The clichés “world class diving” and “best dive site in the world” come up a great deal when discussing Sipadan and Mabul, the only oceanic islands in Malaysia. But what is it that gives Sipadan claim to these titles? The secret can be found in the health of the coral, the diversity of marine life, and the conservation efforts from the government and nature lovers.
There are certainly plenty of competitors for the “best diving in Asia” title – Mergui Archipelago, Maldives, Komodo, Raja Ampat – but the Sipadan region is a little slice of ocean off of Malaysia that deserves a mention.
The Quota and Coral
The first thing that makes Sipadan unique is the care taken to make sure it isn’t overwhelmed by humans. The resorts vacated in 2005, and the government introduced a quota system in 2006, which permits only 120 visitors to the island and its surrounding reefs per day. The permits area is divided among the 12 dive resorts in the area who then use a rotating system to allocate permits to guests. Guests staying longer than 3 nights have a better chance of obtaining a permit provided they book far enough in advance.
The reefs and marine life are protected by strict no-fishing regulations and only advanced divers or divers with more than 20 dives are permitted to dive. Fewer divers on the reefs means less stress for the coral. Add to this their strict policies on no touching or collecting coral and the dive marshals who shadow and spot check the dive operators, Sipadan is a sustainable dive haven.
Forming a wall that drops down to between 600 and 2,000 meters (on the south side of the island), the Sipadan Barrier Reef is the largest Barrier Reef in South East Asia. Set in the Coral Triangle, Sipadan is home to the world’s highest marine biodiversity, all with year round water clarity.
The Biodiversity and Predators
Not only are there many different kinds of fish swimming around the reefs of Sipadan, but these fish are also present in large numbers.
Divers are likely to encounter large schools of predator fish like barracuda, jackfish, and trevally mulling around with sunlight lightly reflecting off of their silvery scales. Even the bumphead parrotfish, with its ability of reaching up to 1.3 meters in length, can be seen in massive schools here.
Strong currents around the island bring in larger pelagic animals for cleaning, hunting and mating. Whale sharks, devil rays, leopard and thresher sharks, manta rays, and schools of hammerheads can sometimes be seen swimming among the tropical reef fish. The smaller life around Sipadan is equally exciting, with baby-faced frog fish, spotted harlequin shrimp, the highly toxic blue ring octopus, and colorful nudibraches.
The number of butterfly fish present on a reef is indicative of the health of coral; as to be expected, a great number of brightly colored tropical fish are found here, including sweetlips, groupers, and bannerfish.
Sharks, rays, and turtles frequent the cleaning stations around Sipadan where small fish and shrimps clean their shells and teeth, swimming out through the gills once they are done. Keen lovers of underwater life will have likely seen one of Sipadan’s cleaning stations on Blue Planet II, featuring competing turtles looking for the best spot.
The cleaning stations provide divers the opportunity to wait around and observe the behavior of the marine life instead of just swimming around looking for critters to tick off their list. Spending the time to watch the marine life in this fashion increases divers’ chances of witnessing a shark feeding frenzy or even mating displays.
Sipadan offers a smorgasbord of experiences for divers from large pelagic animals lazily gliding by to tiny little critters hiding amongst the crevices in the reefs. It’s not just the best dive site in Malaysia; it belongs among some of the best in the world.