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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Scuba Dive in Sipadan

Pulau Sipadan, or Sipadan Island, consistently ranked as one of the top SCUBA destinations in the world. It is the best diving most people will ever experience, and it is still an adventure to get there. Since it requires planning and coordination, it offers a great starting point for a Southeast Asian adventure.

To have a great diving experience in Sipadan, you need to plan ahead at least six or seven weeks, although it is usually possible to find a dive if you plan at least two weeks in advance--showing up without obtaining a permit to dive Sipadan you will still see some incredible sites, but not the site that made this place so famous. Dives at Sipadan are limited by government permits. The further you plan ahead the more likely you are to get more than one dive at the Sipadan sites. Other islands, like Mabul, still offer superior diving, but Sipadan is the reason for making this trip across Borneo. And while you may only be planning three or four nights in the area as you dive, it can be helpful to understand East Malaysia and Pulau Sipadan a little more.

Pulau Sipadan is located in the Celebes Sea east of the major town of Tawau and off the coast of East Malaysia on the Island of Borneo. It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. Sipadan is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem.

Sipadan is really at the meeting of three nations: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In the past, the island was at the center of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. The matter was brought for adjudication before the International Court of Justice and, at the end of 2002, the Court awarded the island along with the island of Ligitan to Malaysia, on the basis of the "effective occupation" displayed by the latter's predecessor (Malaysia's former colonial power, the United Kingdom) and the absence of any other superior title.  The Philippines had applied to intervene in the proceedings on the basis of its claim to Northern Borneo, but its request was turned down by the Court early in 2001.

Sipadan made the news on April 23, 2000, when 21 people were kidnapped by the Filipino terrorist group Abu Sayyafn. All victims were eventually released. Since then, all resorts on Sipadan were torn down. You can no longer stay on the island--it is now an army barracks, and the Malaysian Army has significantly beefed up security.

As you dive, you are sure to see military patrol boats around. The Malaysian military has made a lot of effort to make the area safe from Islamic militants operating in Mindanao, the second largest and easternmost island in the Philippines and the center of several Islamic independence militant groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyafn. Malaysia is trying its best to ensure that this conflict does not spill over into Malaysia.

To get to Sipadan, most people fly into Tawau and then take a taxi or arrange for a pickup to Semporna, where most of the Sipadan's dive operators are based (although for an exceptional experience, see about staying at one of the resorts on Mabul Island). You can get there from Kota Kinabalu which can be reached by AirAsia at a reasonable price especially if you book ahead at least six weeks. The drive to Semporna also gives an insight into the ecological devastation that palm oil has had on Pennisular and East Malaysia.

Semporna itself has little charm to offer; tourism has not turned it into a blossoming town, and it still has the feeling of an outpost with its mix of Philipino, differing East Malaysia ethnic groups, Chinese trademen, Indian shop owners and barbers, and adventuresome others from all over the world ready to plunge into the waters of this incredible assortment of dive sites.

After getting there, however, it represents a stunning scene both above and below water. The macro life is spectacular with sharks gracefully circling the reef, occasionally even hammerhead. . Turtles are common, and advanced divers can visit the mysterious Turtle's Tomb, a famous dive spot that doubles as a name for a diver's bar next to one of Tawau's many outfits. Varied others including garden eels, leaf scorpion fish, mantis shrimps, fire gobies and various pipefish also thrive in this spectacular coral community. If you already have had some dive experience, think of Sipadan as the ideal destination. Beware, however, as one traveler warned, "Don't go to Sipadan--you might be disappointed with every dive you ever do after it." Divers, take heed!


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