Contributed by Tim Hochgrebe
Story and Images by Tim Hochgrebe
As the plane takes off from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau I think of one of my favourite
songs by Australian singer songwriter Christine Anu 'The monkey and the turtle'
... that is where we are heading, the island of the turtles and the land of
the men of the forest, the Orang-Utans of Borneo. Our main destination is Sipadan
Island, a dive travel mekka generally near the very top of most people's dive
destination dream list and my list has been no exception. With great anticipation
we embark on this journey to this magical island off the East cost of Sabah.
is always the inherent danger of being greatly disappointed when the expectations
are high and I brace myself for a possible disappointment. I have heard some
good and bad reports and in my opinion this trip could go either way.
There is quite some history to the diving on Sipadan Island - luckily we are
accommodated at Borneo Divers which is the
dive resort of Sipadan diving pioneer Clement Lee, a man who still shapes Malaysia's
dive industry with great passion on a day-to-day basis. Some of the history
needs to be part of this story as it is important to understand the current
intricacies of the permit system to visit Sipadan Island.
The diving off the island of Sipadan was only discovered about 25 years ago
as legend had it amongst local fishermen that a giant octopus inhabited the
depths of the waters surrounding the island and not many dared to go near it.
Eventually however it was discovered that unlike the shallow reefs around most
of the other islands in the area, Sipadan rises 600m from the oceanic seabed
which is the main reason for its attractiveness as a diving destination.
Located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, Sipadan is now well known as
one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Home to more than 3,000 species
of fish and hundreds of coral species it is reputedly a diver's paradise. For
those that have heard about Sipadan before, most will remember tales of the
abundance of turtles, but it is not until you dive there, that the true scale
of this claim becomes apparent.
Politically Sipadan is difficult territory as in the past, the island was at
the centre of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia and it took
until the year 2002 for the International Court of Justice to award the island
to Malaysia. Diving became the major economic driving force in the region to
a point where in 2004, the Government of Malaysia ordered all dive resort operators
on Sipadan to remove their structures from the island to protect the fragile
marine ecosystem of Sipadan for future generations.
2005 no tourists were allowed to be on or dive near the island between 6pm and
6am. As it stands as I write this story there are currently only 120 divers
allowed to purchase a roughly A$20 permit to snorkel, dive and go onto the island
each day and there are more than a dozen resorts with droves of divers keen
to explore legendary Sipadan. Rumour has it that numbers might be increased
or 1/2 day permits issued to allow more people to enjoy this very special dive
spot - and all agree it needs to be protected for future generations.
These days most of the dive resorts are located on Mabul Island, which is the
closest island to Sipadan and the boat trip in the morning takes anywhere between
20 minutes and up to one hour depending on swell, wind and the size of the engines
... and I can't wait to get in the water for our first dive.
Once we fulfil the permit checking formalities we are only minutes away from
Barracuda Point, one the most famous dive sites on Sipadan and as the name suggests
I hope to find myself filming up into a giant swirl of circling barracudas with
no one else's bubbles in the picture. It
seems that Barracuda Point never disappoints and before we find ourselves surrounded
by a swirling mass of barracudas we have to pass literally through one of the
largest schools of Jacks or Big-eye Trevallies I have ever seen. They are coming
from everywhere but despite the chaos of fish, they all seem to know where they
are going. The current is generally pretty strong at the point where the barracudas
hang out - and while I battle against it to stay amongst these fearsome looking
fish for that little bit longer, they remain stationary ... effortlessly ...
The tide is high on our morning dives and our guide tries to calm our excitement
with 'not many turtles on this dive, it's high tide'. Despite this we still
encounter at least half a dozen Green Turtles and the occasional Hawksbill Turtle
on the morning dives, but as we return to dive the Hanging Gardens after lunch
I understand what he meant. I think 'turtle bonanza' would be the only expression
that describes our first afternoon dive. Every crevice, every ledge has a turtle
resting in it, looking out into the blue there are turtles as far as your eyes
can see. I didn't start counting but hundred turtles in one low tide dive at
Sipadan seem no exaggeration.
top things off just at the end of our fourth dive for the day as we hover around
the colourful reefs close to the surface I discover a bunch of male turtles
chasing a single female trying to form turtle-double-triple-deckers like we've
all seen them in documentaries and postcards ... from Sipadan ... go figure.
It's hard to let go and climb back onto the dive boat for the trip back to Mabul
- but the day has come to an end and I understand finally what the hype is all
It come as no surprise that the late Jacques Cousteau called the island of Sipadan
'an untouched piece of art' and I was one of the lucky few allowed
to visit the island multiple times on my trip, each trip a very memorable dive
day and it's not only turtles that make the diving days at Sipadan exciting.
Reefsharks and even the occasional Grey Reefshark swim along the deep walls
of Sipadan and hundreds of species of colourful reef fish seem always out in
abundance. Large schools of Pyramid Butterflyfish, Red-toothed Triggerfish,
grazing Surgeonfish and shiny Batfish are literally everywhere. Unfortunately
we are slightly out of season, but I keep looking into the deep blue as there
are frequent sightings of hammerhead sharks and whale sharks around Sipadan.
However, as a videographer I often prefer to hang out shallow and capture life
in natural light and Sipadan has plenty to offer in the shallows. Healthy reefs
with myriads of orange and pink anthias, cleaning stations and always lots of
As a result of the permit system, the normal dive trip to 'Sipadan' these days
will involve much diving around Mabul, Kapalai and surrounding island as well
which is considered more of a muck diving area. The
reefs around Mabul are generally very shallow but there is some excellent diving,
especially if you are into hunting for the more elusive critters; Yawfish with
eggs in their mouths, spearing mantis shrimps, big cuttlefish and some excellent
Unfortunately the Flamboyant Cuttlefish did not want to show itself to me which
just means there has to be a revisit of this area in the not to distant future.
Juvenile Ribbon Eels hide amongst some of the muddy reef slopes and wrecks that
have been scuttled around Mabul and Kapalai. The
resorts are doing their best to 'grow' and maintain a number of artificial reefs
around the islands. And then there is the old 'oil-rig' the Seaventures dive
resort under which the diving is supposedly excellent as well but we never made
it due to other commitments.
Sipadan certainly deserves its fame and I already can't wait to return, but
before I return home there is still the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre in
Sepilok and Mount Kinabalu to visit. But that story should be left to the landlubbers
although I think it is an excellent idea to combine the visit of the Orang Utan
sanctuary with your diving, if you have already made the journey to the 'Land
below the Wind'.
There is never enough space for all the impressions - please watch the slideshow below. A series of filmclips is coming ... so come back for more!