KOTA KINABALU, Sept 29 — Sabah Parks has put in stricter controls for diving at Sipadan island to preserve its marine life which has borne the brunt of commercialisation over the past few years.
Divers will now have to be certified as Advanced Open Water divers at a minimum, and one permit will only allow two dives, instead of three, per day.
An Advanced Open Water diver is a step up from the entry level Open Water certification, which requires more skill and also allows for deeper dives of up to 30 metres.
Other restrictions include a maximum of 50 divers per dive site at any one time and there can’t be a repeat of the same dive site.
Each dive master is allowed to bring up to four divers each and dive periods are between 7am and 4.30pm.
Sabah Parks director Maklarin Lakim said the changes were to protect the island’s sensitive ecosystem which attracts tourists from all over the world.
“The coral reef has degraded slowly over time. The slight change of rules is introduced due to increase number of divers while the intensity or frequency of diving needs to be retained.
“It is important for mitigating negative impacts of diving to coral reef,” he said when contacted by Malay Mail.
The only oceanic island in Malaysia is a very popular destination for scuba diving enthusiasts due to its teeming and diverse marine life, where turtles, sharks, schools of barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and visiting pelagics thrill divers.
However, the small island about 12 hectares wide is also a bird sanctuary, and requires special management due to its delicate status.
Overnight guests were banned from the island in 2004 as the five resorts were asked to move out. In 2008, even day trippers were restricted to 120 divers per day but this has since been revised to 178 per day as of 2019 to accommodate the increase of tourist interest.
The Semporna Professional Divers Association (SPDA) here recently expressed concern over the increase of diving permits in Sipadan given to tour operators (from 12 to 24) in the last two years, and another 13 this August.
They urged the authorities and the Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry to take serious action and prevent lasting damage to the island.
The island rose to popularity after world famous French underwater explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau remarked that Sipadan was an “untouched piece of art” in 1988.
It is often claimed to be among the top 10 dive destinations in the world.