Sipadan History and Upcoming Underwater Camera Ban

A brief history of Sipadan Island, the diving permit situation and upcoming underwater camera ban
By Travis Ball

Sipadan History and Upcoming Underwater Camera Ban

Changes for Underwater Photographers Wanting to Dive Sipadan

By Travis Ball


Turtle in Sipadan, photo by Nikki Pieper



Sipadan is widely recognized as one of the best scuba diving locations in the world.  With more than 3,000 fish species and hundreds of coral species, this reputation should come as no shock.  A diver visiting the area can expect to see green and hawksbill turtles, massive schools of barracuda, and larger pelagic animals like scalloped hammerhead sharks, manta and eagle rays and the occasional whale shark.

History of Sipadan Diving

Living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone formed the island of Sipadan thousands of years ago.  It’s location in the heart of the Indo-Pacific Basin places it in the center of one of the most diverse marine habitats in the world.  Widely unknown until the 1990s, it was a visit by Jacques Cousteau that really brought attention to the island.  The release of Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle in 1989 brought Sipadan to the attention of millions, and you can’t go to a website about Sipadan these days without seeing the familiar quote: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more.  Now we have found an untouched piece of art."

By the early 90s, there were dive resorts crammed onto the island catering to ever increasing numbers of divers looking to experience the pristine environment.  This massive influx of people, boats and general diver traffic quickly started to have an effect on the coral and reefs.  By 1992 a coral reef conservation officer with Britain’s Marine Conservation Society, Dr. Elizabeth Wood, began noticing obvious deterioration in the quality of the reefs.  In 1997 the Malaysian government stated that they would begin limiting the number of tourists visiting the island, but they failed to enforce the statement.


Moving resorts off Sipadan island

In 2004, the Malaysian government instructed everyone currently operating resorts on the island to leave by December 31st, 2004.  In 2006, in an attempt to further protect the ecosystem, the Malaysian government proposed to include the island in a marine protected area called Sipadan Island Marine Park.  At this point they instituted a permit system limited to 120 divers per day and controlled by the Sabah Park Management organization, although it was not fully enforced until mid-2008. A permit is required only to dive on Sipadan island, not for the numerous other dive sites in the area. There is more info on the permit system here.

Diving Sipadan Today

The lack of resorts on the island mean divers looking to visit the Sipadan Island Marine Park must use one of the neighboring islands as a base.  Generally, this will be Mabul, although Semporna has a number of lower priced operators who are also being given a small number of permits. There is also a resort on Kapalai. The real issue for divers, however, is the 120 daily permits and the way they are issued.

Most resorts require a minimum stay in order to guarantee a day of diving in Sipadan.   Some work on a first come, first serve basis while others institute a lottery system, both of which are subject to possible staff preferences and alteration.  Stories of one group staying 8 days with 1 day of permits while another group staying 5 days with 4 days of permits have been heard, as you can see here. Visiting in low season, or for a longer period of time, will increase the number of days you can get a permit.

New Camera Ban Coming Soon

When the permit system went into effect, so did a ban on gloves and fish pointers.  These items were thought to increase the likelihood of damage to the reef and are not permitted.  A Sipadan resort owner told us that a recent study by an International NGO has now found that Underwater Camera users are “a significant contributor to coral damage at Sipadan."  The government authority in charge of Sipadan has already declared that an underwater camera ban will go into effect, but will not give an implementation date. Several Sipadan dive operators have told us to assume that the ban will go into effect with little notice. 

The only way around the ban on underwater cameras appears to be a special exemption for professional photographers.  In this instance, a professional photographer is someone who has a proven record of shooting images for magazines, newspapers, television and more.  The resort running your trip would likely help you go through the process of requesting your exemption, but since the ban is not yet in effect, it is difficult to say how this will work.

We also read that divers going to Sipadan will be required to have an advanced open water certification, or a minimum of 20 dives - effectively saying "no newbies".


Summary for Underwater Photographers

With a ban on underwater cameras looking likely, this may be a perfect time to squeeze in a underwater photo trip to Sipadan, if you can travel on short notice.  Of course, if you think you’ll qualify for the exemption, there’s no need to worry. 

How do you feel about the new ban on underwater cameras in Sipadan?  Do you think it is a good idea? Leave your opinions in the comments.


About the Author


Travis Ball is a travel blogger and underwater photographer who recently finished 30 straight months of travel. He believes everyone should enrich their lives with travel and all the experiences it has to offer. His photography and writing can also be seen at his blog




