Sipadan Island - Getting there, Part 1

by B. N. Sullivan

Often we are asked which is our favorite place to dive. While it is difficult to choose even one general area, let alone just one dive site, Sipadan Island certainly would be a top contender for "diver heaven."

Pulau Sipadan, MalaysiaWe first learned about Pulau Sipadan, as it is called there, by asking that very question of someone else. In 1992, while we were on a Caribbean dive trip, we met and befriended a married couple who both were marine biologists and underwater photographers. They had traveled all over the world to dive, for recreation as well as for their work. Naturally, we asked them which place was their favorite. One of the places at the top of their list was Sipadan.

Listening to our new friends' vivid descriptions of Sipadan's underwater world, we decided we had to see this place for ourselves. They had mentioned that Sipadan was in a remote location, and told us that just getting there was an adventure. Once we set about to plan our first trip there, we realized that they were not kidding about the remoteness -- nor about the adventure of the journey.

Pulau Sipadan (pictured above) is an oceanic island in the Celebes Sea. It is located off the coast of Sabah State, on the Malaysian side of Borneo. Getting there took several days.

First, we flew to Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur -- a major trip in itself. We stayed there overnight, and then flew to Borneo, landing at Kota Kinabalu, a coastal city in Sabah state, situated on the South China Sea. We changed planes in Kota Kinabalu for our connecting flight to the port city of Tawau, on the opposite coast of Borneo.

The flight to Tawau was the final air leg of the journey to Sipadan, but Tawau was just a waypoint in the journey, not our destination. We still had an overland leg and a boat ride ahead of us.

We were supposed to travel next by mini-bus from Tawau to Semporna, a smaller fishing port up the coast. That was the plan, but as luck would have it, our flight arrived late in Tawau, and by the time we cleared through the airport, the mini-bus had left without us. We took a taxi into the center of town to find some lunch while we figured out what to do.

Our taxi driver spoke no English, but he understood our hand signals indicating that we wanted to find a place to eat. He dropped us at a small hotel that appeared to cater to local business travelers. They had a curry buffet for lunch, and that was welcome, since it excused us from having to choose items from a menu we couldn't understand.

SempornaBellies full of fish curry, fresh fruit, and tea, we set off for a nearby square where we had seen a rank of parked taxis. The taxi drivers eyed us warily as we approached. We must have looked a sight -- travel-weary Westerners hauling what must have seemed an inordinate amount of luggage. In truth, we took very few clothes with us on that trip, but we had several cases full of dive gear and camera equipment.

While I parked myself at the curb with all of the luggage, Jerry sought out a driver who would be willing to ferry us up the coast to Semporna. After much sign language and pointing at maps, Jerry struck a deal with the driver of a reasonably intact Toyota, and off we went. After about an hour's drive on a road that passed through vast palm oil plantations, we arrived at Semporna. (That's Semporna in the second photo.)

Now we were about to embark on the final leg of the journey, which I'll tell about in the next post. Meanwhile, here's a link to a map of Sabah state on Borneo. If you are interested, you can use it to trace our journey from Kota Kinabalu, to Tawau, to Semporna, to Pulau Sipadan.


  1. Oh, my goodness! Your voyage so far makes the road to Timbuktu look like a morning's trip on the schoolbus. I'm sure glad you're writing about these adventures that I'll never try myself, but which are fascinating to read.

  2. Considering that this particular journey took place 15 years ago it amazes Jerry and me that we both remember it so clearly. Obviously it made quite an impression on us.



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