The small island of Sipadan off northeast Borneo has a reputation as one of the world’s quintessential tropical dives, its reefs populated by a unique wealth of marine life. But following years of unfettered diving tourism, environmental degradation and government inaction, how does it compare to its halcyon days? Linda Pitkin revisits the Malaysian outcrop 20 years since first diving there to find out
A dark ridge of trees above a line of white sand breaks the smooth horizon of the Celebes Sea, as the tiny island of Sipadan looms ahead. We stagger out onto the diving deck after our first night on our liveaboard, still a little disorientated from two days of non-stop travel. This is what we have returned here for – but will it live up to our previous experiences here?
Dropping down onto the reef, we soon come upon the big school of bigeye trevally that was a highlight of many of my past dives here. As a photographer, I really appreciate them hanging around in the shallows, with sunlight glinting off their silvery flanks. I head along the reef, and almost right away I am greeted by a huge green turtle, cruising lazily towards me. A little further on, I slow down to admire a turtle on a ledge: it half opens an eye, but doesn’t bother to move. On the sloping reef top, turtles rest here and there: a carapace tilted on the uneven reef; a flipper flung nonchalantly over a coral.
Sipadan is turtle heaven: several species visit the island’s waters, but it is the green turtle that comes ashore in large numbers to nest and is the big attraction. When I used to stay on the island, I would sit on the end of the jetty between dives and watch a succession of them swim past – and I am elated to now see as many, if not more.
A few dives later, the turtles are wiped from my mind as I focus on swimming hard against the current to reach a school of something that excites me even more – bumphead parrotfish. They are rare in much of their range, and Sipadan is one of the few places where you stand a good chance of seeing them in a large group. They are huge compared with other parrotfish – up to 1.2m in length and weighing as much as 45kg – with a characteristic high-domed head that is more prominent in males and gets bigger as they mature.
Parrotfish are shyer than you might expect, but the current gives me some advantage – they seem less concerned that I am hanging there with them as we all brace ourselves against the flow. I am thrilled with the opportunity to get some wide-angle photos before they move on, streaming past me along the reef. Another common name for this species is the buffalo parrotfish, and it is easy to imagine them as a herd stampeding in a cloud of dust, except that the cloud is the powdered waste of their munched coral, which they expel as they go. One researcher claims that a single fish eats more than five tonnes of coral rock a year. Shouldn’t someone have a word with the vandals? Well, no: this is all part of the natural dynamics of a coral reef.
The bumpheads move up current, and I stop fighting it and let myself drift along the reef, still on a high as I enjoy an effortless ride towards the point. I am about to end the dive, but it isn’t all over yet. Ahead of me, and closing fast, is a huge school of blackfin barracuda, another famous resident of Sipadan, so I spend my last few minutes circling with them almost to the surface – a great way to finish.
All this marine-life activity makes Sipadan one of the world’s top dive sites; some even say the very top. But why is it so special? Yes, the reefs are rich with many fishes and other smaller animals, but these can also be seen at nearby islands Mabul and Kapalai. What Sipadan can boast over those islands are turtles, diverse schools of fish, and sharks such as whitetip and grey reef – even hammerheads down deep, if you are lucky. Pelagics swarm around Sipadan because it is the only oceanic island off Malaysian Borneo – if you were to drop down those steep walls, your computer would register 600m before you hit the ocean floor. As a result, Sipadan sometimes has very good visibility of around 30m, subject to weather conditions.
- Bigeye trevally/Linda Pitkin
- Bumphead parrotfish/Linda Pitkin
- Green turtle/Linda Pitkin
- Yellow chromis/Lina Pitkin
But what of the corals? At Sipadan’s Hanging Gardens, the soft corals make for some lovely splashes of colour, although the walls are not exactly festooned with corals, in contrast to what I wrote in my 1991 dive log. While there are still some good spots, healthy corals are patchy at many sites where a rich diversity of corals once competed for an inch of space. The reef top seems to have suffered the most, with broken and dead corals in places where I once logged entries such as ‘lovely staghorn and masses of tiny fish’ and ‘stony corals (Acropora) on reef top in excellent condition’. Nothing on a coral reef lives in isolation, and the death of corals ultimately affects a multitude of interdependent reef animals.
