Getting in requires some effort. Most visitors fly to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur (3 hr) or Kota Kinabalu (50 min), continue by minivan or taxi to the port town of Semporna (1-2 hr) and from there to Sipadan itself (1 hr by fast boat).
Walking along the beautiful sandy beaches, snorkelling sites on all sides of the island can be reached. Scuba divers usually will take a boat a few minutes from the beach to their dive site.
It is no longer possible to stay on Sipadan itself
The beautiful sandy beaches and the coral reef with its rich marine life. On the island there are large monitor lizards (more than 1 m in length) which sometimes come out onto the beach or even into the water.
Sipadan claims to be the world's best dive site. While this is a big claim, the diving here is certainly world class. Sipadan used to have resorts but to protect the environment these were closed around the year 2002. To dive on Sipadan you have to stay somewhere nearby, such as on Mabul, Kapalai or in Semporna, and take a boat onto the island.
Because Sipadan is now a protected site, only 120 divers are allowed daily (April 2013). It is only permissible to be on the island 08:00-15:00. As such, all dive operators will begin and end your dives around the island during this time frame.
From the main beach of the original resort it is a mere 20 m wade over the reef to reach the top of the reef wall dropping 1,000-2,000m. Sipadan is surrounded by very rich reef life consisting of both hard and soft coral as well as all manner of reef fish. Sea turtles and white tip reef sharks can be seen on almost every dive and hammerhead and leopard sharks can also be seen at times (though rarely nowadays). Huge schools of jackfish, barracudas and bumphead parrotfish are also highlights (especially around Barracuda Point) - if you are lucky you may see a jackfish or barracuda "tornado" as they change direction. While macro life does exist here, you are mainly at Sipadan to see the larger critters - the divesites around Mabul and Kapalai are better for macro photographers.
Visibility ranges from 10 m to 30 m and more, although this decreases on stormy rainy days. A lot of diving here consists of current or drift diving, with the currents around Barracuda Point being the strongest (at one point, you can get swept away quite quickly if you aren't careful). Divemasters will usually keep you around 20-25m for the wall dives, although deeper dives are available for technical divers (depending on the dive shop and divemasters available). Your last dive of the day will generally be at a shallower site, around 15m. One of the divesites includes a cave called the Turtle Tomb - if you are lucky and get a cave-certified divemaster and torches, you may even be able to go into the dark for a cool and hair-raising experience (do follow instructions to the letter, or you may not be able to come back out!).
The rate for three dives at Sipadan is around RM800 (April 2013). Rates vary slightly among different operators. Boat transfers and packed lunch are included. Permits are limited to 120 per day and are obtained by the dive operators. It is not possible to dive Sipadan without a permit. Some dive resorts will guarantee a Sipadan permit at 40MYR if you stay for 4 or more nights (this may vary), and extra permits cost 140MYR if you are lucky enough to get another one - pre-booking is key.
As announced by the Malaysian Government effective 10th Feb 2013 the following rules apply when diving Sipadan Island: only Advanced Open Water Divers or entry level divers with a minimum of 20 log dives are allowed to dive in Sipadan. This is likely due to strong currents experienced at some dive sites, as well as instances of novice divers descending too rapidly and/or deeply.
Check diver reviews of dive operators in the area before choosing. Many have had customer complaints regarding faulty equipment.
Dive shops include:
For non-divers, snorkelling is an option on Sipadan. From the beach the reef is easily accessible, and parts of the reef further out can be reached by boat. A wide variety and number of reef fishes, corals, and with a bit of luck, the sharks, barracuda and turtles can be seen without leaving the surface. Note that currents and boat traffic (especially if duck diving) are the major hazards in the offshore areas, and cryptically coloured stone fish may be a hazard in the shallows.
A buoyed-off area from the 'safe' side of the jetty gives snorkellers the safest and potentially most productive snorkelling area. The phenomenal drop-off that makes this island so special, starts where the jetty ends.
Several dive tour operators bring snorkellers to the island at an all-inclusive rate of around RM490. If you are on a boat with other divers, they can take you along and you can snorkel in the shallower parts of the other dive sites under the watchful eye of the boat captain.
With all resorts closed down, there is nothing to buy on the island.
There are no restaurants, and dive tours bring their own lunch and snacks with them. There is a common area in front of the jetty with picnic tables, where the dive tours set up their lunch/snacks.
Dive tours bring their own water and drinks with them.
All resorts on Sipadan have been closed in order to preserve the island in a pristine state. Diving is still permitted and possible by day-trips from the nearby town Semporna, or the nearby islands of Mabul (25 min by boat) and Kapalai (15-20 min by boat).
Mabul Island is an island 15 km away from Sipadan that you can stay on. The entire island is an interesting mix of dive resorts and local Bajau "sea gypsy" communities living on fishing and supporting the tourist industry. Mabul is a great base for diving both Sipadan and other local sites, and there is a hostel oil rig just off the island that has some great sealife underneath. All places to stay there require pre-booking and you will be transferred by boat from Semporna. Try to stay here if you are doing a few dive days, as Semporna itself is a bit run-down and dirty. You will be lucky if you turn up and find a free bed on the island (although more likely during the "low" season of November to March).
Kapalai Island is another island 15km from Sipadan, about 20 minutes by speedboat. It has the swanky Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, with wooden chalets out over the water. Kapalai also has some good divesites itself, including its "House Reef" (artificial house structures that now have burgeoning marine life). Resorts on both Mabul and Kapalai will generally take you to divesites around both of the islands on non-Sipadan days.
Semporna is the "mainland" port city through which all tourist traffic flows, about 36 km from Sipadan. Generally a town to be passed through on your way to Mabul or Kapalai, although you can get a feel for local life by trundling through the back alleys near the fish market (which is both impressive and slightly disturbing, as you likely saw those fish on your dive). Good variety of Malaysian food on the main drag near the jetty, for very decent prices. Accommodation varies from dirt-cheap hostels to higher-end hotels/resorts.
As most dive tour operators also operate an associated hostel/resort, see listings under the "Do" section. A lot of hotels/hostels are located around the main Semporna jetty on the southeast edge of town.
The islands were previously disputed between Malaysia and Indonesia, leading to instability in the region - there was also a highly publicized case of 20 tourists being kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels from the Philippines in 2000. However, an International Court of Justice decision sided with Malaysia, and the area is now regularly patrolled by the Royal Malaysian Navy, who have an outpost on the island. Safety issues are now mainly related to diving activity alone.
As Sipadan is now only a day trip destination from nearby islands, you will have to book your dive trip and/or stay with one of the tour operators in Mabul, Kapalai or Semporna. No divers are allowed to stay on the island after 3PM.