ROLLING INTO THE WATER at 6.30, just as the sun is rising, is a good way to wake up, particularly if youre suffering a little from jet lag.
Following the guide for our small group to the edge of the wall, things seem very quiet on the reef, and I begin to doubt the promises he has made as I hastily adjust the ISO on my camera to record the low light levels.
After a few minutes of hanging just off the wall, I begin to see some movement in the distance, and slowly make out a herd of very strange-looking faces approaching us. Suddenly they are on us, sweeping by a little like rush hour in a big city, perhaps 50 or more all peering at us with Neanderthal faces.
The bumphead parrotfish have appeared right on cue, just as our guide assured us they would!
The bumpheads dont want to stop just yet, so I follow them along the wall as instructed, and as the current begins to increase I can see groups of the fish peeling off towards the reef, to hold position in the tide at a number of cleaning stations. This is the chance
to get closer for a shot, but its hard work finning into the current and manipulating the camera.
As I struggle to focus, two large hawksbill turtles calmly swim up beside me and effortlessly hold station to wait for cleaning. Welcome to a normal early-morning dive on Sipadan!
Sipadan has had a magnetic allure for divers ever since Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the richest reef systems on the planet.
I first heard of it more than 30 years ago, from a Malaysian friend who camped and dived there before it became a must-dive destination.
Work and life conspired to prevent me visiting this Holy Grail until only recently, and I was consumed with anticipation. Would the area still live up to its reputation for marine life and underwater photography

IN THE 1980S, Sipadan was developed very quickly as a resort destination, and this tiny island soon had five busy dive centres operating year-round. Large numbers of divers visited in the following years, and it was no surprise that conservationists soon began warning that the reef structures could not survive their numbers.
These warnings were eventually heeded by the Malaysian government.
It closed all dive centres and demolished the resorts at the end of 2004.
Now there is only a visitor centre and an army base on the island for the comfort and protection of the strictly limited numbers of divers permitted to visit each day.
Sipadan was declared a National Park by the Malaysian government on 1 October, 2009. Longer-term, the aim is to have the island and reefs declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sipadan hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2000, when Philippine terrorists kidnapped a group of divers and resort staff, and again in 2006 when a barge carrying building materials for the visitor centre beached in a storm on the shallow coral reefs. So I was intrigued to see whether the condition of the reefs lived up to the hype - and how visitor security was tackled.
With no resorts on Sipadan, you have to select one of its neighbouring islands, each a 20-30 minute boat-ride away.
Mabul, larger than Sipadan, has a village and community in addition to its seven resorts. Kapalai is little more than a sandbar supporting its sole resort.
Another budget operator operates out of Semporna (on the coast of Sabah) with daily excursions to the three islands that take 45 minutes or so.
If you prefer a liveaboard, a single vessel currently operates here (the Celebes Explorer) but seems more popular with Asian divers than with the European market.
No more than 120 divers may visit Sipadan daily. Each dive centre must apply for permits for its own guests in advance. These are then confirmed day by day, so you are not guaranteed a daily permit, as this depends on the total number of divers in the resorts, and the efficiency of your own resort in applying for the permits.
On arrival at Sipadan each day you register with the Marine Park office, which checks your name and passport number against the days permits.
The system is effective. Im not sure whether there were 120 divers on my visits, but it didnt feel crowded on the island between dives, and we rarely saw divers from other groups in the water.

SOME RESORTS SPEND THE WHOLE DAY at Sipadan and do four dives around the island. Mine adopted a slightly different approach by leaving for the island at 6am and doing three dives before mid-day.
This works very well. Pre-breakfast dives offer the chance to see bumphead parrotfish schooling and queuing at cleaning stations, and turtles and reef sharks resting at the start of the day.
After breakfast on the island you head out again, stop for coffee and a snack and return to the resort after dive three.
This routine allows one-hour surface intervals between dives, and leaves the whole afternoon free for additional dives at Mabul or Kapalai. You can easily rack up five dives daily if you have the energy.
Sipadan offers a mix of wall-diving and shallow reef areas, and is famous for big fish encounters. On almost every dive you encounter reef sharks, green and hawksbill turtles (in such numbers that you may start suffering from turtle fatigue!), bumpheads, dogtooth tuna and many other schooling fish.
Your guide will instruct you to keep looking into the blue for hammerheads, mantas and whale sharks, though their possible presence depends on the season.
We didnt see anything that exciting, but the walls are decorated with a wide variety of soft and hard corals, black corals, seafans, barrel and tube sponges and plenty of small reef fish.
Depending on the tide, the walls are often swept by strong currents, so part of your dive may be a drift, but you will eventually progress far enough around the island to be sheltered.
I had heard a lot about the resident spiralling large schools of barracuda and bigeye trevally, and both these stars can also be seen on a daily basis.
According to the guides the best time to see the spiralling behaviour at Barracuda Point is at high-water slack.
When the current is running, the schools tend to disperse along the reef to feed. Getting inside these schools of big fish is very exciting, but they can be a challenge to photograph; their silver scales reflect flash-light very effectively.

