Sipidan Trip Report

On the 3rd of August I arrived at the Brisbane International Airport with an excited group who all share a mutual passion for diving and travel adventures. Many of the group had travelled with me previously and were ready for the shenanigans to begin. After a few beverages to celebrate the start of our journey, it was time to board our Malaysia airlines flight at 11pm for an 8½ hour flight to Kuala Lumper. That’s right Malaysia airlines! The group had a couple had a few more drinks just in case… I did say we all love adventure! Everyone seemed to get some sleep on the flight, which was great, as we had a long day of travel to go to reach paradise.

Disembarking in Kuala Lumpur at 5.50am a few of the ladies still had their eyes closed, but were mildly responsive. A quick transit to the domestic terminal, via a monorail, to board our 7.25am flight of 2hr 45 mins to Tawau. The best part of this is we got to have breakfast twice – what a great start to the trip! As we were descending in Tawau you could see palm oil plantations for as far as the eye could see which I was struggling to get my head around. We were met by Kapalai representatives and transferred by bus – another 70 mins to Semporna. The roads were much better than I had expected, which gave most the opportunity for a bit of shut eye. For the full 70 mins we drove through palm oil plantations, something which was disturbing.
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At the Semporna Port, Kapalai Resort has their own private Jetty. We watched our gear being loaded onto a half cabin fiberglass speed boat powered by two Yamaha 250hp 4 stroke motors & then jumped aboard! Safety first! Life jackets are mandatory for the 60min boat ride to Kapalai Resort at around 30 knots across flat seas. After passing a lot of very basic houses built on stilts over the crystal clear water, the rubbish floating in the water was very sad to see. We rounded an island and out into the open ocean and you could feel the excitement after about 20 mins. Kapalai Resort was in the distance. Hello paradise! Pulling up at Kapali made all that travel worth it. After completing the required paperwork and signing the 4 pages of rules we had a quick lunch and checked into our amazing rooms. The pictures on the internet certainly don’t do them justice. They are very large well finished overwater bungalows with massive bathrooms and can be opened right up with timber shutters as windows. Given there had been some unrest in the area, everyone felt a lot better knowing we had 50 soldiers stationed around the resort with M16 rifles and full combat gear.

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A quick rest then it’s the first checkout dive at the Kapali house reef. It was much better than I was expecting, heaps to look at with the man-made bamboo houses on the bottom at about 21m. It was so good to dive in just boardies with 28 to 29 degree water. The best thing for jetlag, hydrate up then go for a short shallow dive. Everyone felt so much better for it.

Kapalai Dive Resort is sitting on its sturdy stilts on the shallow sandbanks of the Ligitan Reefs. Planned and built in full style as an airy, comfortable, sunny water village with no land in sight, it boasts a mile-long sandbank of powdery white sand where one can suntan at complete leisure while gazing out to the miles of brilliant turquoise stretching into the horizon offering the purest image of natural serenity. All delicious and sumptuous meals are served in buffet style at the open central restaurant.

All Dive spots are extremely close to the accomodation and can be reached in just a few minutes by speedboat. It’s roughly 15mins to Sipadan where big fish and turtles are abundant, or 10 mins to Mabul which is for the macro lovers or muck divers. There are few places where a diver can see schools of whirling barracuda, a dozen sea turtles of varying species, a handful of small reef sharks, and a teeming reef of angelfish, triggerfish, morays and gobies all on one dive. At Sipadan such sights are common, with a few of our lucky divers bringing home a story of seeing their first hammerhead shark. Sipadan is well known as a hotspot for biodiversity with over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species calling the waters off this island home. Sipadan Island’s unique geography makes it Malaysia’s only oceanic island, meaning it rises straight from the seabed rather than the continental shelf. Its lush forests and white sand beaches rest on top of a prehistoric volcano rising 600 meters from the seafloor and the pristine waters surrounding the island allow for a visibility that average around 20 meters for us.

Visiting Sipadan Island requires a permit. There are a limited number of 120 permits available each day. This is a move by the Malaysian Government in order to minimize the stress on the reefs and marine life in Sipadan. Unfortunately, this also means that we could not visit Sipadan Island every day. Kapalai has 14 permits per day and lucky for us the resort was full with mostly snorkelers.

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Barracuda Point is Sipadan’s best dive site. As the name suggests, this dive site is known for its large schools of barracuda & bigeye jacks. Hundreds of barracuda congregate here and if you are lucky you may see the barracuda tornado as the schools swim in a rapid spiral forming a spinning wall of fish. Hard and soft corals along with white & black tip reef sharks, bump-head parrotfish, turtles and triggerfish can all also be seen at this site. Barracuda Point is a short 1 minute boat ride to the right of the Jetty. The site extends about 20 meters down. Be sure to watch out for currents here as the currents can be strong and swirl. South Point is another shore boat ride southeast from the Sipadan jetty – approximately 5 minutes. The site consists of a wall, a ledge at about 20 meters under, and then a sudden drop down. This is where the lucky few saw the hammerhead. I unfortunately was not one of the lucky ones! This site had a lot of turtles in the shallows with white-tip reef sharks along with banner fish, moray eels, and a variety of hard corals. I saw a leopard shark here too.

