As the only oceanic island in the whole of Malaysia, Sipadan is famed for its unparalleled underwater beauty. Today, it is one of the top five dive destinations in the world, but it faced great adversities before becoming the paradise that it is today.
Before Sipadan became known as a dive destination, its beaches were clean, the water was pristine, and marine life thrived. A group of divers visited its waters for the first time, and upon dipping their heads under the water, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“I thought I was diving in an aquarium!” Clement Lee, co-founder of Borneo Divers exclaimed. “We must have found our future, our future in Sipadan.”
THE PIONEERS OF SIPADAN ISLAND
Borneo Divers, founded by Clement Lee, Randy Davis, the late Ron Holland, and Samson Shak, moved to Sipadan Island. At this time, dynamiting was damaging the corals and reef walls of Sipadan, but thankfully, this stopped when Borneo Divers arrived.
“When the last ocean is abused and poisoned, the last coral devastated and damaged, and the last fish eaten, you will find that money cannot be eaten”
CAPTAIN JACQUES COUSTEAU
Almost by chance, the late Captain Jacques Cousteau visited Sipadan after his ship accidentally sailed into its waters. Upon seeing Sipadan’s beauty, Cousteau asked his crew to film the island, thereafter producing the documentary Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle. It was after this visit that Captain Cousteau said the now-famous quote, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now, no more. Now, we have found again an untouched piece of art. “
Thanks to Cousteau’s visit to Sipadan, the island became a popular dive destination. There were now six operators on the island, with 300 to 400 people occupying it.
The human pressure on the island was tremendous, as not all dive operators were adopting sustainable measures. Dives were held day and night, giving the marine flora and fauna little to no time to recuperate.
SIPADAN GIVEN TO MALAYSIA
Meanwhile, the island was at the centre of a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia. An adjudication before the International Court of Justice awarded the island to Malaysia, together with Ligitan island.
REQUEST TO VACATE
With this verdict, the Sabah state government asked all dive operators to vacate the island after requests for something to be done about the degrading reefs.
SIPADAN WAS VACATED
On December 31, 2004, Sipadan was vacated and the operating resorts moved to the neighbouring islands of Mabul and Kapalai, where the resorts would conduct day trips to Sipadan.
GET A PERMIT
Now under Sabah Parks, a permit system was imposed, allowing only a maximum of 120 divers per day. These 120 permits were divided among 12 registered operators. Night dives were completely banned to allow the marine life to recuperate and rest at night.
ALEXANDRA COUSTEAU VISITS SIPADAN
Eight years after Sipadan was vacated, Alexandra Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s granddaughter, visited the island on her travels as a National Geographic explorer. Comparing what she saw to the scenes in the documentary created by her late grandfather, she remarked, “[Sipadan] is still the same [now] as it was then. The abundance is still as it was then. It is indeed the most beautiful place I have been [to]. It is 10 out of 10. It is really a revelation... I have never seen so many healthy corals, so many turtles and so many fishes.”
ABOVE: A bird’s-eye view of Sipadan island, Dr Michael WongIMAGE:OPPOSITE PAGE TOP: Clement meeting the late Jacques CousteauFrom left to right: Datuk Yeo Boon Hai, Clement Lee, Jacques Cousteau, Randy Davis and Sasom ShakOPPOSITE PAGE BOTTOM:
TOP LEFT: Clement Lee exploring the waters of Sipadan islandTOP MIDDLE: Borneo Divers now conducts day trips to SipadanTOP RIGHT: Clement and Alexandra Cousteau when she visited the islandLEFT: A group of divers preparing to enter the waters of Sipadan before it was vacated