THERE ARE 13 NAMED DIVE SITES, some with enticing labels such as Whitetip Avenue, Turtle Patch and Lobster Lair, but many are quite similar. You will visit more than one on a dive if the current is strong. At the end of your dive you can move up into the shallows and fringing reef and explore some of the smaller life that might otherwise be overlooked.
In some areas the corals are remarkable; in others, there is evidence of storm and diver damage, but even these areas are worth exploring, as they offer ideal habitats for scorpionfish, stonefish, ribbon eels and jawfish, and dozens of shrimp and goby lairs.
Be aware in the shallows of the armies of titan triggerfish, which seemed to be particularly stroppy even though it wasnt nesting season.
My fins bear the scars of more than one attack, and a bite from one of these fish would certainly spoil your trip!

MABUL
While Sipadan is all about sheer walls, coral reefs and big-fish action, the diving around Mabul and Kapalai also offers some splendid reef and muck-diving, and the chance to see some of the weirder denizens of the Celebes Sea.
There are 15 named dive sites around Mabul, from gently sloping reefs and shallow walls to sand and rubble areas. There are also artificial reef structures on the north side of the island with well-established marine eco-systems.
So you might start with a reef dive on the south side, where I saw all the expected players, including garden eels, carpet anemones with clownfish, exotic nudibranchs and even a mosaic octopus.
Follow this with a dive on the artificial structures at, say, Froggies Lair, and you can see a selection of amazingly camouflaged frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, octopuses, squid and cuttlefish.
The structures also attract schools of jacks, sweetlips, fusiliers, batfish and, within them, some very large grouper.
A little further offshore, at the north-west end of the island, is an unusual resort, the converted drilling rig that was my home during my visit.
It sits over another excellent reef, some more artificial structures and a muck dive which, in addition to the usual line-up, also boasts rarities such as pygmy seahorses, velvet ghost pipefish and orangutan crabs.
The rig attracts many schools of fish, including a resident shoal of juvenile barracuda, baitfish, sardines and jack.
Vis around Mabul is not normally as clear as on Sipadans walls, but the variety of marine life, particularly at the macro level, makes up for this.

KAPALAI
From a distance, the resort on Kapalai seems to be standing in open ocean.
Erosion here has reduced the small island to little more than a sandbar on top of the Litigan Reef area and it is fully submerged at most states of the tide.
The resort stands on stilts a few feet above the water, and is a testament to the normally very calm seas here.
There are 28 named dive sites around the island, on the gently sloping reef or on a selection of artificial reef structures and fishing-boat wrecks on sand-flats to the south of the island.
The structures are covered in invertebrate life, and attract a wide variety of fish species. Get closer, and you will find several different species of colourful nudibranchs feeding on
the tunicates and hydroids, together with hawkfish and blennies, and frogfish when you least expect it.
There are a wide variety of corals on the reef slopes, with numerous colonial sea whips that are often home to ornate ghost pipefish.
If you dive on the south side, be sure to explore beneath the resort jetty at the end of the dive.
Here you will find schools of sweetlips and batfish, and may spot blue-ringed octopus and flamboyant cuttlefish.
So did the diving live up to my expectations It did. Photographers like me will relish the unusual variety of subjects within this small area. Dive the walls at Sipadan in the morning and get your fix of blue water and big fish, then slow down in the afternoon for reefs and critter-hunting. These three islands combined will not disappoint you.

ON A FINAL NOTE, anyone planning to travel to Asia will of course give some thought to the threat of terrorism. The Foreign Office issues all sorts of warnings for Asia, and Malaysia is included as a potential trouble-spot.
My own experience here was that the Malaysian government and the resorts seemed focused on the potential threat. There is a police and naval presence on Mabul, and an army base on Sipadan.
During my visit I saw regular naval patrols, and navy helicopters making regular flights over the area.
Tourism, especially diving tourism, is an important source of income, so making visitors feel secure seems to be a priority. There has been no tourist incident since the single event in 2000.
I talked about this to other visiting divers from Europe, the USA and Asia, and none seemed concerned or uncomfortable. Exclude this part of Malaysia from your plans and you will miss out on some excellent diving and the opportunity to enjoy the other cultural and wildlife attractions that this country has on offer.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: A number of airlines fly to Kuala Lumpur from London or via one of the European hubs. From KL, fly to Tawau on Borneo and transfer by road to Semporna for a 45-minute speedboat transfer to your resort. Mark Webster flew with KLM and Malaysian Airlines. KLM sells a 23kg sports package for diving equipment at 40 euros each way, while Malaysian offers a free 10kg excess for diving equipment.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Mabul - Mark Webster stayed with Seaventures on its dive platform (www.seaventuresdive. com). Other options are Sipadan Water Village Resort (www.swvresort.com); Sipadan Water Village (www.sipadan watervillage.com); Mabul Water Bungalows (www.mabul waterbungalows.com); Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART) (www.sipadandivingvacation.com/ sipadan-mabul-resort. aspx); Borneo Divers (www. borneodivers.info); Mabul Longhouse Back Packer (www.scuba-junkie.com). Kapalai - Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort (www.sipadan-kapalai.com). Semporna - Scuba Junkie (www.scuba-junkie.com).
MONEY: Malaysian ringgit, but most resorts accept sterling, euros and US dollars as well as credit cards.
HEALTH: Some areas of Malaysia have a malaria and dengue fever risk. Mabul is a low-risk area but consult your doctor or MASTA (www.masta-travel-health.com ) before travelling.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Rainy season Nov-Feb..
PRICES: Accommodation from £400 for the backpacker option to £1600 or more for a luxury resort, excluding flights and Sipadan Park fees, which are around £8 per visit.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.tourism.gov.my