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Diving Sipaden report


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#1 AMW

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Posted 02 January 2009 - 09:25 PM

I just returned from a two week trip to Malaysia, including one week diving at the Sipaden Water Village (SWV) located on Mabul Island, a 20 minute boat ride from Sipaden Island. Although my wife and I overall had a good time and did 27 dives, we wished we had known certain things about the diving at Sipaden. Perhaps we should have done more thorough research. Hence the purpose of this post.

Let me begin with the positive feedback:

Sipaden Water Village (SWV) is a well run, clean, picturesque dive resort. The food is good, the staff are polite and friendly, and the dive operation is well organized. The dive guides are definitely qualified at what they do and have no problem finding even the most obscure macro-life. On our first day of diving we had the opportunity to do three dives at Sipaden Island. The dives were great, especially our first dive at Barracude Point. This dive was phenomenal!! (To give a reference point of our diving experience, we have dove Fiji, the Galapagos, Palau, Papua New Guinea, all around Indonesia, Yap, Belize, California and Florida waters, etc.) We started the dive dropping down to approximately 35 feet where we were surrounded by a school of jacks being pursued by giant trevally, blue fin trevally, and white-tip reef sharks. This mob of fish life was only the beginning of this dive! We soon saw many hawksbill and green turtles, many more white-tip reef sharks, and all of the usually Indo-Pacific suspects, and all in great numbers. About half way through the dive my wife grabbed my attention and pointed out a "dark cloud" in the distance coming towards us. We soon saw a massive school of the resident bumphead parrot fish coming our way. The school must have had no less than 100 bumphead parrot fish, perhaps even more. It was an incredible site and experience being in the middle of this school of 3-foot-plus parrot fish veering off to our right and left as they moved across the reef. We rank this dive as probably one of our all time best diving experiences. Fortunately for us this incredible dive was documented by Andi of ScubaZoo, the SWV videographer who is highly talented along with being a very nice and knowledgeable individual. The other dives of the day at Sipaden were good, including the dive at South Point (Barracuda Point and South Point seem to have all the action!).

OK, now for the not-so-positive feedback:

There are 12+ dive operations functioning around the island of Mabul. The Malaysian government only allows 120 divers per day to dive Sipaden Island, so if you do the math, that means only 10 divers from each dive operation can dive at Sipaden each day. SWV being a beautiful resort was completely booked, thus in seven days of diving, we only made it to Sipaden Island two times for a total of 6 dives. This in itself is not completely the issue because we understand that in order to preserve the fantastic diving we witnessed at Sipaden, there needs to be some restrictions otherwise it will no longer be as fantastic. We were not aware of this, though, prior to coming to SWV (almost all the local resorts have Sipaden in there names even though they are not based on Sipaden and also have limitations to how many divers can dive at Sipaden per day). BUT, the remaining dive sites around Mabul are a VERY FAR STRETCH from Siapaden diving. There are limited dive sites within a reasonable boat ride to Mabul and SWV, and these dives sites are mediocre at best. I will admit that I saw my first flamboyant cuttlefish, but this being said, the reefs are obviously worn down by being over dived and over fished. The visibility on many of these other dive sites was some of the worst I have ever experienced, making WA photography quite difficult. It was very common to pass by multiple other dive groups on these sites and to re-dive many of these sites because the sites worth diving are limited. You will see the usual Indo-Pacific macro life but this being said, the viz was awful, the overall coral sea-scape equally as unimpressive. On a positive note, of the two SWV house reefs, Paradise 2 is definitely a very good dive for macro. We ended up diving Paradise 2 at least eight times, choosing to pass on many of the local boat dives. Even thought the viz was poor on Paradise 2, the hard and soft corals are in good shape and we saw everything from giant green turtles, to cuttlefish, to a school of jacks, and even a blue-ring octopus!

Would I return to Sipaden?
No. (unless via liveaboard and there were only about 10 divers on the liveaboard.) To travel half-way around the world to Sipaden Island and to mostly dive at poor-viz, mediocre dive sites is definitely not something I will repeat. BUT, if you want a very nice resort, only want to dive a couple of days, or are on vacation with your family, SWV is definitely the place to visit. I would not recommend it to well traveled and seasoned divers, or those divers who have thoroughly been around the Indo-Pacific.

