Sipadan Island Reef Disaster

A huge contruction barge has recently decimated one of Sipadan Island’s reefs, causing untold damage to the island’s fragile eco-system. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Willy over at Divester has done a sterling job of reporting on the recent catastrophic destruction of one of the major dive sites at Sipadan Island in Borneo, widely regarded as one of the best – if not the best – dive destination in the world. I’ve dived at Sipadan twice before and it’s heart breaking to read about the reef being destroyed like this. (See my original Sipadan Diving report).

Over the last few days, Willy’s covered the initial reports of a huge construction barge crashing into the reef alongside Sipadan’s jetty, shearing the reef to pieces and dumping tons of construction materials upon it. He’s also followed up with the crazy reasons for the barge being there and the furious reaction from Malaysian Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman, which hopefully means the construction company responsible is going to be suitably punished and the minister who authorised its presence will get sacked.

Of course, even if those responsible get reprimanded, it’s not going to bring the reef back. Besides the dubious logic of deciding to build a restaurant on Sipadan only 18 months after asking all the dive operations there to shut down so as to minimise the environmental impact, there’s also a big question mark over the Malaysian government’s own commitment to genuinely preserving its country’s spectacular dive sites rather than just treating them as a cash cow.

Divers already pay a premium to visit Sipadan and other Borneo dive destinations, and rightly so – but if this money isn’t being used to properly manage these dive sites, and the government authorises such grossly unevironmentally friendly schemes such as this restaurant, then it shows little respect for genuinely preserving Sipadan. Given that there are two other full-blown resorts only 15 minutes boat ride away from Sipadan, at Kapalai and Mabul, I simply cannot accept the necessity for a restaurant on Sipadan itself. 

From the sounds of it, the damage done at Sipadan is not something the reef will assimilate – tons of gravel have been dumped direct onto a reef, effectively smothering it.  Happily, there are plenty of other dive sites around Sipadan besides the one that the barge destroyed – but there are dark warnings that the barge’s impact might actually cause some of Sipadan’s reef to collapse.. Part of me wants to go to Sipadan to see for myself how bad the damage is, compared to the two times I’ve been there before. Part of me wants to boycott going back to Sipadan at all, because I don’t want to give my money to a government that pays a lot of lip service to protecting its dive sites but allows a catastrophe like this to occur which could have been so easily avoided.  Coral reefs around the world have enough problems already with global warming and pollution without being decimated by incidents like this.

As it stands, it may be that no one can go to Sipadan at all  – the Malaysian Government are considering closing the island to divers indefinitely while they try and clean up the mess.  How this pans out will be one to watch, but I can’t see there being much good news either for divers or for Sipadan in the near future.

You can read my other articles about Borneo Diving in the Borneo section of Divehappy.

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  1. Hey, Chris. While I question the necessity of the construction on Sipadan, it *appears* as though the Parks System was trying to make the island better. Hopefully, now they’ll realize that “better” doesn’t always mean “built-up.”

    Of course, the destuction at Sipadan was terrible, but let’s hope something good comes from it: maybe this will be a wake-up call to Malaysians, encouraging them to protect their natural resources, generally, and their reefs, specifically.