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There is a reason that Sipadan is called, “The jewel in the crown of diving in Malaysia.” Maybe you’ve dived in World War II wrecks or have swum with sharks, stingrays, and moray eels. But you haven’t really experienced the pinnacle of Malaysian diving until you have been to Sipadan.

Sipadan is one of those rare and beautiful islands formed from a coral reef – and not just any coral reef, but a ring-shaped reef that formed from coral that grew on the caldera of an ancient undersea volcano. Like all such islands, it is exploding with a variety of sea life. Even snorkelers here can expect to see a proliferation of rare and exquisite animals.

Sipadan is the place to go if you want to see big fish – very big fish. Its waters are full of plankton and animals that come to feed on it (or on the animals it nourishes). Many divers have called it a “living aquarium.” Expect to see thousands of barracuda, sharks, jack fish, clown fish, and Sipadan’s specialty, sea turtles. There are so many turtles swimming around Sipadan that while you are here, you will find it hard to believe that turtles are endangered anywhere else in the world. Some of these turtles are several meters long. You can see Olive Ridley sea turtles, leatherback turtles, hawksbill turtles, and green turtles. Many divers say that swimming with turtles touches them deeply, in a way that can’t be matched by experiences such as swimming with sharks, manta rays, or even dolphins. Swimming with sharks inspires fear, swimming with dolphins, playfulness – but swimming with turtles inspires love.

For comic relief, you can watch the bumphead parrotfish, a corallivore. Bumphead parrotfish break coral into small pieces by bumping their heads into the coral. Or you can watch the placid and gentle sea giants, the manta rays, rays that are twice the size of a horse. The average manta ray weighs more than a ton. A few have clocked in at more than two tons!

Around much of Sipadan, there is a 600 meter wall that drops off sharply not far from the beach. The wall, appropriately enough, is called the “Drop Off.” This is the perfect place for divers to experience the diversity of reef sea life. The wall is not uniform – it includes caves such as the famous Turtle Cave, a cave full of sea turtle bones. (Marine biologists theorize that sea turtles become lost and disoriented in the labyrinthine dark cave, and drown before they can manage to surface for a breath of air.)

Because coral reefs block the free flow of water, they form tornado-like water currents. At Barracuda Point, you can expect to see what will look like a tornado of barracudas – hundreds or thousands of these gorgeous fish, any one of which is not small (barracudas can be up to two meters long). A vortex of swirling barracudas is a sight that you cannot hope to duplicate in your lifetime – unless you come back again to Sipadan.

If you are feeling waterlogged and want to spend time relaxing on the beach or hiking, you still will not have to feel deprived of your nature experience. Sipadan is covered will natural rain forest which has been declared a sanctuary for rare birds. You can see sea eagles, kingfishers, starlings and sun birds. You can also expect to see other protected species, such as monitor lizards and coconut crabs (a crab that is believed to eat only coconuts). If you have half an hour to spare, you can circumnavigate the island on foot – it is only 12 hectares across.

Unfortunately for us, Sipadan is not easy to get to. In 2005, the government of Malaysia declared it a national park. Sipadan’s resorts then closed. You will have to start in Mabul or Kalapalai, and travel by boat (which takes about an hour) to get to Sipadan. First, though, you will need to get a permit, as only 120 visitors may visit Sipadan on any given day. You will have to arrange for your permit well in advance. But oh, is it worth it! Malaysia’s efforts to protect the island have kept it in the condition that Jacques Cousteau described as “an untouched piece of art.”

Jacob Mojiwat is passionate about sharing the wonders of scuba diving with others. He is the owner of  His dive company takes divers diving in Sipadan, Malaysia as well at other Asia dive destinations.

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