Traveling to Sipadan

I believe we only wrote two travel reviews before. Once about our positive experience for the Camotes Islands on the Philippines and once about our negative experience on a Fiji resort.

On our travel to Sipadan we stayed in two resorts and this resulted in both great memories and disappointments. We travelled to Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia to go diving at Sipadan. Sipadan is limited to 120 divers per day. A couple of resorts will take you there and most of them only guarantee you to go to Sipadan when you stay at least 3 nights. As always we found it important to get all the available information about our destination to manage our expectations. We decided to stay three nights at the Seaventures Dive Rig, which describes itself as: ‘It’s an oil rig! What more can you expect…?’ and five nights at the more luxurious Sipadan Water Village resort (SWV).

Both of the places seemed to be fully booked the week before we arrived and had a smaller number of divers while we were there. Therefore we were able to visit Sipadan twice with each resort.(Yeah!) We expected no luxury and but great diving from the dive rig and were impressed and thought that it was one of the best dive resorts ever. On the other hand we were expecting lots from the Sipadan Water Village resort but instead were quite disappointed. We paid $140 per night more for the Sipadan Water Village than on the dive rig, and if the room and cottage would be the only difference then the $140 might be justified. But since the Seaventures Dive Rig was just a lot better in general we think that the Sipadan Water Village is completely overpriced.

If we would go again, we would stay 7 nights at the Seaventures dive rig and the last day and the last night before flying back (when we have to stop diving) maybe in some other resort with the beautiful cottages. Anything other than Sipadan Water Village. Leave your dive gloves at home, you will not be allowed to use them. The water had a lot of garbage everywhere and it seems that it is accepted as normal.

The comparison:

