Diving at Sipadan Island costs the kind of money that makes all of your internal organs contract and you have to go and apply lots of beer to them and calm down a little bit before you return to the dive shop website you were looking at with a deep breath whilst trying to reassure yourself that you can’t put a price tag on experience. Everyone says it’s amazing and let’s face it, in a few months time I won’t remember the £280, I’ll just remember the diving, and this is what I’ll tell myself as I throw a large portion of budget at aforementioned experience whilst trying not to cry. It’s the fact you need a permit I think which makes it so bastard expensive and it’s said that you’ll need to book waayyyyy in advance in order to dive at Sipadan on account of the fact they only issue 120 permits a day. I didn’t actually find this to be the case, I started enquiring as soon as I was cleared to dive after having pneumonia by a doctor at Klinik Sabah in Kota Kinabalu less than a couple of weeks in advance and at least two of the dive centres I emailed said they could arrange a permit for my dates.
So I’m not saying this is because popularity has dropped because you might get kidnapped by pirates, but guys, you might get kidnapped by pirates. I was assured by every dive shop I emailed that there’d be nothing to worry about despite all European governments advising against travel to the islands off the coast of Sabah. There was, they told me, all manner of security measures in place. The army were present, there was a curfew in place, all dive boats registered their itineraries with the local authorities and any suspect boats in the area were apprehended immediately by armed forces. A huge attempt to kidnap foreign nationals from Sabah’s island resorts to be ransomed or used as human shields was foiled in April just gone. They’ve got this shit down, but please read your country’s foreign travel advice and make your own decisions. I’d be pretty fucked if they kidnapped me, we’ve got sod all, unless they were willing to let me go for a Kit Kat and a packet of crisps I’d be thrown firmly into the “human shield” category.
Okay, so, once you’ve weighed up the risks and decided that you’re probably safer here than anywhere in Europe right now, there are a few ways to get this shit sorted. If you have time to chill you can actually just catch a boat out to Mabul Island, find a place to crash, eat where you choose and dive around Mabul with whatever dive centre you want when you want, just paying their á la carte prices. Full control, absolute flexibility and whilst there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to go to Sipadan (I would hit up the smaller, budget dive shops to see if they can help you) it’s not a complete impossibility. I met a Dutch couple who just rocked up to do their Advanced PADI with no prior arrangements and were able to take a day off from that to dive Sipadan.
So Tarrant, Nat and Laura took an overnight bus from Lahad Datu back to KK and I went on to Semporna with plans to meet them back there the day before Nat and Laura flew back out. Semporna isn’t the absolute shit hole I’d been lead to believe either. There’s nothing for tourists here but it’s a proper, bustling local town, much more buzzing than Lahad Datu, and for the first time since we arrived in Borneo I actually felt like I was in Asia. I didn’t mind it at all. You can book Sipadan/accommodation etc without a package too, but I wanted a nice, easy number so I knew where I was with everything. I booked a 2D1N budget package with SipadanBorneo.com and duly shuffled to their office at 7am on the Sunday, apparently the boat would be leaving at 7.10. It was 7.30 by the time I was bundled into a car and driven to somewhere else whilst wondering if I was being kidnapped.
Turned out I wasn’t being kidnapped which was nice because I really really wanted to go diving. Eventually I was delivered to Mabul Backpackers on Mabul Island where I met Armen, my Divemaster, and was sized up for kit, introduced to the Dutch couple and the two French blokes I’d be diving with and put on a boat heading to Sipadan. I was so excited. After the bitter disappointment of not being able to dive at Komodo Island in Indonesia or Malapascua Island in the Philippines I was so happy to be heading out to make bubbles. At this stage you could have thrown me in a bathtub with a BCD and a cylinder and I’d have been happy but to be heading out to what is meant to be one of the best dive sites in the world? Fuck yes!
Our first dive was at Barracuda Point. We back rolled off the boat and descended and the first thing we saw were a shit load of schooling jack fish. Like, we were barely down and we were faced with this wall of scales. It didn’t take long before we spotted a grey reef shark just chilling on the bottom either. It was big. Not “rip your head off for a tasty snack” big, but big enough to make your bum hole twitch. This fucking dive though, guys, it was sensory overload, I didn’t know where to look. There were fish everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of fish, too many to remember so I could ask what they were afterwards. Of course dickhead here forgot to buy a red filter for the GoPro so nothing I post here will be exactly as I saw it. Try and imagine more colour.
