A visitor to Sipadan Island (or Pulau Sipadan as it is locally known) is sure to see an abundance of marine life including whirling schools of barracuda, roaming sharks, and of course, plenty of sea turtles. Sipadan dive operators often boast that turtle sitings are guaranteed on their tours, and those boasts are not often wrong. Yet sea turtle populations throughout Malaysia continue to struggle, meaning Sipadan’s turtles must be studied and enjoyed with care.
Turtle Species of Pulau Sipadan
Malaysia is home to four species of turtle according to the WWF-Malaysia website (“What we do>Species>Turtles”). These include the Leatherback, Olive ridley, and Hawksbill turtles. The most abundant species however is the Green turtle – a creature which is actually black brown or greenish yellow in color. Regardless of its color this magnificent animal can grow to be four feet long and is quite an exciting find when visiting Sipadan dive sites.
It may be hard to recognize that all of Malaysia’s turtle species are endangered when visiting Sipadan. According to SCUBA diver and travel writer Jack Jackson in his book Diving with Giants as many as 30 turtles can be seen on a single dive in the month of August. This is peak egg laying season but each species of turtle uses Pulau Sipadan as a nesting site year round.
Sipadan Dive Sites and the Turtle Cavern
Sipadan Island is surrounded by beautiful dive sites most of which are home to large sea turtles. According to the online diver’s resource Asia Dive Site under its “Malaysia: Sipadan” entry, dive sites such as Coral Gardens, South Point, North Point, and Turtle Patch are all excellent places to go for turtle sitings. However, Sipadan’s most famous dive site is probably Turtle Cavern. A dark labyrinth of caves, Turtle Cavern was once thought to be the place where Sipadan turtles go to die. The cavern’s floor is littered with turtle skeletons and carcasses.
Unfortunately, the truth behind the cavern is quite chilling. According to Jack Jackson in Diving with Sharks and Other Adventure Dives, turtles use caves to rest in, but some turtles venture too far into the tunnels and, no longer able to see the light at the entrance become lost. Unable to find their way out, the turtles cannot surface to breathe, and thus drown within the cave system.
Visitors hoping to dive Sipadan will find a unique site at Turtle Cavern. However divers should approach the cave with caution so they do not meet the same fate as the unfortunate lost turtles.
Sea Turtle Conservation on Sipadan Island
Unfortunately, caves aren’t the greatest threats to turtles in Malaysia. Humans hunting turtles, developing resorts on their nesting sites, and accidentally catching them in fishing nets has driven all four species of Malaysia turtle onto the endangered species list. Recognizing this, the Malaysian government has taken steps to conserve turtles near Sipadan.
Asia Dive Site writes that, Sipadan has been declared a national park. All resorts that were on the island have left and the number of visitors to the island are restricted. These decisions seem to have helped Sipadan’s marine life writes the Borneo Post in “Marine Life Galore at Sipadan Island Marine Park”. The article writes how the Sipadan Island Marine Park Scientific Expedition found turtle populations increased since 2005 with 50-60 turtles seen in one day near their feeding area.