Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sipadan Island - A diver’s paradise

Sipadan is the country’s only oceanic island and the Government has taken drastic steps to protect this national treasure.

THE water around Sipadan Island in Sabah is so clear you can see happy, healthy colonies of fish, turtles, corals and other marine life in it.

But less than 10m from the shore, the turquoise water turns completely dark. The sea suddenly plunges into the dark unknown — a scary prospect for snorkellers.

But all is good. This distinct change in colour marks one of the island’s famous dive sites: The Drop-Off. It’s 600m straight to the bottom and it’s what makes Sipadan unique.

You see, Sipadan is really an underwater mountain. It is an oceanic island, which means it is not connected to any continental shelf but rises straight from the deep ocean floor.

Most of the diving done in Sipadan is wall diving where the coral reefs are vertical, not below the diver as is the case in other places.

This is a great place for divers to hone their buoyancy skills — you do not want to go below the 30-35m safety limit of recreational diving — while enjoying the scenery at the same time.

But you can’t stay on the island as it has no resorts. This has been so since 2004. Many believe that this was done for security reasons. In 2000, 21 people were taken hostage by armed gunmen on the island (they were later released unharmed).

According to Clement Lee, managing director of Borneo Divers Resort, tourists are not allowed to stay on the island because of environmental reasons. The only evidence of civilisation there is an army camp.

Borneo Divers began operation on Sipadan Island in 1983. Recreational scuba diving was virtually unheard of in Malaysia then, especially in Sabah.

“We were the pioneers in diving tourism here. It started earlier in the peninsula, at least 30-35 years ahead of us although it was very sporadic,” says Lee, who comes from Kota Kinabalu.

In 1988, maritime legend Jacques Cousteau visited Sipadan to shoot a documentary, Ghost Of The Sea Turtle.

Over a period of 20 years, however, Lee witnessed the degradation of the marine life and the environment. There were too many divers and operators, he says.

The small island could not withstand the traffic it was getting.

In the past, the island was at the centre of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. The matter was brought for adjudication before the International Court Of Justice and, at the end of 2002, the Court awarded the island (along with the island of Ligitan) to Malaysia, on the basis of the “effective occupation” displayed by the latter’s predecessor (Malaysia’s former colonial power, the United Kingdom) and the absence of any other superior title.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Sipadan Island - A diver’s paradise

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