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(Mabul Island Resort on the left side & Sea Gypsy’s on the right)

The muck diving around Mabul Island was average, I thought. I do prefer wide angle photography and the bigger the animal the better. Having said that, if you are a macro photographer you would probably love it. The most disappointing thing for me about diving around Mabul was the rubbish. The sea gypsy’s located around Mabul have a total disregard for their environment. You can be diving some pretty reef and be passed by plastic bags in the current at 20m. Some of the items I came across were plastic and glass bottles, car tyres toasters, soft drink cans, LV handbag and general household junk. There are some cool critters though, you do need to keep a sharp eye out for them. Mabul area doesn’t have anything much that the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t also have. The biggest advantage with Sipadan is that there is a lot of interesting stuff all together, the waters always warm , seas are calm and it’s located really close to shore.

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We had a great week of diving & shenanigans, including a costume dive day and the yellow dreadlocks hat. This hat was punishment for doing something silly at the end of each day. The hat made its way around the group, which kept us all entertained. Kapalai is a fantastic resort with excellent staff, good food and great dive crew. It does however have a very limited bar! At the end of the week we said goodbye to some of our tour members at the Tawau airport as they made their way home. The rest of us continued our adventures on to Sandakan, a short 40 min flight away. Landing in Sandakan we transferred to the Sepilok nature resort for our two night stay a short 30 min bus ride.

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Hidden amongst a veritable treasure trove of tropical plants, grasses, huge trees and spectacular orchids in bloom, the quaint bungalows of the Sepilok Nature Resort are within walking distance of the world-famous Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve – precious home of the last wild Orang-Utans of Northern Borneo. The Resort’s combination of rich traditional style with contemporary luxury and the added bonus of aircon was very welcoming. The 250 acre Sepilok Orang-Utan Refuge is adjacent to the resort. We were met by our guide after breakfast and walked next door to for the Orang-Utans daily visit to the feeding station. These animals have been reintroduced to living in the jungle, but their wild diet is supplemented by a feeding of bananas and milk. You’ll watch the Orang-Utans appear out of the trees and converge on the feeding platform. We only saw two small orang-utans and felt the marketing outweighed the actual experience as the feeding platform is about 40m from where you are. The feeding platform is in the jungle so no open spaces to get a good photo. My advice is to go somewhere else where you can get better interaction. By that I mean get closer and watch them do what they do. It’s unfortunate as they are doing outstanding work at the centre.

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After lunch we jumped on the bus for a 30 min ride to the Proboscis & Silver Leaf monkeys’ encounter. This was outstanding as we were visiting these guys in their natural environment. This was my favourite part of this leg of our adventure. It was Cindy’s birthday today, so I was really hoping for something special for her and they delivered. So cute, non aggressive monkeys. You are not allowed to touch them however a Silver Leaf monkey was drawn to Cindy’s shirt buttons and couldn’t stop touching her which we all enjoyed watching the interaction. That night we finished an amazing day with a few celebratory beverages for Cindy’s birthday. Our last morning before flying out, we decided to visit the Sun bears, which is also a short stroll from our resort. So glad we made the effort. The world’s smallest bear is seriously threatened largely because of humans.

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Sun bears are the smallest and least known members of the bear species. Their populations are rapidly diminishing in Southeast Asia. Habitats are being destroyed by deforestation and sun bears are being brutally killed for commercial exploitation. Baby sun bears are one of the cutest young animals in the world. After their mothers are killed, they are captured as pets and are locked in tiny cages. This is where, as they grow, life in hell begins. The mission of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia is to rescue these captured sun bears, promoting sun bear conservation in Borneo through animal welfare, conservation, rehabilitation, research and education – to put a stop to these cruel practices. There are currently 33 rescued bears living at the BSBCC. Sadly, many of them have already spent too many years locked up in cages and their distress and suffering is clear. But, day by day, they strive to improve their lives and eventually introduce them to the forest once again. These cute little fellas don’t get anywhere near the funding other animal conservation receives so if you are going to make a donation in the future can you share that donation with these guys. A truly amazing experience, one we will never forget.

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A quick shower and it’s off to the airport for our flight back to KL for 2 nights of luxury at the Park Royal Hotel. All around Sandakan is palm oil plantations. Looking from the air on our departure there is basically no rainforest as far as you can see. I urge everyone to vote with your actions only buy products that use sustainable palm oil to help stop the deforestation. Seeing it firsthand has changed my life. Kuala Lumper. Hello luxurious hotel & shopping! Which a few select ladies were more than a little excited about. A couple of others were more excited about cocktails at the roof top bar whilst enjoying the view of the Petronas Towers. You shall remain nameless, what happens on tour!

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It was a great way to complete an awesome adventure with an outstanding group of individuals. To the tour group, I sincerely appreciate your friendship and continued support. I thank you for entrusting me with your travelling adventures, for sharing the laughs and creating lasting memories.

Advanced Specialty Instructor
Brett Colley