Photo: Time to dive.


Its name may mean "perfect" in the Malay language, but the seaside town of Semporna makes a poor first impression with its fishy smell and littered water. Thankfully for most travellers Semporna is not the destination but the gateway to some of the best scuba diving in the world at Sipadan and Mabul Islands.

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Sipadan Island has been something of a mecca for scuba divers ever since Jacques Cousteau described it as "an untouched piece of art". More than 3,000 species of sea creatures have been observed in the warm tropical waters and it regularly ranks on lists of the world's top 10 dive sites. When you're diving at Sipadan it's not a question if you'll see large pelagic species like manta rays, sea turtles, barracuda and sharks, but how many.

As part of the effort to conserve this underwater paradise, the number of divers or snorkellers to Sipadan is limited to 120 per day. As every diver in the world has Sipadan on their bucket list, you'll want to book your dives well in advance to secure one of the coveted permits.

There has been a government ban on accommodation on Sipadan since 2004, so the dive resorts can be found a quick boat ride away on Mabul Island, a diving destination in its own right. Mabul is known as a top "muck diving" site and the shallow, silty water is home to bizarre creatures like pygmy seahorses, nudibranches, lionfish and octopi.

While Sipadan and Mabul are one of the highlights of Sabah, if you're looking for a relaxing beach holiday we suggest you give Semporna a miss. Save for a few patches of sand cleaned up by the upper-range resorts, the beaches are filthy and most resorts charge significantly higher rates if you won't be booking any diving or snorkelling trips.

Semporna is small and most places of interest are along the seafront, including the seafood market and jetty for boats to Mabul and Sipadan. Slightly west of the market is a cluster of concrete buildings known as "Semporna New Town", which comprise the tourist heart of Semporna with budget accommodation, dive shops, bars and restaurants.

You'll also find laundry services, internet cafes, a Giant supermarket and a Guardian pharmacy. If you need to restock on ringgit, there's an international ATM at the Maybank beside the mosque.

Mabul Island is so small it lacks roads -- you can walk around it in an hour. Besides the dive resorts, there's a fishing village where you'll find a few shops selling snacks and basic provisions. Anything else you'll need to get in Semporna.

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