Image courtesy of Tourism Malaysia
Among Southeast Asia's diving sites, Sipadan Island near Sabah sets some of the highest bars of all for visiting divers. Only 120 dive permits are issued every day, and dives are permitted only between 8am and 3pm. Divers need to show advanced open water certification, or at the very least 20 logged dives, before they'll even be allowed on the boat.
Once you make it past these obstacles, though, you'll be rewarded with access to one of Asia's underwater treasures. As Malaysia's only oceanic island, Sipadan Island possesses a rich complement of reefs and marine life, along with challenging diving terrain. The waters offer a visibility of 20 metres or more year-round, with a maximum of 50 metres in the dry season between March and October; water temperatures hover between 21°C to 32°C year-round.
Over 3,000 fish species and 300 hard and soft coral species can be found in these waters; the rich feeding and breeding grounds of Sipadan also attract bigger creatures like whale sharks, hammerheads, barracuda, and sea turtles.
Twelve dive sites around Sipadan allow divers to pick and choose among their preferred sights. Among them, White-Tip Avenue promises an abundance of reef sharks, and Turtle Cavern delivers as advertised. For massive numbers of barracuda, jackfish and parrotfish, head over to the aptly named Barracuda Point.
Sipadan Island has no resorts or facilities except for a single jetty on the northern side. You'll have to stay at a resort in the nearby settlements of Mabul, Kapalai, and Semporna – choose a dive resort that receives an allocation of the 120 permits mentioned above, and engage their services to bring you to Sipadan and back.
Elsewhere on the web: For details on the place, how to get there and how to book a dive, read this page on Sipadan Island on the official Tourism Malaysia site, or read about Sipadan on the official Sabah Tourism site.