Malaysia's best diving is found off Borneo. The names of the islands are "must-do dives", at or very near the top of every seriously open-minded diver. The diving at Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai and Layang Layang awake images of swirling schools of barracuda and jacks to divers who have been there. In fact, it has been said that's it's easier and quicker to point out what you don't see at Sipadan rather than what do see when consulting the fish guide book after a dive.
Mabul and Kapalai
Diving around Mabul and Kapalai is totally different from diving around Sipadan. All dive sites are quite shallow and coral growth is rather sparse. But the sites around Mabul and Kapalai are treasure troves for all kinds of macro rarities. Ghost pipefish, anglerfish, leafy scorpion fish, mandarin fish, ribbon eels, sea horses, plenty of different nudibranchs and other curious sea creature are often seen here.
Sipadan is the tip of an underwater mountain, which reaches straight up from the depth of the Celebes Sea. On these dive sites you find superbly covered drops, great biodiversity and regular sightings of large fish. No dive is complete without a turtle and a white tip reef shark. Special attractions are a school of barracudas and humphead parrot fish. Because of the exposed nature of the site, encounters with hammerhead sharks and other large sharks are possible.
Sipadan has 11 marked dive sites. All dives are wall dives. It is however possible to dive shallow at the southern and eastern part of the island. Sipadan is very small, so most dive sites are so close that you enter at one site and exit at the next site. Following is a brief description of some the sites. These are just a few of Sipadan's sites, but rest assured, the others, Coral Gardens, White Tip Avenue, Turtle Patch, South Point, Staghorn Crest, Hanging Gardens, Lobster Lair, North Point and West Ridge are equally stunning.
Drop Off: Just a few meters from the shore, the wall plunges a staggering 800 meters (2620 ft) down and is rated as one of the top dives in the world. There are not many dive sites in the world where such sheer plunge into the Abyss is so close to shore. The wall is encrusted with different varieties of coral, turtles abound and a multitude of lion fish & smaller reef dwelling fish live on this wall. The entrance to Turtle Cavern is also found about 22 meters (72 ft) down along this wall.
Turtle Cavern: Sipadan is famous for its population of both Green Turtles and the smaller Hawksbill Turtles. It was at one time speculated that the cavern was their mausoleum and that they came to this site to die. However, a more accurate representation is that the turtles became lost in the caverns at night and drowned. Sipadan's resort operators insist that all divers to this system of interconnecting caverns must be accompanied by a local dive master. Inside the cavern you will see the skeletons of those previous entrants who failed to find the exit and perished. Deeper penetration of the system reveals the cavern as home to shoals of fish specifically adapted to the low light environment of the further reaches.
Barracuda Point This is a great dive site with lots of variation. Expect to see large shoals of Barracuda, Jacks, Grey and White Tip Reef Sharks. The schools number in the high hundreds. Current can be super-strong. It is a fast moving, high voltage dive site. There maybe no guarantees in diving, but there's every chance that you can find yourself in the middle of a swirling vortex of chevron barracuda on this, one of Sipadan's most treasured sites.
Keep an eye out for a herd of bump head parrotfish and turtles in every nook and cranny.
Sipadan Permit System (as of April 2010)
Due to the tremendous popularity of the Sipadan drop off, the Malaysian government was forced to introduce a permit system to safeguard the fragile underwater environment and limit the number of divers to 120 per day on this particular site. As a consequence, each dive center must compete for a total of 120 permits per day to dive the Sipadan reef walls. These permits are allocated only 24 hours prior to each new dive day.
As a result, agents and operators alike are unable to guarantee the number of dives at Sipadan Island to be allocated to any resort guest for the duration of their stay. Getting one of these permits seems to be based on luck as much as on the general booking situation in the region (an argument to schedule travel into the off-season), and we have indeed not noticed certain resorts being favoured over others. Resort managements do what they can to keep this system as fair as possible, and to give everyone a chance to visit the Sipadan dive sites at least once in a 3-4 night period. To make the most of this precious opportunity, day boats often schedule 4 dives per day in rather quick succession for those carrying the Sipadan permit.
Layang Layang is a wall diving Mecca. From the edge of the atoll the reef walls drop to 2000m (6500 ft) into the deep blue sea. Be ready for stunning dives with mostly fantastic visibility 30 to 60m (100-200 ft). The combination of pristine walls, deep water is almost like a recipe for pelagic life and all sorts of colourful tropical fish. Highlights are for sure the scalloped hammerhead sharks which are there from March to August. If you want to see the hammerheads performing mating rituals, you should visit between March and May.
Malaysia diving definitely stands out for it's stunning wall dives and is worth at least one dive holiday, if not many more. If you dive the combination Sipadan & Mabul Kapalai you get the whole range from critters to pelagics. Alternatively just visit Layang Laynag where you get a great combination too with plenty of micro to macro photo opportunities.