Edited by AMW, 02 January 2009 - 09:26 PM.


#2 Kevster

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Posted 03 January 2009 - 01:19 AM

Totally agree.
I had a similar exp in Aug (Peak season)
I stayed at Borneo divers for 3 days diving (2 Dives at Sipaden- 1 Amazing dive, 1 average dive with real bad viss). One day we travelled over to Sipadan in rough seas only to be turned back without being able to dive. The day we did manage to dive Sipadan we had to leave at 5.30 am & by the time we got underwater there was another 4 boats there.

There are far too many LARGE resorts now in the area with far too many divers
There is a lot of discussion on this subject on Scuba board in the malaysian section.

I have read there is a new warden who oversees the issuing of permits for diving Sipadan & he has changed the rules slightly.

I would not go back as it was very exp for a 3 night /4 day stay.
The diving at Mabul was nice (1st time i saw a blue ring oct) but did not make up for the dissapointment on missing out diving Sipaden some days.

Those who stayed on & dived off Sipaden island several years ago were very fortunate.

Edited by Kevster, 03 January 2009 - 01:34 AM.

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#3 antacid

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Posted 03 January 2009 - 05:46 AM

It's a shame you didn't get to dive more at Sipadan island. Is it the peak season now?

I don't like how the marine park pass system is handled now, with no way of knowing if you're able to go to the island. The side-effect is that the other dive sites at Mabul and Kapalai get bombed by the rest of the divers who can't make it to Sipadan.

I went there for a short trip in '07 and we did 3 dives a day at Sipadan. It was gorgeous.. and the water was mirror flat. You can see the reflections of the clouds in the water! Pity it'll never happen again.

Oh, did you hear that they're building a new resort on Kapalai? :lol:
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#4 ScubaJedi

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Posted 03 January 2009 - 10:00 AM

I haven't heard of anything being built on Kapalai, but on Mabul there is an extremely controversial plan to build an oceanarium with a resort with rooms for 200 people. I posted a thread about this here on Wetpixel. The ultimate aim of this, according to the word on the street is that this one resort will push all the others out of business. Currently, none of the operators at Mabul have had their permits renewed. Of course, in Malaysia, the land of 'can-do', various politicians are behind this, and are planning on a lucrative (ludicrous) retirement plan.

There are also nonsensical reasons for the permits such as 'conservation' fees and 'security' fees. Time and time again, illegal fishing boats have been spotted in and around Sipadan and Mabul, and the security forces in place (Coast Guard or Malaysian Navy) have said that they are too scared to attend to the boats in fear of being shot at. So why are they being paid?

Furthermore, divemasters from the resorts have reported incidents where turtles with bullet holes riddling their shells have been found floating dead in the water.

The numbers are Bara Point etc are lower these days than before, with many individuals being taken illegally.

#5 Bent C

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 07:28 AM

Quote from AMW: "There are limited dive sites within a reasonable boat ride to Mabul and SWV, and these dives sites are mediocre at best. I will admit that I saw my first flamboyant cuttlefish, but this being said, the reefs are obviously worn down by being over dived and over fished. The visibility on many of these other dive sites was some of the worst I have ever experienced, making WA photography quite difficult. It was very common to pass by multiple other dive groups on these sites and to re-dive many of these sites because the sites worth diving are limited. You will see the usual Indo-Pacific macro life but this being said, the viz was awful, the overall coral sea-scape equally as unimpressive. On a positive note, of the two SWV house reefs, Paradise 2 is definitely a very good dive for macro. We ended up diving Paradise 2 at least eight times, choosing to pass on many of the local boat dives. Even thought the viz was poor on Paradise 2, the hard and soft corals are in good shape and we saw everything from giant green turtles, to cuttlefish, to a school of jacks, and even a blue-ring octopus!"



Hi

I am planning to visit SMART with a couple of friends in February. I got the following note from the reservation office when I enquired on the Sipadan situation:


"Please note that if the permit to Sipadan is not approve, we will offer arrangement to dive in island like Si Amil, Mataking (1.15 hrs from our resort), Roach Reefs (1 hour from our resort), Ligitan Island (which offers pelagic diving), Kapalai or Mabul where there is no restrictions on these island."

