Visitors come to Semporna not to hang out in town, but to explore the magnificent islands offshore. The prime destination for divers is Pulau Sipadan, but nearby Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai are also renowned for marine life, and the latter in particular offers great snorkelling.
These well-known islands are, however, just the beginning. Sibuan, for example, on the edge of the chain and just over 45 minutes by boat from Semporna, has a breathtaking beach and shallow coral reefs. On Mantubuan there’s amazing pristine coral and very good visibility – a popular dive is to a section of very rare black coral (actually white), where you swim through a forest of what resemble underwater Christmas trees.
Acclaimed by Jacques Cousteau as “an untouched piece of art”, Sipadan is a cornucopia of marine life, its waters teeming with turtles, moray eels, sharks, barracuda, vast schools of colourful tropical fish, and a diversity of coral comparable to that at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
There is no accommodation on the island and thanks to Sipadan’s popularity, a permit system limits the number of divers each day. As a result, dive shops and resorts will typically require you to dive with them at other islands for three or four days before you get a day at Sipadan; you should also book well in advance. Dive shops regularly take less experienced divers, but you are likely to enjoy your time here more if you have some experience and preferably Advanced Open Water certification – there can be fairly strong drifts and some of the best dives go below 20m. At the very least you should be sure that you have enough buoyancy control to avoid damaging the coral.
You can also use the same permit to snorkel in Sipadan, but it’s hard to justify the huge premium over snorkelling trips to the other islands.
Most of the dozen-plus commonly visited dive sites around Sipadan offer the chance to see abundant turtles and white-tip sharks. The most popular, Barracuda Point, is a drift dive where divers hold onto rocks while shoals of barracuda pass by. Another great site is the Drop-off, close to the jetty, where you often find large schools of barracuda, bump-head parrot fish and Napoleon wrasse. Close to here is the entrance to Turtle Cave, a watery grave for the skeletal remains of turtles that have strayed in and become lost; fatal accidents have occurred when divers have gone in without proper guidance.
Mabul, the chain’s largest island, holds the lion’s share of accommodation. It’s evenly split between posh resorts and affordable guesthouses; many of the latter are on the western side of the island, also home to a lively stilt-village inhabited by Bajau fisherfolk. Although there’s a beach on the eastern side, development means that this is not a very picturesque island and non-divers are not likely to find much to do (other than, perhaps, laze around the more upmarket resorts). Litter is also a major problem on the western side.
Visibility in the water can be 20m or more but it’s much less reliable than at Sipadan, particularly from July to September. Actually, though, the muck diving – seeking out creatures in the sediment – is famous here. Divemasters tend to prefer Mabul to Sipadan: while the latter has the big-ticket attractions like sharks and turtles, Mabul rewards patience. Among the marine life close to the island are seahorses – including the rare pygmy seahorse – frog fish, cuttlefish, mimic octopus, lion fish, stone fish, ribbon eels, mandarin fish and crocodile fish.
Little more than a sand bar, tiny Kapalai is exquisite and other-wordly. It has room only for one resort and an expensive one at that, although its reef is enjoyed by many visitors who are staying on Mabul. Again, the main attractions are the macro life: divers go looking for pygmy seahorses, harlequin ghost pipefish, frog fish and mandarin fish.
Pulau Pom Pom
The diving at Pom Pom Island itself is not the best in the area, but the island is lovely and a real desert-island escape which even has a relatively affordable resort. You also have access to plenty of other islands if diving is your passion.
This great little island had only a single resort at the time of research, though another was under construction. Dive boats come here sometimes, as Mataking is renowned for turtles and magnificent rays, as well as interesting hammerhead nudibranchs.