Unfortunately for snorkelers, the current permit situation (only 120 people are allowed visit the island on any given day) means that it is difficult (but not impossible) to get to the island if you want to snorkel rather than dive. This is simply because it is less profitable to bring a snorkeler than a scuba diver and each dive school only has a limited allocation of places for each day. Dive schools are supposed to give any unused slots to other schools, but this does not happen in practice.
I managed to get to snorkel Sipadan with Uncle Chang, who were perfectly fine to deal with, however I cannot recommend them as, frankly, their safety is not up to much. Our boat actually drove into me, forcing me to dive under, after being hit in the head! It was then suggested that all snorkel with lifejackets on, so that we were easier to see! Their resort on Mabul was less than luxurious to say the least. The Dive Master was also very hungover on the day and took several divers with no cave diving experience into Sipadan Turtle Cave.
I had approached several other schools, but they either unable to accommodate us or gave such a bad impression that we didn't want to use them (one school in particular has an almost legendary reputation for bad customer service). Many will also require that you take a multi-day dive and accommodation package in order to visit Sipadan.
If I was to return, I would probably try to bribe Scuba Junkie to take me snorkeling at Sipadan as they were excellent (we visited several other islands in the area with them). Their resort on Mabul looked very nice as well (we didn't actually stay there). Unfortunately they don't currently offer snorkel packages to Sipadan.
How to get there
To give yourself the best possibility of securing a permit, either book an accommodation and multi-day snorkel package with one of the Dive resorts well in advance or stay in Semporna and try to secure a trip by knocking on every Dive School door!
The disadvantage of the former is that the weather could be bad on the day that was earmarked for your Sipadan trip, and you end up spending a lot of money without actually getting to Sipadan. Obviously the risk with the latter is that you arrive and all of the slots are already taken (though there are always some cancellations).
If I was going again, I would stay on Mabul as it is one of the best snorkeling spots in world in its own right and Semporna, to be honest, is a bit of a dump.
To get to Semporna, you will need to fly into Tawau and then get a Taxi or Minivan from there: it costs about RM150.
- Ease of Access: Difficult. Offshore island requires permit (limited places).
- Hazards: Strong Currents/Terrorists/Pirates
- Visibility: Variable according to season/weather
- Best time to go: April to June: Full Moon affects currents (perhaps someone could clarify how this affects snorkeling?)
- Water Temperature: 26 - 30°C
- Highlights: Barracuda Tornado, Huge shoals of Big eye Trevely, Turtles, Sharks