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.

Pulau Sipadan

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.

Pulau Mabul

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.

Pulau Kapalai

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.

Pulau Mataking

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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Malaysia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Living the good life in Borneo

Living the good life in Borneo

Life in the beautiful region of Sapulot is relaxed and uncomplicated, and the communities who live here want to keep it that way. They are inviting visitors to …

02 Jun 2016 • Ros Walford insert_drive_file Article
7 reasons why Langkawi is Malaysia's ultimate island escape

7 reasons why Langkawi is Malaysia's ultimate island escape

Looking to unwind on a tropical island somewhere in Southeast Asia? Then head to the island of Langkawi, Malaysia’s ultimate escape from the country’s frene…

09 Feb 2016 • Stuart Forster insert_drive_file Article
Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

National parks are some of the world's most awe-inspiring natural places, taking in mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and forests (sometimes all in the same one…

02 Jul 2015 • Rebecca Hallett help Quiz
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month