Gem Beneath the Sea
A local dignitary recently said the island of Sipadan, Malaysia, is a “gem beneath the sea.” Off Semporna, on the east coast of Sabah, Sipadan Island is renowned among professional scuba divers for its pristine and wondrous coral reef and spectacular marine life. It is also known for its beauty above its ocean depths, with plant life and migrating birds that give the island an explosion of color and richness of nature.
Jacques Cousteau once called it an “untouched work of art” and it was recently placed on a list of 261 nominees for the New 7 Wonders of the World online campaign along with other natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon and Niagra Falls in the U.S. and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The beauty of Sipadan is somewhat of a secret to those who are not serious scuba divers. To get to the island you must take a boat from nearby Mabul or Semporna as the resorts on Sipadan were shut down a number of years ago to help protect its delicate ecosystem.
The island was originally formed from a coral reef and today’s divers enjoy viewing both hard and soft pristine coral with visibility depths of 60 to 200 feet. Thousands of species of fish swim amongst the coral and an abundance of turtle species can be spotted above and below the island. Sipadan was designated as a bird sanctuary in 1933, and dedicated bird watchers flock to the island to view the 47 different species. A dense forest tops the island rich in orchids, bromeliads, and pitcher plants. Sipadan is an explosion of tropical flair ready for exploration for those who want to enjoy the beauty of untouched nature.
Diving with Turtles
This is probably the best place in the world for swimming and diving with turtles. Along with swirling schools of barracuda, roaming sharks, and more than 3000 fish species is an abundance of sea turtles, most of which are the Green turtle. The turtle is actually a blackish-brown or green-yellowish color and can grow to four feet long. Other turtles on the island are the Leatherback, Olive Ridley, and Hawksbill turtles.
Even though turtles are listed as endangered in Malaysia, there is an abundance in well-protected Sipadan. So much so, that Sipadan dive operators guarantee sightings on their tours. Divers have reported sightings of up to 30 turtles in a single dive during the month of August. Late summer is the peak egg-laying season, but year-round the four species of turtles use the island as a nesting site. Turtles enjoy floating atop the water feeding on algae and sponges and sometimes rest on wall ledges.
Divers can explore Turtle Cavern tucked inside a 70-foot wall of coral where an abundance of turtles can be found swimming about ready to interact with a curious visitor. To get to the cavern, you must go to what’s known as the “Drop Off,” one of the best beach dive sites in the world. Only 20 feet from shore, the wall plunges a dazzling 2,800 ft. Also mingling along the wall are plenty of lionfish and smaller reef fish.
A colorful explosion of fish species can be found scattered amongst the glorious groupings of coral. Known as one of the “big fish capitals of the world,” Sipadan offers sightings of the giant bumphead parrotfish, trevally, whales, mola mola, hammerhead sharks, swirls of barracuda, manta rays, moray eels, the plentiful and pretty nudibranchs, and many more. It is a celebratory moment when rare napoleon wrasse, grouper, or pufferfish are seen because it is a reassurance that these threatened fish species have not all been fished out of the seas or eaten.
Diving sites pepper the island, including Barracuda Point where you can find yourself in the middle of a spiraling vortex of barracudas so big that the light from the sun is sometimes clouded out. At the South Point diving site, you’ll see herds of large marauding bumphead parrotfish, scores of reef sharks, and massive schools of trevally. With rich currents sweeping by the ocean smaller fish travel in and out which brings bigger fish and even more fish, sharks, turtles, and the occasional whale.
An infinite variety of corals await the keen diver looking for one of the most exciting diving spots in the world. Sipadan is the jewel in the crown of diving in Malaysia. Sipadan sparkles with tropical flair from the spectacular coral reefs and profusion of colorful fish that swim amongst it. The reef is fragile, however, and in 2004 the Malaysian government restricted diving to only 120 per day users in order to preserve the sensitive ecosystem from being overrun by tourism.
On this tiny, remote island that measures only .5 km long and 200 meters wide, Sipadan Marine Park helps protect this natural treasure. Glorious coral, such as Gorgonian fans, sea whips, and feather stars set a spectacular backdrop to the island’s colorful palette of fish. The island is known to have the largest variety of soft coral in the world.
On this tiny oceanic island less than a mile from the mainland, the list of attractions is staggering and amazing to behold. The Malaysian government works hard to preserve the glorious, untouched nature of its prize jewel, Sipadan. It is truly the ultimate nature escape and if you visit your eyes will feast on a glory of nature beyond your most vivid dreams.