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Semporna – Gateway to scuba diving paradise

Semporna – Gateway to scuba diving paradise

SEMPORNA: Sabah, ‘The Land Below The Wind’, is home to some of the most idyllic and beautiful islands that have been attracting tourists from all parts of the world.

‘The Sun, the Sand and the Sea’ are just the three simple realities beckoning tourists to the state, which is blessed with nearly 400 islands, a handful of which are developed for tourism.

With enamouring, white sandy beaches, tranquil sea, blue and greenish crystal clear waters, azure skies and palm trees swaying in the wind, it’s no wonder Sabah is dubbed the ‘Maldives of Southeast Asia’.

Early September, this writer was among a group of media representatives who took part in a delegation from the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (K-KOMM) led by Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa to Sabah.

The three-day two-night visit from Sept 8 to Sept 10 was to gain insights into the telecommunication facilities and the security situation at several populated islands that are popular tourist destinations in Semporna.

Among the places visited was Sipadan Island, one of 20 resort islands located about 35 km south of Semporna, off the east coast of Sabah.

There was something simply mesmerising about the island, an abode of natural beauty with stunning landscapes, which took my breath away.

This tiny island located in the Celebes Sea is listed as among the world’s top 10 scuba diving spots, attracting not just divers but also explorers, marine biologists and underwater photographers around the globe.

SCUBA DIVERS’ PARADISE

Upon arrival at the Sipadan Island jetty, we were greeted by a team from the Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) under the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) stationed on the island as well as staff of the Marine Research Unit, Sipadan Island Park.

Besides its picturesque landscapes, Sipadan Island is home to various types of marine life including over 400 species of fish and hundreds of coral reef species classified in the ecosystem.

The 13.5-hectare island is the only oceanic island of Malaysia and its reef is built on a volcanic seamount which rises steeply from a surrounding seabed of about 600 metres in depth. The Sipadan Island Marine Park has a total of 16,860 hectares of sea and coral reefs.

Above water, the mushroom-like island is a covered in pristine rainforest and home to tropical birds such as sea-eagles, kingfishers, sunbirds and fruit bats around the island as well as a place for nesting turtle eggs.

Sipadan Island was declared a bird sanctuary as early as 1993 and in 2004, it was gazetted as a Marine Park and all accommodation facilities on Sipadan were closed to protect the natural heritage, which is still being preserved till today.

Tourists to Sipadan are required to obtain permits from Sabah Parks and they are not allowed to stay on the island.

During our visit, we were taken to the Turtle Research and Conservation Centre which houses the Greenback Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. The centre’s hatchery can house up to 900 turtle egg nests during each spawning season.

We also had a close view of coconut crab, the world’s largest land invertebrate and one of the tourist attractions to the island.

Based on a population study of coconut crabs from 2015 to 2021, a total of 168 coconut crabs were found on the island last year.

According to an officer of Sipadan Island Park’s Marine Research Unit, Hairy Sayadi, what’s unique about the crab is that it can break the coconut with its sharp thorns when it drops it from the tree, noting that it uses its claws to crack a coconut and eat the coconut kernel.

SENSE OF TRANQUILLITY

Next on our itinerary was a boat ride to Kapalai Island, one of the many beautiful diving havens in this part of the world and a popular location for scuba divers to explore various small marine life species.

As we reached the Kapalai jetty, this writer could feel a deep sense of tranquillity that pervaded the island and was mesmerised by its crystal clear greenish-blue azure waters.

Widely known as Malaysia’s version of the Maldives, Kapalai Island is truly unique as it is not quite an island. It is in fact a white sandbank at sea level formed as a result of hundreds of years of erosion. This idyllic, sun-steeped paradise sits in the middle of the Celebes Sea, with no land and beach in sight.

Once again, we were welcomed by ATM ESSCOM personnel stationed at the island.

Resort facilities are available for visitors planning to spend their vacation with various activities offered such as snorkelling, swimming, diving and kayaking.

