Machine Guns in Paradise – scuba diving Sipadan

Wasn’t sure what to make of the scowling military guys with machine guns. Later, I was told they were there for my protection.

When I saw them playing with Sipadan Island’s friendlier stray cats, I knew they were good guys.

Sipadan is in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia. It almost always makes scuba diving top ten lists. Jacques Cousteau, back in the day, gave it a thumbs up.

Tank gives it two thumbs up.

It is, bar none, the best place I’ve ever scuba dived. Shark-infested waters (white tip, non-aggressive), giant schools of fish and turtles galore. Warm water. Gorgeous beach on which to relax between dives.

The downside of Sipadan is also its upside. Malaysia restricts the number of divers to 120 per day, which means it’s relatively uncrowded and the marine environment is being protected.

The 120 permits have been divvied up among dive shops and resorts. They sell to each other when they have spares. Getting a permit – beyond the guarantee you may get with your hotel or diving reservation – isn’t easy or cheap.

Which means you can travel a long way, like from Canada, to only be guaranteed one day of Sipadan diving. That was my guarantee. In order to get that, I had to book at least five nights in a fairly swish cabin at the SMART Resort on nearby Mabul Island. (Roughly a 45 minute boat ride away.)

I booked seven nights and dove six days. I dove Sipadan on four of those days.

Yup. I hit the jackpot. I asked to buy extra Sipadan permits, if they became available. On three occasions, other divers at the resort elected to not dive Sipadan. (Insane??) So, I was offered the spare permits. The extra several hundred dollars I paid was well worth the expense. I may never get the chance to return. These memories are priceless.

So, what’s up with the machine guns?

In 2000, 21 people were kidnapped from Sipadan by a terrorist group – 10 tourists from Europe and the Middle East, and 11 resort workers. They were taken, at gunpoint, to the Philippines. Most were released within five months after an offensive by the Philippine government.

The military presence on Sipadan is meant to prevent a hostage taking like the one in 2000 from happening again.

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