Borneo and Sipidan, Malaysia 

Unlike our usual trip reports, this one is unique on 2 accounts:  Martin let me write this one up, and it is also a review of some land activity as well.    I would like to start by acknowledging Asia Transpacific Journeys for assisting us in planning this trip. Overall, they did a great job with a very detailed itinerary that was seamlessly executed on every level.  One of our goals in traveling to Malaysia was to see orangutans, and the trip did not disappoint in this regard.  We had heard from acquaintances about Sipadan diving, and were intrigued enough to tack this on at the end of the trip.  I mean, you can’t go all the way there and not dive, right?


Getting There:  In summary, we are new devotees of Asiana Airlines, and will be bidding adieu to Delta.  The service, food, timeliness, friendliness, and general professionalism were far superior to any other airline we have traveled to date.  We departed Seattle on time, made a brief connection in Seoul/Incheon, and continued on to Kota Kinabalu (heretofore referred to as K.K.). 

We had a very brief stay at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort.  The sea view room was overkill as we never saw the sun, arriving around midnight and leaving at 5 a.m. to fly to Sandakan where the land based tours originated.

Land Based Safaris:

 Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center:

We observed the morning feeding of the orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center. We were able to attend the feedings on 3 different occasions, with different vantage points each time, as well as seeing different primates each time.  There was ample viewing space from a wooden deck approximately 10 meters from the feeding platform.  We were entertained by a “warm up band” of Macau monkeys vying for a strategic location on the platform in order to pinch some bananas from the main act.  The orangutan activity was good and we observed what is probably typical behavior of captive animals.  We were fortunate enough to see 2 different babies (captive born) with mother.  Simply adorable!

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary:

We transferred by boat to Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.  This entailed a 2 hour ride up the Kinabatangan River, scouting for wildlife along the way.  This was the only time we observed an orangutan in the wild.  We settled into our room, best described as a modest but comfortable cabin, with air-conditioning.  The food was Asian influenced primarily, abundant, warm and served buffet style.  There were 2 boat “safaris” per day, though one of ours was rained out by a fairly spectacular downpour. The wildlife was not abundant in our 2 days there, but did see multiple proboscis monkeys, macaques, and several hornbills. Unfortunately, there were no crocodiles or pygmy elephant encounters, the latter most likely due to the fact that they are nearing extinction.

 There was not a lot to do in the “down time” there, no Internet connection, etc.  Good time to review photos or read.

Turtle Island:

 We then made the reverse commute back to Sandakan to transfer by boat to Turtle Island for the next day and night.  Our goal:  to visit a turtle hatchery and observe turtles laying eggs (in-vivo).  We were impressed by the hatchery itself, the organization, and the sheer numbers of specimens.  The action happens after dinner, and occurs quite late in fact.  In our case, it also occurred  during a substantial downpour, but it was quite worth it.  We observed a female green turtle (almost 1.3 meters in length!) deposit a clutch of 166 eggs, which were promptly collected and cataloged, and reburied in the hatchery.   We then observed the release of 77 hatchlings which were born that evening.  Quite a thrill!

 Some notes:  Videotaping is not allowed nor is the use of flash.  The rangers illuminate the area with a torch, but it results in some fairly underexposed photos.  The food is simple and satisfying, as is the room which reminded me of a clean army barracks.  Hot water is subject to availability, but AC is provided in your room.  Also, you may spend the day snorkeling, but don’t expect to snorkel with turtles (they simply are not around during the day) and the reef is pretty much dead.

We returned by boat to Sandakan, for another overnight stay, this time at the Sepilok nature resort. The standard room was by far the nicest place we had to date, without AC, but with good restaurant and other amenities.  We spent the afternoon on a rather uneventful canopy walk with a guide.  I was not impressed with the wildlife, but the views were nice.

Sipadan Water Village:

We left for Tawau via a 50 minute flight on Malaysia Air.  We opted to fly business class here due to the larger baggage allowance it provided.  We then took a bus to Semporna (about 1-2 hours), and then boarded a speedboat for a 30 minute ride to the resort on the island of Mabul.

The Resort:

We stayed in a Grand Deluxe Chalet, fan and ocean breezes for cooling, but no AC (we actually did fine without it due to the winds we encountered for the entire stay.)  The room was spectacular with a” hot” tub in the back.  This would best be described as a misnomer, as it remained unused largely due to the fact the water was cold!  Overall, the room and housekeeping was superb.

This is a no cash resort with everything being charged to your room. In fact, they require you to lock up your passports and wallets in a hermetically sealed envelope placed under lock and key until departure.

