Fish soup for breakfast – sampling Sipadans’ diving feast


I first heard about Sipadan before I took up diving.  A backpacker told me about this amazing island with powder sand beaches, clear waters teaming with marine life and a 800 metre drop off (underwater cliff).   Others may have heard of  Sipadan after the 2000 kidnapping of 21 people from a Sipadan dive resort.  Nowadays there are no resorts on Sipadan island.  Daily access for divers and visitors is strictly controlled via a permit system and the island is discreetly well protected …

P1080712 My buddy Lynn and I decided to finally add Sipadan to our log books and booked up a week of diving at Borneo Divers.  They were the first to set up a dive centre in Sipadan back in 1984.  Borneo Divers in 1996…

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Sipadan no longer has resorts, partly as a result of the kidnapping but mainly because of application criteria for UNESCO World Heritage recognition.  Most divers stay at Mabul island, about a 20 minute boat ride away.  There are three main dive areas in and around  Sipadan:

  • Sipadan Island – reef diving
  • Mabul Island – muck and natural reef diving
  • Kapalai Reef – muck, shallow reef and artificial reef diving

Sipadan P1090408 My buddy Lynn and I were fortunate enough to get three days of diving at Sipadan.  More about the permit system towards the end of the post. When we dropped in and found ourselves among a huge school of jacks, we both knew Sipadan lived up to its reputation and place as a world-class dive destination. From then on, almost every dive, we saw turtles, white-tipped sharks and lots of schools of pelagic fish – and great visibility …

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The greatest abundance of fish were found at the most aptly named site Barracuda point.  It’s hard to describe how wonderful it feels to be in the middle of such large schools of amazing fish.  It really is like being in a huge bowl of live fish soup! In their excitement, many divers head straight over to the fish, but if you just “hang out” in the blue watching, they come to you…


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 Other schooling pelegics included masses of jacks and trevallys …


 The topography at the drop off site was pretty amazing too…

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I thought I was seeing double here with these pennant fish – but there were plenty more…

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Another cute pair – fire dart gobies … P1090485

..and reef stalwarts – anemone fish ..


 This piece of mooring debris also caught my attention – beautiful soft coral has converted it to a small hanging artificial reef! P1090502 On our last Sipadan diving day, our group included Derek, Alan and Ben.  Derek took some great go-pro footage and made this nice video clip…. We dived four times each day at Sipadan.  Surface intervals are spent at what remains of the resort.  Toilets, showers and picnic facilities are on the island, with each resort bringing in food and beverages each day. There are also a few sunbeds. P1080720 Mabul The sites around Mabul offers a contrast to Sipadan, both in terms of topography and marine life.  As you can see from the images, the visibility isn’t as good as Sipadan, but there are some pretty reefs on the western side of the island, with the others mostly muck diving sites. My favourite Mabul site was under the Sea Adventures dive resort – a converted oil rig.  Guaranteed sightings on every dive  includes a resident giant grouper, crocodile fish and scorpion fish … P1090367


 I was also very lucky on one dive – not a very good shot, but this is a painted clown frog fish – about the size of a small fingernail.  I have only seen one other during my nine years diving… P1080614 I was also fortunate to see a robust ghost pipe fish.  Ghost pipe fish are masters of disguise and this one was mimicking a rotting palm leaf.  From a slightly different angle, you can clearly see it is from the pipe fish family…

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Ornate ghost pipe fish can also be found at this site P1080500 The other sites at Mabul are more scenic, although offer less diversity than Sea Adventures.  I saw a lovely pygmy sea-horse – again, not such a good picture, but it is the best I have taken of a pygmy sea-horse with a point and shoot! For those unaware, these are about the size of a fingernail tip! P1090399 The only other experience I am reporting, in the interests of public awareness, is myself and my buddy were attacked by a titan trigger fish after unwittingly straying into its nesting cone.

