Sipadan the problems
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A little over ten years ago, Jacques Cousteau announced to the world that he had finally discovered paradise: 'I saw other places like Sipadan 45 years ago - now we have another untouched piece of art,' he enthused. Today, Cousteau's jewel is looking tarnished. As more and more dive centres crowded on to the tiny island, attempts to control the expansion in the Malaysian courts floundered and many feared paradise was about to be lost. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Malaysian authorities moved last month and announced draconian new regulations to control dive tourism on the island. However, the problem is far from solved. Simon Rogerson reports

This summer saw the opening of Sipadan's sixth dive centre, the culmination of a trend that has created a massive increase in the number of divers there. The one kilometre square island's tiny jungle, set aside in the 1930s as a habitat for rare birdlife, has been gradually eaten into in order to accommodate more guesthouses, resort workers and electricity generators. Turtles have been finding it increasingly hard to find nesting spots amid the sun loungers and volleyball courts.

Scuba tourism is still relatively new to Sipadan, and only really took hold in the early 1990s. Since the 1930s, the island has been listed as a bird sanctuary, but few realised its underwater potential until the explorer and entrepreneur Ron Holland led a pioneering expedition there in 1984. Today, hundreds of divers return to Sipadan time after time, convinced that its diving experience cannot be equalled. Despite its inaccessible location off Borneo's northeast coast, there are plenty of divers willing to make the trip. It is particularly popular with the Japanese, for whom the Borneo region is as accessible as the Egyptian Red Sea is to European divers.

According to the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), Sipadan's environment should only have to tolerate about 60 - 90 divers at a time, but resident divemasters say the real figure has been more like 250, swelling to 350 when boats from a resort on nearby Mabul Island descend on the two most popular sites, South Point and Barracuda Point. The overcrowding means that Sipadan suffers from three times as much litter and sewage as it can cope with naturally, three times as much coral damage and three times as many boats negotiating the precious reef and diminishing the beaches. There's also the question of increased pumping from the island's well: at the time of writing, Borneo Divers was the only centre transporting water from the mainland.

We know from bitter experience in Hurghada how large numbers of undisciplined divers can damage coral and dissuade pelagic creatures from visiting dive sites. Sipadan is tiny compared to the sites around Hurghada, so even a relatively small number of tourists and their attendant mess could upset the fragile ecosystem. In one 25-minute walk around the island, I came across far more rubbish - crisp packets, plastic bottles, discarded suntan oil containers - than I could fit into a large bag. Garbage boats transport most of the rubbish to the mainland, but some of the newer centres on the island are not bothering to pay to have their rubbish shipped out.

At the root of these problems is the thorny issue of ownership: Sipadan is in an area where the borders of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia intersect. The International Court of Justice is soon to announce which country it believes should be the rightful owner of Sipadan, but the lengthy claims process has been held up by the Indonesian government, which has been slow to submit its paperwork. In a tiger economy such as Malaysia, the urge to make money cannot be underestimated, and as long the ownership waters remain muddied, rogue developers are free to wreak environmental havoc on the island. The recent Asian currency crash is likely to increase such pressures.

Last year, the Malaysian cabinet of Sabah formed a committee under the State Tourism and Environmental Development Ministry to oversee activities on Sipadan and its twin island, Mabul. The committee had two tasks - to exert control over further construction and reduce the number of visitors. By all accounts, it has proved ineffective in both matters.

In 1993, the state government decreed that only three dive centres should be allowed to operate on the island. This was ignored even when a local court found one of the newer centres to be operating illegally. The centre simply challenged the court's jurisdiction over the island and the ensuing legal wrangle allowed even more people to move in and cash in on the island's growing reputation as a dive destination.

Now the federal authorities have moved. From January 1 1998, only 80 divers will be allowed on the island at any one time and visits from neighbouring islands will be banned. This obviously eradicates the immediate pressures generated by the growing level of dive tourism. However, the central government has left an equally complex problem to be solved: how should those 80 tourists be shared and which of the six dive centres on the island will survive?

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