The name Sipadan is no longer a stranger to divers all over the world with good reason. The underwater topography of this tiny 40-acre island, 36 kilometers south of the Malaysian port of Semporna in the Celebes Sea, is enormous. There are a dozen or so excellent dives off Sipadan and on any given day you can expect to spot sharks, numerous green turtles, schools of jackfish and the famous barracuda. If you are one lucky dude, you might also catch a sighting of the most elusive denizens of the deep: the island is known as the last strongholds of the scalloped hammerhead shark. This rare finding is an absolute reason for divers to come here.
A huge wall plunges 600 meters just a few meters from the shore, making for spectacular wall and drift dives, while the hundreds of other coral species growing right on top of the extinct volcanic leftover that forms Sipadan are the home to almost more than 3000 species of underwater fishes. These include larger pelagic species – white-tip reef sharks and grey reef sharks – as well as devil and eagle rays, and the exceptionally strong currents that flow around the island attract large schools of barracuda, as well as an occasional giant manta rays and rarely seen whale sharks.
One of the island’s best diving places takes its name from the large school of swimming chevron barracuda that are often seen here. It’s a wall dive that reaches a wide channel with the strong currents flowing through it; where the barracuda are often seen at one end of the channel and one of the highlights is holding on to the rock while watching this immense vortex of silver and teeth. You may also spot few reef sharks along the channel floor searching for prey, as they are also drawn to the strong currents, as well as a sinuous ribbons of spotted garden and moray eels, colorful lion fish, octopuses and scorpion fish, while green turtles are often seen hanging out in the shallows.
DROP-OFF AND TURTLE CAVE
Drop-off is just that – just 5 meters away from the shore, the bottom falls away to a sheer 600 meters drop. As you descend along the wall you might spot turtles resting on the ledges. The most exciting part of the dive is the enchanting Turtle Cave, a giant cavern opening 20 meters down that leads into a vast cave. It takes its name after the turtles that swam into the cave, got lost and drowned – where whole skeletons were found resting on the bottom of the sea floor. You have to be certified to have a chance to explore the cave, but even if you did swim a few meters in, you may spot its resident, solitary George, a giant barracuda that is over 2 meters long. You’ll also catch a glimpse of a shark or three. A large school of jackfish tends to hang around the area near the cave, will be best to be seen as you are ascending.
WEST RIDGE, HANGING GARDENS, LOBSTER LAIR AND STAGHORN CREST
The western part of Sipadan is where the drop off is the greatest. Drift dives here are usually done during the afternoon, when the sun illuminates the wall, with the currents carrying you heading towards South Point. While on good days, visibility reaches 40 meters and you can also catch a view of some residential scalloped hammerheads on plateaus over 60 meters down, as well as these beautiful grey reef sharks. The Hanging Garden however is a particularly colorful section of the wall, with countless overhangs, barrel sponges and gorgonian sea fans, with morays, angelfish, groupers and sweetlips lurking in the clefts. The narrow clefts at Lobster Lair is the hiding sanctuary of shy lobsters; Staghorn Crest is a garden of staghorn corals in shallow water, where angelfish flourish, and the soft corals at West Ridge commonly attract snappers, sweetlips, the occasional napoleon wrasse and groupers.
While South Point is located at the opposite end of the island from the Barracuda Point, and the strong currents here successfully attract much larger aquatic life – school of grey reef sharks, white-tips and the very odd rare leopard shark, as well as some eagle rays, devil rays, giant manta rays and few turtles. There are quite plenty of reef fish here too, such as sweetlips, Moorish idols, yellow back fusiliers and red-tooth triggerfish, and for macro divers should watch out for porcelain crabs, anemone shrimp, bubble coral shrimp and leaf scorpion fish in the shallows. The shallows also do attract quite a handful of large schools of giant parrotfish that come to feed on table corals.
CORAL GARDENS, WHITE-TIP AVENUE, MID-REEF, TURTLE PATCH
However, diving on the east side of the Sipadan island will be done best when illuminated by the sun in the morning, and on good days you may let the currents to carry you all the way from the Turtle Patch towards Barracuda Point, passing the other three sites and on the way spotting mantas, devil rays, giant tuna and pick handle barracuda in the open water along the way there. Mid-Reef is quite a popular gathering spot for green turtles and reef fish such as Moorish idols, cardinalfish, unicorn fish and much more. White-Tip Avenue on the other hand is the favorite spot with white-tip reef sharks, while the corals and crevices shelter butterflyfish, emperor angelfish and scorpionfish. At Coral Gardens, in the shallow part of the wall, you can as much spot every reef fish species in Sipadan’s waters – fire gobies, yellow mask angelfish, coral trout where you just name it you will see it there.