The first time I saw Sipadan was by a lucky chance, of sorts. My husband Brian and I headed there in 1990, because we had a few days to spare when our diving trip in the South China Sea was unexpectedly curtailed after the engine of our liveaboard Four Friends caught fire (it could have been worse – the yacht sank a couple of years later). As we drew near the island aboard the supply boat, a tropical storm held us off. Unstable weather has always been a factor around here. It soon turned around, though, and we found ourselves underwater that afternoon, enjoying our first experience of the dive sites that had enthralled Jacques Cousteau two years before.
Formerly known for being a bird sanctuary, Sipadan was pioneered as a diving destination par excellence in 1984 by British expat Ron Holland, who set up Borneo Divers, the first dive centre on the island. It was still pretty basic when we first visited in 1990, accommodating just 24 divers in rooms that were spartan by today’s luxury standards: communal toilets and showers, with no hot water. But who cares when you are young and the diving is this good?
We absolutely loved it and returned in the following two years, but then didn’t visit for more than a decade, aghast at the way things were shaping up in paradise. Another dive centre started up in the same year as our first trip, followed by another… and another… until it grew totally out of hand. Even the terrorist raid on Sipadan in 2000, when Philippine Muslim extremists Abu Sayaff took tourists as hostages, slowed the tourist boom only temporarily.
By 2004, there were six dive resorts, all on an island so small that it takes as little as 20 minutes to circumnavigate on foot. The pressure of too many careless divers and snorkellers, and dive boats constantly coming and going, harmed the corals. Worse damage came from on land: sewage and litter were common sights, forests were cut down, nesting turtles were disturbed, and the beach was eroded at one end (the beach near the jetty has all but disappeared) and silted up at the other.
Diving tourism hasn’t been all bad news for Sipadan. It helped to stop dynamite fishing and other destructive practices that were rife before (although these, as well as shark finning, still occur alarmingly close by), and resort operators also helped limit the traditional taking of turtle eggs.
Uncertainty over Sipadan’s ownership – long disputed by Malaysia and Indonesia and the Philippines – hindered responsible management of the island, but in 2002 it was ruled in favour of Malaysia by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). After years of failing to respond to environmental concerns here, the Malaysian government took action and ordered all dive resorts to leave the island by the end of 2004.
Since then, regrowth of vegetation and more turtle landings have been reported. But the damage goes on: in 2006, an area of the reef was destroyed when an illegal barge carrying building materials crashed into it. It transpired that this was for a new restaurant and other facilities for visitors, and staff quarters – the ensuing outcry resulted in the inappropriate construction plans being suspended, although less elaborate ones will probably go ahead. Sipadan’s reefs have also suffered from tropical storms and from coral bleaching caused by rises in sea temperature, but while a healthy reef can recover from natural disasters over time, adding man-made damage can be a stress too far.
Today the ban on dive resorts means that it is now dived by liveaboard or from the increasingly popular resorts at Mabul and Kapalai, a mere 15–25 minutes’ boat-ride away. Permits, issued by Sabah Park Management, are limited to 120 visitors each day. There are still causes for concern, though, and controversial plans for building a new oceanarium resort at Mabul could also have an adverse impact on the reefs of the island.
So what lies ahead for Sipadan? It has been proposed that it should be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site; if that ever occurs, it might just be enough to secure its world-class future.
What would Jacques Cousteau have to say about it today, I wonder? He could hardly call it, as he once did, ‘an untouched piece of art’, but I am sure he would still find much to enthuse about – for now.
1933 Declared a bird sanctuary by Malaysia’s British colonial government
1977 British marine biologist Dr Elizabeth Wood visits as part of a coral survey of Sabah; highlights Sipadan’s nature in her report
1980 Dr Wood leads a full scientific expedition for WWF Malaysia to survey Sipadan’s reefs
1983 Visited by Jacques Cousteau, who declares the island a ‘gem’
1984 Ron Holland opens Borneo Divers, first dive resort on island
1996 With six resorts now operating, there are concerns that Sipadan cannot cope with the associated pollution and diver traffic
2000 Hostages taken by Philippine separatists Abu Sayaff
2002 ICJ awards ownership to Malaysia following a long dispute
2004 All dive resorts closed by order of the Malaysian government
2006 A barge carrying building materials beaches on the island, destroying an area of reef
2009 Malaysia nominates Sipadan for UNESCO World Heritage status
To travel to Sipadan, you must fly via Singapore or peninsular Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, and then catch a flight across the state to Tawau. Then it’s a two-hour journey by road to Semporna, from where you catch a speedboat to Mabul island. A typical seven-day package should cost around £1,500. A 3mm wetsuit is all you’ll need, plus mosquito repellent, lightweight tropical clothing and lots of UV protection