For Al Hornsby, Sipadan is a diving venue to which all the superlatives apply. “When I first heard about Sipadan in the mid-eighties—when Clement Lee from Borneo Divers had begun exploring the island from a diving point of view—it sounded like the kind of spot I’d love, a pristine place where very few people had been. I had two or three opportunities to go, but they all fell through. I finally got there in 1995, and have been back almost every year since. My wife learned to dive there one week while I was on an assignment. A year or so later, we went on a diving trip to another exotic and much-celebrated location. After the first dive, she made it clear that she was unimpressed. ‘It’s not like Sipadan,’ was what she said.”
Sipadan is a small island (roughly forty acres) situated about twenty miles off the northeast coast of Borneo in the Celebes Sea; the island is administered by the nation of Malaysia. It rises 2,000 feet from the ocean floor, and took form as coral grew upon the extinct volcanic cone. Sipadan’s tremendous marine topography, plus its location in the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, make it one of the world’s richest diving habitats, with more than 3,000 fish species and hundreds of coral species scattered among a dozen well-established dive sites. Borneo Divers once operated a lodge on the island; in 2005, the island was declared a conservation zone and a UNESCO World Heritage site; the old lodge now serves as headquarters for officials overseeing Sipadan’s protection. “Since the island was designated a protected park, you can already see a tremendous difference,” Al added. “The more fragile corals are coming back, and the bigger fish are more prevalent. Divers are even starting to have encounters with whale sharks.” Visitors are no longer permitted to overnight on the island. Instead, divers make day trips from nearby islands, most commonly Mabul.
“It takes a little while to get there,” Al continued. “You can’t see the island on the horizon from the mainland, which helps build your anticipation. When you do arrive, there’s a stillness, a peacefulness, and sense of separation from the rest of the world. As for the diving, there just aren’t any bad spots. A reef wall surrounds the entire island, and every place along the wall has interesting things to offer, whether it’s gigantic gorgonian coral, immense schools of barracuda, legions of green and hawksbill turtles, or a huge group of outsize bumphead parrotfish—250 at least—that go thundering by like a herd of bison. At Sipadan, it feels as though Mother Nature has scooped up all it has to offer and dropped it down in one place.”
Sipadan combines an astounding diversity of marine life with near-ideal conditions—calm warm seas, good visibility, and generally shallow and protected dive sites (though if one wishes to explore deeper terrain, the wall plunges nearly 2,000 feet in some places!). “Everyone from the most seasoned diver to the neophyte will find something to enjoy at Sipadan,” Al continued. “And despite its remote location, logistics at Sipadan are very manageable. There are excellent dive operations at two nearby islands, Mabul and Kapalai. Everything is state-of-the-art in terms of boats and equipment, and accommodations are extremely nice.”
There are at least a dozen dive sites around Sipadan that are noteworthy enough to have earned names, though two—Barracuda Point and Hanging Gardens—are at the top of Al Hornsby’s “favorites” list. “Barracuda Point is one of those places where there’s always something happening, though what’s happening is always different, depending on the day. Gigantic schools of its namesake barracuda are virtually always there. Odds are that you’ve seen photographs of swirling schools of chevron barracuda with a diver in the middle; they were likely taken at Barracuda Point. The bumphead parrotfish come through, and you can actually hear them from the throbbing of their fins in the water. There are almost always turtles around, and white-tip sharks, too. When the current is pulling baitfish along the wall, you might even see bigger sharks and sailfish.”
Hanging Gardens is another celebrated Sipadan site. Here, the wall descends in a series of terraces, festooned with gorgonian fans and Dendronephythya alcyonarians in a plethora of shades. (The name references the famed gardens of ancient Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.) “There are lush corals near the top,” Al continued, “and many turtles, gray reef sharks, leaf scorpion fish, and many tropicals. Rivaling the barracuda of Barracuda Point in terms of sheer numbers are the schools of horse-eye jack. There have been times when I’ve lain below such schools, and they were so compact that I couldn’t see anything above them.” Scalloped hammerheads and thresher sharks are sometimes viewed here in the open water off the wall.
In the ten-plus years that Al Hornsby has been visiting Sipadan, there have been many special moments. A stand-out is one of his encounters with the island’s population of bumphead parrotfish. “The parrots are huge at Sipadan, three and four feet long. In other places in the Pacific you’ll see them at times, but they’re usually skittish, and certainly hard to photograph. That’s not the case at Sipadan. As I mentioned earlier, during the day, they wander around in large schools. At night, in typical parrotfish fashion, they nest in holes on the reef wall. On one visit, I went on a night dive, and was able to witness this spectacle. As you go down the wall with your light, every nook and cranny has three or four parrotfish curled up, resting. The whole wall is covered with orange corals, encrusted sponges, and then every couple feet, a three-to-four-foot-long turquoise green bumphead, its mouth showing fused, beaklike teeth, perfect for chomping the coral. It’s an absolutely unforgettable picture.”
AL HORNSBY moved to the island of Guam with his family when he was twelve; the first time he put on a mask and slipped beneath the water’s surface is still an indelible memory. The excitement he found underwater then has propelled him through life. After a stint as a photographer (doing both underwater work as well as racing, fashion, wildlife, and rock-’n’-roll), Al returned to diving, and eventually became a part of the early PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) executive management team. He was also one of the developers of the environmental organization Project AWARE Foundation. Al served several years as editorial director at Skin Diver magazine, and returned to PADI a few years ago, as senior vice president of PADI Worldwide. He has served as president of the board for the dive industry trade association, DEMA. But all along, Al has continued writing about and photographing his diving adventures. Commuting now between Los Angeles and Singapore, he explores the incredible islands, reefs, and rainforests of the Asia Pacific region every available moment, discovering natural wonders that even forty years of diving adventure hasn’t revealed before.
Getting There: Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) offers flights from Los Angeles to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and then on to Tawau. From there, your resort will arrange ground transportation to the town of Semporna, where a boat will ferry you to your island destination—generally Mabul or Kapalai. Most Sipadan dive sites are twenty to twenty-five minutes away from the resorts.
IF YOU GO TO SIPADAN:
Best Time to Visit: Sipadan has excellent year-round conditions. There’s some uncertain weather January through March, but conditions are still generally quite adequate.
Accommodations: Sipadan has a number of excellent diving-oriented resorts. Al Hornsby recommends Sipadan Water Village (+60 89-75-2996; www.swvresort.com) and Borneo Divers Mabul Resort (+60 88-22-2226; www.borneodivers.info).
Dive Shops/Guides: If you’re not staying at a dive resort, Borneo Divers (+60 88-22-2226; www.borneodivers.info), which pioneered recreational diving at Sipadan, can provide background information.
” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die “ by Chris Santella