FiNS Blog: Sipadan – Tragic Incident

FiNS Magazine Associate Editors Andrea and Antonella Ferrari and authors of A Diving Guide, Malaysia – An Underwater Paradise and A Diver’s Guide To Underwater Malaysia Macrolife, who were diving in Sipadan posted a blog on May 16, 2006:

…We fully and enthusiastically embraced the recent removal of dive resorts from Sipadan, as well as the regulation of the number of divers visiting its fragile ecosystem. No more crowded dive resorts on the island, no more garbage, no more lamented environmental damage, fewer divers in the water — it all truly sounded as if a safe future had at last been secured for Sipadan.

Well, I’m sitting here with tears of rage and frustration in my eyes like many other fellow divers today after having witnessed a major and unexpected — but sadly very foreseeable — man-made disaster which struck Sipadan’s reefs last night.

An enormous steel barge carrying thousands of tonnes of coarse gravel, sand, steel tubes, iron mesh, prime movers, a large bulldozer and a gigantic crane — which had incredibly been allowed to anchor right in front of Sipadan’s legendary dropoff before unloading its cargo on the supposedly protected island — was pushed against the reef by wind, ending up beached on the island like some monstrous whale. In the process of being beached, the barge scraped clean thousands of years of nature’s delicate work between the old pier and Barracuda Point. The barge’s flat steel hull wiped corals away like a giant knife slicing through butter, leaving in its wake hundreds of square metres of unnaturally flat limestone, and a veritable wall of coral and debris piled up against the beach.

The damage is incalculable — one of Sipadan’s most precious and beloved spots, well-known the world over, is no more, transformed by a single inexplicable act of human carelessness into a grisly mass of broken and pulverised corals, shredded turtles and mounds of grey gravel suffocating what little is left of the legendary dropoff.

I can only hope nature will be able to mend this terrifying gash, but it will surely take decades or hundreds of years. In the meantime, an international beacon for conservation has been irretrievably and hideously wounded.

We all know that accidents at sea can and do happen. But I’d like — as a passionate diver, an environmentalist, a humble journalist, and last but not least as an undisputed lover of Malaysia’s natural heritage — to have a few of my questions answered.

·     Why was that enormous, slow-moving, unmanageable barge allowed to anchor at Sipadan?

·     What was it doing there in the first place when divers aren’t even allowed to wear gloves in order to avoid damaging fragile corals?

·     Why are enormous quantities of building materials are being unloaded on Sipadan even as I write these words? What is being built there?

·     And, if anything had to be built, why not use wood, as has always been the case until now? Do we really want tonnes of rotting, cracking concrete and rusting metal on Sipadan’s supposedly pristine beaches?

·     Such large amounts of building material will surely necessitate the cutting down of many trees and the clearing of a large swath of the island forest. What is the point in kicking the dive resorts off the island and limiting the number of divers (while asking divers to pay a hefty daily fee to dive there) if such a grotesque accident is allowed to happen?

·     Where were the staff who were stationed on the island when this all happened?

·     The bottom line — why was this horrifying incident allowed to build up over the course of at least three days and finally happen?

These are the questions the hundreds of divers coming to visit their beloved Sipadan daily would like to have answered now — not to point fingers or to mend the irreparable damage, but to avoid the repetition of such absurd and easily avoidable disasters in the future.

But yet again, these are only words of frustration and pain — the simple fact, the only bare truth, is that those unique, world-famous, spectacularly beautiful coral gardens of Sipadan’s dropoff are no more…lost forever.

And the startling image of dozens of huge, once-proud giant triggerfish, hovering lost and miserable in the blue after having lost their nests, looking to one other as if seeking comfort, will haunt my memories for a long, long time.