If you love diving, then you must dive Sipadan, a small island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo whose claim to fame comes from its unique government enforced protection of the reefs and wildlife. Jacques Cousteau once said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan…45 years ago. Now we have found again an untouched piece of art.” Sipadan not only ranks as the top dive site in Malaysia, but it also places within the top ten in the world! Expanding on a passion that I had only recently discovered, nothing pleased me more than to do so in the best possible places in the world. For those with a true taste for adventure, you should check out a retired oilrig turned hotel accommodation in the middle of the Celebes Sea called Seaventures resort. Although no guarantees are made to take the 30-minute boat ride in the morning to Sipadan, 3 of the 5 days I was able to dive the gorgeous turtle and shark laden reefs that left me breathless. Impressive because only a limited amount of permits are granted to dive this protected site. And as a consequence not only does it have an elusive allure, but it also remains pristine and unharmed, preventing over-diving and too much traffic. Getting to stay on an old oilrig is part of the fun on account of it being away from everything and making it easy to bond with the other divers staying there too. The only way to get there is from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau, and then driving to the city of Semporna where a boat from the Seaventures Resort picks you up and drops you off on this large clunk of orange and blue metal in the Celebes Sea.
The ride to Semporna accurately depicts Borneo’s tropical greenery, full of palm groves as far as the eye can see. Boarding the boat transport to the oilrig, something a bit scary happened when I was there, soon after it began raining heavily. As we zoomed away from the pier and toward the ocean, the fog made it almost impossible to see in any direction. Fisherman wearing triangle hats rowed past on gondola shaped boats in the heavy rain. 40 minutes into the wet treacherous ride, the driver turned off the engine and shouted something in Malay to his son with a grim expression on his face. I sensed something was wrong. After some uneasy words and less than perfect communication did everyone learn that the compass had broken early on in the boat ride and that we should have hit the rig by now. In other words, we were lost in the middle of a terrible storm, in the ocean with poor visibility, and a broken compass. After an iPhone compass intervened and a speedboat zoomed past us, a huge grin spread across the driver’s face. Revving up the engine again, he went in the direction of the boat, where we all finally saw a hint of a rig outline amidst the heavy clouds.
At Seaventures the dive masters post everyone’s names on a large dive schedule board in the morning, and three dives are scheduled around the island of Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan. Only 120 dive permits for Sipadan go out to the surrounding hotels including Seaventures, which possesses 11. The people lucky enough to score a permit for the day do 3 dives in the morning before lunchtime, and then have the opportunity to do two more in the afternoon for an additional fee. If lucky enough to be picked for the Sipadan lottery, then you wake up at 5:30am to be on the boat and ready to go by 6am. Cold wetsuits and an unpleasant windy boat ride are a small price to pay to dive off the coast a Sipadan, a well-preserved natural wonder. The recollection alone of those beautiful white-tip reef sharks, sea turtles as big as me, thousands of barracuda swimming formation 8’s, and hundreds of bump head parrotfish make me squeal! Not to mention all the unforgettable diving experiences I collected along the way.