Worlds Best Diving Destination On A Budget – Sipadan Borneo
If you like turtles and sharks, great drop offs and reefs to snorkel then you will love Sipadan. This island off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo used to boast the worlds best shore dive. About 10m/30ft from the beach the wall drops to 680m/2200ft. Since 2005 the island is a marine park and is protected from dynamite fishermen and over diving by the Malaysian Navy and Sabah Parks officials. Divers must stay on close by Mabul or take day trips from the coast town of Semporna.
For such a wonderful dive site you would expect premium prices, but Sipadan is surprisingly accessible for those on a shoestring budget. Get yourself to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and follow the tips below for a unforgettable dive holiday without breaking the bank.
Book your international flight to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and then get yourself to Semporna via Tawau.
How to get from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau
Book a flight from KL to Tawau with Air Asia for around RM200 plus taxes.
Air Asia leaves from the Kuala Lumpur LCCT which stands for Low Cost Carrier Terminal. Its about 10km from the main international terminals. Follow the signs from arrivals to the car park and you will find the bus station and a transfer bus for RM1.50. It takes around 15 mins but leave some time to spare.
Air Asia are very strict about excess baggage and its expensive but they are very friendly to scuba divers. Pack your gear separately and identify it when you check in and you will pay maximum of RM30.
How to get from Singapore to Tawau
Book a flight from Johor Bahru to Tawau with Air Asia for around RM200 plus taxes.
Johor Bahru is the Malaysian town across the causeway from Singapore. After you land, take the train into town and then a bus from Queen Street bus station to Malaysia! Total cost less than S$5. You will need to get a taxi to Johor Bahru airport (also called Senai airport) because the buses are difficult to find but this should only cost you RM20 or so.
How to get from Tawau to Semporna
All day boats to Sipadan and transfers to Mabul resorts start in Semporna, a fishing town 100km from Tawau. The diving day and resort transfers start early so it is better to go direct to Semporna when you arrive.
Leaving Tawau airport you have two options. The bus ticket counter will sell you a ticket to Tawau (RM10) and direct you to the bus behind the police station. Tawau town is 30km from the airport south. Semporna is 70km north. If you go to Tawau first you will have to retrace 30km on your second bus before getting closer to your destination.
So before you buy your ticket to Tawau, go and look behind the police station. You will likely find a mini bus going direct to Semporna and they charge only RM20. Save yourself two hours and RM20 and go direct!
If you are tired, late or fancy splashing out, a taxi costs around RM100 and will fit up to 3 tired divers and their gear! You could save yourself all that hassle by booking diving ahead. Most dive resorts will come and collect you if you book ahead.
So, when you get to Semporna what are your options to dive on Sipadan? Surprisingly you can do day trips from Semporna or stay on an island resort for much the same price so you choose for other reasons.
If you want to enjoy the relative freedom of staying the mainland so you can go shopping and choose your restaurant in the evening then your cost is longer boat times to the days diving. If you want to get away and take advantage of unlimited diving and short boat trips then you must book several consecutive diving days and stay all-in on an island resort.
Staying in Semporna and having day trips
Scuba Junkies are probably the largest day tripper from Semporna (website offline at publication date). For smaller boat groups you might try Blue Sea Divers who opened this summer and are a couple of doors down the road.
Staying on the island resorts
Many of the resorts on Mabul and Kapalai are expensive but there are budget options. The cheapest is definitely Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge. It’s very basic, mattresses on the floor and shared bathing but you go to the islands for the diving and the resort for rum party evenings not to catch up on your sleep.
For a little more money you could try something totally different and take a room on the converted oil rig called SeaVentures. This offers you the opportunity for unlimited diving under the rig with your buddy which makes it all great value. You also have more chance of getting some sleep on the rig!
Staying in Semporna
Whether its one night before a resort transfer or several days and day trip diving, your best option in Semporna is Scuba Junkies backpackers lodge. They have beds for as little as RM20 per night and that includes breakfast.
You might be tempted to go a little upmarket to City Inn or Dragon Inn hotels where you will an ensuite room but watch out, these do not include breakfast nor offer any refreshment services at all.
Sipadan is not the only diving destination in Sabah. Why not spend a few days in the state capital and discover the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park just half an hour from the town jetty.Kota Kinabalu is a very easy town to spend a few days in. There are many backpackers but for sure the classiest is Velvet which opened early 2007. The rooms are immaculate and they offer free use of the washing machine! You can go white water rafting, submerge yourself in sulphur baths or for the more adventurous you can climb the mountain.
T.A.R. marine park has a range of diving including several artificial reefs close to the islands which are very successful in attracting a range of fish. You can see some spectacular marine life even when the visibility is low when compared to Sipadan. While several dive centers operate in Kota Kinabalu, we found the customer service of Sabah Divers to be second to none and at a very good price.