Seaventures Dive Rig Sipadan Water Village
Booking & pre-arrival Any email question was promptly answered and we felt taken care of even before arriving. A week before leaving Sydney we asked a few more questions and even though we already paid in full, Sandy was quick to respond with helpful answers. During booking some of our questions were not answered (e.g. we would send our details and ask about credit card payment and the details were acknowledged but the question not answered. An e-mail with two questions which we sent shortly before leaving Sydney was never answered.
Transfers No hassles at all. We were picked up in Tawau, offered bottled water and driven 1h to Semporna where we signed in and then were ferried via boat to the dive rig in front of Mabul Island. For the departure transfer we told them that we will go to the Sipadan Water Village and Seaventures immediately offered to transfer us to the Sipadan Water Village which is 2 minutes away by boat. This of course meant that they might have saved some money since they did not have to get us back to Tawau. We were told by a fellow guest that she had problems with the transfer because she booked via another place which was cheaper (we booked directly). She was told by the other place that transfer is included while Seaventures told her it is not. She was quite unhappy about the situation, but I am not sure if that is Seaventures fault since their contract with the other agent might not include the transfer. And the other agent might simply have tried to blame Seaventures. In any case, our transfer worked great, so booking directly with Seaventures might be the better option. SWV also saved some money because they did not have to transfer us from Tawau, but did not offer a pick up from Seaventures either. Our departure transfer was supposed to be at 14:00 which would have meant that we arrive at the airport 3h before our departure. But instead they told us we have to leave at 13:00 which came as an unpleasant surprise. The return trip boat was smaller and slower than Seaventures boat and also was run a bit run down. The boats man made sure that all our luggage and all passengers stayed dry when a rain storm splashed down. There was some confusion about the ride to Tawau but it was short and then we were taken without delay to Tawau.
General Service Everyone was helpful. Everyone knew that we will head to the Sipadan Water Village and I at first wondered if they are particularly friendly because of that, but after a while I knew that we were treated like everyone else. (With the direct booking caveat) On arrival we were given clear descriptions and instructions to help us have a great time. So we knew what to find where and where wet suits are allowed and so on. Everyone was helpful, but it often felt a bit amateurish and badly organised. It seems that many and all the dive masters knew that we were first staying at the Sea ventures dive rig.
The dive centre & the house reef Awesome! It was very professional and well organised. The dive rig is a lot more interesting to dive and the elevator ride down into the water is just great. Local diving is allowed from 06:00 to 20:00 and night dives are more interesting and free. All the dive masters were great. Mando was our favourite. He was always enthusiastic when he was able to show us something and I believe that he showed us the most marine jewels (this is of course also a big part luck) But again all of them were great and just made us feel special even though they showed the same frog fish to 1000 other divers. Mando also spontaneously suggested that he will show us the pygmy sea horses under the rig. Just because he is that kind of great guy. Even though this usually would fall under “Rent A Dive Master” I reminded the front desk that they should charge us for it but then we still were undercharged. It seemed that diver groups were made up of people that had similar dive experience. This made the diving more interesting for all involved. Even the bad guest divers seemed to be better divers than in the SWV resort. That might just be timing, but I believe it is based on the fact that the dive rig is only for diving, there is not much else to do therefore appealing to a different kind of guest than the SWV. Seaventures is about great diving and in addition you have great food and a great atmosphere and a practical and friendly set-up. Typical examples of how they looked after you on a personal level: I had a banger (little ball on a rubber band) that I put on my tank on the first dive. During the Sipadan dives the boat man changed the tanks for us. I usually don’t use the banger and forgot about it. At some point during the second or third dive I noticed that the banger was mounted on the new tank. The boats men always transferred it over to the new tank without a fuzz or needing to be asked. They also informed me that they never turned on the air on my tank so that my air pressure transmitter could link up correctly when I turned it on. Good. A lot of the good things are similar between SWV and the dive rig, but the dive rig is just more diverse. The dive centre is open from 06:00 to 18:00 and night dives cost extra even though unlike on the dive rig they don’t do anything since you gear up and down yourself and the tanks are not filled till the next day and you just step into the water. You also have to let them know by 14:00 about night dives. There are a couple of nice things to see at the SWV house reef, but all in all it is a lot nicer under the rig. The SWV house reef is frequented by several dive resorts located right next to the SWV and there is a lot of noisy boat traffic for that reason. You always bump into other divers, many of them beginner divers ploughing through the soft sand and kicking fish. Valentine was probably the best of the diver masters. The other dive masters were between good and annoying. With two of them it felt that diving was an unwanted interruption to what they had been doing before. One of the dive masters hardly bothered to show us anything. The setup of groups was terrible and we were not the only ones who asked (without any success) to be grouped with other divers who do not break everything and crash into us while taking pictures. SWV is also a resort, with some snorkelling and beautiful rooms and you can also walk around the island. We expected to do 4 dives each day and eat and sleep and therefore we did not worry about luxuries, but others seemed to be on their honeymoon and some were families with elderly as well as kids. The audience seemed not to be focused on diving and the resort is a resort with a dive centre attached. A boats man took my banger and placed in top of my tank. It was forever lost at some point…. Our air was sometimes on and sometimes off (but we always check anyway). Several people noted how the dive profiles were odd (e.g. last dives being the deepest and swimming against the current for long periods instead of with the current, etc.) Some of the boatmen were great some were OK. My air transmitter started to malfunction and show pressures of 280bar for no apparent reason. I was wondering if water came into the first stage during a tank change, but more likely is that the transmitter broke after 5 years of use.
