The main reason for this trip was to experience the fantastic diving at Sipadan Island, a small island sitting on it's own about 2 hours by a fast boat from Malaysian Borneo. I was also going to use professional type underwater camera for the first time. While visiting the area, a jungle trip and a hike to the highest mountain in Southeast Asia was also planned. At the end you will find a description of all resorts on Sipadan Island.
After a short stop in Kuala Lumpur, our group landed in Kota Kinabalu, the major city in Sabah - the northernmost province of Malaysian Borneo. The day after, we continued by air (red lines) to Tawau, and further by bus to Semporna and boat to Sipadan (black lines). Later, we continued to Sandakan to see the Gomantong Caves and do a jungle safari in the Sukau area. Finally, we returned to Kota Kinabalu for the Mt. Kinabalu trekking.
Durian is a large fruit that could be purchased all over. It smelled like shit, and many hotels having western visitors and other "nicer" places had signs on their front doors stating "No durian".
Public restrooms in smaller places, like this one at the old airport in Tawau (a new airport was under construction) were usually of the "stand and drop it" type. No toilet paper, only a bucket of water is provided.
The dream scuba-diving island: Sipadan. It is for divers only, unless iguanas particularly fascinate you, they are the only larger animal living on land. It will take you about 20 minutes to walk around the island, but probably hours to go straight across. The forest is very dense.
This is the "main building" at our resort. All food was served outdoors under a roof, and the building contained an office, kitchen and a small souvenir shop. Dorms for the staff were separate buildings in the back.
This is me ready for another dive. Sipadan island is in the back. All dive-sites were less than 5 minutes boat-ride from the little beach in front of our resort.
Diving was the major activity, and I had 25 dives in a week. To prevent bends, we always made sure the dives had good profiles, staying a long time in the end of each dive at 5 - 10 meters. This was also the depth were you found most of the wildlife, like this clown-fish hiding in its anemone. When you close up to it, the 2 inch fish pretends like attacking you, then realising it's size and hurry back into the anemone. Then the procedure is repeated - this, and the orange and white colour of the fish is probably the reason for its name.
This coral is about 2 meters (6 feet) across and balancing on a tiny foot. They take about 100 years to grow to this size, and a way to become unpopular is to loose control of buoyancy, drop down on one of these and break it off. Many were damaged by a severe storm in the late 90s, so it is important to protect the few survivors.
Turtles are probably what Sipadan is most famous for, and they are so common that I almost forgot to take pictures of them. The usually relax on the seabed until they have just enough air left to make it to the surface. If scuba-divers hang onto them on their way up, they may not make it and drown. Turtle rides were strictly forbidden at Sipadan.
Seaweed. Beautiful photo objects that are easy to catch as they don't move. I am not a marine biologist, and can't tell it's name.
These guys can certainly move fast, but spent most of their time relaxing on the seabed in a small underwater valley were a current swept them with fresh water all the time. These are white tipped reef sharks and are very common here.
These two are being videofilmed by my friend, and seems to enjoy being in focus (and the 2 x 100 W lamps). The way to approach them is to swim slowly towards them while allowing them to see you, and shoot pictures regularly. Suddenly they would take off, and it would be too late for the picture.
This one is not a good swimmer, and certainly not a master of hiding. It relays on it's poisonous fins and it's characteristic look to avoid being somebody's dinner. I seem to remember they are called lionfish.
I just had to wait in front of this beautiful seaweed until a nice fish passed by. Our divemaster allowed us to take our time, underwater photography can be boring for fellow divers, and the best is if your buddy is also doing UV photo or video, or he may act as a model.
A Gorgorian(?) fan coral sitting rather deep and is more then 2 metres (6 feet) tall. This was the largest of this type we saw, and our divemaster showed us this with pride.
There is an underwater cave under Sipadan Island, and old rumours said that a giant octopus lived here. This is one of the reasons why Sipadan is well preserved. A lot of fishing elsewhere in this region has been done using dynamite causing the fish to float up to the surface and destroying much of the corals. The octopus story protected Sipadan from such treatment. We didn't se any octopus inside, but it was still exciting.
