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Dive Review of Sipidan-Kapalai Dive Resort in
Malaysia

Sipidan-Kapalai Dive Resort, Aug, 2014,

by Paul Barrett, NM, US (Reviewer Reviewer 6 reports with 5 Helpful votes). Report 7721.

No photos available at this time

Ratings and Overall Comments 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Accommodations 4 stars Food 3 stars
Service and Attitude 4 stars Environmental Sensitivity 4 stars
Dive Operation 3 stars Shore Diving N/A
Snorkeling N/A
Value for $$ 4 stars
Beginners 3 stars
Advanced 5 stars
Comments [None]Whenever I meet a new experienced scuba diver I ask "where is the best place you've ever been diving?" One friend that spent a year traveling the world as an itinerant diver and now manages a dive resort in the Caribbean responded "Sipidan." Later he set up a trip to the island my wife and I decided to join him.

In the late 1990s Islamic guerrillas kidnapped several persons from Sipidan and held them hostage on the Philippines for years. More recently there have been other incidents including one in the spring of 2014 where a Chinese tourist was killed and his wife taken hostage and on July 12, 2014 police had a shootout with guerrillas on Mabul Island and one policeman was killed while a second taken prisoner. These incidents caused me to take pause but, perhaps because they were so recent, the Malaysian government has responded by sending a substantial naval force to monitor the Sulu Sea. The Kapalai Resort itself has eight policemen and forty-eight military personnel on the resort. Sipidan Island can be visited but no longer houses permanent dive operations. It does however have a permanent military base for security. In short, after arriving and witnessing the upgraded security I had no concern for my safety during my stay.

A quick aside about the names. Sipidan is an island, Sipidan-Kapalai is a resort a short distance from the island. In this review, unless otherwise specified, when I refer to Sipidan I am discussing the Island and environs and when I refer to Kapalai I am discussing the Sipidan-Kapalai Resort.

As for Kapalai, it is a completely artificial structure consisting of individual chalets connected by walkways. The entire resort is built on stilts over the ocean. There is a large dining hall, a souvenir shop, game room, and several other common areas. The grounds are resplendent with potted plants to provide more of an organic feel. Individual chalets are well appointed although there are shutters for privacy but no windows. as a result cooling is from ocean breezes and ceiling fans but it can get quite warm and humid.

Free wi-fi is available in the lobby but it is slow and spotty. Don't expect to do any work (you should be on vacation!) or download large files.

Food is served buffet style and unusual for a resort, they do occasionally run out of certain dishes or deserts during very busy days.

Resort staffs are very friendly and whenever possible go out of their way to help with any issues. They even baked my group a special plate of sesame cookies when one of us mentioned how fond she was of them.

The resort has several dive boats and visits three areas for scuba; Sipidan Island, the area around Kapalai, and nearby Mabul Island.

Sipidan Island itself has the best diving but the number of divers visiting it is regulated. For a seven day stay at Kapalai we were guaranteed two visits to Sipidan. However during slow times you may get more. We were there for ten days and visited Sipidan four times. When you dive Sipidan Island you leave on the dive boat at 6:00 am, sign in on Sipidan, and spend the day there making four dives. Breakfast and lunch are served on the island.

For the waters around Kapalai and Mabul Island the boat will take you out for a dive then return to Kapalai for at last an hour of surface time.

The bad news for divers. Although the Dive Masters seem extremely competent and had great eyes for critters the dive operation has LOTS of problems.

It may have been unusual currents but on our first couple of days, particularly around Mabul Island we were diving through a garbage gyre both on the surface and in the water column. I don't know if the trash was local (Borneo) in origin or the result of larger currents and the state of our planet but it was very disappointing and took away from the pleasure of the dives. It did seem to clear up during the week plus we were there.

Cameras were kept in baskets at the stern of the boat. There were no fresh water camera tanks on board.

