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January 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sipadan’s Dive Permit System Keeps Some Divers Out of Its Waters

from the January, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Jacques Cousteau called the Malaysian island of Sipadan “an untouched piece of art.” The government’s new permit system of restricting divers to a maximum of 120 per day is preventing many divers, who paid thousands of dollars and traveled for days, from ever setting fin in the waters surrounding this diving mecca.

Susie Hills (Sausalito, CA) warns divers intending to go to Sipadan to first check with their travel agent and dive operator about how the permit system will affect their dive itinerary. She and her two dive buddies stayed at the Sipadan-Mabul Resort (SMART) for a week in October but were only able to dive Sipadan for one day. “Before booking in May, we had heard about the new permit system, but we had no idea the extent to which it would limit the diving, and the inequality of the process. The rest of our dive days were spent diving around Mabul and Siamil Island and while those are good dive sites, we did not fly halfway around the world and spend thousands of dollars to dive Mabul.

“There are 12 resorts and one liveaboard attempting to land the 120 golden permits to dive Sipadan. At SMART, there were 101 divers. It appears some resorts get more permits allotted each day than others, and the allotment appears random and circumspect. Borneo Divers was getting 22 to 25 permits a day while SMART only got 10 to 12 permits a day. The stress to find out if you would ‘win’ the trip to Sipadan the next day was ridiculous. SMART has a giant board, where each diver is assigned to a dive boat and dive site for the following day. Imagine trying to enjoy lunch as everyone prayed their name would be assigned the Sipadan dive boat! To add fuel to the fire, the SMART manager made a huge production of plugging names in and erasing others.”

Jon Hoffman (Atlanta, GA), who stayed at SMART in November, says the lottery is a farce and favors divers that the resort staff likes. “We were the only group of Americans there and interacted with the staff and locals, compared to the predominantly Russian clientele, who were rude in general and complained loudly and incessantly. We were told that it was luck in the ‘lottery’ that our names were drawn to go to Sipadan three times in six days while the Russian groups only got drawn once in seven days. Of course, that only led to them complaining even more rudely and loudly -- and even worse luck in the ‘lottery.’ If you were ‘lucky’ enough to get your name drawn, you did five dives in one day at Sipadan beginning at 5:30 a.m. Given that your package includes three boat dives a day, the day following a Sipadan excursion was limited to a single boat dive for the next two days.”

Even if you get to Sipadan, the entry process is a shady one, says Jonathan Blake (LaVerne, CA), who stayed at Sipadan Water Village Resort in September. “To visit Sipadan and Kapalai, we needed to get permission from the military guards stationed on the island. It was a joke. The Divemaster would have a list of guest names from the resort on his sign-up sheet. Each diver would be assigned a name and we had to sign it! It was hilarious to see Americans and Europeans signing Japanese or Russian names.”

Patty Shales (Los Angeles, CA), who dived Sipadan and Mabul in November, says it’s not the divers affecting the ecosystem, it’s the fishermen. “On every dive, we were terrified by one or two loud bursts of dynamite. Having visited the area last January, I noticed a big decrease in the numbers of fish. Certain species have all but disappeared, including the clown frogfish, the ghost pipefish, flamboyant cuttlefish and many nudibranchs. The reefs lack the fresh vibrant colors; they seem dead and covered with sand.”

No one at SMART replied to Undercurrent’s emails requesting details. Jenny Collister, president of the dive travel agency Reef & Rainforest, says the permit system is a huge problem with no solution in sight. “We did not get great results when trying to get refunds for our customers, nor were we informed of the permit change until October 14.” She was able to give the heads-up to a dive group leaving on October 30 and they managed to do six dives in six dive days. “It’s my guess that the resorts do give preferential treatment to some guests over others. The group I had was led by a pro photographer for the third year in a row who volunteers his time there for photo week, so I would assume that he got special treatment. We are strongly warning people about what to expect.”

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