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I would like, just as an aside, to correct Travis Ball on some of the points he refers to in his article as it is a little inaccurate.
So just to set the record straight. I was one of the partners of a dive business on Sipadan, we owned the last dive business to go onto Sipadan back in 1995. The time span for the closure of Sipadan and the reasons for it's closure that Mr.Ball states are wrong.
I was part of the group of dive businesses that fought tooth and nail to prevent Sipadan from being closed and losing our considerable investment.
The Malaysian govt first made moves to kick off all the dive businesses in 1998 or 99. High ups in the Malaysia with connections to the govt had set their heart on what they saw as the vast profits to be made by the 'gold mine' of the diving business.
It is true that there was some environmental damage happening both on the island itself and to the reefs. But this was not the reason the Malay govt wanted everyone off.
First there was damage to the natural water table on the island. Too many tourists, sometimes over 400 per day, were then visiting the island at the six dive shops. This seriously affected the fresh water supply and sea water began to encroach into the water table turning the fresh water slightly brackish. One dive shop had the 'bright'idea of installing an RO system on their well to get clean potable water for showers and drinking water but they pumped the 'dirty' salinated water from the filtration system back into the land thus making the fresh water table even more brackish.
Not much damage was occurring to the corals, made by divers, but there was some, the main damage to the marine life was the uncontrolled fishing done by local Baja tribes people and fishermen from Semporna and Tawau. The corals were more damaged by Bumphead wrasse eating the hard ones and turtles eating the soft ones.
In 1997 the forest fires on Borneo proper started and this 'haze' seriously affected tourism. This was followed in April 2000 by Filipino muslim terrorists kidnapping a bunch of divers and staff from our resort and another nearby resort. We were the resorts nearest to the pier.
The first move, after the kidnappings, by the Malay govt was force the 6 rival dive shops to form a condominium so that they could deal with the whole as one group. This was done, with considerable difficulty, by the foreign owners that spoke fluent Malay.
Next they reduced the the number of dive guests to 300 per day then a 6 or nine months later to 180 per day. Then a ban on foreign dive instructors and DMs working on the island was put into place. Basically they hoped that this would force the majority of businesses off the island as they all had a lot of none Malaysian DMs and instructors. When everyone hung in there they then reduced the divers from 180 to 120 and banned foreign nationals from working on the island all together. This included a number of Filipinos working as maids, cooks and boat boys.
The haze and the kidnappings were nails in the proverbial coffin. Anyhow the Malay govt eventually forced everyone off the island in 2002 not 2004 as the article above states. All the dive shop owners lost their investments. We were all forced to dismantle our dive shops and cottages and restaurants and remove everything from the island and no compensation was offered by the Malay govt whatsoever. Our guest longhouse was commandeered by the Malay army and police as accommodation for their men.
The whole island closed to divers for a couple of years while the 'high ups' in Malaysia tried to make moves on it. However all the dive shop owners were mightily angry about this and made a huge fuss in the media and to their connections, the Datuks in Sabah.
We made so many protestations to the Malay govt in Sabah and mainland Malaysia that the 'high ups' and their cronies in mainland Malaysia were unable to take over the island. The Malay govt thus, magnanimously, made Sipadan into a marine park and a protected area.
Although all the owners were bitter about the closing down of the island and the way it was done, with the hindsite I believe this was a good thing for Sipadan and the marine environment, as well as the nesting turtles and the Nicobar pigeons. Despite the fact that we all lost tens of thousands of US dollars of our investment.
As for banning divers taking U/W photos I don't really think it's such a big deal. I have had hundreds of dives around Sipadan and I never took any photos, but I have a life time of memories.
People who want to see the wonder of Sipadan will go, they can take photos elsewhere. Mabul or the old Oil Rig for example. When you have your eyes focused entirely through your camera you miss a great deal of the awesome beauty of Sipadan anyway.
Keep going to Sipadan, it is awesome diving, you will not regret going there.


I can understand their concern, as well as a belief that this will be the right solution...even if it is not. However, what appears to be evident is that the location is getting "loved to death" and that something probably should be done.

Personally, if I can't take my camera, then there's not a compelling reason for me to include it on my 'Bucket List'.

However and unfortunately, I'm afraid that the current tact of banning non-professional UW photographers will probably not stem the demand ... demand that probably also includes a good number of divers with relatively poor diving skills. Yes, I know that there's an AOW+20 dives, but that's a very low bar: if they were serious, they would have a 100 dives minimum.

Which brings us to an interesting question, namely this so-called "...recent study by an International NGO..." which has conveniently been neglected from having been named or dated. If the basis of the restriction is based in Science, then this unnamed study should be named so that its science can be verified via the traditional professional matters of scientific peer review for validity.


"Widely recognized as one of the best..." Not really

I was there in 2005, just after they moved all the resorts off the island of Sipadan. I dove every single day, sometimes twice, on Sipadan. The best thing about it was a huge school of jacks. Very few turtles, no barracuda, no colorful reefs - it just looked totally bombed out - and one very ragged looking, small white tip. Nothing to write home about. I'm glad that I had tacked it on to a longer trip that included other, more beautiful locations, but I wouldn't go back again. There are so many more places, Indonesia (Raja Ampat, Komodo, Lembeh) or Papua New Guinea (Milne Bay, Tufi, Walindi) where you will get better treatment as a tourist, diver and photographer. IMHO - Don't waste your time or money!

Just changed my travel plans

I was planning on a trip to Mabul/Sipadan for a photo workshop in October. Never mind. The person heading the trip and all of the attendees are not going to risk the expense and hassle of traveling to Malaysia only to find out that we can't use our photo gear. Way to go Malaysia tourism bureau, you just lost tourists. I understand and appreciate the intent as there are lousy photographers who have lousy buoyancy skills and ignore their personal impact upon the reefs (same applies to non-photographers). However, this ban will help because there will be no divers at all to affect the reef at all.