Were you able to dive those places instead of just diving around Mabul and Kapalai on the non-Sipadan days? Judging from Googling the names they seem to be nice alternatives to Sipadan. Just diving Mabul for the majority of dives could be somewhat repetitive. Saying that though, last time I visited (February 2008) we had at least two shore dives from Mabul every day as well as the standard three dives at Sipadan, and had a lot of great muck sightings. However, doing four to five dives a day at Mabul several days in a row would probably be just to much of the same.

Regards

Bent

Edited by Bent C, 06 January 2009 - 07:30 AM.

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#6 loftus

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 08:03 AM

I stayed at SWV in the first week in November. I should emphasize though that this was my first visit to Sipadan (or Indonesia in general) so I cannot compare it to the way it used to be or other areas of Indonesia / Malaysia. I was also part of a workshop week with Mauricio Handler, so his influence also made it possible to spend 2 full days at Sipadan, whereas it appears other folks who were on their own could only be assured of one full day, but that was variable.
As for the other diving - Mabul, Kapalai - no question the reefs are not what they used to be, in fact we heard dynamite fishing on a number of occasions. On the other hand for the macro folks, and I became one of them during the week, there was tons of stuff on most dives, even under the oil rig / hotel off Mabul which is essentially a trash heap dive. The house reef at SWV was excellent with great night dives as well. I think that everything except Sipadan should be considered muck diving. If you are happy doing that, there is still lots to see and do. If your main objective is the more grand diving of Barracuda point etc off Sipadan then you need to think ahead of time whether one day at Sipadan, or two if you're lucky, is enough.

Edited by loftus, 06 January 2009 - 08:17 AM.

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#7 AMW

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Posted 07 January 2009 - 01:07 AM

Hello Bent C:

I can't speak for the folks at SMART, but the dive operation at SWV only took us to Si amil Island, the SEAQUEST (which yes, is basically a trash heap dive, literally), Kapalai (the new resort near Mabul), and the back side of Mabul, reporting that the other sites were too far away. I agree with Loftus that with the exception of Sipaden Island, this is basically muck diving. Yes, there is macro life to be seen, but then again, if you really want to muck dive you want to do Lembeh or Lauadi (Milne Bay, PNG). I would guess that most people (including me) are going to Sipaden to DIVE SIPADEN, not muck dive. How often to you hear these resorts advertising their world-class muck diving?

BENT C quote: "Please note that if the permit to Sipadan is not approve, we will offer arrangement to dive in island like Si Amil, Mataking (1.15 hrs from our resort), Roach Reefs (1 hour from our resort), Ligitan Island (which offers pelagic diving), Kapalai or Mabul where there is no restrictions on these island."

I dove Siamil 3 different days (a total of six dives). Not awful diving, but again not a reason to travel to the other side of the planet. Hopefully you will get your 3-dive day at Sipaden Island. If you dive Sipaden on an "on day", you definitely will not regret it!! This definitely will compensate for the average dives closer to the resorts.

Again I recommend PARADISE 2, the second house reef at SWV. We dove this 8 out of our 27 dives when we were at SWV.

Edited by AMW, 07 January 2009 - 01:10 AM.


#8 craig

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Posted 07 January 2009 - 08:52 AM

I think SWV is known for offering muck diving and plenty of people go there for that reason. I would say that if you went to SWV and were surprised to find out it was muck diving then you were seriously misinformed as to the nature of the diving there. I have done entire trips to SWV without a single trip to Sipidan Island as the group I dived with preferred the muck to wide angle. My personal preference is Lembeh for muck but other opinions vary.
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#9 Drew

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Posted 07 January 2009 - 09:56 AM

