When an area is so popular with divers that it has tremendous negative impact on the coral reefs that draw the divers in the first place, what can you do?
In the case of Sipadan, one of the world’s most popular dive destinations, several attempts have been made to limit the damage done to the reefs surrounding the oceanic island. Since 2004 tourism to and construction on the island itself is banned and the island and 168km² surrounding it were declared as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2009.
Jacques Cousteau himself once described Sipadan as “an untouched piece of art” but unfortunately it is not so untouched any more, due to environmental impacts and impacts from divers themselves. To limit the negative impact on the coral reefs a permit system was introduced, allowing only 120 divers per day to dive the 12 sites around the island. Because some sites, such as Barracuda point, are more popular than others, most of these 120 divers tend to concentrate there.
Since 2013 you can only dive Sipadan with an Advanced Open Water certification or higher and a minimum of 20 logged dives. This, however, is not exactly a guarantee that divers will behave responsibly and won’t damage the coral.
So, in another attempt to prevent further harm to the coral reefs surrounding the island, Sabah Parks, the organization that governs the MPA, has now introduced four ‘underwater cops’. “They will be like undersea policemen who will act against divers trampling or destroying coral. It is a major step forward. In due time there will be more dive marshals”, according to Tourism, Culture and Environment permanent secretary Ginun Yangus. [source]
While this is an admirable attempt to further limit damage to the reefs, it is unsure how this actually will be enforced. Will they dive along with groups of divers or will they patrol certain sections of the reef? What is the procedure when they see someone, presumingly accidentally, damaging the reef? Will they be fined? Will their permit be revoked?
What about you? Do you think this is a good step to prevent damage to the reefs? What other solutions can work? Have you already encountered the underwater police? What are your experiences?