“You’ve gotta dive Sipidan Island.” That’s what the experienced scuba divers on our Great Barrier Reef boat told me, and guidebooks likewise identify Sipidan as one of the great dive locations in the world.

After years of questionable conservation, the Malaysian government has gotten serious, removed the hotels from the island and started rationing permits. Through the magic of an email barrage to dive shops, I scored a permit for Sipidan for December 11th. I would stay at a lodge on nearby Mabul Island and dive some sites near there on the 10th and 12th, making it a Dream Diving Weekend.

My somewhat overpriced diving accommodation didn’t suit Karen, so she decided to stay at the Singamata Resort- a resort on stilts in the bay- on her own for those days. Like we said when we started this trip, we can’t spend every day together, or we’ll drive each other crazy!

Singamata Resort

Singamata sunset

On the morning of the 10th, we were picked up from our crummy hostel in Semporna and shuttled to Mabul Island to collect our dive gear.

Mabul Island locals living on the beach

Loaded up, we headed for a reef off of Mabul. I was skeptical, as Mabul is known as the home of “muck diving” or the more marketing-friendly “macro diving”. Both terms are an attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that the water is kind of murky, so you have to swim up to things and see your oceanic wonders close-up.

I needn’t have worried: the water was quite clear, and the crazy creatures we saw on the first two dives were enough to fill up the “comments” section in my log book. On the third dive, I stayed a little shallower and brought along my waterproof camera.


Horned sea star and guest

Hawksbill turtle on sand

Anemone fish

Disco cuttlefish

Turtle resting

Hawksbill turtle face

Amazing, especially the number of turtles and how close they got to us. I’d already seen more turtles here than at the Great Barrier Reef, and I hadn’t even gotten to the famed watery wonderland of Sipidan yet. What was THAT going to be like?!

Mabul sunrise

December 11th- time to find out. We met on the dock at a ridiculous 6:15am and started motoring for Sipidan Island. The waves were incredibly choppy, but our pilot didn’t mind. He plowed through them with gusto, giving us passengers good practice at white-knuckle-gripping our seats. It’s a half hour ride to the island- a long half hour in these waves.

Sipidan's front office

We checked in at the guardpost and headed back out to our first dive site. One thing that makes Sipidan so special is that the rock face underwater is almost vertical. The island is on top of an extinct volcano, and the walls around the island drop 600 meters to the ocean floor. You might think that the first 18 meters, where we do our diving, wouldn’t do it justice. But on our first dive, all I could think was: WOW.

It was like taking all the coolest stuff (coral and fish life) from the Great Barrier Reef and arranging it on a gently sloping display wall in a museum. Rather than swimming through caverns of coral like in Australia, we were swimming alongside a riot of sea life.

After a morning snack back on the island, we set out for dive number two. I really wanted to start recording this amazing tableau, so I decided to stay a little shallower and start shooting photos.

When I first hit the water, I felt a bit chilled. Didn’t think much of it, but should have. My ordeal was about to begin, and diving would soon be a distant memory.

Shark discovery

Sharks amid the moonscape

Coral colors

School of fish

Coral formations

Green turtle amid bubbles

The currents around Sipidan can make diving challenging. They weren’t too bad the day I was there, but in taking some of these photos, I did find myself at the back of the group, with my designated leader at the front. As I scrambled to catch up, I suddenly felt those chills again. That’s not good- one of the rules of diving is that if you start to shiver, you get out of the water. I needed to catch up to the leader and signal him with the bad news.

Struggling to take photos, struggling to catch up to the group… I was burning through air more quickly than anyone else in my group. I signaled my remaining air level to our leader and saw the surprise flicker across his face. I gave him the signs for “problem” and “shivering” and he understood. Without hesitation, we began our 5-minute safety stop, the last step before surfacing.

We emerged from the water with my fellow divers scratching their heads. They had plenty of air left. What had happened? I came clean and let them know that I had burned up way more air than I expected to on that last dive. They were cool about it, and when I mentioned that I thought I should sit out the next dive, they couldn’t believe it. Was I sure I wanted to miss seeing another slice of the famed Sipidan seascape?

If I had just gotten a little chilled, I might have rested in the sun for an hour and jumped back in. But this was starting to feel like something else.

Continues in: Seeking help in Sandakan