In six years of diving, the Scuba Dive Advisor team has researched and visited many amazing places throughout the world, but none offer quite the diversity Sipadan and Mabul Islands boast together with their neighboring white sand utopias. A dive operation must be sound to reign in such diversity and tackle the abundance of life around these islands and we believe we found that in Borneo Divers.
In our previous post, we shared our experience with the Borneo Divers Mabul Resort and provided you with a glimpse into our experience with their hotel operation, which left us with mixed feelings. If you have not read it already, read Part 1 of 3 as a prelude to this review. However, the dive operation at Borneo Divers is the anchor to their success. Let’s face it, diving is what we are here for and the performance of a solid dive operation will enhance your enjoyment.
First, if you think you can simply “show up” and dive Sipadan, you will be greatly disappointed! In 2004, the Malaysian government changed the landscape of diving at Sipadan when they evicted all of the dive resorts from the island to preserve Sipadan and imposed hours of visiting the island between 6AM to 4PM; with no possibility for night dives. As diver demand for the region has increased, the Malaysian government discovered this was not enough and in order to preserve this underwater marvel and turtle sanctuary, it imposed a limitation of 120 permits per day with resorts receiving a specific daily distribution.
Therefore, if you want to increase your chances to dive Sipadan to more than once every six to seven days, go to a resort that has a stronger permit to guest ratio. Borneo Divers can host up to 80 divers per night and as a pioneer in Sipadan diving, they boast the largest number of daily permits to dive Sipadan at 14. This may sound limiting, but other resorts accommodating well over 80 people have the same number of daily permits and the backpacker outfits have very few, if any, permits allocated to them. With this equation in mind, Borneo Divers was our best bet and a driving factor in deciding who to dive with. However, this is not enough to make sure you are guaranteed one or two days of diving at Sipadan. Arrangements should be made well ahead of time with Borneo Divers so your passport information is submitted to Sabah Tourism to secure a permit at Sipadan and they can help put your desired package together.
The impressive jetty is constructed and designed out of ironwood and is a relatively recent addition to Borneo Divers in the past 3 years. It is the hub of all diving activity with a complete dive center on one half of the jetty and for the leisure diver, it conveniently has a bar set up, which is stocked with chilled Tiger beer! This is a great place to watch other divers take in an afternoon, sunset and/or night dive while you lose track of time enjoying yourself in the ocean breeze as the sun sets to close out another day of diving.
The dive center seems simple but it was definitely designed with the avid diver in mind. Foremost, it accommodates a locker room set up with bins matched to your room number, a hanging rack for your wetsuit and ample room to move within. Next to the locker room is a camera station for charging your equipment and there is the equipment rental and repair center for obtaining necessary gear during your stay. While the rental equipment is not necessarily new, it appears to be well maintained and functional. On the decking, Borneo Divers has 5 large cleaning tanks set up to clean your various gear and cameras with ample space to move about and place your equipment in your dedicated bin. Four showers provide fresh water to quickly rinse off the salt and this area spills out onto the benches and tiered decking with tank slots ready to accommodate house reef dives at any time of day. The diving set up is slick and if I could, I’d probably sleep on the jetty, too!
Borneo Divers has cleverly pieced together a successful dive station but the equipment staff are the backbone to making all of this work. Steven, and his team, together with Amin and Jimmy excel at this better than anyone else we have ever seen. It starts with their commitment to knowing our names, our locker, our equipment and even our weight preference! Nothing seems impossible for them. Their anticipation of our needs is almost bewildering as it brings us back to an era of service we thought has long since passed.
Amin, especially, deserves specific recognition. His dedication to his job and the well being of his customers is inspiring. In fact, we would boldly say that he is probably one of the best service professionals we have ever seen worldwide and he may be equally worth the trip to diving Sipadan! He is truly the soul of the dive operation as his passion is seen in organizing the equipment for each dive boat and taking care of each dive individual. You are not a number at Borneo Divers and that makes this vacation that much more magical.
The day starts with minimal effort required by the guest. Following breakfast, all you need to do is gather your camera, put on your wetsuit and then do a quick inventory check on the boat, which are ready for you at 8AM. They really have made diving quite easy. The boats are well equipped to provide shade from the elements, utilize space to accommodate 32 tanks, is kept super clean by the boat captain and powered by two 150hp engines, which get you to your dive location quickly. Your gear is set up for the first dive with your fins, booties, masks and weights (when applicable) lined up on the floor of the boat.
