Sipadan: Diving One of the World’s Best Dive Site Part I

 

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The world famous ‘Barracuda Tornado’

Sipadan’s Barracuda Point is said to be one of the world’s top dive sites (some might even argue that it’s the best!). While it is home to many different species of fishes, it is most famous for the giant schools of great barracudas that prowl the area. They make for a magnificent sight, forming a ‘tornado’ of a thousand gleaming swords as they swirl with the current above your head.

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There are also large schools of Jacks who frequent the area

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Sipadan is also famous for its turtles

In Part I of this series on Sipadan, I will be going through the logistics and costs of a trip to dive at Sipadan. In Part II, I will be detailing my dive experience there.

GETTING THERE

It takes quite abit of effort to get to Sipadan which is located at Borneo, Sabah in East Malaysia. The closest airport to Sipadan is the town of Tawau which is accessible by flights from either Kuala Lumpar (3 hour flight) or Kota Kinabalu (50 minutes flight). After touching down in Tawau, you will head over to Semporna port (approximately 1.5 – 2 hour car ride) and take a boat ride to Sipadan.

*Transfers from the airport can be arranged by your chose dive resort. You might have to stay a night in Tawau (which I did) if your flight is too late as the boats to Sipadan/nearby islands follow a curfew.

However, you will not be staying on Sipadan Island itself due to a history of incidents with pirates and the Abu Sayyaf militant group. (More on safety at the last section of this post) Not to worry, there are plenty of options for accommodation and/dive resorts in the nearby islands of Mabul, Kaplai, Mataking and Semporna itself.

*I chose to stay at the Seaventures Dive Rig which was located right by Mabul Island. It takes the speed boat approximately 45 minutes to an hour to reach the dive rig/Mabul Island.

My Itinerary:

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Tawau airport

I flew with AirAsia from Singapore (SG) to Kuala Lumpar (KL) and then to Tawau (TW). The flight from SG to KL took about 45 minutes. As there were no connecting flights from SG to TW, I had to check out at KL and then check in again for my second flight. The check out-check-in process can take from 20 minutes to 1 hour. My flight timings were as follows:

24/7
SG to KL: 11:40 AM

KL to TW: 3:40 PM

29/7

TW to KL: 3:40 PM

KL to SG: 9:25 PM

*I chose a later flight from KL in order to buffer for any delays. KL airport also has a wide variety of food places to eat at and has free WiFi.

**Before you book your flights, check for the speed boat timings with your dive resort in order to determine whether you will have to stay a night in Tawau. 

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The slow town of Tawau

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The view from Promenade hotel

I stayed a night in Tawau at the Promenade hotel. It was located about 30 minutes taxi ride from the airport. There is a booth for “Airport Taxis” right at the exit of Tawau airport.

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Promenade Hotel

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The reception area

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Small but cozy bedroom

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Was early for breakfast but the food was already cold

The hotel itself was decent for a night’s stay and there are many other options in Tawau which you can choose from. The good thing about Promenade hotel was that there was a shopping mall located directly behind it. From there, I was able to get much needed toiletries and snacks from its super market.

*Seaventures do not provide much toiletries and it is advisable to bring your own. They also do not sell any snacks other than ice cream (although they do have free flow of cakes).

The next morning, we were picked up by a minivan at 7:30 AM and we made our way to Semporna port. It took us about 2 hours to get there. At Semporna Port, we stopped by the Seaventures Semporna office to sign some waivers and waited for the speed boat to leave. There is a cafe and Guardian pharmacy nearby if you wish to purchase anything. The speed boat was another short car ride away and it took us about 45 minutes to get to the rig.

*The roads leading to Semporna make for a very bumpy ride as they are not fully developed. It is advisable to take motion sickness pills if you get car sick easily..

The rides back took approximately the same amount of time as the time it took to get there. There might be some variance due to weather conditions out at sea. At Tawau airport, there are some cafes where you can get breakfast or lunch before you fly back to Kuala Lumpar or Kota Kinabalu.

 

IMPRESSIONS: SEAVENTURES DIVE RIG

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Seaventures Dive Rig

The Rig:

From a distance, the Seaventures Dive Rig (which was converted from an oil rig) made for a magnificent sight. The main platform sits at about 8 – 10 meters above sea level and the only way to access the rig is through a large open-aired elevator. There is a rear gate but it is mostly used by staff to access the dive boats which are ‘parked’ there.

