Sipadan Island - Being there, Part 3

by B. N. Sullivan

Malaysian fishermenThis is the third in a multi-article series about Pulau Sipadan, a magical dive destination off the coast of Borneo. If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, you know that the accommodations at the 'resorts' on Pulau Sipadan in 1993 were rather spartan. One thing that was not lacking, however, was excellent food.

There are trade-offs inherent in traveling to remote locations such as Pulau Sipadan to dive. The more remote the destination, the more likely it is that the underwater environment will be relatively unspoiled. At the same time, less developed destinations are likely to entail certain privations. In the previous articles, for example, I described the lodging and bathing facilities at Sipadan Island, which were rather spare.

Facilities for traveling divers usually offer all-inclusive packages -- lodging, diving, and meals. In fact, at more remote spots like Pulau Sipadan, there is no other option. There are no off-site restaurants or snack bars. It's a case of eat whatever they provide, or don't eat at all.

Traveling divers tend to be a hungry lot. During stays at dedicated dive resorts, and on live-aboard dive boats, it is not unusual to make five dives every day. All that physical activity can really work up an appetite! God forbid you are stuck at a place that has lousy or insufficient food when there is no alternative place to eat.

Like many other traveling divers, we learned to take along some food items on these trips -- peanut butter, canned tuna, packets of dried soups, etc. It's impossible to haul enough food to live on for ten days, but there were times when we dipped into those supplies to supplement for sparse meals, or when the food offered was, erm, unappetizing. (Don't get me started on some of the weird things we have eaten while ensconced at some of these places!)

Fortunately food was not a problem at Sipadan. In fact, the daily mealtime offerings at Pulau Sipadan Resort (PSR) were nothing short of amazing, especially in light of the fact that every tidbit had to be imported, and the kitchen facilities were as basic as the rest of the accommodations.

A highlight of each day was the dinner buffet, although I should note that it helped if you liked fish and other seafood. Each day, local fishermen paddling open canoes would arrive at the beach to sell their catch. (See photo at the top of this page.) The cooks would go down to the water's edge to bargain with the fishermen, and soon we would see them carrying fresh fish -- often still flapping -- back to the kitchen to prepare for what we all called The Catch of the Day Buffet.

Depending on which kind of fish the cooks bought from the fishermen, we had baked fish, poached fish, fried fish, fish with sauce, fish curry -- you get the idea -- and it was all very good. Along with the fish dish, the buffet always had homemade soup, big bowls of rice and steamed vegetables, and lots of fresh fruit. We never, ever went to bed hungry.

big fishOne day in particular, we all felt like we had hit the jackpot. The fishermen arrived with a very large billfish lashed to the side of their (nearly swamped) canoe. Considering that these fishermen had no tackle except hand lines, it seemed inconceivable that they could have caught such a fish, but they had. That's Jerry posing with the fish in the photo at left. To give you an idea of just how big that fish was, I should mention that Jerry is six feet tall.

I'm sure that such a prize fish must have fetched quite a sum for the fishermen, but the guests and staff at PSR were the real winners. With limited refrigeration (run on a portable generator), it was necessary to eat as much of the fish as we could, as soon as we could. What a feast we all had that evening and the next.

As a main course, we had grilled steaks from that big fish. There was so much of it that everyone was encouraged to have second and third helpings: better to eat it than to let it spoil for lack of refrigerated storage. Some of the choicest flesh of the big fish was sliced up for sashimi.

About two thirds of the divers staying at PSR at the time were Westerners -- mostly Europeans, plus the two of us Americans. The rest were Asian nationalities, as were most of the staff. When one of the cooks brought out a huge, heaping platter of sashimi, Jerry's eyes lit up. One of the British divers, a new arrival on the island, asked, "What the &$%@ is that??"

"Sashimi," Jerry told him. "You know, raw fish." The Brit made an awful face, shuddered, and walked away muttering something about cat food.

None of the other Europeans seemed interested in the sashimi either, but we lined up with all of the Asians to take our turn at the sashimi platter. When we got to the table and held out our plates, the server asked us, "Aren't you guys Americans?" We nodded yes. "Americans like sashimi??" he asked with raised eyebrows -- and then added, "I don't think so."

"We're from Hawaii," Jerry told him, as if that explained everything. Turned out it did.

"Oh, I see," said the server with a knowing grin. "So you're used to Asian food then." He heaped big slabs of the glistening sashimi onto our plates, while another server handed each of us a small bowl of shoyu and wasabi. It was a heavenly treat. We went back for seconds and thirds of that!

It turned out that the poor Brit who apparently found the thought of sashimi so distasteful didn't much like fish to begin with, much less raw fish. The servers noticed that he took none of the fish -- only rice and vegetables and fruit. One of them sprinted back to the kitchen, and returned about 15 minutes later with a plate. On the plate sat a grilled pork chop. He set it down in front of the Englishman, announcing, "Special for you."

For the rest of his stay at Sipadan, the non-fish eating diver was served a pork chop or a sausage every day. How can you quibble with hospitality like that?


  1. One of the best things so far about Australia is the amount of gorgeous Asian food - including wonderful sushi and sashimi. It's cheap, good and plentiful and often my lunch.

  2. Very adventurous... surviving out of tins, eating raw delicacies... some day I will make it there ... may be.

  3. @ Chris - We love Asian food. It's also plentiful here in Hawaii, too -- and very authentic, since we have so many immigrants from Asian countries.

    @ Indrani - I suppose it was adventurous, but this is a story about a trip we made abut 15 years ago. I don't know if I could travel like that today. I think I've become old and soft! I don't require luxury when I travel, but I do want a certain level of comfort these days.


  4. I like exotic foods Bobbie but raw fish has not been on my plate yet, maybe someday !!

  5. I can't swim and I wouldn't do the raw fish thing either but this still sounds like a really wonderful time and I can imagine being there as I read.
    That was some big fish!

  6. I like sushi on occasion, but I have to be in the mood for it. There's a place about a block from where my partner works here in Toronto that is melt-in-your-mouth perfect; the likes of Sir Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart have eaten here (or at least ordered it into their hotel rooms) .

  7. @ Bernie - You can't think of it as "raw fish." It's sashimi. And half the fun of eating it is dipping it in the shoyu/wasabi (soy sauce with horseradish paste). Clears out the sinuses!

    @ 2sweet - Yes, it certainly was a big fish. It fed many people for several days.

    @ Lavender - I don't like all sushi, but if it's made with ahi (yellowfin tuna) I am all over it.


  8. What gracious people. So many places would have just left the Brit to lump it.

  9. You are right on both counts, Ari. We had not one complaint about the staff at that place. They bent over backward to try to make everyone's stay as comfortable and enjoyable as they could.


  10. Very nice post. You give detail information about the island thanks....


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry