By TAN CHENG LI
The Star Tuesday June 29, 2004
Boats and divers mooring in and out of the sea has caused the most destruction to the northern reef of Sipadan. The shallow reef here has been reduced to rubble.
THE order is out, finally: Get off Sipadan. The Government has at last heeded calls for the Sabah island to be emptied of dive resorts as it was getting too crowded for its own good.
All six operators are to leave the world-famous dive site by year end. The authorities say the operators can relocate to other islands and their guests can still make day trips to Sipadan.
The two oldest dive outfits there, Borneo Divers and Pulau Sipadan Resort, have agreed to move.
Both will be the least affected by the eviction notice since they have alternative resorts nearby, in Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai respectively, to cushion the blow.
The other four – Sipadan Dive Centre, Syarikat Rami Benar, Borneo Sea Adventures and PB Borneo Safari – have cried foul and collectively sought a court order to quash the state decision. They have also submitted an alternative conservation management proposal to the Government.
The reason behind the order is said to be preservation of the island and its marine marvels. But suspicions are rife. Is it really for conservation? Has Sipadan degraded to such an extent? Is it a ploy to get rid of existing operators so that new and politically well-linked groups can move in?
Admittedly, the eviction notice issued in April appears harsh. After all, there is no denying that the dive operators have done Sipadan a world of good. Their presence was what stopped the highly destructive blast fishing in the Sulu Sea, raised the island’s conservation importance and placed it on the world list of top 10 dive destinations.
These brought in tourism revenue and employment opportunities.
The beauty of Sipadan
But they also left indelible marks on the island. As Sipadan’s fame grew, everyone tried to grab a slice of the magical island.
New lodges sprang up overnight, often haphazardly. The one resort in the late 1980s grew to six by 1995. No one could ask them to leave because no one had the jurisdiction to do so. So back then, operators had free rein of the place. With few rules and management, chalets spread into the forest, wells were dug and sewage was not thoroughly treated. Four other resorts came up in surrounding islands – and all their guests dive at Sipadan.
At one point, as many as 300 visitors crowd the once uninhabited island paradise each day. Pilot Michael Chou, who first visited Sipadan in 1991, now prefers to stay at the less-crowded Pulau Mabul. “During one trip, I abandoned plans for night dives after seeing over 50 divers at one spot alone. What can you see except diving fins and bubbles?”
The swelling visitor numbers and ensuing need for supporting facilities led to environmental strain. Sipadan was simply being loved to death. Studies over the years have revealed the effects of relentless dive tourism: some reefs have turned into rubble, loss of vegetation, saltwater seepage into groundwater and pollution of groundwater.
Renowned marine photographer Michael Aw who first plunged into the depths of Sipadan in 1985, can attest to the degradation. “What it is now is about 30% of its former glory.
In the reefs, there used to be 90%live coral. Currently it is barely 30% . The diversity of species is more or less the same although density has somewhat deteriorated by about half. Aesthetically, the reef looks very tired.” Apart from sewerage, pollution and runoffs, Aw says boat traffic and anchoring have caused massive destruction.
In fact, alarm bells were sounded as early as 10 years ago. Marine biologist Dr Elizabeth Wood in a 1994 report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature had urged for a resort-free island if Sipadan’s biological wealth is to remain intact.
The Government had previously treaded cautiously where Sipadan is concerned because of the territorial dispute with Indonesia. And dive operators, fully aware that they were squatters who may be evicted anytime, were unbothered about investing in costly but efficient sewerage systems.
Sabah could not gazette the island as a marine reserve as this would be deemed a political move offensive to Indonesia. Now, armed with the International Court of Justice ruling that Sipadan is Malaysia’s, it can finally flex its muscle over management of the island.
For sure, ridding the island of overnight guests will lessen the pressure – all the structures, rooms, generators and wells are no longer needed. Nesting turtles will get a rest from noise and light disturbance, as will the reef and its inhabitants from crowds.
Turtles are still common in Sipadan.
Borneo Divers managing director Clement Lee feels the government decision is just what Sipadan needs. “It is harsh and it is hurting us but the Government is doing the right thing. Yes, the environment on Sipadan has been affected. But it is still curable. So the island should be given time to recuperate.”
Lee sees a positive side to the eviction order. “Sipadan has received much bad press in recent years, what with the Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis and complaints about the crowds. If the island is left for three to five years to rest, there will be better perception that we are taking positive steps to preserve the environment.”
As Sipadan’s reputation as an unspoilt wildlife haven began to tarnish, dive operators were driven to lighten their footprints on the island. Now, laundry and garbage are carted to the mainland. Some resorts use only biodegradable soaps and detergents.
Between 1993 and 1997, they pooled resources to buy turtle nests from traditional collectors so that eggs were left to hatch and not dug up. In 1999, the operators formed a consortium, the Sipadan Borneo Resort Management Sdn Bhd, to pool resort services which either pollute, overlap or cost a lot of money if handled separately.
