next to none and it was very poor judgment on the part of our guide. No matter, there were still two more dives.
Our third dive was at Barracuda Point. This was by far the highlight of our day and included a large school of jacks and a small school of medium sized barracuda, a few sharks and two leaf scorpionfish. It was far from our best dive ever but it was still an excellent dive.
On the surface interval we learned that another group had seen a hammerhead (we later learned she had an entirely experienced group and they had seen it briefly quite deep) and we agreed to go back to Hanging Gardens to see if we could get lucky as well. Again our divemaster swam out into the blue and we followed but after 10 minutes I swam back to the reef, I remained about 8 meters deeper than the group to keep an eye on anything below us. I ended up seeing two large tuna and a few sharks as well as lots of coral. After about 40 minutes our DM came back to the reef with the new diver. Val and I showed her a few of the things she had found and then it was time to surface. Our Sipadan experience was over.
I have no doubt that with right sea conditions Sipadan can offer a world’s best diving experience. However, those conditions are far from everyday and you need a good guide and a group that allows you to exploit them. I believe that Sipadan’s reputation is partly deserved and partly based on the excitement of new divers who get their first taste of world class diving there. The coral is mediocre by Indonesian standards but fish life is quite good. The amount of sharks is reported to sometimes be incredible, especially when there is a thermocline and strong current.
The diving on Mabul was interesting and we saw lots of frogfish, octopus, nudibranchs, and other rare critters. Overall I would say that the diving in the entire area is quite good, but not better than other SE Asian diving hotspots. From diving so much in Komodo I know how variable the reef can be and I’m sure we hit Sipadan on an off day with an off guide, which is especially unfortunate given the expense on has to pay to dive here. From a value perspective Sipadan suffers from its own popularity. I’m sure we will go back someday, I hope our luck is better then.