Sipidan Island lies on the south side of Borneo about fifteen miles off the main island and ten miles off the resort island of Mabul. The tiny island has a history of political and environmental issues that go way back. Indonesia and Malaysia both laid claims and eventually the world court gave it to Malaysia in about 2000. It was a bird sanctuary way back in the early 1900’s. Jacques Cousteau dove there with rave reviews in the several decades ago.
With the border sensitivities and a strong effort to keep it from being abused a system of permits is in place. Only 120 divers a day can visit the island and the permits are exclusively given to the dive companies on Mabul. These spots are booked months in advance and usually only for longer term guests of the resorts, three and four day packages are frequent. We were told there were sometimes late cancellations and given the name of several operators who might help. We went on a scavenger hunt from operator to operator on the crowded islands. The operators are all in rustic primitive stilt buildings usually with tiny bungalows attached so we crawled over many a shaky planked dock to find them. We visited Billabong Diving and met Vanessa the manager. With some wizardry and a bit of cash she was able to get us the permits, we were in!
That night Vanessa invited us to a party at the neighboring dive center that is housed in an old oil rig just off the island. We were picked up by their boat and deposited on the lift that takes you up to the platform, very Dr. No ish. Local bands played some great music, the food was fantastic and we all had a great time, party on the platform. Our 6 am pick up time did make me cut my party time short.
The next morning we were picked up by the Billabong boat, taken in for a hearty breakfast and off to the dive site we went. We shared the boat with a large Hong Kong Chinese family.
The first dive was a deep wall dive, visibility was fantastic. We saw tons of fish, a few black tipped reef sharks and turtles. The second dive, Barracuda Point, bore its name well. We saw a tornado like school of Barracuda. This dive was so packed full of big fish,massive schools of fish, turtles and things it was almost over whelming. I took the video camera along which always cuts my air supply by about 20% and I was so busy filming my air ran short at the end. The sheer size and mass of marine life was spectacular. One of the star attractions was a school of three foot long Hammerhead Parrot Fish, this monsters lumber along and with their distinct bump on the forehead make an awesome sight.
The third dive was a bit more relaxed, a wall dive with many things to see and a frequency of huge turtles that I have not seen before.
It is clear that the management of this dive site has been successful. As hard as it was to get the permit I applaud the process. Keeping such a cornucopia of fish safe in Asia is no easy task. Evidence of the challenge rang our ears as we heard the distant sound of explosives used to kill fish by unscrupulous fishermen. I wish the protectors of this oasis all the best, they are doing a hard job very well.
Sipidan will surely enter the list of top dive sites in the world. I have been blessed with nearly 3 years of epic diving on this voyage and hope for many more.