Kapalai is located in one of the world’s best and most famous scuba diving destinations, the well-renowned and truly magnificent Golden Triangle. Although not truly an island, the sandbar of Kapalai is now a thriving water resort with a multitude of dive operators taking advantage of this fantastic area with its stunning underwater scenery below. As one point of the incredible Golden Triangle, Kapalai is joined by Mabul and Sipadan as the other two points. This area boasts some of the world’s best diving sites and Kapalai in particular is known for its great macro diving opportunities. Kapalai is considered a premiere macro dive location and offers some of the best macro life encounters in the world.
Diving at Kapalai is an unforgettable experience thanks to the hundreds of colourful and strange-looking creatures that are present on the sandy bottom of the sloping reef. Many of these tiny creatures are not even classified as yet, adding a special element to diving at Kapalai that isn’t possible anywhere else in the world. Diving at Kapalai isn’t all about the macro creatures, however, as the area also boasts stingray, barracuda and large potato grouper sightings, especially near the bases of the 5 small wreck sites off the sandy plateau.
The sites are relatively shallow here, averaging around 15 metres and allowing for plenty of light to penetrate the area.
Top Dive Sites
Macro diving is hugely popular in Kapalai, but there is more to the area than just odd-looking creatures hiding in the rocky outcrops or on the sandy bottom. Kapalai also has a number of small wall dives, wreck dives and shallow reefs to explore. Whilst many divers from abroad are only concerned with diving at Sipadan, many find themselves opting to spend a god while diving in Kapalai thanks to the variation and great muck diving opportunities here.
Dive Map of Kapalai
House Reef/ The Jetty
As the name suggests, the Jetty or House Reef is right on the doorstep of Kapalai and boasts plenty to see. With a good mix of small critters and large pelagic species not to mention a number of small wreck sites, the Jetty/House Reef site of Kapalai was recently named the fifth best dive site in the world.
Enjoy the experience of diving 5 small wrecks all at once thanks to the five closely grouped fishing boats that now lie at the bottom of the sloping reef at around 18 metres. Easily accessible for all levels of divers, these boats are now home to tiny shrimp, colourful nudibranchs and interesting-looking orang-utan crabs, and those with a keen eye may even spot a brilliantly camouflaged stonefish or two. Large schools of snapper and grouper can also be seen swimming overhead.
Mandarin Valley is probably Kapalai’s most famous dive site and is heaven for macro divers. With plenty to see including leaf fish, harlequin ghost pipefish and frog fish, divers never know what tiny and interesting critters are lurking in the cracks and crevices of the coral. The shallow reef has a maximum depth of 18 metres and is best dived at a slower pace in order to spot as many critters as possible. Stone fish and octopus can be particularly difficult to see thanks to their camouflage abilities, so divers are advised to look closely at each and every turn. Mandarin Valley also boasts sightings of its namesake, the stunning and very rare mandarin fish for those who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Although during the day these coloured beauties can be difficult to spot thanks to their tendency to hide under sea urchin spines, a night dive at Mandarin Valley is an entirely different experience. Once the sun sets, groups of divers take to the water to see the Mandarin fish perform their stunning mating dancing ritual in the open water.
Famous for its strong currents and pygmy seahorses, Mid Reef is a site best suited for more experienced divers. This site is slightly deeper than that of Mandarin Valley, and divers make use of the ball line to reach the maximum depth of 25 metres. Long and interesting coral branches can be seen here, made even more exciting by the possibility of spotting one of the tiny pygmy seahorses hiding in the branches.
As the name suggests, Sweetlips Table is famous for the large schools of Oriental Sweetlips that tend to congregate at this site, located just northwest of Kapalai Island. Easily recognisable thanks to their black and white striped body, polka-dotted tail and yellow face, this odd-looking creature is definitely worthwhile seeing. A night dive is the best time to see these Sweetlips in action as they feed at night, however a day dive at Sweetlips Table will allow for shrimp, moray eel and nudibranch sightings.
