I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing Jacques Yves Cousteau movies… and wanted, one day, to try scuba diving! I usually take holidays in December to escape from the cold and snowy European winter, so finally I decided to go to Malaysia and experience one of the best dive sites in the world – Sipadan Island!
I did some research and found out that the Semporna area (located on the island of Borneo) is full of amazing diving opportunities, including lots of beautiful islands like Mabul, Siberut, Kapalai, Mantabuan, Pom Pom, Sibangkat and of course, Sipadan. All these islands have local dive schools where you can try either a fun, one-time dive or take a full three-day course to become a licensed Open Water Diver (OWD), with the ability to dive about 18 meters below the surface. You can also take two more days and become an Advanced Diver or try an adventure dive, which will allow you to descend about 25 meters (or even a bit more) and then easily dive as an Advanced Diver.
The diving experience was just part of my whole Malaysian, or better yet, Bornean adventure. My trip also included boating on the Kinabatangan River and visiting the Orangutan Sepilok Center. As I’d heard so much from my diver friends about how great and amazing Sipadan is, I was very excited to challenge myself with this thrilling activity.
However, two important things should be mentioned here. First, no matter how experienced you are, if you plan on diving in Sipadan particularly, it is especially important to book it far, far in advance – something like three or more months! The thing is, Sipadan is a national park, so the government only allocates a fixed number of permits through various dive centers. This results in fuzzy confusion all year round. The bigger the dive center, the more likely you’ll get a permit. But it is not quite as simple as it seems.
Second, if you are about to just start your diving adventure and plan to do your OWD course, be careful about what company you’re doing it with. Choose wisely. And if you want to dive in Sipadan, plan on staying there for more than just three days.
If you dive in this part of Borneo, you first need to get to the town of Semporna. In reality, it looks more like a village than a town. Though it has some banks with ATMs, a market and a few cafes and shops, there is nothing to do there but scuba dive. You can get to Semporna from the town of Tawau within an hour by using a local taxi, which is easier and cheaper to do it with other people. Or, if you visit Sepilok or Mt. Kinabalu beforehand, just take local buses that will get you to Semporna in about 4-6 hoursl.
In general, there are two options for accommodation. You can either stay in Semporna with accommodation provided by your dive center or found by yourself (which may be much cheaper). Or, you go to Mabul Island and stay there. The first option is generally cheaper, but it depends on what kind of accommodation you have in Semporna and in Mabul. The good thing is that there are plenty of options, ranging from a bed in a dorm to a luxury suit…
I had wanted to stay in Mabul for the whole time, but was too late with my booking, so I had to stay in Semporna. To do my OWD course, I chose the dive company Scuba Junkie – one of the largest and most famous scuba diving centers in the world. They have great instructors, new equipment, excellent safety regulations and the overall conditions were truly impressive! But… at that time, Christmastime, all of their Sipadan permits were sold out. So, I could only do my OWD and few more dives with them.
The whole OWD course takes 3 days. The first day is just pure theory. You see some slides, watch videos and listen to your dive instructor while following the guidebook. You can prepare for this online or obtain a big brochure just upon arrival. My big piece of advice for all the novices is to get it online in advance and make sure that you at least look through before starting your OWD course. There is a lot of new stuff you will have to learn, memorize and get used to between days one and two.
The second day involves practicing underwater. Many dive companies around the world do this in pools, but in Semporna/Mabul they take you to Sibuan Island, which has perfect conditions! You first have to demonstrate your swimming skills and then float on the surface for some time. Then, you continue working on your diving skills.
Oh, this was my nightmare… I was so exhausted and tired of repeating all the diving skills over and over again, and at one moment I even thought that I would never be able to finish the course and get my certificate… but our instructor was just amazing! She cheered us up if we doubted ourselves, motivated us all the time and made lots of jokes, so finally my diving buddy and I succeeded in finishing that day with flying colors!
The third day was finally about diving, at a maximum depth of 18 meters. At first, it was a bit scary and unusual. For instance, you must ALWAYS keep breathing underwater and NEVER hold your breath. But then, as long as you get used to it, breathing becomes automatic and you can simply enjoy the beauty of this underwater world, with a variety of fish passing by and swimming around you. Some of them are like barracudas and travel in schools, while others swim in small groups of two or three, lonely and hanging around… They all live their own lives which you have this incredibly unique chance to observe! It’s a beautiful and incomparable feeling which you cannot express via words or any other avenue; you must just watch and think about it…
So after this three-day course, I took two more days to try different dive sites with Scuba Junkie. Every day, the boat from Semporna left at about 8-8:30 and came back around 16-17. Since you always have to start with your deepest dive and increase the resting time between dives progressively, you will do two dives before lunch and one dive after.
The dive center provides drinks (tea, coffee and water), lunch (a sandwich or noodles) and some snacks (fruits and/or biscuits). But I really recommend bringing your own (better quality) snacks. In the local pharmacy or drugstore, you can find protein and energy bars which can save you during the day. Believe me, you’ll be starving after each dive!