This happened at our safety stop in the shallows.  I was oblivious and looking in a different direction. First it bit my fin, and Lynn heard me yell.  As I was telling her what happened, it bit my right shin, then her fin.  We swan off that reef like a pair of torpedoes!  I was wearing my full length wetsuit, which gave me protection from the bite – a bruise and small graze was all that I sustained thankfully. I got a huge fright though!  I have since learnt that titan trigger fish nest during the full moon period – and I wont forget this now!


This is a reef a couple of kilometres from Mabul island.  A resort on stilts sits above the reef and a number of dive sites surrounds it, offering shallow and easy diving.  The sites I dived had artificial reefs – and some are rather creative…

P1090283 “Wendy Houses” for fish …

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It was  fun looking around them for the small stuff.  Here’s Lynn coming down “Wendy House Lane”…


As with all muck diving,  when you have a closer look, you can find marine life treasures, like this flamboyant cuttle fish.


…and this family of desirable and red line Flabellina nudibranches (ID thanks to my UW Photography friend ScbubaShafer)


At first glance, this is just a boat load of old bottles…


… but looking more closely at junk like this, you’ll find life.  This blenny was a real character bobbing  in and out of his home …

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This dive trip will also be remembered for discovering a brand new and very charming species  – the lesser spotted pink or blue Oriental sweet pair.  They are often spotted in Mabul and Sipadan,  due to an easy vacation migration route linking Shanghai to Kota Kinabalu airport…


Please note the unusual markings that makes identification easy – matching regulator hoses, snorkel, booties, fins, steel prodder….. Underwater, the female species also adorns herself with mouse ears.  Others chose bunny or bug ears.


Other divers from the region were equally spell-bound by this new species from China.  I do hope they do something about shark finning!

So, a summary of the sites we dived:

Sipadan – 12 dives

  • Barracuda Point (3)
  • Shark, or South Point (3)
  • Drop Off (2)
  • Turtle Cavern (2)
  • Hanging Garden (1)
  • Coral Garden (1)

Mabul – 13 dives

  • Borneo Divers House Reef/Paradise II (4)
  • Sea Adventures (3)
  • Lobster Wall (2)
  • Eel Garden (2)
  • Ray Alley (2)

Kapalai (2)

  • House Reef (1)
  • Mandarin Gardens (1)


The diving on Sipadan exceeded my expectations – it really is outstanding.   I heard so many mixed reports and was also put off by the uncertainty that comes with a permit system.  Notwithstanding this however, it was worth it.  The diving at Mabul is also good enough and is on the “dive map” as a muck diving destination – check my post here.  More and more resorts are opening on a burgeoning Mabul and they are starting to build stilted resorts on neighbouring reefs, so my advice is to go, but go soon before it gets too crowded.

How to get to Sipadan

By air, road then boat.  The closest airport is Tawau.  Air Aisa and Malaysian Airlines offer flights from both KL and Kota Kinabalu,  which is the main international airport for Borneo.  From Tawau, it is another one hour by road to the jetty at Semporna, and a further hour by fast boat to Mabul.  Borneo Divers offer a free road and boat transfer at set times of the day.  Outside of these times is extra.

How long to go for – the permit system

Although necessary to keep the island and its fragile eco-system pristine,  diving at Sipadan is a bit of a lottery because of a day permit system.  Introduced in 2006, 120 permits are issued each day and there’s a quota system for the 12 dive resorts. Permits are 40 Malaysian Ringgit each (approx £8 or $13) and are applied for in advance, via your resort.  The issuing authority is Sabah Parks, but you wont find any information on their website.  The number of Sipadan dive days offered depends on the length and location of stay.  The most important criteria for choosing the length of stay at Mabul is the resort’s policy  on Sipadan permits.  A three-day stay normally guarantees you a one day permit.  Here is the list of the quota per resort, taken at the permit office on Sipadan late April 2014 – it seems the numbers change daily, but you get a gist of who gets the most permits ….


Where to stay

There is a growing range of options on Mabul catering from backpackers right up to luxury travellers. We chose Borneo Divers due to its reputation, availability, speed of response from their sales team and cost (mid-priced).   We booked eight nights, seven days diving, as this guaranteed us two days at Sipadan.  We got lucky with three.  Overall we were very happy at Borneo Divers.  It’s and extremely well run in a confident, yet understated manner – things just happened.  The resort was clean and well-kept, food excellent and the dive operations were flawless. The only down side was poor wi-fi – but is that important on a dive holiday? My verdict – the original, and the best operators.

