9 Dives and a Funeral
By Jim Standing, co-founder of fourth element
Imagery by Maxime Cheminade and Por Parasu
We arrive at Sipadan island and the mood is sombre. Yesterday a ghost fishing net, lost by a fishing boat found its way to this island paradise and, despite the fact that the divers have worked every waking hour since to remove this net, it has already done its deadly work.
“We got it out before it got to the humpheads.” The relief is palpable but so is the grief. Several sharks that had been attracted by the trapped smaller fish are now lying in the holds of a couple of dive boats, in one case, alongside a turtle, trapped and drowned by the net within a matter of hours.
Men who give every impression of being toughened by life making a living out here are red-eyed: exhausted and tearful after a night working to save the fish that were still alive in the net, and to remove those not fortunate to hold out long enough. The netting sits on the jetty. Years of growth of coral is still entangled having snapped off during the net removal process. There is a strange smell in the air given that we are just entering a marine protected area and fiercely guarded national park. It’s the smell of death.
As a visitor, I’m returning to one of the locations that is writ large in my memory of diving in South East Asia in the 1990s. Just the name Sipadan invokes Captain Cousteau’s legacy and my old dive logs included a seemingly endless shoal of barracuda and more reef sharks than I was able to count. Now, with some of the team from fourth element Asia, I’m retracing my steps. And much has changed. For a start, fourth element was not even an idea back then, now it’s well known in the region as a brand, which means I have to get used to being greeted by people who know it and are fans. It’s surreal.
But it’s Semporna – the sleepy fishing village where I slept on a mattress on the floor of a tiny guesthouse 25 years earlier – that has changed the most. As we arrive at the outskirts, the golden arches of progress (McDonald’s) briefly frame the minaret of a mosque, and suddenly a hot seething mess of traffic and lights is around us. Semporna is growing: all around there is construction taking place and buildings topping 10 storeys high are not uncommon on the seafront. If you can find the seafront that is. Urban sprawl takes on a new meaning here as it is hard to tell where buildings erected on land give way to the stilted houses and other construction that extend out over the sea. My first thought is how vulnerable this kind of living, literally off the coast, must be, to rising sea levels and other climate events.
Semporna is the launching point for divers headed to Mabul Island, Kapalai resort and of course, Sipadan, a tiny emerald dot in an ocean of blue. As such it has developed as a diving destination like no other. It feels like there is a dive shop on every corner along with many dive hotels, and down on the jetties, the familiar ring of diving cylinders being loaded onto boats competes with the engine noises and shouting of the fisherman as they head in and out to seek their living. Everyone who lives here needs the sea but everyone I speak to accepts that there is a problem.
Plastic, probably the most visible of our anthropogenic waste is everywhere: washed up on every inch of the shore, sometimes piled there, precariously, awaiting what I am not sure, but it feels like it’s destined to be in the sea again, soon. A slick of Styrofoam lunch containers and empty plastic bottles and bags covers patches of the sea. This was never supposed to be like this. Not here.
Our hotel is right by the jetty – an ingenious aggregation of shipping containers converted into small but comfortable apartments. Modest, but clean, comfortable, and a world apart from the mattress on the floor of a quarter of a century ago. It seems almost perfectly set up for divers, a stone’s throw from Semporna’s main jetty and the next morning we stroll to the dive shop at 7am to head for Sipadan. Everyone is full of anticipation as we begin the journey courtesy of Global Sipadan Dive Adventures, especially as we leave the hustle and bustle of the Semporna docks behind. Our skipper, who introduces himself to me as “Asia” has to slow down a few times to avoid hitting plastic waste which has accumulated in patches on the surface of the ocean. In fact, when we slow down, I have the resolution to distinguish white and transparent items all over the surface of the sea, some diffuse, some densely packed, bottles and polystyrene chunks, the flotsam and jetsam of a society addicted to plastic.
