I have spent a fair share of my times in South East Asia on boats. Small boats, big boats, calm water, rough water, but the drive from Semporna to the M/V Celebes Explorer, my home for the next few nights, is an especially bumpy one. And it doesn’t help to calm my already frayed nerves, after all, I am here to dive at one of the most spectacular dive sites in the world: Sipadan.

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Just off the northeast coast of Borneo this area has been described by veteran diver Jacques Cousteau as the last diving paradise and so it is no surprise that it is favored by diving enthusiasts from all over the world. As it is a nature reserve a strict permit system that limits divers per day has been introduced. To get guaranteed dives there, I have decided to join my first liveaboard, the M/V Celebes Explorer, as she is the only boat that is allowed to exclusively cruise around Sipadan. The island itself, while picture perfect is unassuming and doesn’t show the treasures its waters all around offer.

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Before we can enjoy those treasures there is boat bureaucracy to be taken care of. How many dives have you done? Raf our dive master asks. 15! I answer proudly. 50? he asks back. No, 1-5. I confirm not so proud anymore. Carolyn next to me has done 50 and her friend Dirk 250. Am I in trouble? Mihado from Japan tops us all with over 800 dives. No turning back now and so I quickly drop my backpack in the tiny cabin that I share with Alice from Marseille, asking myself yet again why I had to bring EVERYTHING.

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It is time to set up equipment and I am proudly getting my very own Scubapro BCD, regulator, wetsuit, and my pretty sparkling white fins out. Though I am the newbie with my little 15 dives, I feel grown up with my own gear at least till I try to wiggle into my wetsuit. There is no way to ever get into a wetsuit gracefully and so I just do it in hiding.

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All suited up we are off to our first dive site: South Point. I learn how to enter the water with a backroll and am promptly rewarded when someone spots while we are still on the surface. Only when I stick my head in the water to check, I see no turtle but a Triggerfish coming towards me. Apparently he feels I am disturbing his nest and won’t have it. I shout a warning to the others and remember the pages from my dive manual and swim backward away from it only offering my fins. The Triggerfish chases me for a bit and then takes the bait as I will see later on the boat when checking my fins closely.

Too much excitement for me already and I am more than a bit apprehensive when we go under. Next up is a fully grown black tip reef shark and after the Triggerfish incident I welcome its docile nature and the fact that he is ignoring me completely. In addition, we encounter turtles galore and a never-ending parade of colorful reef fish that surround us from all sides.

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Before our second dive, I am even more nervous to get in the water and I consider calling it a day. But what is true for horses holds true for diving as well and I know I have to get back into the saddle underwater immediately. I think about the turtles instead of the triggerfish and jump.

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Usually, always the first at the buffet I can hardly keep my eyes open by the time dinner is served. But not only the French Fries are enticing and I manage a big plate – diving makes tired and hungry! – before I collapse into my little bunk by 9 pm. The night still seems short when we are woken up at 6 am for our first dive. Coffee mugs still in hand we wriggle into our gear and pack the boat. Before we leave I get myself a little magic wand to help me stay put in strong currents and to bang my tank to attract attention when seeing something special. There is plenty of tank banging going on and we are soon bored by turtles & co.

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After our first dive, there is breakfast followed by a second dive, a snack, another dive, and lunch. For those still up for it there is a fourth dive in the afternoon. I, on the other hand, spend my hours napping, reading and tanning on the upper deck.

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By the time, everybody is back and somewhat freshly showered we are moored just off Mabul island, adjacent to Sipadan, where we spend our nights. Shore leave is in order and we make our way over the piers of the water bungalow resorts and through the little villages of the Bajau Laut, a tribe of sea gypsies that live here now. We wave hello to the kids that follow us and find ourselves some big bottles of Tiger and a place to watch the sunset.

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As our crowd is international and diverse the conversation is the usual traveler’s talk: Where have you been, where will you go, what have you seen? Only for us the answers don’t include Macchu Picchu, Indian yoga retreats or lions, our conversations name dive sites, islands, and marine life.

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Back on the boat, we ponder over the fish and reef creature books to classify what we have seen and before each dive we make a bucket list of what we still want to see. Most of what we wish for, we actually get because that’s what Sipadan does: making divers’ wishes come true. I still haven’t seen a hammerhead shark or a seahorse, but at least now I know that I really, really want to and that gives me good enough reason to jump into the blue again over and over, Triggerfish or not.

Things to consider on the boat:

  • Take one thing into consideration – the Celebes Explorer ain’t no cruise ship nor is it in any way fancy. If you are not here for some serious diving this is not the ship for you. Having that said, the crew was super friendly and helpful, the food amazing and plenty, and cabins and common rooms cozy if worn.

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  • Yes, dearest internet addicts – there is wi-fi, albeit sketchy one. When mooring off Mabul island there is also reception so you get by with a 3G card.
  • Keep your belongings to a minimum. Dive equipment and shoes live outside on deck, but personal effects and clothes need to fit in your tiny cabin. I could have done with 2 bikinis, 2 sarongs, a light cotton dress, and a pair of shorts.

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  • In addition to the price for liveaboard which includes shared accommodation, dives, three meals, coffee, tea, and water you will still need to pay Sipadan permit fee of RM40 per day. You can choose different packages that will all include guaranteed dives at Sipadan as well as pick-up from Tawau Airport, transfer to Semporna and boat transfer to the Celeb Explorer are included.

Things to consider underwater:

  • You can hire or bring your own equipment. Thanks to Scubapro I had my own, but heard no major complaints about the gear from the boat though some things seemed a bit old. Nitrox is available but needs to be booked beforehand.

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  • Diving in Sipadan still depends on weather conditions and, if not ideal, alternative dive sites at Mabul and Kapalai will be used. Three to four dives per day are conducted except on the arrival and departure day.
  • Currently, no night dives are conducted due to the government curfew.

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  • Triggerfish are no fun. I don’t have a picture to show as I would hide behind Raf whenever I saw one after the initial incident.
  • Sipadan is a paradise on all things small and big. If you ever want to tire of seeing turtles and sharks this is the place to be. But it also comes with some serious challenges, strong currents being one of them. You will need at least an AOW and a good amount of dives in your book. In hindsight, I’d say that my 15 dives were too few to dive here and enjoy it to the fullest. Luckily I had my awesome divemaster Raf who helped me all the time and gave me piggyback rides when I was out of air. Thank you, Raf!

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Disclaimer: The M/V Celebes Explorer invited me for a 4 night stay with them – thank you kindly! Opinions, as always, are my own. 

All images by Annika.