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View from the rig to nearby Mabul Island

The rig comes with the following facilities (taken from the site):

Facilities:

  • Air-conditioned ensuite cabin with hot shower
  • Games room – Ping Pong Table, Pool Table
  • Conference Room (accommodates up to 60 persons)
  • Sundeck Lounge
  • Maindeck Lounge (also serves as open air dining area)
  • WI-FI
  • IDD
  • PADI Diving Course up to Instructor Level

There were several areas such as the conference room and games room which I did not visit as I didn’t feel the need to.

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The maindeck lounge

The maindeck lounge also doubles up as a dining/rest area in between dives.

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Scuba equipment area

There is an area by the main hall where your dive gear will be setup and placed every night in preparation for the next day’s dive. There are also shelves and boxes for you to store your other dive gear such as fins, masks and weight belts as well as hangers for you to hang your wet suits.

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The long stairs up to the sun deck and rooms

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The sun deck

The sun deck has a spectacular 360 degree view of Mabul island and the surrounding seas.

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The view from the sun deck

The Rooms:

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Our small but comfy room

Our room was located on the 4th deck (which meant a lot of climbing). The room was small but clean and cozy. The room came stocked with a bed, bedside table, larger table, some clothing racks and a small cupboard. The deco had a homely feel to it which suited us fine. However, the toilets were very basic.

Seaventures only provide generic soap and toilet paper, thus it might be a good idea to purchase toiletries if you are stopping over at Tawau or at the Guardian store beside the Semporna office. Wifi was pretty good as they have a different WiFi setup for every floor, although it wasn’t good enough to stream videos smoothly.

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Large and comfy bed

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The toilet; as basic as it gets

The Food:

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Breakfast on the rig

At Seaventures, the food is buffet styled and served at certain timings. Breakfast is from 7 – 9 AM, lunch from 1 – 3 PM and dinner from 7 – 9 PM. Breakfast included noodles, french toast, sausages and you can get eggs from the “egg counter” (as pictured below). If you head over to Sipadan, breakfast will be brought and eaten there. Lunch and dinner have similar fare and included a soup, bread, meat, fish, vegetable and seafood/tofu dish. Drinks include orange flavored water, cold water, milo and coffee. There is also free flow of dessert and cakes which are regularly topped up. Ice cream such as cornetto and magnum and beer are available for purchase at the bar. The food while not spectacular,  was good and made for hearty fare after the long day of diving.

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The buffet table and egg counter

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Free flow of cakes, dessert, coffee and milo

 

My thoughts on Seaventures: One of the reasons why I chose to stay and dive with Seaventures with the allure of trying something different. Not many can boast that they have been to and even stayed at an (converted) oil rig before. While the concept might seem boring to some as you are ‘trapped’ on the rig, there is really not much time to explore anyway as diving takes up most of your time. We were usually done at around 5 – 6pm and were always exhausted after the 4 – 5 dives each day. It was a much different experience from a typical dive resort (which you can find anywhere) and I was pleased with my choice to stay there.

*If you crave sandy beaches, there is a boat that leaves for Mabul Island daily at 4:30pm and will pick you up again about 2 hours later.

 

BREAKING DOWN COSTS

Total amount spent: Approximately 1850 SGD 

I had an exchange rate of about 2.8 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) to 1 Singaporean Dollar (SGD).

  1. Flights (Return tickets): SG to KL – 61 SGD + KL to TW – 100 SGD = 161 SGD
  2. Transfer to Promenade hotel: 45 MYR/16 SGD
  3. 1 Night stay in Promenade hotel for 2: 164.30 MYR/ 58.70 SGD (inc 6% GST)
  4. *5d4n package at Seaventures Dive Rig: 3784 MYR/ 1304.50 SGD (inc 6% GST, exchange rate depends on your bank and some credit card charges might apply)
  5. **Equipment rental (BCD, Regulator, Mask & Fins): 280 MYR/ 100 SGD 
  6. Sipadan Permits (40 MYR/day): 80 MYR/ 28.60 SGD
  7. 4 extra dives at Sipadan (2 each day): 440 MYR/ 157.20 SGD

Some miscellaneous expenditure included about 5 meals at the respective airports, dinner at Tawau, snacks and toiletries for the rig.