As we get further offshore, Sipadan comes into view. Popularised as a diving destination in 1987 by none other than Jacques Cousteau, who declared it the number one dive site in the world, it has been a mecca for many. As we step off the boat onto the jetty to register (a means of limiting the number of visitors) I am struck by how little it has changed in a quarter of a century – there’s a handful of simple buildings in a clearing in the trees – in fact, as visitors are no longer allowed to stay on the island, as I had done previously, the place feels quieter, if anything less developed than 25 years ago, and my anticipation grows. Our first dive site is Barracuda Point. In most other diving spots, a site named after an animal seems to almost guarantee its absence. Here however, as we splash into the water, we are greeted by the sight of a huge shoal of the wolves of the sea, sleek, seemingly motionless in the water and yet simultaneously enveloping us. Within a minute we are surrounded by hundreds of fish, all of them watching us with their oversized eyes. A few minutes later we have drifted away from the point and the barracuda disperse before regrouping further away and we turn our attention to the reef. Beautiful corals, host to thousands of fish, create the landscape as we dive through a giant aquarium, with the occasional white tip shark and numerous turtles. Sipadan has not disappointed. Perhaps there aren’t as many fish as 25 years ago, certainly there are fewer sharks, but the magic is still here, reinforced by the gang of humphead wrasse patrolling the shallows, chewing coral and leaving trails of sand in their wake.
The rest of the day involves diving in these rich waters amongst jacks and countless turtles, through vibrant coral gardens and across colonies of garden eels. Sipadan, whilst perhaps not the pristine wonderland I remember from the 90s, is still one of the jewels in the crown of South East Asia’s top diving spots.
So it is, after a second day diving sites at nearby Kapalai and Mabul, watching mantis shrimp defend their burrows and spying nudibranchs of all colours amongst the reef regeneration projects and artificial reefs, that we head back to Sipadan in anticipation of another day of big animal encounters and the chance to step back in time, just a little, into a simpler world. But it is not to be…something is very wrong.
On the boat on the way out, there is some discussion of a Ghost Net that has washed up on Sipadan and as we pull close to the jetty, there are a few dive boats with no divers on board. At the top of the jetty is a pile of netting, already attracting a cloud of flies that disperses as we approach to see its grisly catch. Staghorn and similar coral formations have snapped off in the net and the smell reveals that it’s not just coral which has found its end here. As we look at the net, we are approached by a few of the local dive guides and other divers who it turns out have been working for the last 10 hours to clear the net. They are exhausted.
One of the men, Roihan Han, is introduced to me as someone who literally grew up on Sipadan. His father ran a dive business, Uncle Changs, one of the original operations serving the island. Roihan first played here when he was 2 years old, swam here when he was 4 and dived here not much older than that. This island has been his life and his livelihood and the distress is clearly etched on his face as he explains. “We got the net out before the bumpheads got caught, but many sharks and a turtle weren’t so lucky.” Another member of his group, Maxime Cheminade inclines his head towards one of the diverless boats. “They are in there”. We step onto the edge of the boat to see several white tip sharks lined up along the lower deck along with rubbish sacks containing other dead fish. A huge Green Turtle rests on a bench at the back of the boat, only it’s not resting. The size of this animal somehow reflects the enormity of this event for Sipadan, and I can feel my emotions rising.
“We are going to return the turtle to the turtle cave under the island. Want to join us?” Our first dive of the day will be to accompany the team of divers as they conduct a small funeral ceremony for the turtle. They attach a lift bag to help control the turtle’s descent to the mouth of the cave, before they plan to swim the animal into the cavern under the island known as the Turtle Caves or Catacombs, depending on who you ask. This team of divers it turns out is mapping this cave and documenting the many turtle skeletons found within. It seems that turtles sometimes enter the cave at night and get disorientated, drowning before they can find their way out again. The result is a macabre scene of many skeletons littering the cave floor but it gives the impression of a turtle graveyard. The divers are not only documenting the skeletons but also producing a map of the cave system that runs below the island and this project has attracted leading divers and instructors from outside Sabah including Por Parasu Komaradat, a cave instructor and head of IANTD Thailand. As chance would have it, this experienced team was on hand to remove over 900m of net from the reef quickly and safely in a matter of just a few hours. Without them, it would have been much worse.
