New Resort Accused of Threatening Malaysia’s Top Dive Spot

KUALA LUMPUR ~ An oceanarium resort planned near the world-famous Sipadan diving spot off Malaysian Borneo could spell disaster for the region’s delicate coral reefs, environmentalists say.

The plan for the huge resort, complete with an artificial reef and research facilities, has also come under attack from indigenous Bajau or “sea gypsies” who say it infringes on their native rights.

The oceanarium resort is slated to be built on a 33-hectare site on Mabul island, located just next to Sipadan, which is famous for its coral reefs, teeming sea life and crystal clear waters.

Reports said plans for the resort, touted as “a marine habitat wonder,” include fake sea grass and other devices to attract fish, as well as the construction of swimming pools and more than 200 bungalows and villas.

Environmentalists have criticized the plan, which will require tonnes of construction materials to be brought in by barges, saying it could destroy the island’s marine life and degrade the corals off nearby Sipadan.

Sabah Environmental Protection Association president Wong Teck said there were fears of a repeat of a 2006 accident on Sipadan when a construction barge ran aground, destroying a coral reef patch the size of three tennis courts.

“Mabul has an extremely sensitive marine ecology and the plan for a new oceanarium is certain to affect the environment there badly,” he said.

“An increase in the number of people staying on the island as a result of the resort and the amount of waste created, in addition to the construction work right on the coral and shallows, are almost certain to destroy much of it.”

“It is definitely not environmentally sustainable and the whole idea of an oceanarium seems quite strange given that people can already see all the fish and sealife in the pristine clear waters without the need for such a facility.”

Bajau villager Fung Haji Sappari also opposed the project, telling the Star newspaper that his people have had customary rights over the land as they have been using the area for fishing, transport and passage for hundreds of years.

“How can they do it? Several years ago I also applied for 15 acres around the same spot. It was not approved,” he told the daily.

Fung said more than 2,000 villagers on the island feared being moved out once the project was complete as the local land office considered them to be squatters.

The Star quoted officials as saying the state cabinet had approved the resort on condition that the project managers would conserve and repair the coral reefs.

However, it said the developers would have to get approval for the project’s environmental impact assessment before they can begin work.

Concerns over environmental damage on Sipadan prompted the closure of five dive resorts on the island in 2005, and most visitors now stay on Mabul and travel to the Sipadan reefs by boat.

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