Fail-Proof Planning to Sipadan, A Coastal Treasure

Some of the world’s most precious places have been restricted by overseeing governments. For example, a restricted number of hiking permits are issued each day for the world renowned Inca Trail at Machu Picchu and New Zealand’s Milford Track. Similarly, there are only 120 permits per day to dive at Sipadan, a Malaysian island revered as one of the top five diving destinations in the world. Its location in the Celebes Sea yields a rich array of colorful fish, hammerhead sharks, and sea turtles. With spring break upon us, here’s a plan for getting to dive at Sipadan.

About Sipadan

Green Turtle - Sipadan

Sipadan is formed from a coral reef. Because of its positioning in the sea in relation to currents, is is an explosion of diverse and gorgeous sea life. Beyond the ocean, the plants and animals on the island are similarly phenomenal. Sipadan is truly a hidden gem that any adventurous traveler should make the time to see, if one is permitted to visit its restricted location.

Nearby, travelers also can check out the neighboring islands Mabul Island, Kapalai Island and Mataking Island. Mabul Island has many available resorts as a result of Sipadan’s exclusivity. In addition to diving, visitors can snorkel, sunbathe on the scenic beach, and experience local dining. Known for its muck and macro diving, you can dive year-round, with the best time being from April to October.

giant bumphead parrotfish

Not technically an island, Kapalai consists of 40 wooden dwellings on stilts and is a 45-minute boat ride from Sipadan. Other diving spots are just a few minutes away, and the “island” boardwalk provides a spectacular view. A private island, Mataking is three times the size of Sipadan. Beginning and advanced divers, as well as photographers, will enjoy the macro and pelagic (or open sea) diving.

A Guarded Treasure

Nobody lives on Sipadan Island, which was declared a bird sanctuary in 1993, then closed to the public in 2004. To dive at Sipadan, stay at a resort that receives divers permits. At one time, permits were handed out to Sipadan divers on a first-come, first-serve basis. These days, according to the diving website Undercurrent, divers are selected at random to receive them. Travelers report to Undercurrent that not all resorts are created equal when receiving permits and that the process can be “shady.” Members of the message board recommend phoning dive shops in advance to reserve a permit. For more personal accounts of diving in Sipadan, check out the Lonely Planet message board on the topic.

Once you secure a permit, the obstacles are not over. Your diving guide must receive permission from guards to enter the island, and National Parks has issued a daily entrance fee for the island. According to Undercurrent, the guards ask for a list of names they must approve. According to the website, diving guides use a pre-existing list of approved divers and assign the names to a fresh group of divers. For example, a team of American divers could very well be assigned Chinese or Russian names.

Increase Your Odds

To increase your chances of success, consult with a travel agent and dive operator on the nuances of the permitting process. It also helps to avoid the peak season – Easter, July, August, and the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s. Just make sure when you’re planning that you don’t choose a time when waters are rough and visibility is low, commonly January through March. Plan to stay at least five days in order to at lease dive at nearby islands while you’re waiting on the Sipadan lottery. Book as far in advance as possible and be mindful of permit office deadlines and hours of operation.

Carefully plan your flight to the islands, consulting a reliable travel agent and do your homework to ensure your flight plan is well coordinated. When flying back home, pay attention to the dangers of diving and flying. It is customary to be placed on flight restrictions within 24 hours of diving.

Jacob Mojiwat is passionate about the ocean and water sports. Currently he is sharing the wonders of diving in malaysia with others. His website, has comprehensive information about Asian dive locations such as Sipadan Island and the area dive resorts to help diving enthusiasts plan unparalleled scuba diving vacations.

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