Borneo: ClownfishThis false clown anemonefish is one of several species found among the dozens of anemones on Pandanan Island’s sloping wall.
Tiny, pristine Sipadan is one of the world’s best dive destinations, with dramatic drop-offs, huge schools of fish, thousands of turtles and a scarcely imaginable density and diversity of marine life. Diving Sipadan also means dives at neighboring Mabul and its islet, Kapalai, famed for frogfish, pygmy seahorses, leaf scorpionfish and virtually every other exotic macro critter ever dreamed of.
Exploration has revealed another nearby treasure trove — the islands of Mantabuan and Bohey Dulang, in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, and Pandanan, just outside it. These barely dived sites reveal anemone- and soft-coral-covered walls, vast coral gardens and an incredible array of muck denizens of their own. The photo gallery above offers a look at a few of the region's top critters.
Dive Guide to Sipadan and its Neighboring Isles
Average water temp: Low 80s year-round
What to wear: dive skin or 3 mm wetsuit
Average viz: sipadan exceeds 100 feet in the best season, 60 feet otherwise; neighboring isles: more variable, 70 feet at best, 45 feet otherwise
When to go: year-round, with the driest, calmest conditions April-December
Connect through Singapore and Kota Kinabalu to Tawau (Malaysia), or through Kuala Lumpur to Tawau; then a 45-minute coach ride to Semporna and a 40-minute boat ride to Mabul.
Nasi lemak A delicious dish of rice cooked with coconut milk, with a little ikan bilis — fried small fish — and fried chicken, served with boiled eggs, peanuts and sambal, a chili sauce with shrimp paste.
Barracuda Point (Sipadan) Ride the current along the wall to see the huge resident school of blackfin barracuda. Along the way are schools ofbig-eye trevally and bumphead parrotfish, and many turtles. A rare dragon sea moth is found in the channel.
The drop-off (Sipadan) At this dramatic wall just a few feet off the beach, you’ll see turtles, schooling fish and resident ornate ghost pipefish. Experienced divers can explore Turtle Caverns.
Hanging Gardens (Sipadan) A drift dive on the eastern wall, with giant gorgonian fans, soft corals, schooling spadefish, and whitetip and gray reef sharks.
Eel Gardens (Mabul) Patient divers will be rewarded on this sand and coral slope that’s home to garden eels, cuttlefish, frogfish, blue-ribbon eels and remarkable peacock mantis shrimp.
Seaventures (Mabul) This former oil-drilling rig turned PADI Five Star Dive Resort is a macro haven, offering blue-ribbon eels, frogfish, crocodilefish, pipefish, pygmy seahorses and varieties of nudibranchs hidden among the pilings.