|Michael Wong first told me about Sipadan way back in the 80s. His repeated trips to Malaysias only truly oceanic island, and his photographs of that underwater paradise, resulted in a rich book of photographs - Sipadan, Borneos Underwater Paradise.
Alas, I left it until nearly the end of the century before I sampled the delights of this unique diving destination in the Celebes Sea. What I found gave me both extreme pleasure and great cause for concern.
My pleasure came from the accessibility and immense richness of the dive sites that surround Sipidan; my concern stemmed from the fact that the dive tourist industry which has mushroomed on this tiny island seems currently to be remarkably unregulated.
Pulau Sipadan is an island of only 16 hectares, covered by luxuriant and impenetrable rainforest. Enormous coconut crabs live in the trees and giant monitor lizards stalk in the undergrowth. Rare species of bird inhabit the higher branches of the trees.
The Malaysian authorities have given the terrestrial wildlife of the island protection under law. It has been a bird sanctuary since 1933, and it is forbidden to walk on the white-sand beach during the hours of darkness for fear of disturbing the territory of both nesting and hatching turtles.
A member of the local Abdillah family, originally the sole owners of the right to collect turtle eggs on the island for human consumption, now collects them for a hatchery instead.
Sipadan sits on top of a circular coral reef with a drop-off that touches the little island at only a single point. None of the dozen or so other dive sites is more than a few minutes away by boat.
Although only 20 miles from the nearest civilisation at Semporna, in Borneos Sabah, the island seems to have mainly escaped the ravages of human interference, probably because its ownership is disputed by Indonesia.
Although damaged by dynamite fishing more recently than any care to admit, the reef is mainly in good condition. However, under water you are shocked both emotionally and physically by the proximity of the explosions as the locals steadfastly destroy what they have left at nearby Mabul Island.
Sipadans few hundred schooling yellow-tailed chevron barracuda have probably enjoyed greater publicity than they should have. I have seen far greater numbers of Mediterranean barracuda schooling off the coast of Majorca!
Turtles are the star attraction of diving in Sipadan. This is the turtle capital of the world. Your first dive will probably find you very excited about meeting your first giant green turtle, bedecked with remoras, lethargically allowing you to record its portrait. Then you will see another 40 and realise that 36 frames of film in your camera are insufficient for the purposes of this exercise.
Green turtles share the water with the hawksbill, a species more commonly encountered elsewhere in the world. Shoals of batfish follow the turtles - you never see turtle excrement fouling the reef! Resting white-tip reef sharks are common.
In fact, the whole gamut of under- water life found in the Indo-Pacific Basin lives here. More than 3000 species have been recorded to date, and you will encounter everything from hammerhead sharks to the smallest and prettiest nudibranch in and around Sipadans reef.
It is an underwater photographers paradise. One roll of film is never enough for a dive and it is possible to dive six times each day. The first dive is at dawn at 6am. The next is two hours later. The third is at 11am and the fourth at 2.30pm. There is a sunset dive around 5pm, and night dives are possible.
Few divers miss the first five dives, and this regime is followed every day. Hooray for diving computers! There is a recompression chamber on the island but they are still searching for a medical crew to man it.
I remember Michael Wong enthusing that Sipadan had few currents, crystal-clear water, and everything was found in less than 15m - and he was right. It is perfect for his style of diving with multiple camera outfits. But things have moved on apace since his first visits. There is discord in paradise. Now five dive resorts sit cheek-by-jowl and snarl at each other.
Their facilities range from the basic of Borneo Divers, the first to develop the island, to the more luxurious of the newer arrivals with their en-suite facilities, efficient freshwater supplies, proper sewage systems and air-conditioning.
Whatever anyone says, and each dive resort seems to have a lot to say about the others, there is a fearsome over-capacity for visitors in a tiny and fragile environment.
I estimated that there was accommodation for around 400 guests, when even the dive resorts - in the form of Sipidan Resort Operators Consortium - have provisionally agreed that the island can stand no more than 80 divers at any one time. Sadly, it seems that each centre would like the others simply to go away rather than be reduced to a share of 15 or so guests each.