Mantis Ground is another site providing fantastic macro diving opportunities in Kapalai, and at an easily accessible maximum depth of only 19 metres. Known for its sightings of the rare mantis shrimp, the area is also popular for leaf fish, anemone crab and nudibranch sightings and so is definitely worth a visit. The rare mantis shrimp is so-named due to its appearance, resembling a praying mantis. These underwater mantis shrimps can grow as large as 30 cm long and have incredibly strong claws used for crushing prey. Divers should be on the lookout as mantis shrimp have been known to injure unaware divers, earning them the nickname ‘thumb-splitters’. It has been said that mantis shrimp are even capable of breaking the glass in aquarium tanks, so it is certainly true that these little shrimp pack a big punch.
To the north of Kapalai, Frontier Reef is likely to offer a number of interesting and rare sightings such as leaf fish, frog fish, shrimp and nudibranchs.
The flamboyant cuttlefish is the reason many divers flock to Flambo Reef, and thanks to its ability to quickly change colours to every colour imaginable, this unique, multi-coloured fish is certainly worth seeing. The flamboyant cuttlefish can turn from purple to pink to yellow and more, and does this in an effort to confuse both its predators and its prey. Also in the area are lionfish, crocodile fish and the rare blue ringed octopus, making Flambo Reef a top choice for many divers.
Known for its sightings of stingrays, moray eels, giant frog fish and the fascinating Flying Gurnard, Gurnard Point is a site not to be missed. Located alongside Police Jetty, this shallow site has both a sloping reef, a small wreck and a sandy pleateau. The Flying Gurnard, which is where the site gets it name, is a fantastic creature that resembles an underwater peacock and makes for a fantastic underwater photo opportunity.
Beginning at an easy 5 metres down, this sloping reef is a great dive for divers of all abilities. Mild currents and a shallow maximum depth of only 16 metres makes this another relaxed and easy dive and divers can enjoy the company of laidback sea turtles as they swim around the solitary wooden boat wreck at this site.
Lobster Rock is another great and easy reef dive at Kapalai. Known for its sightings of lobsters hiding in the abundance of hard corals, Lobster Rock offers plenty to see both during the day and at night. The interesting underwater scene is made even more colourful thanks to the multitude of soft and hard corals, colourful nudibranchs and small, well-hidden pipefish.
Spotted Ray Channel
This site is another shallow and relaxing dive with plenty to see. Ribbon eels, ghost pipefish, stonefish and even a lavender frogfish can be seen in the lukewarm waters of this sandy channel.
Kapalai is without a doubt one of the best places for underwater macro photography. All sorts of creepy crawlers can be found hiding the shallow, sloping reefs surrounding Kapalai and all of these colourful, odd-looking creatures make for great macro subjects.
Kapalai boasts a plethora of weird and wonderful-looking creatures. One of the most popular sightings is that of the rare and incredibly talented flamboyant cuttlefish, with its brilliant colours which it uses to confuse its prey and its predators. To see this magnificent creature in action as it changes colour is truly a special experience, and one that is possible in Kapalai.
Frogfish are also prevalent in Kapalai, although they are always difficult to spot thanks to their brilliant camouflage capabilities.
Frogfish come in all shapes, colours and sizes in Kapalai and can even be as big as a melon, although it can still be difficult to spot these creatures on the sloping reefs. Regular sights include the usually quite rare mimic octopus and the blue ring octopus as well as stonefish, leaf scorpion fish, wasp fish and ghost pipefish. The extremely rare and exceptionally beautiful mandarin fish can be seen performing their mating dance in the open waters alongside the Kapalai jetty at night, and this is something truly special for divers to see.
With the presence of quite a few wrecks in the area comes the presence of a number of strange invertebrate species such as nudibranchs, a number of shrimp species and orang-utan and spider crabs.
Diving Season, Visibility and Water Temperature
Diving in Kapalai is a fantastic experience at any time of year, but visibility is at its absolute best during the months of February – October, which is also Kapalai’s dry season. Water temperatures during this time range between 26-30°C and temperatures tend to drop during the rainy season in the months of November to February.
Visibility depends entirely on the conditions of the day, as the sandy bottom of many of Kapalai’s dive sites can be cause for reduced visibility. That being said, the visibility in Kapalai is still far above the average visibility of other famous muck diving destinations and averages between 5-15 metres. As with any muck dive, it is not so much about the visibility or clear conditions but more about the interesting creatures you are able to find hidden in the sand, rock and crevices. As it boasts gentle currents and better visibility than many muck diving destinations, Kapalai allows for an exceptional experience where divers are able to explore the interesting creatures in these waters. The muck diving in Kapalai is ideal for all levels of muck diving enthusiasts and is especially well-suited for beginner divers thanks to the relatively shallow depths of between 5-20 metres.
