Friday, November 19, 2004

Sipadan operators must vacate by year-end

The New Straits Times reports that the Malaysian government has turned down a request from diving resort operators to be allowed to stay on Sipadan island for another year.

The five operators on the island are Borneo Divers, Sipadan Dive Centre, Pulau Sipadan Resort, Abdillah Sipadan Paradise and Sipadan Lodge.

It was learnt that the five dive operators had, through their lawyers, asked for the extension in September, citing the need for more time to relocate.

For the uninitiated, Sipadan Island is listed among the world's top 10 diving destinations. It is also a nesting spot for turtles and a transit point for migratory birds.

Sipadan was thrust into the limelight when members of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group kidnapped 21 people, including 10 foreign tourists, from the island in April 2000.

The island was also a subject of dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia until the International Court of Justice ruled on Dec 17, 2002 that the island belonged to Malaysia.

The Dec 31 deadline remains for the five operators to vacate the popular diving destination. The Government will allow only day trips from Jan 1 next year and only 80 visitors at a time.

The decision is expected to strengthen the Government's application for the island to be listed as a world heritage site by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

But eighty divers at a time? Hmmm, how do they calculate this? Is it, eighty divers at any one time?

To the extent of my knowledge, besides the five operators in Sipadan, there are two in Mabul (not counting Borneo Divers twice), one each at Kapalai, Lankayan, and Roach Reef, making a total of ten operators.

This does not include other operators such as in Mataking. And how about the many liveaboards that come plying around the waters of Sipadan?

Now, imagine the quota of eighty divers at one time. How will the rangers (I believe Sabah Parks, the relevant authority, will put some at Sipadan) monitor the numbers? How will the operators 'share' these numbers among themselves?

The recent tragedy of the two Japanese dive instructors in Cebu has prompted the Philippine government to launch a team of "scuba cops" to watch the protected marine areas in the Philippines.

Will Sabah Parks install a similar team of "scuba cops" to check the diver quota as well as to patrol the vicinity for foul play?

Also, imagine the operators relocating to other islands like Mabul. (Borneo Divers have already done so).

Then, visualize the morning rush hour from these islands to Sipadan to catch the bumpheads cruising, and the reverse afternoon rush hour back to the islands.

Plus, as commented by one veteran diver I talked to, the effect on the water table of Mabul Island for example, if and when the operators come ashore.

It is good news that Sipadan gets cleared up.

High time, I must say.

But at the same time, I hope that the other islands, especially beautiful Mabul, will not become over-burdened with accommodating too many operators.