We floated past coral gardens, torn between inspecting the tiny critters that hang out there and straining our eyes, looking into the blue for the larger creatures that Sipadan is known for. I don’t think any of us coped, Armen had to constantly ask us to keep together and I just didn’t know where to point my face. Then more sharks arrived, white tipped reef sharks emerged from the blue and glided past us, quite a few of them, and one of them swung by pretty close to us too. I fucking love them. I just love sharks. I’m not going to lie, if I came face to face with a bull shark or a great white I’d probably soil my wetsuit but they’re perfect aren’t they? Evolution has just gone, “yeah nah, I think we nailed this one lads”, and they’ve been around in some form or another for millions upon millions of years, surviving all five mass extinctions.
Then we saw what the dive site is named for; the chevron barracudas, a metric shit tonne of them schooling in a breathtaking spiral mere metres away from us. Yeah so I get a little bit nervous around barracudas on account of the fact they have a penchant for shiny things and I don’t take my piercings out to dive. I have the shiniest face in all the land. I’ve never had a problem with them though but I’ve never seen so fucking many in one place before and as Armen told us afterwards, if they chose to they could, and I quote, “slice you like a samurai sword.” Comforting. I stared at them in absolute awe and felt myself slipping further down the food chain.
At one point we got caught in a strong down current which I’ve never experienced before, I’ve never done a drift dive, and I’m not sure if I liked it. You don’t feel like you have any manner of control as the ocean sweeps you where ever it damn well pleases and I was flapping like a dolphin on crack just trying to stay steady. We couldn’t fight it so we went with it, travelling faster than I’ve ever done on a dive before. Armen didn’t seem worried, he was only concerned about us all staying together and kept an eye on us, arms calmly folded in front of him. I tried to enjoy the ride as the current took us past bat fish, sweet lips, millions of those fish with the crescent tails that I can’t identify because I kept forgetting to ask once we’d surfaced, even a green sea turtle which regarded us from the bottom as the current finally relinquished its hold on us. I think that’s one of the joys of boat diving, it doesn’t matter where you end up, your boat will come and fetch you once you surface.
This dive made us all a bit giddy with excitement, everything was so overwhelming, the sharks and the turtle and the school of barracuda. I could go home happy just after that dive and we still had two more to go and mate, the weather! The weather had been fucking awful for the last few days but today was stunning which was ironic given that it was the first day I actually willingly got wet. The beach we were spending our surface intervals on wasn’t too awful either as vast expanses of tiny particles of evil go, basically a little bit of paradise. It’s just gorgeous above and below the water but I guess that’s what happens when you limit the number of humans allowed anywhere near it. You’re not permitted to go anywhere else on the island apart from this beach and there’s a very obvious military presence too.
Our second dive was at Turtle Patch which more than lived up to its name. There was a metric shit tonne of turtles. Turtles for days, mate. So many turtles that if turtles were currency you could bail out the national debt and still have enough for a kebab and the bus home. You could show me a hundred turtles every single day and I’d still be happy to look at more turtles. One guy glided so close to me I nearly spat my reg out, it was amazing. Everywhere we looked there were more turtles. There wasn’t much else but to be honest, this was more than enough.
What utterly made this dive though was the safety stop. We spent it by one of the most stunning coral gardens I’ve ever seen in my life. A beautiful full colour reef of healthy coral teeming with marine life. I wish this was my back garden, I couldn’t get enough of it. I didn’t want this dive to end, I could have happily stayed down here forever and have people just keep on sending me cylinders though someone would need to work out a way to feed me tea and cheesecake without drowning me. Best safety stop ever! Literally ever!
Even the third dive after lunch at the Drop Off, the least eventful dive of the three, saw us surrounded by schooling bigeye trevally for several minutes. Hundreds of the fuckers, they never seemed to end. But they did end and so did the dive and yeah, already I give exactly zero fucks about the cash I threw at this, it was worth every single sen. We all filled in our dive logs that evening, giddy with excitement and rum in equal quantities, and I made myself go to bed early, I know what I’m like with a hangover. I believe you can vomit into a regulator but I’d rather not find out how that works out.
Sipadan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at (in Semporna): Poga Backpackers
Stayed at (on Mabul): Mabul Backpackers
Activity: Scuba diving with Sipadan Borneo.com
(Both outfits owned by Noble Inworld)