Mabul Island – spotlight on ecology

While fast developing as an island resort destination, Mabul Island, known for its intriguing and picturesque Bajau Laut villages, is becoming increasingly renowned for its eco-tourism practices.

Located near Sabah’s south-eastern coastline in Malaysia, Mabul Island is just 15 minutes by boat from Sipadan Island, but the two islands could not be more different from one other.

Sipadan is renowned as one of the world’s top diving spots, but is devoid of any infrastructure (prohibited in order to avoid overtourism). Nearby Mabul Island has two small fishing villages as well as several resorts… increasingly active in terms of environmental protection.

There are two main villages on Mabul: “Kampung Mabul” and “Kampung Musu”. The 1999 census recorded approximately 2,000 villagers living in Mabul, half of them children under 14 years old – primarily Bajau Laut (sea gypsies) and Suluk Muslims.  There are several dive resorts operating on Mabul island. Mabul is reported to be one of the world’s richest destinations for exotic small marine life. Flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, mimic octopus and bobtail squids are just a few of the numerous types of cephalopods to be found on Mabul’s reef.

One homestay-style resort, Seahorse Sipadan Scuba lodge, offers a simplistic and totally laidback approach to the diving holiday experience, with welcoming staff being a “key selling point”.

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Mr Jaafar (left) and Arief Samod (right) – Seahorse Resort

The lodgings are basic are clean and adequate and while there is no electricity during the day, there really is no need for it. If the rooms lack for anything, they compensate by their proximity to crystal blue waters of the high tide which is only a few steps and short splash from the doorway.

Arief Samod – Scuba instructor at Seahorse (and brother-in-law of owner Mr Jaafar) has seen the island evolve over the past seven or so years since he first arrived. “I came here many years ago, and I fell in love with the environment and the culture on this island, with the sea gypsies here”, says Samod. “Seven years ago, when I first came here, there were just a few houses. Diving is paradise-like. While the main market is still for local Malaysians, a lot of Chinese people come here, but there are also foreigners from many other countries. The marine environment is very nice, and the current is not strong, so it’s a good place for people to learn how to dive.”

Samod says one of his highlights was swimming with a whale shark.

INTERVIEW: Scuba Junkie resident marine biologist

Another resort on the island, Scuba Junkie, has its very own marine protection association, and full-time conservation manager, in the shape of Irish-born Marine Biologist David McCann. After graduating in Ireland,

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David McCann – Scuba Junkie

McCann decided to opt for a job that would “make a difference”. We asked him to tell us how he came to work in this region.

Rather than talking about what needs to be done, and hoping other people will do it, let’s actually do it. So, I thought, ‘How? How do I make this happen? There must be dive centres doing this stuff, because it makes sense. If you don’t have a healthy ocean, you don’t have a healthy dive business. There must be dive centres investing in marine conservation.’ I looked at different options all around the world, started contacting lots of different dive centres, saying ‘This is my background, this is what I want to do… Do you guys do this stuff? If you do, can I get involved, or if you don’t, can I set it up?’ It ended up, from the responses I got, being a no brainer to come and check out this place. And here we are. I’ve been here six years now. I don’t specifically work for Scuba Junkie, I work for Scuba Junkie Seas, which is the dedicated conservation arm of the dive centre. We take a lot of Scuba Junkie’s profits and use that money to do marine conservation and community initiatives.

Our work is divided into six key areas. We do turtle conservation – with a hatchery and a rehabilitation centre, and we are doing a turtle population study. We are trying to get better protection for sharks and rays, so we helped set up the Sabah Shark Protection Association. It is a coalition of organisations working together to try and get better protection for sharks and rays. That means more protected areas, better protection for particularly vulnerable species, raising awareness about the threats that these animals face, how important they are for the health of the ocean. We do coral conservation with a lot of reef health check surveys. We are working with Reef Check Malaysia and we do coral reef restoration work. We also work on tackling marine debris – the bane of my life. We do a lot of beach cleans, reef cleans, recycling, upcycling, again working with the community to try and minimise their impact and come up with solutions to help.