The Restaurant:

If you enjoy mediocre Chinese buffet accompanied with intermittent wafts of tobacco smoke, served in the company of boisterous children, then you will love this restaurant.  Overall the food was a C+, plentiful, though rarely hot.  Notes:  if you can’t live without Western style food or pork, you should go somewhere else.  You are in a Muslim country, and bacon comes only in beef flavor.  Coffee is barely palatable and usually tepid at best.  If you don’t want to go broke at the bar, visit duty free prior to arrival.

The Diving Operation Overview:

In general, this resort appears to cater to newly certified divers or divers obtaining their certification. There are lots of non-divers as well.  The overall clientele is Asian in general, and the staff seems to be fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Our initial dive briefing was, well, very brief.  In fact, it was perfunctory, and many details about the daily routine, etc. were left up to us to discover on our own, either through extensive questioning or observation of others.  Although we were required to pre-submit all of our certification information, dive logs, and insurance information, that appears to have been lost, and we had to repeat the process on arrival.  This is not unique to this resort.

There are 3 boat dives per day, and unlimited, free house reef dives until 6pm.  There are guided night dives (minimum of 3 divers) for a fee, or unguided night dives for a smaller fee.  There is a lottery system to determine which boats go to Sipadan Island for the day.  We qualified for 2 visits. There is an additional park fee levied on arrival.

There is Nitrox available here.  I think.  We had to ask 3 times to get Nitrox, even though we requested it for the entire 5 days of diving.  And wrote our request on the daily dive board.   And asked the DM in person.  We finally received Nitrox for one day of diving.  We finally just gave up asking, and stuck to air. (The money we saved was well spent on a steak dinner upon our return home).

For photographers and videographers

There is no camera room.  There is ample room and electrical outlet availability in your room.  Depending on your location, however, this can be a 5 minute walk to the dive center, lugging your gear.

A final pet peeve:    There are no “non-smoking” sections anywhere in this resort.  The divers are allowed to smoke in the common area, and there are filthy ashtrays everywhere.  In fact, a lot of the dive staff smoke quite freely on the job as well.  On our checkout dive, upon surfacing, I was greeted by a staff member with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, blowing smoke on me as I handed up my camera.  Not a healthy way to start your surface interval.

The Diving

I will preface this with the fact that the weather was bad.  Although the days were mostly sunny/partly cloudy, there were heavy winds and rainstorms most nights.  We later learned that were on the periphery of 2 tropical storms that hit China and Taiwan.  A professional film crew who had been to Sipadan 7 times stated unequivocally that they had never experienced such horrible conditions and visibility before.


The house reefs:  Paradise I and 2.

These are sparsely populated artificial reefs.  The house reef in general was a one trick pony.  There were 2 or 3 enormous resident green turtles, a large black frogfish, and cuttlefish, offering some unique photo ops.  However, given the sandy bottom and 3-5 meter visibility, it was not ideal for good photography or video.  There were some macro opportunities, but I was surprised at how bereft of life the area was. 

Boat dives:

There are several sites around the resort on Mabul, and also the house reefs of an adjacent resort as well (Karpali).  Rough weather limited our access to the natural reefs.  Again, the visibility was poor on every occasion.  One interesting artificial reef is the oil rig.  This is an old oil drilling platform converted into a dive resort.  There were abundant schooling tangs, chubs and snapper here, and if the visibility was better, there would be some good wide angle and video opportunities.

One really unique thing to the diving here is the sheer density of turtles.  We never had a dive without seeing several of them, including hawksbill and green turtles. There are turtles of all ages and sizes, clearly the result of their conservation efforts, and we occasionally encountered tagged turtles.

Sipadan Island:

This was by far the highlight of diving in the area.  It takes approximately 30-45 minutes by boat to get here.  This is a small uninhabited island with a covered picnic area for eating one of your meals and for congregating during surface intervals.  There is a freshwater shower and a loo. 

On the first day, the early dive was a bust, and again very poor visibility.  The second dive we encountered a large school of jacks, as well as a smaller school of barracuda.

We had the good fortune to see the famous schooling bump head parrotfish on 2 occasions.  This was truly an impressive site.  The first time, they numbered about 40 or so, and were simply hanging out in the current on the top of the reef.  They were placid and reminded me of a herd of cows.  They were as friendly as dogs as well and completely at ease with divers in close proximity.  The second time we encountered them, they were in a tight school being cleaned.  It was like a scrum of parrotfish, again unperturbed by divers with cameras.  For us, this was truly a special dive, having never before seen this species in this number and for such an extended period of time.

Had the visibility been better, this would be a beautiful reef.  There is clearly an abundance of hard and soft corals and some potentially good wall dives as well.  Wish we could have experienced it under different conditions.


I would give the overall diving operation a C- for the reasons stated above.  The diving at best a B- with potential to upgrade under better weather conditions.  There was clearly some lovely reef down there, but unfortunately were unable to document this.  Would we dive here again? Probably not, but we’ll take our unique experience with bumphead parrot fish as our trip souvenir and relish the memory.






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