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Kapalai is a small resort island in Borneo’s Semporna region. The resort features dozens of bungalows on stilts around a small sandbar surrounded by a reef inhabited by green turtles and tropical fish. This snorkeling spot can be a disappointment due to its high number of visitors and degraded seabed, especially if you visit on day trips.

Overwater bungalows at Kapalai Resort
The overwater bungalows of the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort seen from the day visitors snorkeling area.

How to get to Kapalai snorkeling spot?

Kapalai Island lies around 15 miles/25 kilometers south of Semporna. There are two ways to visit this spot:

  • By staying at the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, the stilt hotel set on the sandbar. In this case, you’ll be able to explore the whole reef, and above all enjoy the site’s peace during off-peak hours
  • On day trips from Semporna, often combining Mabul and Kapalai (count between 140 and 180 Rm per person). In this case, the snorkeling area will be limited to a very small portion of the reef, the only one allowed to day-trippers (see below). Please note that these tours are very popular and involve sharing the spot with a huge number of people. Mabul-Kapalai tours almost always include a visit to the resort on Mabul to take photos and have your box lunch on the pontoons. Here too, there are a lot of people and you may feel you’re wasting your time if you’ve come mainly to snorkel.
Kapalai Island Resort snorkeling map
Kapalai Island Resort snorkeling map.

Water entrance for snorkeling Kapalai

If you’re staying at the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, you can enter the water from your bungalow or one of the hotel’s many pontoons. If you’re taking part in a boat trip, you’ll be dropped off by your captain at the edge of the authorized snorkeling area (where there are often dozens of other boats).

Kapalai snorkeling exploration tips

Kapalai Island is surrounded by an extensive reef, but the area authorized for day visitors is very small (snorkeling zone 1 on the map).

Visitors are forbidden to go beyond a buoy line which prevents them from getting closer to the shore and the hotel. The minimum depth in this area is 6 feet/2 meters.

Blue sea star at Kapalai Island
Blue sea stars are common sightings at Kapalai Reef. This species is often blue but can be varied in color.

If you stay at the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, you’ll be much freer to come and go on the reef flat and between the different parts of the reef. The part of the reef between the day visitors’ area and the bungalows is the most recommended (snorkeling zone 2 on the map).

Due to the very high number of visitors at this location, the coral has almost completely disappeared, except in areas where the depth exceeds 10 to 13 feet/3 to 4 meters, where small colonies of massive coral, digitate coral and soft coral remain.

A few crinoids, colorful tunicates, and bivalves are attached to the reef, where blue starfish can also be seen.

Green sea turtle at Kapalai Island
A Green sea turtle having a rest on the reef slope.

Despite its almost absence of coral, Kapalai is home to some very interesting sea life. Butterflyfish, trumpetfish, emperor, wrasse and Moorish Idol are easy to spot.

Bluespotted hind hides against finger corals, with which they blend perfectly. Large schools of blue triggerfish pass through the blue at the foot of the reef.

Kapalai is also a recommended location for spotting Green turtles. They often rest on the slopes, but rarely venture to the surface due to the large number of people in the water.

Longfin emperor at Kapalai Island
A Longfin emperor at Kapalai Island.

If you take part in a tour, it may be difficult to enjoy your snorkeling session because of the hordes of snorkelers in the water, whose behavior is not always appropriate (collisions, flipper strikes, agitation in the water…).

If you don’t spend much time in the Semporna region, you’ll be better off in less-visited spots like Mataking and Timba Timba, with their unspoiled reefs.

Restaurants and accommodations nearby

This spot is the house reef of the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort. Day tours include lunch, often taken on the pontoons of the nearby Mabul resort.


  • Level required Beginner
  • Maximum depth16 feet/5 meters
  • Water entranceFrom a boat (snorkeling tour), or from a beach or a jetty (shore access, for guests only)
  • Potential DangersCrowded snorkeling area
  • Visitor numbersHigh
  • Access costsCost of a stay at the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort or cost of a snorkeling tour (from 140 Rm per person)
  • Restaurants nearbyYes

MAP Spot

These snorkeling spots are accessible to beginners and kids. You will enter the water gradually from a beach, or in a less than 3ft. deep area. The sea is generally calm, shallow, with almost no waves or currents. These spots are usually located in marked and/or monitored swimming areas. It is not necessary to swim long distances to discover the sea life.

This level only apply when the spot experiences optimal sea and/or weather conditions. It is not applicable if the sea and/or weather conditions deteriorate, in particular in the presence of rough sea, rain, strong wind, unusual current, large tides, waves and/or swell. You can find more details about the definition of our snorkeling levels on our snorkeling safety page.