The impacts of unchecked human development and carelessness are painfully noticeable all over our planet from pollution to deforestation to climate change, but in few places is it more obvious than on and around islands turned tourist destinations. The island of Sipadan, a haven for marine life off the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is a classic example of what only a couple decades of heavy popularity can do to a once-pristine ocean paradise. What is not so typical about this island is its story of recovery by way of bold and conservation-minded government action when it would have been much easier to ignore the problem and deal with the repercussions later, an apathetic response that is far too common an ending to other tales with a similar plot.
The view of Mabul from the dive boat. Photo by Alex Rose
Dive trips to Sipadan were available as early as 1983, but it was not until Jacques Cousteau exposed the world to this island’s underwater beauty in his 1989 film “Borneo: Ghost of the Sea Turtle,” that dive tourism truly took hold. Within one year after announcing Sipadan as an “untouched piece of art,” this living marine art gallery had already begun its rapid trajectory of decline to join the long list of island paradises turned paradise lost. Five large resorts crowded Sipadan’s narrow northern beach, bringing in as many tourists as accommodations would allow, and putting out unsustainable levels of human pollution from this tiny island barely half a kilometer long and 200 meters wide.
Walking out of the water onto Sipadan island. Photo by Alex Rose
Conservationists soon began to notice and actively monitor reef degradation around the island, and it was apparent that careless divers and snorkelers were seriously damaging reefs, and that the heavy boat traffic stirred up too much silt, choking and further harming the corals. The untreated waste coming from the overcrowded resorts oozed into the sea, releasing harmful amounts of algae-promoting nutrients into the water and allowing the already compromised corals to be overgrown by aggressive nuisance algae. As if these factors were not bad enough, Sipadan was hit by tropical storm Greg in 1996, a typhoon that destroyed some of the shallow reef systems and stirred up even more silt that smothered the reefs. 1998 saw record high water temperatures that brought about a coral bleaching event, and the area’s stressed corals didn’t rebound the way they would have if the ecosystem had been healthy. All of this bad news threatening the natural beauty of this huge tourist draw, prompted the Malaysian government to set restrictions on the number of tourists allowed to visit Sipadan, but these limits were never observed or enforced, and the reefs continued to decline. Ongoing disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia over territorial ownership prevented either country from doing much to protect Sipadan, until it officially became part of Malaysia in 2002. Change was finally on the horizon.
Kids collecting sea creatures for dinner at low tide. Photo by Alex Rose
2004 was the year everything turned around for Sipadan. At the recommendation of marine conservationists all over the world, the Malaysian government ordered every resort to leave Sipadan and relocate off the island by the end of the year. This time their declaration was not just an empty threat, and Sipadan was soon devoid of resorts. Mabul and Kapalai, being the land masses closest to Sipadan, became the new locations for resorts, and the dive business in Semporna, one of the eastern most districts of Malaysian Borneo, grew quickly. By 2005, Sipadan had become Sipadan Island Marine Park under the authority of the National Security Council, and only 120 visitors were allowed to purchase permits to visit and dive the island daily. Since then all lodging and diving restrictions have been enforced, showing that Malaysia is committed to protecting Sipadan and restoring its reefs, efforts that are certainly paying off. Reef health has drastically improved and divers continue flocking to Sipadan to view firsthand the effective conservation measures and restored natural beauty of this priceless marine ecosystem.
The view of Mabul from the dive boat. Photo by Alex Rose
While this story of conservation apparently prevailing over greed is an inspirational one that will hopefully be repeated in locations suffering from similar troubles all over the world, it must be mentioned that this success has not come without a cost. Sipadan’s neighboring island of Mabul and the town of Semporna in the coastal district of Tawau (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo), have had to accommodate the region’s growing tourist activities, and they certainly have not remained unaffected. Semporna is stiflingly hot and overcrowded, with a waterline that resembles a garbage dump. Huts on stilts along the shore cater to divers promising to take them to the sparkling seas surrounding Sipadan Island where they will be far away from the fouled water of Semporna’s coastline covered in a film of human pollution and boat effluent. Mabul has been called the “sacrifice area” that was used to save Sipadan, and it does not require much imagination to see why. The small island of Mabul is only 15 kilometers away from Sipadan and is now home to seven large dive resorts punctuated by nine smaller dive lodges; the most expansive resort there covers nearly 20% of the island. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where waste management and pollution mitigation for this many resorts could possibly be managed without negative ecosystem impacts even on islands far larger than Mabul, but at least the current situation underwater is better than it was on Sipadan.
A storm of barracuda crowding one of Sipadan’s reefs. Photo by Alex Rose
Part II of this look into Sipadan’s story will explore the amazing world under the waves surrounding this island. It certainly doesn’t look like an area that until 20 years was unprotected and had essentially become a dump for the dirty human excesses associated with tourism. Sipadan’s healthy reefs are a testament to the power of Marine Protected Areas protected with strong government regulations and law enforcement. With heaps of macro life complemented by more wide-angle photography opportunities than I could have hoped for, it is a diverse reef ecosystem that I’ll be taking a closer look at in the next article.
Alex Rose holds a B.S. in biology and a M.S. in aquatic biology, and she has a wide variety of experience in the biological sciences, including bioacoustics research, exhibit construction, science writing, teaching, public presentation, and aquatic animal husbandry and breeding. Alex is a professional violinist, photographer, PADI divemaster and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s marine habits through diving, writing, education and research. Visit her website at alexroserenaissance.com. You can also read more on the Sustainable Reefkeeping page.