Sipadan Island (Pulau Sipadan in Malay) lies off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. The island is known above all for some of the best scuba diving anywhere in the world. You can visit the island on a day trip, but it is no longer possible to stay on Sipadan.
Together with the nearby island of Ligitan, Sipadan was long the subject of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2002, the International Court of Justice awarded both islands to Malaysia.
Getting in requires some effort. Most visitors fly to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur (3 hours) or Kota Kinabalu (50 minutes), continue by minivan or taxi to the port town of Semporna (1-2 hours) and from there to Sipadan itself (1 hour by fast boat).
Walking along the beautiful sandy beaches, snorkeling sites on all sides of the island can be reached. Scuba divers usually will take a boat a few minutes from the beach to their dive site.
The beautiful sandy beaches and the coral reef are rich with marine life. On the island there are large monitor lizards (over 1m long) which sometimes come out onto the beach or even into the water.
Sipadan claims to be the world's best dive site. While this is a big claim, the diving here is certainly world class. Sipadan used to have resorts but to protect the environment these were closed in 2002. To dive on Sipadan you have to stay somewhere nearby, such as on Mabul or in Semporna, and take a boat to the island.
Because Sipadan is now a protected site, only a few hundred divers are allowed daily. It's best to make reservations as early as possible to increase your chances of getting on the list. Sipadan dives are capped at two per person per day (as of October 2022).
From the main beach of the original resort it is a mere 20m wade over the reef to reach the top of the reef wall dropping 1,000-2,000 m. Sipadan is surrounded by very rich reef life consisting of both hard and soft coral as well as all manner of reef fish. Sea turtles and white tip reef sharks can be seen on almost every dive and hammerhead and leopard sharks can also be seen at times. Visibility ranges from 10m to 30m and above.
A barge accident in 2006 did some damage to the reefs at Sipadan, crushing a portion of reef on the old pier and Barracuda Point and dumping its cargo of gravel in the area. This was not one of the best dive areas, but clean-up operations and other repercussions did restrict diving in the months since.
The rate for three dives at Sipadan is around RM560. Rates vary slightly among different operators. Boat transfers and packed lunch are included. Permits are limited to 120 per day and are typically obtained by the dive operators. You should verify that the diver operator you choose is diving at Sipadan with permits, as some companies have been caught diving the island without permits.
Check diver reviews of dive operators in the area before choosing. Many have had customer complaints regarding faulty equipment.
Dive shops include:
- Big John Scuba, on Mabul Island (office in Semporna near Dragon Inn resort), ☏ , email@example.com. Nice diveshop affiliated with Lai's Homestay.
- Billabong Scuba, on Mabul Island.
- North Borneo Dive & Sea Sports located in Semporna. 
- Scuba Junkie, in Semporna.
- Sipadan Scuba. PADI 5* IDC Centre in Semporna.
- Sipadan-Mabul Resort, on Mabul island.
- Seaventures Rig Resort a converted dive platform, PADI 5* IDC Centre and resort 2 minutes off Mabul Island.
- Sipadan Water Village, on Mabul island.
- Uncle Chang's Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge on Mabul island. The office is near Dragon Inn in Semporna.
- Singamata Adventures Semporna S /B Dive lodge, ☏ . The office is next to Seafest hotel in Semporna.
- Summer Friends, on Mabul Island.
For non-divers snorkeling is an option on Sipadan. From the beach the reef is easily accessible, and parts of the reef further out can be reached by boat. A wide variety and number of reef fishes, corals, and with a bit of luck, the sharks, barracuda and turtles can be seen without leaving the surface. Note that currents and boat traffic (especially if duck diving) are the major hazards in the offshore areas, and cryptically colored stone fish may be a hazard in the shallows.
A buoyed-off area from the 'safe' side of the jetty gives snorkellers the safest and potentially most productive snorkeling area. Note that the phenomenal drop-off that makes this island so special, starts where the jetty ends.
Several dive tour operators bring snorkelers to the island at an all-inclusive rate of around RM490.
With all resorts closed down, there is nothing to buy on the island.
There are no restaurants, and dive tours bring their own lunch and snacks with them.
Dive tours bring their own water and drinks with them.
All resorts on Sipadan have been closed in order to preserve the island in a pristine state. Diving is still permitted and possible by day-trips from the nearby town of Semporna.
Another possibility is to "live aboard" in Semporna on MV Celebes Explorer with 8 cabins and a guaranteed Sipadan permit.
The islands used to be disputed between Malaysia and Indonesia, leading to instability and a highly publicized case of 20 tourists being kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels in 2000. However, an International Court of Justice decision sided with Malaysia, and the area is now regularly patrolled by the Royal Malaysian Navy.
- Mabul Island is home to high-end hotels and a few hostels. The entire island is an interesting mix of local community living on fishing and supporting the tourist industry. The island is a great base for diving and there is a hotel oil rig off the island. All places to stay there require pre booking and you will be transferred.