By Nashir Mansor
SEMPORNA: "Moving out from Sipadan Island was a painful sacrifice. We not only lost millions of Ringgit but lost many of our customers as well," said Borneo Divers managing director, Clement Lee.
This was his spontaneous response when asked about his feeling after Clement and other dive resort operators were asked to vacate Sipadan Island in 2004, after occupying it for about 10 years.
The directive from the state government came about after the marine environment and underwater habitat of the 12-hectare Sipadan Island National Park was adversely affected by human activities.
Construction of physical infrastructure such as resorts and other facilities to meet the increasing demand from divers from all over the world at the end endangered the fragile marine ecosystem around the park.
The most apparent decline was the number of marine species, which were abundant around the island when the place was first explored by Borneo Divers in 1993.
However, Clement who pioneered the diving industry in Sipadan Island in 1994 and other dive operators have no regret over their decision to cooperate with the authorities.
Limiting activities within Sipadan
"So we left, thinking that we were doing the right thing and investing in our future," said Clement, adding that had they continued their stay on Sipadan, the destruction could have been worse.
After vacating the island, they continued with diving activities there but kept strictly to the regulations introduced by the government, including limiting the number of divers to the park to 120 compared with the unlimited numbers previously.
After moving out, Clement opened a dive resort on 2.6 hectares of land in Mabul Island, located about 15 minutes away from Sipadan by speed boat.
The sacrifice by Clement and other dive operators has significantly changed Sipadan, as researches found that the marine life there has regenerated fast and the underwater environment has improved tremendously.
"After seven years the marine life there has improved. What I had seen before, I see it now again. I can compare the past and present. I have seen the good signs for sure," said Clement based on his and his diving friends' observations on Sipadan.
Sipadan has been rejuvenated
A research team headed by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu's Marine Science Department lecturer Dr Juanita Joseph found significant improvements in the marine ecosystem around Sipadan.
According to Dr Joseph, the presence of more young turtles indicated the rise in the turtle population in Sipadan over the last five years.
This is proven throughout the 2010 Sipadan Island Marine Park scientific expedition, where between 50 and 60 turtles could be seen within a day in the feeding area.
Echoing the findings, Irwan Ishak, a researcher from Sabah Parks, said the return of the young turtles to the island correlated with the rising numbers of seaweed species that the turtles feed on.
During the expedition, the researchers lzo found two species of the threatened Humphead Wrasse and Humphead Parrotfish, known as maming and kat respectively in the local language, thriving in the waters of Sipadan.
Dr Mabel Manjaji from Universiti Malaysia Sabah found overwhelming numbers of coral groupers, a clear indication of a healthy coral ecosystem. The presence of schools of barracuda, jackfish and humphead parrot fish indicate that things have improved compared with five years ago.
The bigger picture
As for Clement and other dive operators, they not only vacated the island but also helped to divert tourists' attention to other diving spots like Mabul, Bohey Dulang, Kapalai, Pompom, Mataking and others to lessen the pressure on Sipadan.
On the future of dive industry around Sipadan and other islands in Semporna, Clement remarked that the industry's sustainability would depend highly on professional human resources and the preservation of the natural marine environment.
"The marine environment is our partner, their well being decides on our revenue and our customers," said Clement. -- Bernama