In the past, the island was at the center of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. The matter was brought for adjudication before the International Court of Justice and, at the end of 2002, the Court awarded the island along with the island of Ligitan to Malaysia, on the basis of the "effective occupation" displayed by the latter's predecessor (Malaysia's former colonial power, the United Kingdom) and the absence of any other superior title. The Philippines had applied to intervene in the proceedings on the basis of its claim to Northern Borneo, but its request was turned down by the Court early in 2001. On April 23, 2000, 21 people were kidnapped by the Filipino Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. The armed terrorists arrived by boat and forced 10 tourists and 11 resort workers at gun point to board the vessels and brought the victims to Jolo. All victims were eventually released.
In his film Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle (1989) Jacques Cousteau said, "I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art