The islands and reefs of northwest Borneo are home to some of the most complex and beautiful marine environments in the world. Simon Christopher argues that only a radical conservation plan can preserve the reefs for future generations.
Sipadan’s fame peaked in 1997, with six flourishing dive centres on the island and many more divers coming from two popular resorts on nearby Mabul. I distinctly remember my dismay while on a video dive on New Year’s Day of that year, when 19 dive boats jockeyed for position above Barracuda Point [Sipadan’s most popular dive, named after the resident schooling chevron barracuda]. The following year, the Malaysian authorities decided to limit the number of visitors to 80 at any one time.
Part of the problem was that Sipadan was in no-man’s land. With Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia all claiming the island, nothing concrete could be done to protect it until the International Court of Justice finally established ownership. This came in 2003, when the court decided that Malaysia should continue to govern and protect the island. Now the Malaysian authorities are taking stock of what has been entrusted to their care. Jacques Cousteau once described the island of Sipadan as ‘an untouched jewel’, but his praise does not hold true today. Roughly 80 per cent of the reefs in Southeast Asia are under threat today, and the reef surrounding Sipadan is one of them.
On land, there are scars from the many years of unregulated use by tour groups. Underwater, despite the abundance of fish life that can still be found, both the health of the reef and the water quality have deteriorated dramatically.
Heading out towards Sipadan from the coastal town of Semporna, you come to Mabul, a small island covered in coconut palms. For years it was disregarded, but with the advent of muck diving, it began to find fame as one of the world’s best spots for critter hunting. If one dive site epitomises Mabul, it is ‘Paradise’, the area in front of a resort jetty. Jumping gobies make their homes just metres from the wooden jetty, and hiding in the seagrass nearby are harlequin ghost pipefish, filefish, gobies, jawfish and cuttlefish. New species are being discovered here all the time.
Sabah’s population has boomed over recent decades, placing additional pressures on local resources. In addition to gross over-harvesting carried out by commercial fisheries, destructive techniques such as the use of explosives and cyanide are often employed. I had the misfortune of experiencing the effects of bomb fishing at an island close to Sipadan. I will never forget the crack of the fuse, immediately followed by the blast, which reverberated through my chest and eardrums. While Mabul and Kapalai have not escaped the curse, the presence of dive resorts on Sipadan may well have saved the island’s rich fish life from being blasted into oblivion and the reef from being transformed into a rubble desert.
This low-lying sandbar lies 13km from mainland Sabah and is part of the extensive Ligitan reef system that extends outwards into the Celebes Sea. Now only visible during low tides, the 300m-long ‘island’ provides a platform for a resort constructed on wooden stilts. As with Mabul, it has a great dive under its jetty, where rare blue-ringed octopus can be seen. Soft corals and hydroids dominate the reef slope, but those with a keen eye will be able to find frogfish and the sought-after flamboyant cuttlefish, with their elaborate, changing body patterns.
But of all the threats to Sabah’s reefs, the most significant comes from onshore activities, particularly sedimentation from logging work and pollution associated with industry, agriculture and urban development. Comparing the clear waters around Sipadan in the early days with the poor visibility we often encounter today, the effects of both pollution and sedimentation are blatantly obvious.
Ultimately, Sipadan and its nearby islands need to be protected by a national park system, with reliable teams of rangers, security personnel and a network of scientific bases run by local and international experts.
In a thriving park, the income generated by tourism provides a strong incentive for further commercial development. Only those dive centres and hotels, which can prove themselves to be environmentally sustainable should be permitted to operate within such a park. Conservation courses, reef-monitoring schemes, beach clean-ups and coral-planting activities could be made to be a part of the resorts’ weekly agenda. Effort should also be made to develop a greater understanding of coral reefs among local communities. Perhaps with time, such a strategy could be extended to cover much of Sabah’s coastline. For this to be realistic, strict new legislation and the appropriate funding to protect the coastline will be necessary.
Sipadan is Malaysia’s only oceanic island, with sheer dramatic walls dropping 600m to the sea bed. At both the northern and southernmost points, the reef has a more gradual slope, the result of a continuous battle between coral growth and erosion during the two monsoon seasons. The island is thought to have started life as a sea mount produced by a volcanic event millions of years ago. With each eruption, the undersea mountain slowly grew towards the surface, eventually reaching the shallows where coral could develop. The most popular creatures at Sipadan are the sea turtles, which can still be seen in large numbers on nearly every dive. They have become so used to divers that they can be approached very closely, giving an unparalleled chance to observe these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Our favourite dive sites are Barracuda Point and South Point, both of which have strong currents running around the reef. At these sites, you are more likely to encounter visiting oceanic species, along with the resident schooling barracuda and jacks.
*Extracted from Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai: Sahab's Underwater Treasure ISBN: 9838120944. £35 plus p&p, www.scubazoo.com