Visitors can enjoy the relaxing ocean ambience on the tropical island by soaking in the crystal clear seawater around the resort or opt for snorkelling by using diving masks and fins to explore the underwater world up close.

Chalets on this island are built on high wooden stilts atop shallow waters and are based on Sabah architectural design.

A sturdy wooden bridge connects the various sections of the floating chalets and visitors can enjoy the sights of various species of marine life in action as they stroll along the boardwalk.

Resort owners injected new life into the landscape in the surrounding areas along the bridge with flowers and palm trees, making them attractive for visitors to capture the moments on camera.

GOVERNMENT TIGHTENS SECURITY

Our delegation spent the night in Mabul Island, one of the most beautiful islands with a population of over 4,000.

The boat ride from Sipadan to Mabul Island was about 20 minutes while from Semporna town, the journey by boat took about 45 minutes.

In Mabul Island, there are some resorts and chalets that are built over the sea, while some chalets are built on land with a picturesque view of the area amid lush greenery and coconut trees.

Mabul Island is a must-visit destination for tourists who wish to engage themselves in diving in the 25-30 metre deep clean, crystal clear water and experience the amazing water world of the various types of marine life.

Besides the availability of several world-class diving sites, Mabul Island is equipped with facilities such as a mosque for the fishing village community as well as for tourists.

This writer spoke to several residents from the fishing village who welcomed the various government initiatives to improve the people’s livelihood and maintaining peace and security on the island.

According to Bikang Alif, 63, the deployment of ESSCOM security forces on the island has resulted in a safer and conducive environment for residents and tourists.

“The availability of a telecommunication tower on the island augurs well for the people especially for the younger generation to utilise the Internet, but perhaps, its speed needs to be increased to cover the entire island,” added the fisherman, who has seven children.

An imam of Mabul Island Mosque, Morsyid Yasser Harun, 47, said efforts by the government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to organise engagement programmes with the local community have tremendously improved their socio-economic well-being.

“The increase in visitor arrivals has generated additional income for those involved in the tourism sector as well as fishermen. I hope the government as well as NGOs can help the people in upgrading facilities at the mosque and assist the management of a madrasah that provides studies for children on the island,” he added.

ESSCOM personnel are entrusted with the responsibility of strengthening maritime security at the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) from any security threats including the borders and the east coast waters of Sabah.

ESSCOM operations are coordinated efforts of several security agencies under ATM, Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (Maritime Malaysia).

Four elements are introduced to strengthen security control in the ESSZONE, namely enhancing intelligence capabilities, 24-hour monitoring and control of the beach areas, strengthening the nation’s capabilities from maritime threats and enforcing tighter laws with swift action against any threats.

TELECOMMUNICATION UPGRADE

Meanwhile, K-KOMM Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa who is also a member of the National Security Council (MKN) said the government will continue to improve security levels in the ESSZONE in line with the government’s efforts to protect the country’s sovereignty.

He said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has instructed the government to provide more focus on the security issue to ensure the people of Sabah are safe at all times.

“We understand (sometimes) there is news that causes anxiety among those who have to earn a living, also traders and those who have daily activities, so security is something that is very important.

“Communications teams will be required to provide comprehensive coverage on security matters,” he said, adding that the government will do its best to ensure the people of Sabah, including those residing on remote islands, are contented and lead comfortable lives.

He said facilities in Semporna, especially on the islands, will continue to be improved for the benefit of the locals and tourists.

“We are now (almost) free of Covid-19 and tourists are flocking to areas such as Semporna and islands such as Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and Sipadan. When there are tourists, the people of Semporna will enjoy the economic spillovers.

“And that is why no matter the distance, or the island, the government will pay attention. The Prime Minister (Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob) does not want anyone left behind,” he said when officiating at the Merdeka@Komuniti Keluarga Malaysia programme in Mabul Island recently.

Annuar also said that telecommunication facilities on populated islands as well as islands that are popular among tourists including in Semporna should be upgraded as quickly as possible.

He said it should be prioritised for the convenience of the people as well as to support the tourism activities in the islands that are contributing to the country’s economic recovery and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).-Bernama