Watching the team enter the cave with the turtle suspended between them, is really moving, and it is clear that everyone in my dive group is feeling the same way. We linger by the cave entrance until we see the lights of the divers turn and head out again, before we continue along the beautiful coral wall, even more mindful of the fragility of it all.
Suddenly we are beset on all sides by turtles. One swoops down in front of me, looks at me and then swims alongside me for a minute or two, brushing a pectoral fin against my arm with every stroke. I try to edge away, but am sandwiched between the turtle and the coral wall. Meanwhile, more just seem to appear from above and below us, and a melancholic dive has been transformed into something altogether more joyful. It is a welcome respite as when we return from this dive to the island, more of the net has been brought out onto the jetty and the smell of death has increased. As we wait out our surface interval, a couple of rangers are picking up some rubbish on the beach and my feeling of impotence gives way to something more determined. I grab a black rubbish bag and head to the shoreline. I angrily fill the bag with plastic bottles and Styrofoam pieces and after 10 minutes the bag is full. I look along the beach and realise what a futile gesture it was and turn back towards the jetty, to discover another 10 divers all with bag in hand, filling them with plastic too. Maybe it’s not completely trivial after all….
As we get ready for the second dive of the day, Angela, my buddy, and the Director of Fourth Element Asia is looking pensive. “This,” she says gesturing to the diveboat with its cargo of sharks, the nets on the jetty and the pile of rubbish bags. “This gives different purpose to going diving.” We roll off the side of the boat and are again immersed in the clear blue waters and greeted by the huge shoal of Jacks which hover above the reef. Today, it’s obvious that we all look that little bit more closely than two days earlier and as their silvery bodies surround us, I find myself trying to take it all in, to commit this to memory, just in case…. An eel garden becomes an opportunity to watch from afar rather than enjoy the Mexican-wave style disappearance and re-appearance as we pass, and each turtle encounter, and there are many, is treasured.
In the second surface interval, as soon as lunch is finished, I grab another bin liner and head to the tideline. From the footprints in the sand, it’s clear that others have already cleared this patch of beach so I head further round the island. The grim reality is that the sea will proffer up a small part of its plastic load with each wave that laps the shore, so there is still plenty to collect. The other members of our group have also spread out and again filled bags with bottles and various pieces of plastic and I think we all take a little solace from the fact that between us, we have removed a few kilos, and it was so simple. It’s a tiny amount of course, but my mind keeps turning the same mantra over and over – what if everyone did this between dives? By collective action, we can all make a difference – it is not just about Ghost Net removal.
The last dive of our trip is a return to Barracuda point, and the relief of seeing the shoal swirling close by is again palpable amongst our group. The corals show off their colours in the shallows and at the end of this dive, I feel slightly healed from the emotions of earlier in the day and emboldened by the knowledge that what fourth element and other organisations in diving are trying to achieve is worth it. It can make a difference.
Later that evening, we discover that this event has precipitated policy change regarding Sipadan in order to provide better protection for the island. Inexperienced divers will not be permitted to dive here to ensure that the fragile corals and the seabed are less vulnerable, and diver numbers and the number of dives are to be restricted. I can sense the dissonance in the minds of our guides and friends who make a living working here; on the one hand, they recognise that it is good for Sipadan whilst on the other, it makes it harder for them to sell trips to this island and make a living. The Malaysian Authorities have also set out plans to establish a response team to be better trained and ready to deal with ghost net events in future. It all feels like the right thing to do to preserve this little patch of paradise to protect it from the worst that we humans can throw at it. Will it be enough? I for one hope so, because already, I cannot wait to return.