Food It was great! Buffet style There was less choice than at the Sipadan Water Village, but the quality was better and we both preferred the dive rigs choice and service. We had fresh grilled fish every day. Everything was regularly restocked and during meal hours they brought out more food, if something was running low. Eg. if you were going for a night dive at 18:30 or maybe 19:00 and therefore arriving for dinner at 20:00, there was always still plenty of food and the staff would come out and check that there is still enough left. There was an ample selection of deserts that were available during whole the day as well as toast and cookies. There was also high tea in the afternoon which is nice for divers and you always could get coffee and fresh milk and some deserts and crackers. They had real UHT milk and condensed milk. You were allowed to take your cup of coffee or tea up to the sundeck or your room. It was generally good. Buffet style, with more choice than the dive rig. But for example you would have to ask for the bread in the morning to be brought out and if something did run out it was not necessarily refilled. When you arrived at the dinning hall you were supposed to wait to be seated according to some weird system (even when we were the first guests and it was empty). Empty dishes were left around on tables for some time or transferred to a single table before they eventually transferred them to the kitchen. Most of the deserts usually ran out in the first 30 minutes. At 8pm, one hour into dinner, it seemed that nothing was restocked. The dining hall is a no-shoes area and housed the tables and the buffet. On Friday we noticed that there was no meat nor fish for dinner. We were not fussed and thought that it might be for religious reasons. Set deliberately about 20 meters away from the dining hall in the dark were some BBQ drums, which I thought might be part of a wedding celebration or such. Only after asking about it was I told that the BBQ was part of the buffet. The BBQ food was great. I think the BBQ was the only time there was fresh fish. It would have made sense to put up a board advertising the BBQ or explaining to guests that it is part of buffet, though. At the diving centre was free coffee,tee & water with whitener, sugar and milo and too few clean spoons. Sometimes there was disappointing toast bread. At other times they had some nice donuts though. But no fresh milk and you were not allowed to take anything with you out of the dive center. There was also a la carte food in the restaurant, but we were not told by the resort but another guest. We did not see anything about that anywhere.
General Ambience There seems to be constant work going on on the rig to keep it seaworthy. The power generator is loud when the window was open but when closed was OK. The aircon was very effective but we would have preferred to sleep with open windows and since we were always very tired right after dinner we had the AC off and the window open. We walked around bare foot which meant that our feet were always a dirty reddish brown and we showered them when entering our room or before putting on our dive gear. (of course we could have simple put on our thongs). The main deck contains the dive centre area, the bar area and the dining tables and the buffet all in a ~30m radius. Between dives you can just walk in your wet suit over to the tables and have some refreshments. Our room were as expected small and apart from sleeping in there and charging batteries we had no interest in staying there. So between dives we would stay on the main deck and since all other guest are in this area as well, you can choose to mingle and chat or just stay by yourselves. The sun deck was nice. It probably was a former helicopter deck. We were told about but never checked out any other areas. There was a boat service to the island in the evening that gave guests the opportunity to go to a bar on Mabul or simply explore for an hour or so. The resort is very pretty. Everything is built on stilts over the water. But the cottages are too close to each other and the way the windows are set up means that you either have to close all the windows or you constantly have someone from another cottage or from the boardwalks looking in. And often boats are travelling close by. Our cottage (all cottages without AC) do not have windows nor mosquito nets. But the windows do have shades. (The rooms with AC have curtains and glass windows and glass balcony doors). The bathroom is a bit of an eye-sore compared to the rest of the room and it is better not to open the cupboards in the bathroom. Also our shower stall was missing one door which meant that after a shower the toilet seat next to it was always wet. There were always workers around resting or constantly replacing boards or nailing them back in but just like on the rig this was done with little or no impact to guests. Our initial request for a bungalow facing the island was ignored, but we were happy with our cottage anyway. The resort was a lot quieter than the rig, but because of that the power generator on the island was clearly noticeable during the night. Completely wreaking the nice set up are begging sea gipsy children which ferry around on their small boats between the guest’s cottages and in a war of attrition begged for hours on the first day targeting a bungalow next to us. The following days were better, but many were targeting guests everywhere from their boats. Since the boats were able to go under and between the cottages and the boardwalks, they were able to go almost everywhere. On the Dive Rig guests were asked not to give the sea gipsy children money when visiting the island. The reason why I blame the Sipadan water village management for the constant annoyance is because they simply ignored the situation. They did not ask their guests not to give money to the children and they did not try to keep them from rowing their small boats under the balcony of a cottage and bombarding the guests with endless begging.
Room service There was a great system to choose if you want or do not want room service. (you dropped your key into a different hole) We never wanted room service, so we don’t know how great it is. There was no obvious way to tell room service that it is not required and we never bothered to tell the reception. The room was always nicely remade and drink water jugs were refilled. And during dinner some electrical mosquito repellent that gave off a petrol smell was set up and in the morning removed. When we would come back from diving all the windows would be opened and I think in the evening closed.
Ecology Guests were asked not to waste water and re-use their towels. It seemed that the resort tried to minimize its environmental impact. Nothing was mentioned about saving water or energy or similar. And the small fridge in the room ran 24/7. No system to reuse towels. We tried to reuse the dive towels but they always would be removed unless we put our diving camera’s and lights on them.
Wifi Internet Internet: WIFI on every deck, but we have been warned (more than once) that the internet can be very slow and so it was. WIFI existed only at the reception/bar and restaurant and it was also slow but not any mention of that in any mail or on their website. At some point I noticed that I was still connected to the dive rigs WIFI which worked better even from the distance. Sometimes the reception’s WIFI was playing up. We had too little time during the transfers but if you are an internet addict buy a Celcom mobile internet dongle or such.

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