The most popular times to visit Kapalai occur between March and August, with additional busy periods over Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year. The resort is often fully booked during these periods, so it is best to plan your vacation far in advance if you wish to travel during these times. Luckily for divers, there is no particular time when sightings of certain fish are more likely to occur – the most popular sightings of frogfish, mandarin fish and ribbon eels can be experienced at any time of year. With over 18 dive sites easily accessible by liveaboard and through the dive resorts, Kapalai is an ideal destination for muck diving enthusiasts. Located 5 kilometres east of Mabul and 10 kilometres north east of Sipadan, divers may experience slightly choppy surface conditions when travelling to the many dive sites of Kapalai, however underwater currents are usually quite calm.
How to Dive in Kapalai
Diving in Kapalai is possible whether you choose to stay in Kapalai Resort or not. With Mabul resorts only 5 minutes away by boat, divers are spoilt for choice when it comes to dive resorts. Opting to stay in Kapalai Resort allows divers to experience these great sites day and night, however, and special rates are granted to Malaysians, expats with work permits and Singaporeans.
Kapalai only has one liveaboard, the MV Celebes Explorer, and opting to travel on this luxury liveaboard is a popular choice for those wanting to cram as many dives as possible into their Kapalai experience.
Scuba diving and muck diving specifically is certainly the main attraction for Kapalai visitors, however thanks to its location there are also a number of other water-based activities to enjoy. Swimming, ocean kayaking and snorkelling are all possible and are highly recommended for both divers and non-divers visiting Kapalai.
Snorkelling in Kapalai, Sabah
One of the best snorkelling spots in Kapalai is located near the sand bank and is best reached by boat, however it is possible to snorkel right off the wooden jetty and still see a multitude of colourful fish and interesting marine life.
The Kapalai Resort
The Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort is a stunning water village boasting pure luxury and comfort for its guests. Aside from fantastic facilities, delicious buffet meals and homely wooden chalets, the resort offers the chance to see thousands of fish without even getting into the water – just walking from your room to the breakfast area allows you to experience the great marine life in the area! Diving from the Kapalai Resort is easy and the resort’s boats will have you at any one of the many dive sites within a matter of minutes. Although the resort does require divers to have logged at least 15 dives prior to diving in Kapalai, the resort was built with divers in mind and goes to great lengths to cater for your every diving need.
Rooms and chalets
The resort’s wooden chalets offer phenomenal comfort and beautiful balconies overlooking the water below. Available in either twin or triple share, all chalets have bathrooms with both a bath and a shower and basic toiletries for your convenience. A coffeemaker is also available in each room, allowing guests to enjoy their morning brew from the comfort of their very own balcony. Each chalet offers guests plenty of privacy for balcony sunbathing too.
Imagine enjoying a fantastic buffet meal whilst having an unobstructed, panoramic view of the glistening sea around you: this is the experience at Kapalai Resort. The open air terrace where meals are served is truly a beautiful location. There is also a great sun deck where many divers choose to socialise, or a games room for those looking for an extra bit of fun. With satellite phones and a good Internet connection, keeping in touch with friends and family won’t be an issue at Kapalai Resort.
Kapalai Island is a great place for those looking to begin or advance their diving qualification thanks to a well-fitted and exceptionally-professional dive centre located right on the resort. Divers can opt for a Discover Scuba Diving experience or obtain an Open Water or Advanced Open Water qualification. The dive centre also offers an Introduction to Night Diving course.
All diving arrangements can be done through the friendly diving centre, including island hopping experiences to the nearby islands of Mabul, Sipadan, Si Amil, Ligitan, Mataking and Roach Reef.
The dive centre on Kapalai Resort is also able to assist with arranging kayaking and snorkelling trips for both divers and non-divers and can aid divers with renting and servicing equipment too.
The resort is able to issue 14 Sipadan permits each day, so guests are guaranteed to be able to visit the famous Sipadan Island at least once during their stay, providing they stay at the resort for at least 3 nights and 4 days. It is still highly recommended to book as early as possible as some visitors have found they needed to arrange a longer stay in order to fit a Sipadan Island trip into their experience.
Feeling inspired and raring to go? Check out our Kapalai travel guide and start planning your next diving trip!