There is beauty underwater all over the world. But there’s only one place that Jacques Cousteau once called an “Untouched Piece of Art.” This place is the island of Sipadan, which has some of the most beautiful, rich and diverse coral and marine life in the world. But it is not heard of by many. However, as many diving experts will tell you, among the diving community, Sipadan is known by everyone. It is so well known and admired among those that explore the ocean’s depths, it is one of the top diving destinations in the world. What might attract you to explore this island are the incredible and unusual marine life sightings. And when you’re not diving below the water, you can enjoy spying one of the most diverse and wondrous bird populations of the world.
Sipadan, an island off the coast of Malaysia in the Sulu Sea, offers divers crystal blue water and visibility depths of between 50 to over 130 feet (15 to over 40 meters). There are thousands of species of fish swimming amongst both hard and soft pristine coral. As the operator of a diving company, it is a joy for me to bring divers down to experience the explosion of color and marine wonderment such as enjoying the abundance of turtles that swim and lounge around the island. There are four species of turtles on the island: the leatherback, the olive ridley, Hawksbill and the Green turtle. The Green turtle can grow to be four feet long and is considered to be a lucky find if sighted on the island.The olive ridley turtle was named for the olive color of its heart-shaped shell and is interesting among the turtles because it is the smallest, only about two feet long and 80 to 110 pounds (35 to 50 kg). All of the turtle species on the island are endangered, yet they appear to be so plentiful in Sipadan. Diving companies will guarantee that you will see a turtle during each dive. Except for the Green turtle, the other turtles seem to always be around. And they are often curious and friendly with divers.
Beneath the crystalline waters, a wide, colorful palette of species swim around the island that is only 0.5 km long, 200 meters wide and can be walked in about 25 minutes. During a diving excursion you might encounter hammerheads, reef sharks, sting rays, the elusive whale shark, trevalys, giant bumphead parrotfish, as well as the plentiful and pretty nudibranchs. Dependable favorites await in schools, such as thousands of trevallies and barracuda. It is a celebratory moment when the rare napoleon wrasse, grouper, or puffer fish are seen because it is testimony to the wishful thinking that not all have been eaten or fished out of the seas. An explosion of color follows schools of tiny fish like the anthias, damselfish, cardinalfish and blennies. A curious and slow-moving diver might spot the many crustaceans, eels, and stonefish that are more on the shy side.
Setting a complimentary backdrop to the island’s fish, are the glorious coral, such as the large Gorgonion fans, sea whips and feather stars. Not only are the coral structures fascinating, but the marine caves are equally intriguing. The island is known to have the largest variety of soft coral in the world. Along with this comes beautiful coral fishes. But be careful, sometimes a shark might swim by. Or a barracuda! The much friendlier turtles abound in a place called Turtle Cavern. In order to get to the cavern a diver must go to one of the best beach dive sites in the world, appropriately named “Drop Off.” A mere 20 feet (5 meters) from shore, a wall plunges a dazzling 2,800 ft (850 meters). The wall is encrusted with a wide variety of coral. Living on this wall are plenty of lionfish andsmaller reef fish. The entrance to Turtle Cavern is 70 ft (21 meters) down along the wall. Turtles swim in and out of the cavern and along the wall. The cavern can be difficult to navigate and there is now a rule that all divers must be accompanied by a resort operator in order to explore the cave, assome divers have not made it out. A deep penetration into the cave will reveal a species of fish specifically adapted to low light depths of the ocean.
As a diver you need to be aware of your surroundings and not handle the coral. Reckless divers and snorkelers have caused some coral damage. Also, surrounding boats and large diving groups have stirred up silt and sediment. This can actually choke and suffocate coral polyps. The Sipadan reef was also hurt by a powerful tropical storm named Greg which destroyed some shallower parts of the reef. This part of the reef has not recovered, especially with the addition of increased water temperatures from global warming. In 2006 the reef took an even heavier blow when a barge completely wiped out delicate corals between the pier and a popular island dive site called Barracuda Point. These incidents provide a good reminder on how fragile the corals and sealife can be.
As if there isn’t enough beauty below the waves, Sipadan is also known as a wondrous place for bird watching and was even designated a bird sanctuary. Bird watchers can observe 47 different species of birds, including a plentitude of frigates, sea eagles, terns, and kingfishers that glide across the small island. Sipadan also serves as an integral stopover point for migratory birds like the greater sand plover, common sandpiper, wood sandpiper, as well as the Nicobar pigeon which flies from China during the colder times of year. An interesting bird on the island that makes use of its kill in a practical way is the kingfisher which nests in holes. These holes, however, are lined with fish bones which the bird uses after it has eaten. Kingfishers are unique, exotic looking birds that are brightly colored and feature short legs and tails, big heads, and long, powerful beaks. Their diets consist of small vertebrates, insects, and fish. The sound of their cry has been compared to a cackle. Although the island is no longer open to visitors for animal exploration, serious bird watchers might want to take a short boat trip from a nearby island and observe from the designated areas near the Sipadan’s jetty.
The Malaysian government is working hard to protect the wildlife and marine life of Sipadan. In the past there had been five resorts along the north side of the island. But in 2002 the government closed the hotels and diving sites to protect the environment. Sipadan was nearly destroyed in the 1990s partly because the diving industry converged too heavily on the tiny island. Visitors cannot stay in Sipadan. So, if you plan to visit, you must stay in nearby Mabul or Semporna and take a minutes-long boat ride to Sipadan. Sipadan sits amongst a group of islands that all provide access. An hours long boat ride can also be taken from Mataking and Pompong. The island is also referred to as Pulau Sipadan. According to locals, the island is pronounced Siparan. Many years ago, it is said, a person named Siparan from Sempurna Island collected green turtle eggs. People began calling the island Siparan after this man. The name has stuck with locals to this day, but the official government name is Sipadan.
If you plan on visiting Sipadan for some diving or bird watching, get ready to be amazed by the pristine marine environment. It takes planning and dedication to make it to Sipadan, but what it has to offer puts it on many a “best-of” list which should then put it on many a “must-do” list. Sipadan might grow in fame throughout the years as it becomes more discovered, but it’s good to know the beautiful coral, fish and birds will always be well protected and ready to enjoy.
Jacob Mojiwat is passionate about sharing the wonders of scuba diving with others. He is the owner of AsiaDivingVacation.com. His dive company takes divers diving in Sipadan as well to other beautiful Asian dive destinations.