With respect to diving, we never received a safety briefing on board, e.g., if the engine turned over three times it meant an emergency and all were to return to the boat. We were supposed to have twelve divers in our group but one dropped out prior to the trip due to medical reasons. Nevertheless there was only one Dive Master in the water for eleven divers. He was commonly the first back on the boat and as a result our trip leader served as the second sweep Dive Master.

One of us had a first stage fail. The Dive Master kindly offered to switch her hoses to a spare regulator on board but we were shocked to learn the dive boat had no tools, not even standard hose wrenches. The switch had to be made back at the Kapalai rental desk. That brings up another point.

Kapalai has rental gear but no dive equipment for sale. That means no booties, rashers, fish guides, snorkels, O-rings, skins, ad nauseum. The souvenir shop does however rent wedding gowns! So what has happened?

Kapalai has expanded to hold up to 120 guests. Another expansion was under construction while we were there. Of those 120 guests, at most 40 can dive at a time. The others are primarily Chinese there for very short stays to snorkel around the resort, and have family vacations. Kapalai is no longer a dive resort but rather has become a resort that offers diving. In the past two years the resort has gone from a ratio of 60:40 divers to non-divers to 30:70. Whether that is a good thing is a matter of perspective. From a financial standpoint it may be the best thing they can do. From a divers view the operation can use some serious upgrading.

I've ben told the staff is down to 80 from a high of 120. That may be a result of the poor publicity from the kidnappings. It also may be that visitors that do not dive require fewer resort persons to support them.

So why am I rating Kapalai four stars instead of one? The diving!

Sipidan Island is by far the best diving I've ever experienced. On one dive we stopped counting green sea turtles after we reached twenty-five. We saw an equal number of white-tip reef sharks. We swam by a school of thousands of horse-eyed jacks. Invertebrates were also incredible with many different and brightly colored nudibranchs and several species of cuttlefish, including a flamboyant cuttlefish. There were areas of coral rubble but most of the coral was in very good shape, something I haven't seen in the Caribbean since the early 1980s.

Almost every dive offered something new and amazing. Visibility wasn't great, 50 feet or so but so much to see in that 50 feet!

In short the diving is great but as a diver I hope Kapalai reinvests in its diving infrastructure and support. Kapalai is the closest operations to Sipidan Island but Mabul has five dive operations that may be better run and SeaVentures has a former oil platform they've converted into a dive hotel. All dive sites, including those around Kapalai are open to other operators. However, Kapalai may hold the most permits for diving around Sipidan.

My recommendation if you do choose to dive from Kapalai is to be prepared. I looked through their rental equipment and its primarily Oceanic. Similarly their rental cameras are Olympus in housings. Their technicians will fix what they can but bring things you would not normally bring to a dive operation including hose wrenches and any none standard o rings or small parts for your equipment.

Reporter and Travel

Dive Experience 251-500 dives
Where else diving Bonaire, Caymans, Cozumel, Honduras, Truk
Closest Airport Getting There

Dive Conditions

Weather sunny Seas calm, currents
Water Temp 82-86°F / 28-30°C Wetsuit Thickness
Water Visibility 30-70 Ft/ 9-21 M

Dive Policy

Dive own profile yes
Enforced diving restrictions [Unspecified]
Liveaboard? no Nitrox Available? no

What I Saw

Sharks Lots Mantas None
Dolphins None Whale Sharks None
Turtles > 2 Whales None
Corals 4 stars Tropical Fish 5 stars
Small Critters 4 stars Large Fish 5 stars
Large Pelagics 4 stars

Underwater Photography 1 (worst) - 5 (best):

Subject Matter 5 stars Boat Facilities N/A
Overall rating for UWP's 3 stars Shore Facilities 3 stars
UW Photo Comments [None]No fresh water tanks for cameras on the boats. Rental camera shop at the resort but I don't know how well they can service private cameras.
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Subscriber's Comments

By report author: Paul Barrett in NM, US at Sep 02, 2014 22:41 EST  
Sipidan should be Sipadan - my bad!
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Note: The information here was reported by the author above, but has NOT been reviewed nor edited by Undercurrent prior to posting on our website. Please report any major problems by writing to us and referencing the report number above.

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