By: Tony Karacsonyi
When Jacques Yves Cousteau first visited Sipadan Island off Borneo, in the seventies, aboard the legendary Calypso, he was so impressed with its marine life, that he and his team of divers stayed on for six months to record its spectacular marine creatures.
One of the extraordinary discoveries Cousteau and his divers made was ‘The Turtle’s Tomb’~ a cave where some 20 turtle skeletons can be found. It can still be dived today by special arrangement with the local dive guides. Jacques Yves Cousteau rated Sipadan as one of the world’s best five places to scubadive!
Thirty-two miles off Semporna in the Celebes Sea, Sipadan Island is Malaysia’s only deep water
oceanic island ~ the tip of a submarine volcano, which rises six hundred metres from the
Drifting as if we were in space, along Sipadan’s mighty underwater walls in a gentle current
, we levelled off at 45 metres on a deep reef edge where gorgonia sea fans and dainty deep water
anthias fishes were common.
Later at 15 metres, the divers ahead excitedly pointed to a large hammerhead shark, out in the blue. The sight of this large shark, some 4 metres long was a sight to behold. They are seldom seen while diving
in South-East Asia
, although time to time, there are reports of schooling hammerheads. We swam towards it, but it was shy and made a getaway.
At 10 metres along the upper sunlit walls there were schools of colorful coral
reef fishes and green turtles around every bend in the reef. It’s difficult to say how many turtles we saw when diving
, but I can safely say we saw 5 to 12 turtles every dive!
At the ‘Coral Gardens’ we swam down to 40 metres where we saw big sea fans, soft corals and black coral
trees. The soft corals look indigo blue at this depth
and ‘tartan pattern’ hawkfish were perched elegantly among the sea fans.
Gangs of green turtles swam along the wall and one had a batfish playing a game
of tag with it. Another had a remora latched onto its belly. Pyramid coralfish flitted in the blue water like terrestrial butterflies.
Barracuda Point was another super dive to 40 metres, with a nice wall sprinkled with sea fans, black coral trees, blue triggerfish and emperor angelfish.
Two green turtles gathered at the ‘turtle cleaning
station’ to be cleaned by small reef fishes like moon wrasse, parrotfish and dussimer’s surgeonfish. One turtle seemed to be telling the other one ~ being cleaned, to move over. Clown triggerfish, regal angelfish looked on.
Sipadan diving is dynamic and ever changing. On one dive you may see turtles at a cleaning
station and on another ~ a school
of fusiliers being herded by giant trevally, a big hammerhead, or whitetip reef sharks. Don’t expect to find blue water on every dive but what you will find in the plankton rich green water can be very surprising!
One of the most diverse collections of marine life lives in the seas around Sipadan as the island is located near the central ‘hub’ of the Indo-Pacific, where tropical marine life is most diverse. The marine life at Sipadan is very rich indeed!
Sipadan Island is located in the Celebes Sea about 32 kilometres from Semporna in Sabah, the Malaysian part of Borneo. The island is a 35 acre top of an offshore
pinnacle which drops vertically to some 600 metres.
Twenty metres from the shore of Sipadan Island, the depth
drops to 600 metres. The visibility changes regularly but over 50 metres visibility is not uncommon, usually in April to September. Late September is when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. We visited in early September and I must say the visibility was changing from a plankton rich green 8 metres to 40 metres of indigo blue.
A lot of Sipadan’s shallow coral reef has been damaged over the years, due to divers and boat anchors, but the fish
and green turtles are still there, as are the big fans on the deep walls at 30 to 40 metres.
Normally 40 metres would be considered a very deep dive but at Sipadan these dives are easy. I remember doing 45 metres on the Flinders Reefs
in Australia’s Coral Sea
, on an undercut wall with current
~ that was a bit scary! I felt as though I was going to get pulled down much deeper by the current.
Sipadan usually has gentle currents. That’s not to say that divers should become blaze about the depth, but simply that the dives are easy and relaxed with much to see, especially at 10 metres where the green turtles hang out.
Each night as I lay to sleep, my mind flashed with colours of reef fish
and the marauding silhouettes of trevally and barracudas.
Last year, all the accommodation on Sipadan Island was closed down, in a move by the Malaysian Government
, to give the island a break from tourism, and to help have it declared as a ‘World Heritage Site’.
Scubadiving operators like Borneo Divers from Mabul Island are still diving at Sipadan Island. This is faring well, as divers, many who love underwater macro photography
, can also dive at Mabul Island and other sites. Borneo Divers run 2 dives at Sipadan each morning, weather
dependant, and a third dive around Mabul or Kapalai Islands.
Borneo divers also have a dive shop/operation in Labuan, which I can highly recommend for shipwreck
diving. We spent three days diving at Labuan and had an absolute ball, diving on wrecks such as the Cement Wreck, Blue Water Wreck, and others.
Diving at Sipadan Island has a real cosmopolitan flavour with divers visiting from all over the world. We met divers from England
. Every meal time at Mabul Island is filled with stories of rare sea slugs, fire gobies and long-nosed hawkfish ~ small fish with long noses, and tartan like markings!
Sipadan Island is one of the most spectacular places I’ve dived for large marine animals
, and I hope that its green turtles in particular, are given the highest possible protection.