Since Scuba Junkie didn’t have enough permits (I learned about this when I was booking with them), I searched for another option to dive in Sipadan. I found the dive company Sipadan Online and booked a few days with them, as they confirmed my Sipadan diving. They also offered a sort of hotel accommodation in the town. The company is run by a very nice Austrian guy named Jerry, who has lived in Tawau for more than 10 years with his wife and kids. One of his kids, his son Joe, was my diving buddy! I dove with them for another few days, reserving a three-day Sipadan package and couple more days on other islands.
Well, what can I say? There is definitely a reason that Sipadan is among top 5 diving destinations on Earth! The highlights of my scuba diving were schools of barracudas, numerous reef sharks (it’s so funny to chase them and watch how they swim/drift away) and giant turtles… I was also lucky enough to see a hammerhead shark, a tuna fish and a manta ray! The latter one was like a giant spaceship passing nearby! Joe called me the luckiest customer and asked me to come there once more so we could dive again, and I would definitely love to!
Finally, on my last day with them, we headed to the tiny Sibangkat Island, where Jerry and Joe introduced me to microdiving. It is likely even more thrilling than normal diving. With regular diving, you see relatively large creatures around you, while with micro diving, you have to be very gracious underwater (so you don’t destroy corrals) and be very good at maintaining a steady buoyancy to spot small worms, nudibranchs and other the tiny creatures living there. I was obsessed with finding a seahorse, but luck was not on my side that day.
Overall, I can really recommend Malaysian Borneo as a great destination to get a scuba diving license and enjoy marine life! One more thing you should keep in mind when planning your trip is that there should be a decent amount of time between your last dive and your next airplane flight, so that your lungs don’t experience a decompression problem. An interval of 18 to 24 hours is recommended, but it also depends on how often, how deep and how long you have been diving. I had been diving for about 10 days nonstop and finished my last dive before noon, so I could book a flight out for the next day.
Now, what do I recommend to bring along?
1. Snorkel set: fins, mask, tube and booties. These are your must-have items! Of course, you can rent some or all of them, but it’s not cheap or of the best quality. Even if you decide later on that diving is not your thing (which I’m 100% sure won’t happen), you can use these things for snorkeling as well, so it’s important to invest in a good set. Get a proper silicone mask with a side angle view possibility. If you wear glasses, just wear contact lenses instead of buying a prescription mask (since these are extremely expensive). Good fins allow you to maneuver much easier! And I recommend getting them with straps for maximum comfort. For these, you need a pair of high ankle diving booties, otherwise your legs can bleed and blisters definitely won’t help you!
2. Proper wet suit (men, women). This is another important thing. Here, it depends on how resistant you are to chilly water. Of course, the tropical water temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius and most likely you won’t get cold diving, even at 18 meters depth. But if you become advanced and descend up to 35 meters (which is a casual diving depth in Sipadan), then stay there for 40 – 60 minutes (the average length of one dive), you can easily find yourself feeling cold and uncomfortable. That’s why it’s recommended to wear a 3-5 mm full-body wetsuit. Another reason is jellyfish; wearing a 5 mm suit will definitely protect you against their stings. So that’s what I bought for my Malaysian journey – a full-body 5 mm wetsuit. Well, now I can say it was not necessary for me. First, I’m not so sensitive to cold temperatures. The suit is quite heavy to carry along. So during my next diving journey (Koh Tao Island in Thailand), I went diving in small shorts and a long-sleeved UVF and UVI shirt (women, men), which was completely fine for me in terms of the length and depth of our dives. So my main recommendation is to have your own shorts and long-sleeved shirt, in case it is not enough to simply rent the suit at the dive center.
3. Sunblock for face and body. This is another must-have. Sun is really brutal, and spending the whole day diving and/or snorkeling, your skin will be burnt easily. To avoid this unpleasant experience, wear either long diving pants or a thick layer of sun protection creme. Don’t forget to do this before every dive. Also, on the way to the islands in the morning and in between dives, don’t forget to protect your face and body.
5. High-quality, water-resistant band-aids for blisters. Bring enough band-aids of a good quality (water resistant and different sizes) with you, as you may not find those in the local drug stores.
6. Waterproof bag. Water is literally everywhere when you’re on the diving boat, including your bag! It’s very convenient to have a proper water proof bag where you can keep some money, photo equipment, cigarettes and other stuff dry.
7. Dive computer. You’ll be always diving with your dive buddy and a dive master (or instructor). The latter one will have lots of equipment, including a dive computer. A dive computer is essential for measuring depth, length and other characteristic of the dive. They are not cheap, so for beginners I would not say that this is a super important thing to buy in advance. You can easily rent one at the dive center.
8. GoPro camera, LCD display, hand buoy, anti-fog pads, red filter and extra memory card/s. If you are not an experienced diver, then a GoPro with an LCD display is a great choice – it’s small, convenient, doesn’t affect your buoyancy and it’s easy to use underwater at the beginning. You’ll also need a hand buoy, anti-fog pads and a red filter to compensate for the deep blue color of the water. All these things are better to buy in advance than at local dive shops, since at shops they are very overpriced.
Photos by Anna Nazarova.