Malaysia’s only oceanic island, Sipadan, is one of the most famous scuba diving destinations in the world. Located in the Celebes Sea off the coast of the state of Sabah, the island is surprisingly difficult to visit despite (or perhaps because of) its international appeal. It is nonetheless more than worth the effort.
Once dotted with resorts, Sipadan closed them all down in 2002 and severely restricted access to the island (there is in fact no place to stay overnight). A mere 60 feet from the beach in front of the original resort, the reef wall falls away, dropping more than 6,000 feet, plunging divers into a marine world populated by fish, sea turtles and white tip reef, hammerhead and leopard sharks. Note that a mere 120 dives are permitted daily, so start out early in the day with a Malaysia tour guide and secure a licensed dive operator well in advance.
For prospective divers looking for a less popular destination in Malaysia, the island of Layang Layang is an excellent choice. The most common approach is by chartered plane after a tour of Kota Kinabalu, and while there is a decided lack of sandy beaches (the island has been artificially increased in size by use of concrete in order to prevent it being reclaimed by the sea), it is situated in very deep water and features a radical drop off at reef’s edge similar to Sipadan. Whale and hammerhead sharks abound, and the corals are pristine. Diving is essentially unrestricted, while restrictions on fishing ensure a profusion of aquatic life.