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June 2000 Vol. 26, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Sipadan the Shape of Things to Come?

dive travel dangers from theft to terrorism

from the June, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

“The raid took place on Easter Sunday at around 20:30 hrs. local time. 6 armed men infiltrated the western side of the island, near the Police Post and Wildlife Department, taking first one Police officer and then two Wildlife Rangers. They then proceeded to Pulau Sipadan Resort, that being the next place in line, where at that time guests were still finishing dinner or just relaxing. The rebels quietly rounded up all the guests and staff that were in the dining hall and ordered them to board two long boats (jongkongs) that were moving just parallel to the beach, keeping pace with the raiders.

Sadly, poor Rambo, (if you have been to Sipadan I am sure you know him), one of Borneo Diver’s staff, was visiting Pulau Sipadan Resort and was also captured. Definitely a case of, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Harris, Borneo Diver’s resort manager on Sipadan, was able to warn all our guests of the situation and lead them into the jungle at the back of the resort to hide after one of our divemasters spotted the armed raiders (some of the guests reported later that they thought it was all some kind of joke being pulled by staff). He also contacted the police and my partner Clement Lee with his cell-phone. The police were on the scene within one hour. It was obvious that this was not a pirate attack and they were not out to just rob. No, these raiders were after people, and as soon as they had hustled their captives onto the two jongkongs [boats], they left without firing a shot. The American couple which escaped — it seems the husband refused, along with his wife, to get in the boat because she was a non-swimmer and the boats were lying off the beach and all the captives had to wade out to them. When the raider turned away from them to watch the rest get into the boats, the two Americans scooted off and ran for the forest . . .”

— Ron Holland

Founder of Borneo Divers

It’s been all over the web and in most national and local newspapers: The Malaysian island of Sipadan, a diving paradise in southeast Asia, has had 10 tourist divers and 11 staff members abducted by Muslim terrorists from the neighboring Philippines. For more than ten years, this small Pacific Rim island off Malaysian Borneo has been a favorite of Undercurrent readers. Now it’s become the most dramatic example of an attractive underwater destination where safety concerns have been pushed into the limelight. It’s not alone: whether the problem is as innocuous as car theft in Bonaire or more insidious, like walking among the "raskals" in Port Moresby after dark or stabbings near the Red Sea, there are plenty of attractive dive destinations that carry risk for travelers. A longtime Undercurrent correspondent who just returned from his April Solomon Islands trip aboard the Bilikiki (which operates out of Guadalcanal, where there is bloodshed and tribal fighting), reports: “My friend Francis told me that his brother was murdered and the family farm burned before I arrived. He is still scared. Two policeman were murdered the day before we left and a headless body was found in the city market that morning. There is not any tourist travel out of the city of Honiara. You cannot go down to dive the Benagi One and Two wrecks any more.”

While tourists have been a chosen terrorist target in Egypt, the idea of a bunch of divers at a remote, quiet resort being abducted and held hostage strikes too close to home. The Abu Sayyaf terrorists who seized the divers are one of two separate groups fighting for an independent Islamic nation in the southern Philippines. Both have kidnapped numerous hostages, including schoolchildren. After they abducted the divers from Sipadan on April 23 and loaded them into boats, they drove to Jolo in the southern Philippines, an hour’s ride away, and imprisoned their captives in a bamboo cage in the jungle. Their initial demands were reported to include $2.5 million in ransom, and they threatened to behead two hostages if their demands weren’t met. The only two Americans, James and Mary Murphy (Rochester New York), escaped. The tourists who were abducted were from France, Germany, South Africa, Finland, and Lebanon. Abducted staff members include Roland Ullah, Ken Fong, Yin Ken, Kau Yo Loong, and Vincent Kwong.

Before the abduction, Undercurrent reader Ricky Tuss had been diving Sipadan by boat from the nearby Sea Ventures Dive Resort, about 300 yards off Mabul. He said, “Mabul had a much larger contingent of police than did Sipadan, so we were safer, but it makes you wonder. We dived Sipadan the morning after the abduction before we (the guests) knew of the event. I couldn’t understand why there were so few dive boats nor why the people on the island were staring at us. We did the last dives allowed before Sipadan was shut down for diving. We had two Malaysian gun boats guarding us the next night.”

. . . Harris was able to
warn all our guests and
lead them into the jungle

The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to anyone traveling in the area, saying they should “review security procedures, remain vigilant of their surroundings, keep a low profile, and vary routes and times of required travel." U.S. citizens should register with the embassy in Kuala Lumpur: (60) (3) 2168-5000 or They’ve issued a similar warning for the western part of Mindanao Island in the Philippines and tell citizens to avoid travel to the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago in the extreme southwest of the Philippines. This warning would also cover live-aboard dive travel in the Sulu Sea. (For complete State Department travel warnings, go to To keep abreast of the hostage crisis, see and

Like the rest of the world, the dive community remains stunned, especially those of us who have been there. As dive travelers we have all been to remote regions in distant parts of the world, and it’s easy to imagine the horror of being held captive with the threat of being beheaded. Whenever something like this happens there’s an emotional backlash, and we question how to react. Is it safe to travel, and where? This has never happened on Sipadan before. Is it an isolated incident? Or the beginning of a trend? There’s probably truth to the adage that the safest day to fly is the morning after a crash. Certainly the 103 Japanese divers who passed through Malaysian customs on May 2 en route to Sipadan thought so, and, while there have been a few cancellations, with increased security the resorts have remained open and busy. Truth is, all we can do is check sources and attempt to make informed decisions.

The hostage crisis in Sipadan was far from resolved as we went to press, although the images of well-trained army commandos and ruthless, fanatical terrorists were both beginning to fray around the edges. Rebel demands had shifted to being reimbursed for their “expenses,” and AP interviews with rebel leaders revealed that the rebels’ original plan to kidnap 100 foreigners (including many Americans) from a “nearby Malaysian dive resort” was called off when the leader decided they’d run out of time and should take a smaller number. Even the government couldn’t get it right as the efforts of the Philippine military to throw close cordons around the rebels were foiled on several occasions by fleeing terrorists. We can only hope tensions continue to relax, the kidnappers settle for mileage and per diem, and the hostages’ long ordeal comes to a speedy end.

— John Q. Trigger

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