A look round Borneo Divers

Arrival briefing


The dive deck and store-room

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The dive sites, with dive guide Willy (left) and Amin, the man that keeps everything running safely and smoothly


The dive staff, including the elusive dive head hauncho LJ ( so if you want extra day of diving at Sipadan, tell him he’s handsome!)

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The daily dive schedule – this is completed every afternoon for the following day, so divers know their boat and dive guide, where it is going and what time to be on the dive deck.  Simple. Effective. Perfect.

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Borneo divers house reef, with Sea Adventures in the distance.  That boat is due to be sunk in June and will be the latest addition to the dive site listing at Mabul.  Borneo Divers offers unlimited diving on the house reef, which is very good!


Our chalet and the grounds …

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 The reception area and dining room …

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 … and finally a little slice of island life….




Muck diving marvels


One of the great benefits of dive travel is that you get to meet other divers that invariably have dived in other parts of the world.  Surface intervals and meal times often involve non-stop conversations with hitherto strangers about the pros and cons of various dive spots, as well as comparing notes on what to see.  My last trip on-board the Pawana diving in the Similan Islands was no different, but what was memorable about one diving conversation was one divers complete aversion to muck diving. This shocked me – I have seen some fantastic marine life when muck diving.  The most weird and wonderful creatures lurk in the muck – and in the most unlikely of locations, like this snowflake moray eel in a pile of rotting vegetation.


To non and less experienced divers unfamiliar with muck diving, this is the name given to diving in sites that have sandy or silty conditions, sometimes with debris both natural and artificial. It is not scenic diving and in most parts of the world, you won’t find too much living in such conditions.  Within the nutrient rich waters of the coral triangle however, it is a very different story.  Due to the silty conditions, muck diving tends to attract experienced divers as it requires exceptional buoyancy control so the silt isn’t stirred up.  Muck diving also attracts macro underwater photographers due to the diversity and rareness of many creatures found on these sites. I am fortunate enough to have dived in two of the world’s top muck diving spots – both in Indonesia. So this post is for muck diving naysayers,  as well as those simply curious to find out more



Ambon was the last muck diving destination I visited.  It was a very special trip to celebrate a very special birthday.  My buddy and I initially had two days diving from land based resort, Maluku divers, followed by another two days on the live-aboard Amira before heading off to Raja Ampat. Ambon bay is one of the lesser known muck diving destinations, although it is very much on the muck diving map. The U-shaped bay can experience strong currents, which is great for the marine life, but this sometimes can impact visibility for divers.  Anyway, this didn’t affect any of our dives and I was very happy with what I saw.

You are more likely to see sea horses in muck conditions – the sea bed and seaweed is their natural habitat…


A close relative of the iconic seahorse is the ornate ghost pipe fish…


Like a lot of marine life, the ornate ghost pipe fish is a master of disguise and can change colour according to its surroundings.  This fellow thought he was safe hiding in this feather star…. can you spot him?


and another, this time in yellow…


Feather stars offer a refuge for a number of small marine creatures.  I managed to spot this tiny file fish…


On one dive, our guide drew our attention to something in this feather star.  At first I couldn’t see it at all…


With muck diving, patience is mandatory, so after a few moment observation, I saw something move – and there it was… a tiny crab beautifully disguised…


Just as many of this creatures can blend in beautifully to their environment, others find it a bit of a challenge – one of the reasons muck diving is popular with photographers.  Here is my best selection of various rhinopias scorpionfish…



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Looking at these, it will come as no surprise that Ambon bay is famous for the numbers and diversity of rhinopias scorpionfish.  Ribbon moray eels are also very easy to spot in muck conditions…


These days I don’t often see a first – or if I do, I am unaware of it.  This however was a first for me in Ambon – a clown snake eel – buried in the sand waiting for his next meal to swim by…


There were many other marine creatures I saw that were beyond my Lumix point and shoot camera’s capabilities.  These included rare dragonets, including mandarin fish, whip coral critters, sea moths and a lot more.  Ambon was a hit – but four days was about right for me.  Here is the full Amira liveaboard itinerary we followed, so you can see the sites we dived:

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You can also read about my 400th dive, which was during my time in Ambon onboard the Amira. I’ll also write more about my trip on the Amira soon – Raja Ampat really is one of the very best dive locations.