This includes coach transfers between Tawau and Semporna, as well as speedboat transfers to the island but plans to share compressors and power generators fizzled out.
Fortunately, land constraints forced a limit on facilities. So there are no sprawling hotels on Sipadan. Instead, divers pay top dollars yet sleep in spartan wooden huts and share showers and toilets. But Sipadan’s marine wonders still had them coming in droves.
In response to growing criticisms over the ill-effects of tourism, Sabah started restricting overnight visitor numbers gradually, from 100 in 1999 to the present 80. Excess rooms and structures were torn down. Divers boated in from the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai also had quotas. To demonstrate their seriousness, the authorities arrested two Japanese divers in October 1999 for not having permits to be on the island.
Of course, questions emerged over how the quota of 80 was arrived at. And with each resort allowed only 14 overnight guests when they used to have 30 to 40, operations were barely economically viable.
It is not surprising that this sudden zeal to protect the island by controlling the crowds did not last. This quota is now hardly adhered to.
Don’t vacate all
But shipping everyone out of Sipadan is not the answer. “In many ways, the divers and diving operators based in Sipadan helped deter illegal fishing. So a complete move is a bad idea. At least retain one operator,” says Aw.
Marine biologist Dr Nicolas Pilcher concurs. “It is ironic that divers who had helped preserve the place have now been asked to leave to preserve it,” says the director of the Kota Kinabalu-based Marine Research Foundation. He fears that once the island is vacated, blast fishing may start.
It still occurs today, although minimally. Pilcher, who is studying Sipadan’s invertebrate biodiversity, believes little will change with the departure of dive operators.
“Visitors might not sleep there but they will still stay almost the whole day on the island. Facilities such as toilets and rest areas are still needed but who’s going to clean them and clear the refuse? Sabah Parks staff?” A better option to dive operators leaving the island, he believes, is to tighten and better enforce existing controls, such as the visitor quota.
Indeed, day visits can be ecologically destructive too if left unregulated. “Hundreds of day trippers can be just as damaging to the marine environment as 100 divers based on the island,” cautions Wood, who is coral reef conservation officer of Britain’s Marine Conservation Society.
“The crucial thing is for the management authority to ensure that they control the situation and don’t just replace one problem with another.”
Dive and tour operators must brief visitors about not touching, collecting and stepping on marine life. There is an urgent need to address this because while previously visitors were mainly foreign divers, fast boats today bring in loads of day trippers. Being mostly poor swimmers or inexperienced snorkellers, they trample on corals.
Also, will relocating resorts to other islands be merely shifting Sipadan’s woes elsewhere? Mabul, 15 minutes away, is not that much bigger than Sipadan and already has three resorts.
All efforts to keep Sipadan pristine would be pointless if silty and polluted run-offs continue to wash into the sea from the mainland.
“This problem has not really been addressed but it may well have led to a deterioration in water quality. If so, it will impact reef health. Some dive operators say water visibility has declined,” says Wood.
Aw points out that the well-being of reef systems in the vicinity contributes to the health of Sipadan but little is done to educate local communities. The Bajau Laut (sea gypsies) settlers in Mabul, for instance, dump everything into the sea.
Some believe Sipadan could support a single small, well-run lodge for overnight accommodation. Borneo Diver’s Lee says the consortium had submitted a development and management plan a few years ago at the state’s request. The plan suggested a consolidation of all operators into one “integrated resort.” State authorities did not respond to the plan. This proposal merits consideration. After all, one reason for the current piecemeal development on Sipadan is because there are six operators, all doing their own thing.
The dive operators, meanwhile, want more talks with state authorities to clarify the many uncertainties, such as the management of dives and day visits. They also seek state assistance to relocate elsewhere. “Ultimately, we have to sell other dive destinations to take away the impact of diving from Sipadan,” says Datuk Douglas Primus, managing director of Sipadan Dive Centre.
Both state and federal authorities remain tight-lipped about the future of the island, apart from announcing aims for a World Heritage Site listing. Sipadan is also likely to be designated a marine reserve under Sabah Parks. Its deputy director Paul Basintal says a research and display centre is likely to be set up. He says initial steps will be to restore the island’s vegetation, clear all rubbish in the interiors and remove domestic animals.
Wood says the Sabah Parks, reef biologists, dive operators and other stakeholders need to work together to produce a conservation management plan that will promote recovery and prevent further damage.
She urges for a survey into the effect of vegetation removal and disturbance. A population census should be taken of the coconut crab (Birgus latro)which is under threat in many localities elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. At present nothing is known of the status of this species at Sipadan. There is also a need to clarify the status of other endangered species such as the rare Nicobar pigeon.
Whatever plans the Government has, one good thing is that they will start on a clean slate. If in the past the island’s disputed status posed a dilemma, there are no excuses this time for not doing things right since Sipadan is now rightfully Malaysia’s. But this island is just a dot in the vast ocean, certainly too tiny to withstand years of wanton exploitation in the name of earning tourist dollars and yen.