The Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort is one of the world’s top scuba destinations, with 3,000 species of fish to captivate divers.

MICHAEL WINES • New York Times ,

Malaysian underwater wonderland offers 'diver's nirvana'

  • Article by: MICHAEL WINES
  • New York Times
  • January 25, 2013 - 1:51 PM

We were in fins and snorkel masks, navigating the thicket of wooden posts that lift the Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort above the limpid waters of the Sulu Sea off Sabah, Malaysia. Around us were enough tropical fish to make not a school, but a university and all its departments: a score of yellow-and-black-striped tigerfish, stock-still under the stairs; a massive grouper, presiding over an artificial reef; banner fish, angelfish, starfish, parrotfish, needlefish, you name it, lounging amid corals and darting between rocks.

Then came an underwater yelp, loud enough to make waves, from 16-year-old Jack.

“Something bit me!” he said after surfacing, pointing to an inch-long welt on his leg that was in the shape of a mouth.

And so something had: a dull brown triggerfish, maybe 18 inches long, which apparently mistook him for the vanguard of a home invasion.

“They can get aggressive around mating time,” our scuba instructor, Alex, said later.

Imagine that: a tropical resort where the fish bite, and the mosquitoes don't.

Actually, there are no mosquitoes at Kapalai to speak of — and no palm trees, except in pots; no beach, unless you count a slender sandbar that peeks above the waves at low tide; no rental cars, no shopping street, no bars. There is only a web of spacious chalets linked by boardwalks and an ocean stretching to the edge of the sky and beyond.

That, and those amazing fish.

Kapalai is an artificial island, a diver's nirvana atop wooden stilts sunk into a shallow reef, 40 minutes by speedboat from Malaysia's easternmost coast. Water is not just the compelling attraction; it's the only one. If you are so inclined (and you will be), world-class snorkeling is as easy as duckwalking in your flippers out a chalet door and into the sea.

But snorkeling is just the appetizer in an underwater banquet. Kapalai is also the closest habitable spot to Sipadan Island, a tree-shrouded speck that is among the top scuba-diving destinations on Earth. Twenty more minutes by boat transports you to a wonderland teeming with barracuda, sea turtles, sharks, pumpkin-size clams and enough psychedelic fish — 3,000 species, by experts' reckoning — to dazzle the most jaded ichthyologist.

The World Wildlife Federation has called it one of the most diverse spots on the planet. In 1989 Jacques Cousteau labeled it “an untouched piece of art.”

Removed from distractions

Kapalai is spare but not spartan — its 59 chalets are roomy with infinite ocean views from the decks, a cooling wind and nothing but the sound of lapping water and the sway of creaking timbers to lull you to sleep. No restaurant scene here: The food, a fish-heavy mix of Malaysian cuisine and Western favorites like spaghetti for the younger set, is cooked on-site and served at a sprawling buffet. Nor are there televisions, in-room phones or room service, although Wi-Fi can be had in the combination dining room and lobby.

Diversions are limited to a tiny gift shop, a rudimentary bar, a Ping-Pong table and a stack of books on local sea life.

To our surprise, Kapalai was not just for hard-core divers. There were Chinese families with children in water wings, Aussie couples seeking a romantic interlude and other scuba novices like ourselves. And after a few days of lessons, it became clear that scuba diving imposes its own soothing rhythm on even the most distracted vacationer.

So we fell into what became an enchanting regimen: dive, lunch; dive, relax; snorkel, dinner.

Kapalai requires beginners to obtain PADI open-water certification (would-be divers must be at least 15 years old), and as is the rule in the Sipadan area, everyone must notch a series of successful dives before making a visit. Although we learned to dive during our trip, it's best to arrive certified.

One dawn found us on a speedboat headed for Sipadan.

Geography and geology make this tiny egg-shaped island, just 220 by 550 yards, a diver's paradise. Sipadan is Malaysia's only oceanic island, the tip of an extinct underwater volcano. A reef traces a ring around the island. Nearby, a trench provides a haven for deep-sea fish that follow cool currents upward in search of food. The combination makes an unparalleled scuba experience: On one side, a near-vertical wall teems with morays, clams, turtles and endless varieties of fish. On the other, reef sharks, jack, manta rays and even whale sharks cruise in crystalline waters. Near the surface, the vast fringing reef is home to fabulous corals and brilliant fish.

Today fishing is banned within a kilometer of the shore, and diving is limited to 120 visitors a day. Environmentalists still fear the island can't sustain even that many tourists.

For us, the boat ride back to the chalet came all too soon; a farewell to Kapalai followed shortly afterward. But not for long — four months later, we returned for another look.

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