Turtles who found their way into the cave sometimes got lost in there and drowned. To prevent us from ending up the same way, the cave dive was done with a special guide who knew the cave well, and had more than 100 dives in there. The cave is large and has two side-chambers. To get to the larger side-chamber you have to pass a narrower section to get in.
This dolphin found its way to a side-chamber but got lost.
Barracudas were plentiful, and it is exciting to see a wall with thousands of fish passing you at 1 metre (3 feet) distance. Don't wear shiny objects, as this may trigger an attack. The older fish have large teeth making them unable to close their mouths completely.
Finishing the dive with a slow ascent. Plenty to see at 5 metres (15 feet) and we often spent the last 10 - 20 minutes of the dive at this depth.
A 5 minute ride back to the beach at our resort. Diving station only 30 steps away. Real easy diving.
An American paid regular visits to the island and could assist with developing slide film, doing underwater video or other photographic services. To his left is the only hyperbaric facility on Sipadan, provided by the Borneo Divers dive resort.
The caves at Gomantong. The "soil" on the ground inside the caves is a 3 metre (10 feet) layer of bat droppings. Bird's nests in the ceiling made by swallows are harvested by the natives, and are served as very exclusive nest soups in fancy restaurants in this region of the world. A bowl of this soup would set you back more than US $ 100 in a fancy hotel in Sandakan. The cave is also crowded with bugs in such numbers that I never saw anything similar except on an Indiana Jones movie.
A local fruit market had a large variety of fresh fruits. Fruits that you peel or skin is completely safe to eat, like the very tasty little sweet bananas. The rain forest really lived up to it's name that day - rain pouring down turning the road into a mud pit. I was surprised to see how deep pits could be penetrated with a standard Toyota Hi-Ace, but the ride was not comfortable. If you have back problems, this holiday is not for you.
The summit of Mt. Kinabalu, approx. 4100 meters (13.500 feet). This is a two-day hike where you do the last climb before sunrise on the 2nd day to see the sun rise from the summit. Most people become short of breath, and if you are older than 40, I would say you need to have at least average physical condition. The climbing is not technical, although it is a good idea to hold on to ropes at the more difficult spots.
On your way down from Mt. Kinabalu, you get to see all the views you couldn't see on your way up in the dark. This is the tropics, and dark means pitch dark. A flashlight with spare bulb and batteries is mandatory. I am glad that this hike was our last activity on this vacation, as I felt this in my legs for several days afterwards.
Many international travel groups sell trips to Sipadan, but many of these will lodge you on an nearby island, and it is a one or more hour boat trip to get to Sipadan Island. On Sipadan Island itself, there are only 5 resorts, each allowed to have 20 diving visitors. This means access is limited, and reservations should be made in advance. It is easy to do all the arrangements yourself. Call the resort on Sipadan you wish to stay with, and they will pick you up at Tawau airport. Tawau has several daily flights to Kota Kinabalu, many with modern Boeing 737 jets. Domestic flights in Malaysia are reasonable, particularly if purchased with an international flight.
These are the only 5 companies operating resorts actually located on Sipadan Island on March 2000:
Borneo Divers SDN BHD
Head office: 9th floor, menara Jubili, 53, Jalan Gaya, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Phone: (6088)-222226, e-mail: email@example.com Web: www.jaring.my/bdivers
They also have a dive shop in Kota Kinabalu
Sipadan Dive Centre SDN BHD
Office: A1103, 11th floor, Wisma Merdeka Jalan Tun Razak, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Phone: (6088)-240584, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web:www.jaring.my/sipadan/
Sipadan Lodge SDN BHD
Office: 1st floor, 8A, Karamunsing Warehouse, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Postal address: P.O. box 10134, 88801 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Malaysia
Phone: (6088)-230000, e-mail: email@example.com Web:www.bornsea.com
Pulau Sipadan Resort & tours SDN. BHD
Office: No 484, 1st floor, Bandar Sabindo
Postal address: P.O. box no 61120, 91021 Tawau, Sabah, east Malaysia
Phone: (6089)-765200, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Web:www.sipadan-resort.com
Abdillah Sipadan Paradise
Postal address: P.O. box 60865, 91018 Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia
Phone: 089-785071, e-mail: email@example.com
These details are stated on business cards received in Sipadan Island March 2000, and the links worked by the end of 2000.