However, the Malaysian government has told the consortium that as of 1 August no more than 80 people at a time can stay overnight on Sipadan, and that visiting divers will have to get prior approval from the government through the centres.
The three operators sending divers to Sipadan from nearby Mabul would be allowed a quota of 20 people a day. these divers would not be allowed to stay overnight.
Only time will tell whether these limits will be effectively policed. When we asked a Malaysian government representative about this it was illuminating that the request for information was passed down the line and ended up with the Sipadan Resort Operators Consortium, indicating perhaps that this is seen as a case for self-regulation.
But the problem is not just in the impact the resorts have made on the environment, or the danger of rubbish polluting the area - or even the remnants of badly sited buildings destroyed by the sea. Each dive resort uses several boats powered by outboard motors of up to 400hp, and the young male drivers inevitably enjoy roaring about at high speed.
None of us would object to a little 15hp motor. After all, who really minds if the trip takes 10 minutes instead of five
However, I witnessed the distressing sight of turtles, some mortally wounded, others recovering, their shells sliced open by propellers - the direct result of this stupidity. Turtles go to the surface to breathe and take time to dip below again. They are no match for a fast-approaching boat. So if you visit Sipadan, implore your boatman to drive slowly.
Rather than racing each other, dive resorts could pool their resources by sharing boats, and thereby lessen the impact on the environment.
Visiting divers have a lot to answer for too. When you arrive, you are asked to sign a declaration that provides some protection to the underwater environment. You agree not to wear gloves and not to touch the coral or any animal. You agree to be neutrally buoyant at all times.
I wonder how many people understand the words they agree to, or do they simply prefer not to abide by them
I saw countless divers entering the water with gloved hands. I witnessed animals molested and corals smashed by both the accidental activities of poor diving technique and careless photographers who wanted to get a clearer view of another subject.
One particular poor leaf-fish, positioned in shallow water at the end of Sipadans most popular dive site, Barracuda Point, was suffering repeated poking and prodding by endless numbers of divers fascinated by such an unusual creature.
I thought if I moved it to another location it would gain respite until it was rediscovered, but then it might have lost contact with its mate, which was doubtless hiding nearby.
Our dive guide promised to show us a leopard shark and found one quietly resting on a ledge. As I carefully approached it with my camera, contemplating the best way to get up close without disturbing it, a hoard of other divers from another group raced in ahead of me and my view of the creature was reduced to a rapidly diminishing perspective as it reluctantly headed off.
We saw divers taunting octopuses and disturbing other creatures habitats by turning over rocks in their efforts to get hold of them.
On another notable occasion, as we drifted idly with a gentle current, we were overtaken by a gentleman clearly oblivious of his actions and ignorant of buoyancy control techniques. He came past us in a vertical position, tiptoeing through the coral on his fin-tips and doing endless damage.
When I gently questioned some of those staying at our resort about their actions, they seemed uncomprehending. Conservation did not seem to feature in their culture. The main culprits appeared to be Japanese, Korean and Italian. They would not survive the rigorous disciplines enforced now in many other (belatedly) conservation-minded parts of the world.
Alas, it is not in the non-confrontational nature of the local people, including the dive-guides, to remonstrate with guests who flout the rules.
Turtles are not gentle with the coral. They relish repeatedly rubbing their soft undersides on the hard corals, and some even like to roost, doing ungainly impressions of birds, in coral trees. The enormous resident herd of buffalo-like bumpheaded parrotfish crunch their way through tons of coral too. But they are locals!
Controls will inevitably push the price up, because the dive resorts must be economically viable. We have seen what cheap diving has done to the reefs around Hurghada in Egypt, and it seems that Sipadan might be heading in the same direction.
I would not deny any diver the experience of diving Sipadans unique and richly populated reef, but strict controls must be enforced or it will indeed become Borneos underwater paradise lost.
John Bantin stayed at the Abdillah Sipadan Paradise Resort and travelled courtesy of Explor - Dive the World (01752 204602). Flight connections are made through Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, via Kota Kinabalu and Tawau. Sipadan is a two-hour car ride and a two-hour boat ride beyond Tawau.
An eight-day trip costs around£1200 and may be combined with rainforest trips to see orang-utans or a diving trip to Layang Layang.
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