As the boat leaves the jetty, the dive operation transitions to the skill of the Dive Master and Boat Captain. An experienced Dive Master knows where all the great critters are, but even more important, knows how to keep you safe. Borneo Divers expertly provides you with the best of both worlds, many of whom have 18+ years experience diving any condition Sipadan offers. The boat captains play an important role in not only taking you safely to each dive site but following your bubbles throughout the dive and ensuring they are ready and in position to pick you up at the conclusion of every dive.
Dive profiles are generally multi-level at Sipadan and our Dive Master, Eljer, is specific in his briefing to discuss the duration, depth, current and the underwater life we may see on the dive. Buddy diving is paramount and all divers are encourage to observe their depth to remain above the Dive Master or follow your computer. Hand signals are reviewed prior to each dive just as a pilot reviews a checklist. While sounding mechanical, the dive briefing cements Borneo Divers’ commitment to safety and we always dive the plan. Following each dive briefing, our Scuba Dive Advisor team gets everyone excited by clapping as an acknowledgement for a great briefing. We are here to have fun, right?
Eljer is just the perfect Dive Master for us! Aside from being full of life and encouraging an atmosphere of fun, he adapts to our group and understands that we are varied in the way we dive. He is quick to recognize skill, provide tips that can help improve diving ability, find a dive site that is best suited for photography, find the pelagic and macro critters and sometimes, just have fun underwater.
Eljer knows that I (Tim) enjoy adverse situations and he rises to the occasion to test my threshold which allows me to become a better diver. Over the past 5 years, he has done the following things to me:
- Taken off my mask.
- Danced a tango with me underwater.
- Turned off my air at my safety stop.
- Rode my tank like a cowboy… many times at varying depths!
- Released the air from his octopus to my under-carriage. An unusual sensation.
- Placed a feather-star on my butt while wearing board shorts.
- Pulled me into the nesting cone for a Titan Triggerfish which decided to fight back.
All of these evoke many laughs out of the group (and especially myself), and they may not be suited for every diver, but they are perfect for me and Eljer knows it! I like an adventure and this keeps me coming back for more. Eljer and our group share a similar sense of humor and a zest for having fun.
Once we come up from our dive, the boat captain and Dive Master are helping us stow our gear and create a path for an easy dismount. While we are busy sharing the in the exhilaration of our dive, the boat captain and Dive Master are already changing our tanks for the next dive. This often goes unnoticed but is an incredible convenience which allows for more recreational time. The small things like re-clipping our fins and attaching Lana‘s tank banger (almost to the exact spot) for the next dive are incredible.
When diving at Sipadan, the surface intervals take place on Sipadan Island in the “rest house” and restroom facilities are available. Make sure you do not wander far as the island is protected by the military and divers are limited to specific areas. Ask your dive guide first before you explore. On every surface interval, coffee and tea is always available together with cookies, sandwiches and fruits. After our 2nd dive, lunch is ready and a hot selection of 4-6 dishes is offered. We burn a lot of calories diving, right?
At the conclusion of our dive day, Amin and Jimmy are smiling and awaiting our boat arrival as we steer into the envelope of the Borneo Divers’ jetty. They encourage safety as they help us get off the boat, organize our gear for cleaning or set up for afternoon and/or evening dives, and ask about our dive day. A perfect end to a perfect day.
The dive team at Borneo Divers is top notch and you will have an absolute blast with them throughout your entire trip. They certainly are dialed in to what is important to divers. With such a successful dive operation, all four of us left Borneo Divers satisfied with such an incredible dive trip. Diving should always be this easy!
Long story short, if you are looking for world class diving and the chance to see unspoiled reefs with diverse selections of dive sites, fish, and coral life, the Sipadan and Mabul area in the Celebes Sea is a great choice. If you choose to make your next holiday in Sipadan, you will not be disappointed. Most travel books recommend planning your trip to the Borneo area from July through November, the months boasting the most sunshine and slightly warmer than average temperatures. For our trip we chose the first two weeks of March to avoid crowds and increase our chances of diving Sipadan more than two days out of nine and this plan worked well for us with four days at Sipadan. However, Tim, Lana and other travelers have shared with us that they have been to Mabul and Sipadan in the December to March months and have had wonderful weather as well. Unfortunately there are no guarantees for perfect weather no matter when you choose to go, as none of us can control Mother Nature.