My expected budget for the trip was about 1700 SGD. I overextended quite a little bit but it was mostly due to the extra 4 extra Sipadan dives (which I was not aware that we could opt for). On hindsight, the extra $157 was definitely well worth it as it is only about 40 SGD per dive and at Sipadan! Diving in Phuket or Bali would also incur similar costs.

*The 5d4n package at Seaventures included:

  • Return land transfer : Tawau Airport / Town – Semporna – Tawau Airport / Town
  • Return boat transfer : Semporna Jetty – Seaventures Dive Rig – Semporna Jetty
    Note: All land and boat transfer are based on Seaventures scheduled time; minimum 2 persons per transfer
  • Buffet-style full board meals (breakfast/lunch/dinner) and free flow of drinking water, coffee/tea served all day except for alcoholic and carbonated drinks
    Note: No ala-carte meals provided
  • Twin share ensuit cabin with hot shower
  • 3 daily boat dives between Mabul/Kapalai Island or Sipadan Island, except on arrival and departure day. Sipadan diving is subject to permit approval and quota availability.
  • Unlimited house reef diving with buddy system (time and weather permitted)
  • Tanks, weight belt and weights.

**Equipment rental rates were as follows:

NO ITEM Rental Price / Day / Person
1 BCD MYR25
2 Regulator W/Gauge MYR25
3 Wetsuit MYR25
4 Mask & Snorkel MYR15
5 Fins MYR10
6 Dive Computer MYR50
7 Underwater Camera MYR180
8 Underwater Torch with battery MYR30

Cutting costs:

There are a few ways to cut some costs for the budget conscious traveler:

  • Get earlier flights to skip the 1N stay in Tawau and head straight to the rig. This means that you will stay for 5d4n instead of 6d5n. However, air ticket prices might vary.
  • Doing the above would let you skip out on having to hire a cab as transfers from the airport are usually provided by the dive resort.
  • Alternatively, there are much cheaper hotels/motels around other than the Promenade hotel.
  • Bring your own dive equipment
  • Extra dives at Sipadan are to your own discretion. Also, the more people that tags along (from the original morning trip as Sipadan passes are valid only for the same people), the cheaper it’ll be.

 

SAFETY

There has been quite a number of incidents with regards to piracy in the areas surrounding Sipadan. When I questioned Seaventures, this was the email they replied me with (as of 22 July 2016) which I found reassuring:

In light of recent and unfortunate events in the outlining areas, we would like to remind all our guests that Seaventures Dive Resort has been and will continue to remain a safe diving establishment. We have taken measures to ensure the safety of all our guests and have since enhanced our night shift perimeter surveillance with staff on hand 24 hours. We have CCTV in full operation throughout the Rig each day and we are conveniently located directly in front of the police post on Mabul Island to which we have immediate contact via various means.

 

The platform sits above 6 large pillars and remains at a height of 8 to 10 meters above sea level depending on tide with restricted access to outsiders via only two means – the elevator and rear gate. The Rig’s elevator is always raised at night and the rear gate always locked. The rear staircase is in the process of being mobile so it too will be raised at night ensuring the Rig is completely inaccessible to all outsiders. The Navy, Maritime Department and Polis frequently patrol the area daily and all the resorts in our community are closely working together with the help of authorities to improve the current situation and ensure the safety of all our guests and surrounding environment.

 

So far the business back to normal. The Navy, Maritime Department and Polis frequently patrol the area daily and all the resorts in our community are closely working together with the help of authorities to improve the current situation and ensure the safety of all our guests and surrounding environment.

The Rig is also patrolled daily by ESSCOM’s commanders who are located on the Rig itself. Their presence is to monitor, protect and ensure safety on the rig and the areas nearby.

 

A curfew have also been imposed to areas from Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu, Semporna, Kunak and Tawau. As such, night diving AFTER 1900hrs is currently not available until further notice.  If you have any further enquiries relating to this matter please feel free to contact Seaventures Dive Rig

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Armed guards just arriving on the rig

I never once felt unsafe or threatened. The armed guards also did come by every evening till the next morning. On Sipadan island itself, there are plenty of guards and you can see police speed boats cruising around occasionally. However, do check news reports and travel safely and smartly always.

That’s all for Part I and I will be going through my dive experience in Part II of this series on Sipadan.

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See you in Part II

All photos are taken by and are property of Strongertmr/Leon Tan Kian Onn.

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