If you have wondered if it is possible to do birdwatching at Sipadan Island, then you should be happy to know that birding can be done as this famous island is located off the coast of Semporna on the east coast of Sabah.
Sipadan Island is also known as one of the Important Birding Areas or IBA 31, covering 11 hectares. There are two threatened species: the Christmas Frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) and Grey Imperial-pigeon (Ducula pickeringii).
Birdwatching at Sipadan Island
Sipadan has been well-known worldwide as a scuba divers haven since Jacques Cousteau visited this place in 1988 and commented about how incredible the underwater world is. In 2012, his daughter Alexandra Cousteau had also visited Sipadan to confirm her father’s statement.
French underwater explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”
Since then, scuba divers from the world have been coming here to see the natural underwater beauty rated as one of the top five places in the world to scuba dive.
But Sipadan Island was actually declared as a bird sanctuary on 1st February 1933 by the colonial government of North Borneo under The Sandakan Forest Conservators. It was confirmed in the official Gazette and re-gazetted again in 1963 by the Malaysian government.
Nowadays, you will see less birders and more divers around the island, while the government of Sabah has set stringent restrictions for anyone visiting the island. One of them is the daily divers limit set to 120 people, and everyone needs to leave the island by 4,00 PM.
There are no more lodgings available on Sipadan Island as of December 2004. It was declared “Sipadan Island Park” in 2009 with 16,846 hectares of Sea and Coral Reefs governed and protected by the National Security Council of Malaysia.
Birders should note that since December 2020, Sipadan island will be closed to visitors every December to give a month-long recuperation period for the coral and allow the marine environment to regenerate.
How many are birds species at Sipadan Island?
This will come as a shock as there are 47 recorded birds spotted at Pulau Sipadan to date. Some species include Terns, Frigates, Sandpipers, Plovers, Kingfishers, sunbirds, Pied Imperial pigeons and Sea eagles.
And just before the winter in China, the beautiful rainbow-coloured Nicobar pigeons migrate south from there take a rest on Sipadan Island. Another unique bird to spot here is the Philippine Megapode which is often seen scavenging for fallen fruit.
What is Required to Go to Sipadan Island?
For anyone interested in bird watching at Sipadan Island, you will require to obtain a non-divers permit from Sabah Parks or any of the bird tour companies in Sabah.
Because of the strict restrictions, there are two types of Sipadan Island permits available – the scuba diver’s permit, which is limited to 176 permits per day ( 156 dive permits, 20 snorkelling special permits) and the non-divers permit, which I am unsure how many are allowed.
You will need to double-check with the tour company or park authorities about the length of stay for the non-divers permits.
How to get to Sipadan Island?
The only way to get here is via speedboat and through the island of Mabul, and from the mainland town of Semporna. Scuba divers with the Sipadan permit can depart from their individual dive resorts.
For birders who want to visit Sipadan, you will probably have to engage in a specialised birding tour with a guide and depart from either Semporna jetty or Mabul Island.
Where to Stay near Sipadan Island?
As no one is allowed to stay on Sipadan Island, the closest place is Mabul Island, where you can find budget guesthouses, lodges, resorts and even a unique oil rig diving resort. From Mabul Island to Sipadan, it takes a 20 to 30 minutes boat ride.
The other option would be at the town of Semporna, which is the main gateway to the Tun Sakaran National Park, where Mabul, Sipadan, Mataking and other islands are located.
Here, you have options of budget hotels and 3-star hotels for accommodation. From Semporna to Sipadan Island requires a boat trip of about 40 to 60 minutes one way.
At the end of the day, birdwatching at Sipadan Island is a truly unique thing one can do while in Sabah, but it is more of an experience than a commercial tour. Getting to Sipadan is not easy; hence, many birders do not pursue this due to timing and cost.
If you want to know a little more, you can also read this review on Sipadan Island, which I did many years ago. It provides more pictures of Pulau Sipadan as I used to go there scuba diving.
Finally, if you are truly planning to do birdwatching in Sabah and have the time and extra funds, I recommend visiting this stunning island as it is truly one-of-a-kind.