Lembeh Straits

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Lembeh Straits is probably the best known of all the muck diving locations in the coral triangle. It is also home to species that simply don’t exist elsewhere in the world – like these Banggai cardinal fish in the picture above.  Lembeh Straits is also very popular, partly due to its accessibility – a direct three-hour flight from Singapore to Manado.

My buddy and I chose a budget liveaboard that was to divide its time between Bunaken and Lembeth Straits.  The reality was a couple of days reef diving off Banggai island, then four days muck diving.  Our elderly boat, the Serenade, was memorable for various reasons.  For example we had no hot water or waste water piping in the cabin bathroom, I had an ant nest in my bed and the food was pretty dreary.  We got what we paid for!

Underwater we were not disappointed – I was genuinely “wowed” by my first dives in Lembeh Straits.  This was also the first time I used my underwater housing, so please bear in mind all these images are “first attempts” at underwater photography.  Here is a small selection of what I saw that turned out “OK” to give you an idea – and again, I couldn’t capture all the tiny stuff due to the limitations of my camera…

Lacy and weedy scorpion-fish…

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Giant frog fish…

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Gurnard …


Wasp scorpion-fish – more commonly known as a leaf fish as it imitates rotting leaves to hide from predators.  Can you see it?


Ok – so here it is swimming away – you really can’t tell the difference until it moves…

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This is a great little film about Lembeh Straits – billed as  “The Seas’s Strangest Square Mile”…

Muck diving is not for everyone, but those that do indulge are rewarded with observing some of the most amazing creatures in the most unlikely of places. If I have tempted you, here is a great map to help you decide and plan where to go.  Enjoy! Photo credit – Underwater Asia…


Koh Phi Phi revisited

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Koh Phi Phi was initially put on Thailand’s tourist map by film maker Danny Boyle, who used stunning Koh Phi Phi Ley as the main location for the 2000 film “The Beach“.  Although the film wasn’t a hit, it’s notoriety provided backpackers with a new holy grail destination when “doing” Thailand. The rest of the world however may sadly remember Koh Phi Phi Don as one of the numerous locations devastated by the 2004 tsunami.  Here is one of the most famous pieces of video footage captured when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi Don’s Cabana hotel on the morning of 26 December…

When I backpacked around Thailand in 2005, I decided to spend one of my six weeks helping some of the tsunami effected areas, either by volunteering with the clean up or just spending my money to help restart their local economies. When I reached Phuket the clearing up was pretty well advanced, so I headed to Koh Phi Phi.  On arrival it was clear they had a long way to go rebuilding – here are some of the images I took of the destruction that remained seven months after the tsunami hit… Continue reading

Diving Richelieu Rock and the Similan Islands, Thailand


You often hear about dive sites that are reportedly one of the “top ten dives sites in the world”. I have no idea how many top ten lists there are, but there are a few dive site names that I hear repeatedly and Richelieu Rock is one of those legendary dive sites names I keep hearing.

Discovered by Jacques Cousteau and some local fishermen, Richelieu Rock in Thailand’s Andaman Sea can be accessed as a very long day dive or as part of a liveaboard.  Dive cruise itineraries also includes the Similan islands, which form the Mo Koh Similan National Park, north of Phuket and approx 50 KM West of Kao Lak.

The diving season for the Similan Islands is during Thailand’s cool season – December to April, so since I live in Thailand, I decided now was the time to tick off Richelieu Rock and the Similan islands. Some friends recommended I dive with the Pawara, a liveaboard in its second season and operated by Phuket based West Coast Divers. Continue reading