Ah good ol' Sipadan vs Mabul posts again.
Sipadan may have been Jacques' fave but without the white sand muck of Mabul and Kapalai, the destination would not be a complete dive destination and I wouldn't have gone as often as I did before. That's why I don't go back now. I use to find sargassum frogfish in the front of SWV. The white sand muck is not very common. The sites around Mabul and Kapalai when the sealife is hot is amazing. I've seen more blue ring octopus doing more behavior than anywhere else I've been (including mating, turning blue to pink hue, hunting). The flamboyant cuttlefish here are more colorful than the ones at lembeh. The giant frogfish under the platform were too friendly they'd actually swim to perch on the L bracket of my Nikonos. Like Craig, I use to stay at Mabul or Kapalai and just dive the area for a week before moving to Sipadan for diving around there (when you could stay there... those days are over!)
Like everywhere else (including Lembeh), it is cyclical and these muck sites can seem just plain mundane. There were a couple of years during the el nino/la nina cycles where Lembeh had very few nudis and mimic octopus. Sipadan also lost the big schools of trevally and barracudas for a while too.
Unfortunately, when the Ligitan group was under dispute between the Indonesians and Malaysians, both sides were fishing the crap out of the outer islands. Sipadan's coral started dying when the resorts started increasing and waste runoff plus diver and turtle damage was going crazy. Far cry from the early 90s where there was one ops... those were the days.
Sipadan's big draw card were the turtles, schools of bumphead parrotfish, 'cuda and trevally. For marine diversity, it's not that special without the muck.
As for diving on the other islands, I saw the biggest school of pygmy devil rays ever on Pulau Ligitan when we tried going out there once. The current was kicking and it was awesome... never saw them again though :( The outer islands are ok but not worth the time travelling out there or blowing the CO2 emissions for it. Mataking Island is nice as a getaway but mediocre as a photog's dive destination.
Seriously though, I think it's great they limit the number of people going to Sipadan. Obviously it hasn't stopped developers from building more resorts but once people figure out that Sipadan visitations are limited, they'll wanna go even MORE! The more exclusive, the more people want to do it :dancing:

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#10 Bent C

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Posted 07 January 2009 - 12:51 PM

Thanks Drew and AMW for the comments

I have no problems diving close to Mabul or Kapalai for my whole stay doing macro (just bought the Ikelite modular port system with a lot of macro combinations possible, so that in itself will take at least a week to work out!). Looking through my pictures from the last time I visited I got more keepers from Mabul than from Sipadan despite doing at least two dives at Sipadan a day. Also, I am doing some work in Sabah at the time, so I am staying in the area anyway. The problem is my friends who never have been diving in the area before, does the trip from Sweden to Sabah more or less exclusively for the diving, were probably under the impression that we mainly would dive Sipdan and at least three of them do not take any pictures at all (go figure!). I am pretty sure that they would be quite disappointed diving Mabul for the whole stay. A couple of Sipadan days and Ligitan might save the trip though for them. IŽll send them the link to the thread and they can make up their own minds.

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#11 Drew

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Posted 09 January 2009 - 12:07 AM

Bent
Let me warn you that the Ligitan I remember (circa 2004) and only 4 days out there, wasn't all that great. Coral was less than average. There were a few pelagics during tidal changes but nothing I saw was consistent or worth the effort. If you are going as a group, ask the resort to give you guaranteed confirmation of at least 2 days in Sipadan or you go somewhere else who will. That's how the photo workshops do it. Now if you have 2-3 people then they'll just ignore you. But a group of 6-8, they won't.

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#12 gravity

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Posted 21 January 2009 - 10:24 AM

Mantabuan is another island is the area that has pristine coral. You may need to stay with a resort further north to visit mantabuan. singamata is a lower end resort that visits islands to the north that are different then the mabul based resorts when Sipadan isn't available. It is difficult to get permits to Sipadan from Singamata though, but I would still recommend it for a few days.
I spent several weeks in the area, and I agree that it gets quite boring if you go to Sipadan over and over again (but the bumpheads are very special), but the other islands add the variety to make it interesting. I especially like the dives under the oil rig.
The current plan for the new resort on mabul is for them to get 200 permits per day and for the rest of the operators to share 120 permits per day. This will probably be very bad for both mabul and sipadan conservation. my understanding is that the way they were able to arrange for the permits is that the owner of the proposed resort is the top politician in Sabah, and he got approval without going through the normal environmental review.

#13 AMW

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Posted 21 January 2009 - 01:28 PM

I dove at Sipaden 6 times: three times at Barracuda Point and 3 times at South Point and was never bored what-so-ever. I would have prefered to have dove there many more times rather than diving the pseudo muck dives on the backside of Mabul. If I specifically wanted muck diving I would have gone to Lembeh or back to PNG, specifically Milne Bay.
After seeing the images of the shark poaching going on WHILE I WAS STAYING AT MABUL along with the constant dynamite fishing, this is more reason for me not to return to Sipaden. I am usually a very optimistic individual who finds the best in every adventure I take, but as you can see from my original post, there are reasons why I am quite disappointed...
Next stop...Triton Bay...

Edited by AMW, 21 January 2009 - 01:43 PM.


#14 syam

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Posted 22 January 2009 - 01:12 AM

Just wanna update on what I saw in Mabul (in the fishing village area) when I was there over Christmas 2009

1. Harlequin Shrimp (one pair in front of Billabong jetty and one individual hauling a starfish arm in front of Mabul Backpackers Lodge)
2. Boxer Shrimp (in front of Mabul Backpackers Lodge)
3. Frogfish (most probably Painted under Mabul Backpackers Lodge)

#15 sharky1961

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Posted 24 January 2009 - 07:00 AM

Hi,

I am just back from the Smartresort on Mabul. Stayed there for 2 weeks. at the time there were not many divers. Because the Smartresort had reserved many permits for Sipidan we had to go everyday to Sipidan. After 4 days I was very bord of Sipidan. OK the Barracudaschool is very nice also is the turtle cave, but after 4 days the turtles are not that interesting anymore. I asked the Smartresortmanger not to put me on the list for sipidan anymore. That was not possible because the permits were there and I had to pay the dayrates for Sipidan altough I went for the muckdiving at Mabul and kapalai which was very interested although not so good as lembeh. but still very good. Luckely for me the manager managed to get me off the list for the Sipidanpermits for the second week.
For all people who want to dive Sipidan I only can recommand going in 2nd an d 3rd week of January (low season) you won't have to worry about Sipidan permits.



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#16 tdpriest

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Posted 25 January 2009 - 04:30 AM

... after 4 days the turtles are not that interesting anymore...


!!!

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#17 Ladygodiver

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 05:58 PM

We spent two weeks staying on Mabul and diving Sipadan mid last year. The diving (and the turtles!!) was great...the B.D. resort was very good. The dive guides were great...especially on night dives and in the cave under Sipadan. But the air fills were BAD...very bad.

Could taste and smell lubricant in the air...even though the compressors were electric. Complaining made no difference. I ended up with lung issues that took weeks to get better!!

Very disappointing, as I'd love to go back there...but don't need the grief over bad fills.

#18 scott_nielsen

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Posted 08 February 2009 - 06:53 AM

thanks for the heads up, taking this off my "to dive" list.
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#19 Bent C

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Posted 21 March 2009 - 11:30 AM

Just came back from a 10day stay at SMART resort on Mabul. For us the permit situation worked out well, as there were few divers at SMART during the period my non-photographing friends were there, with trips to Sipadan 6 out of seven days. The last days however, the resort filled up, and we did not get to Sipadan more than once. OK for me, but the situation led to quite a depressing mood at meals, when people travelling to Mabul solely for the Sipadan diving found out that their yearly dive trip turned out to be Mabul muck diving two days out of three. With a full resort that number could be even worse.

The diving at Sipadan was great though, with more sharks (whitetips and grey) than I ever have seen there before, OK numbers of turtles, a big school of jacks which was conveniently located, big barracuda schools, bumphead parrot action, and great coral here and there. Mabul had crappy viz but quite a number of good macro subjects.

I would probably not return again before the permit situation changes. The unpredictability of permits simply is to annoying, not least for the effect it has on divers only interested in Sipadan. But with a better implementation of the permits, I would certainly go again.

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#20 tdpriest

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Posted 03 April 2009 - 05:18 AM

I stayed with SMART 3 years ago, in the February "off" season, dived Sipadan every day and muck dives, too, though not as many as at Kapalai, by all accounts. I was quite impressed, but it was a "last-minute" trip due to liveaboard failure in the Maldives.

I may go back: it is my experience that every complaint about creatures/visibility/dive sites at almost any location is matched by positive experiences at another time.

It is wildlife, you know: unpredictable, and not just as a result of human intervention.

Tim

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