While I touched on this experience briefly in my Visiting BORNEO post, I’ve decided to revisit the topic for all you dive freaks out there. It is home, after all, to Sipadan : one of the top 10 best places to dive in the world!
As mentioned in my Visiting BORNEO post, my GoPro decided to conk out during one of my dives. After returning to the hostel and trying to charge it, it wouldn’t respond to being plugged into the wall or my laptop. Weeks later, it mysteriously turned on. Moral of the story: I have ZERO photos from all 6 dives and I’m bitter about it.
I reached Semporna bright and early – 4am to be exact – and was ready to have a lie in before investigating the various dive centers around town. I had done little to no research before coming to this area and knew only that it was renown for being the headquarters for all diving on the Eastern Malaysian side of the island of Borneo. I came to learn it is very small with a few restaurants, convenience stores, and a hand-full of accommodations. It also has a large fish & produce market where nearby towns and locals stock up. After some wandering, recommendations, and a quick google search, I decided to dive and stay with Scuba Junkie, primarily because they offered hostel + dive packages; I’m glad I did.
Scuba Junkie has two properties: 1 hostel on the mainland across the street from the dive shop and a nicer resort on the island of Mabul. Staying at the Mabul resort is of course pricier, but it offers more convenience for diving as you’re already out at sea with minimal transport needed for each dive. The resort also houses the divemaster trainees and some of the staff, so it’s quite lively and a great place to meet people. Scuba Junkie offers packages catering to new and experienced divers including equipment, night dives, and discounts for staying at their properties. They also offer certification programs for beginners up to instructors. All around, I had a fantastic experience with them and never heard a bad report from anyone else.
Now, all I had heard since arriving to Borneo was how epic diving on the island of Sipadan was. I’d heard rumors about seeing hundreds of different kinds of fish, sharks circling you, mantas flying by, and just more marine life in one dive than you can imagine. I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t get to dive at Sipadan. ‘Why is it so famous?’ you might ask. Well due to its location, certain sections of the island have strong currents that bring reef sharks, barracudas, hawksbill turtles, rays, thousands of species of fish and crustaceans, and even hammerhead sharks. There are massive caves, coral gardens, and a steep 600m wall. This island has a limit to how many divers can visit each day and it spans across all dive shops offering trips, making the exclusivity very beneficial to its conservation and reputation. Let’s just say, people book their trips months in advance and some return each year religiously. As I didn’t have time to wait 2 weeks for the next slot, I opted for the surrounding islands. I rarely give this advice, but if you’re even thinking of diving in Borneo – book ahead.
Surrounding Dive Spots
The popular surrounding islands are The Golden Triangle – Mabul, Sibuan, & Kapalai – Mataking, and Mantabuan. Each are special for different reasons and are sure not to disappoint. Scuba Junkie changes up their schedule based on the amount of people interested and what the weather’s like, so if you’re alone or a pair, you may have to go with the flow. Some are also great for snorkeling and free diving – like Mabul – which is perfect if someone in the group doesn’t dive or you’re a family with small kids.
Sibuan was my favorite island to dive around. Not only did we see a massive manta, the other marine life was just fantastic. The island itself is so incredibly picturesque that a day of diving and wandering along the pristine, white beaches is literally most peoples dreams incarnated.
The biggest obstacle – and probably the reason it’s still somewhat unknown and untouched – is getting yourself to this paradise. I traveled by bus everywhere I went on the island. It was a fairly easy process, inexpensive, and direct – it just has a grueling travel time. When arriving by bus into Semporna, you’ll probably take the night bus and arrive very early morning. The bus stop is a bit far from the center of town but it’s easy enough to grab a taxi at the station as they’re all lined up to help travelers into town. Make sure your accommodation knows you’ll be arriving in the middle of the night so they’re awake to let you in!
A more expensive option would be flying into Tawau airport which is a little more than an hour away. It’s convenient if you’re short on time or only going for diving. From there, you can catch a bus or a taxi to Semporna.