Most travellers to Sipadan come for the turtles, which can be seen while snorkelling and diving in these marine-rich waters. Photo: Dhritman Mukherjee
Diving and snorkelling in Sipadan is strictly regulated: only 120 permits are issued daily to ensure the island’s marine ecosystem is preserved. These permits are very sought after and it’s easy to see why: The tiny island has rich waters, inhabited by clouds of shimmering jack, barracuda, parrotfish—and plenty of turtles. Renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau counted it among the top dive sites in the world for its healthy coral reefs and steep underwater walls. It’s a diver’s dream, and a great place to get your beginner’s or advanced diving certification.
The island doesn’t have any resorts. Visitors stay on neighbouring Mabul Island, from where dive operators organise trips to Sipadan. The other option is to stay on a liveaboard, which is a large boat that houses divers, but it can be expensive. Mabul is great for macro diving and observing the ocean’s tinier wonders like scorpionfish and pipefish.
Getting There: The town of Tawau in Sabah has the closest airport to Sipadan and Mabul and has connections to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. From Tawau, travel by road to the town of Semporna, from where you take a boat (approx 45min) to Mabul.
When to Visit: April to September
Thanks to Bunaken’s clear waters, even travellers lounging on the beach or ankle-deep in water can see marine life, like starfish. Photos: Dhritman Mukherjee
Situated in the Bunaken National Marine Park, the lush island of Bunaken has warm, crystal-clear water with thriving marine life. Snorkellers don’t have to swim more than 5-7 minutes from the beach to reach the reef, home to 13 species of colourful coral (including whip coral and green tree coral) and close to 100 varieties of fish, such as the parrotfish and white tip reef shark. Spot them as you swim through its sunny, shallow waters, or go on dive trips to its depths. There are over 20 dive sites, but the currents can be pretty strong: great for drift diving (diver-speak for riding the currents) but not ideal for divers without much experience. Bunaken’s beaches don’t see much action, though you can explore the island’s unmarked trails on foot. Stay options include comfortable resorts and rustic cottages.
Getting There: The Indonesian city of Manado is the closest airport to Bunaken, and is connected to the island by private and public boats; rides take about 40min. Silk Air—the regional arm of Singapore Airlines—operates flights from Singapore to Manado; flight time is 3hr30min.
When to Visit: April to November
is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
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