Mabul Island Sabah 9The community engagement and stakeholder engagement are probably the most important areas of our work. This entails working with the local community, working with the local schools, international schools, other businesses, the government, just trying to raise more awareness of these issues and collectively come up with solutions to tackle them. In that, we have five main week-long events here every year: shark week, turtle week and marine week, that all take place here. Then Scuba Junkie have some operations in Indonesia as well. There we have whale shark week and manta week.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction with this work?

I love the community work – seeing the next generation learn about these issues. Teaching the kids on the island all about the ocean and making them fall in love with it… because obviously if they don’t fall in love with it, they won’t want to protect it. In the community, they rely on the ocean for sustenance… to feed their families. So, we need to protect the oceans here, not just to protect the dive industry, but more importantly to protect the livelihoods of the communities that rely on the ocean. At the end of the day, if the ocean gets destroyed, dive centres will close their doors and move elsewhere. Tourists will pick a new destination. The community are not in that luxurious position. They live here. They’ve been here for generations, and they will be here for generations, and if we don’t look after it for them, then we are in a spot of bother. So, working with them and seeing things happening on the island is very rewarding.

Mabul Island 7.jpgAs tourists come to this area and see what it’s like, obviously they will spread the word that it needs to be protected. How important is tourism in contributing to saving the environment that way?

I think it’s vitally important. Tourism presents a lot of opportunities, but it also brings with it some potential threats. As the number of people to an area starts to increase, then you obviously have to look at the resources you provide to them. You’re going to have more cars on the road, more boats in the water, you’re going to use more fuel, you’re going to need more food to feed those people. More people means more waste. More people probably means more plastic. So how do you balance all of that? I think it is very, very important that when tourists come to an area, they understand more about the area they are coming to, and what they can do to ensure they are not having a negative impact. For example, speaking of food, a lot of people like to eat seafood. I never tell people not to eat seafood, but I always tell people to make sustainable choices. Ask more Questions. Find out how your seafood was caught. What is it? One thing that baffles me is that people will eat a fish burger or a fish steak, or a fish ball. Would you go into a restaurant and order a mammal burger? No, you would want to know what it is… but with seafood, people don’t seem to mind. If you don’t ask these kinds of questions and find out, you don’t know what impact you are actually having on the marine environment. There are resources out there. For example, WWF Malaysia has made a sustainable seafood guide for Malaysia. They have assessed some of the fisheries, and they do it on a traffic-light system, so if the fish in the hand-out is green, they have assessed it to be sustainable, so you can eat it ‘guilt free’. Yellow, you want to think twice about eating it… and red, you should avoid at all costs. It’s important for tourists to make themselves aware of all this.

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Bajau Laut villager on Mabul Island

What do you think of the travel advisories against coming to this area?

I’ve been living here for six years, and I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t feel safe. I have never seen anything untoward happen at all. I run a turtle hatchery programme here, which means I am out around the island at 1am, 2am, 3am, 4am, sometimes by myself, and I have never seen anything other than happy, friendly people.

How would you compare Eastern Sabah with Western Europe when it comes to safety, given the travel advisories?

I regularly make this joke with family and friends at home, that I feel much safer here than I would in Europe. When you look at the incidents that have happened in London, Paris, Nice and other places, but there’s no travel warnings out for these places… Yet with Sabah, like I said, I’ve never seen anything happen here. I almost think it’s that embassies fear the unknown. ‘We know Europe, we know it’s safe. This is a one-off incident… But Eastern Sabah, we don’t know. So, it’s better just to say it’s dangerous.’ But it’s not. In the US, it’s ceaseless. Every month, there is a new incident. You’re much more likely to come across something dangerous there than you are here. Everyone on this island is so happy and friendly. You see nothing but happy faces. I don’t understand why there needs to be a travel advisory for this area.