My Dive Weekend in Sipadan: Not a Hostage
If you live in Asia and you dive, then Sipadan Island is a must. And, having visited the Orang Utans in Sandakan, climbed Mount Kinabalu and strolled in the markets in KK, Sipadan seemed the last unconquered frontier in Sabah.
I held off going to Sipadan for fear that all future dive trips would seem somehow inferior. Having just started diving about a year ago, I was worried this would be "peaking too soon."
But eventually I could not hold back and the date was set for a long Easter weekend in April.
My host was Borneo Divers. Friends who had visited the island previously all reported that this seemed to be the most professional outfit. Indeed I was impressed by their facilities and organization, not to mention the wonderful cooking. I would recommend them to anyone.
Day One: Saturday April 22nd. I put in four dives that day including a night dive. The abundance of marine life is astounding although I was a bit disappointed by the selection of soft corals which I felt were much less colorful than those of Pulau Redang. Nevertheless, by divemaster Rasheid was constantly pointing out lovely little creatures hidden under rocks or in the anemone. I believe most divers would find the abundance of reef sharks and sea turtles just thrilling.
Sipadan has an amazing underwater geography and virtually all the diving consists of wall dives. However I worried that my in between dive snorkeling expeditions would therefore be poor. But just 30 meters left of our jetty was excellent snorkeling in shallow water. The current can be very strong but if you can steady yourself, you'll be sure to spot a moray in the shallows.
Day Two: Sunday April 23rd. I put in three dives and decided that a night dive would be too much. I'm not a regular diver and seven dives in two days had worn me down. It is amazing how tiring it can be despite that diving hardly uses any muscles at all. In fact, the key seems to be to exert yourself as little as possible in order to make your oxygen last longer.
Dinner was served at 7pm and afterwards I took a deck chair on the beach and stared up at the sky. The night sky was beautiful. The beach was relatively quiet - our PSR neighbors who had been rowdy the night before, all singing and drinking on their jetty, were silent. A few people were walking along the beach "after hours" - an activity not permitted after 6pm because it deters the turtles from coming ashore to lay their eggs. But this seemed to be the only violation of island harmony.
A few hours later, back in my room, I was awaked by a commotion just outside my door. I could hear a dominant voice amongst the excited conversation.
"It's over now. It's over."
And then the voice was directed into my room. It was Rasheid, my divemaster, doing a body check.
"Are you there?"
"OK. Stay in your room. Keep the door closed. It's safer....there has been an incident. All the people next door have been..taken away... by bad men."
"What?!" The last question was more to myself than anyone else. Quite frankly, I was too alarmed to pursue an inquiry of the situation. So I dutifully stayed in my room, now wide awake with my mind racing wildly.
"If necessary, I could slip out the back window into the jungle. but I could break my ankle in the fall... better to try sneak out the front door and run around back...or... I could head for the water and hide with my snorkel... but my snorkel is in the dive shop. If I could get to the dive shop, I could suit up with a tank... but not enough time. and the bubbles! They could see the bubbles..."
I wasn't sure if we'd been attacked by pirates, a rebel separatist group or if, being in the middle of territory disputed by three countries, I'd now found myself in the middle of a border skirmish. Aceh and Irian Jaya are too far... and this is simply not the Malaysian's style... it must be some Filipino radicals! My mind raced for hours until sleep finally returned.
In the morning, I woke to find that the island, overnight, had become infested with men clad in jeans, t-shirts and running shoes all carrying semi-automatic rifles. It was not immediately apparent if they were the good guys or the bad guys. But as we seemed to be feeding them breakfast I soon realised that these were our saviors: plain clothed cops: the "CID".
What had happened...
Shortly before 8pm on Sunday evening, the bandits approached Sipadan in two local fishing boats. All of the resorts and police post are on one side of the Island and so they approached from the rear where they would not be noticed. They landed at the end of the Island where it was only a few meters walk through the jungle to the police post.
Their timing was perfect. Too perfect some say. They approached the police post just after two of the three officers had left down the beach on patrol. The police post was taken out and the first hostage taken.
Next to the police post is the turtle hatchery which was temporarily uninhabited as "Wayne the Turtleman" - our local conservationist - was out on his own patrol searching for turtles coming to lay their eggs.
The bandits then approached the first resort along the beach: Pulau Sipadan Resort "PSR".
Just before their arrival at 7:55pm, an American couple who were spending their first day on the Island descended for a night dive. They would shortly prove to be the luckiest people on the day.
Just after their decent, the bandits started rounding up hostages. The list is now well known: a couple of Finns, South Africans, German, French and a Lebanese man as well as both Malay and Filipino staff at the resort. Rambo, one of our boatman at Borneo Divers whose wife and kids live in Semporna, had just gone over to borrow a music tape which he wanted to contribute to the gathering on our own pier. When he didn't return, the assumption was that he'd decided to stay at PSR for a drink. Likewise, a cook from another resort found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The two girls working reception pleaded for their safety. Fortunately, they spoke the Philippine dialect of the kidnappers and were able to convince the bandits that they were also from the Philippines. They were allowed to remain free but were warned not to go to the authorities.
Among the guests gathered was an American couple in their early 50's. They refused to go. "Shoot me if you want," he said, "but my wife cannot swim out to your boat and we will not go." Blood was clearly not on the agenda and they were allowed to run into the jungle where they spent the night. No doubt, when the CID arrived only a few hours later, the couple were likewise uncertain whether the new arrivals were friend or foe and decided that remaining hidden was the best course of action.
As the kidnappers and their hostages were pulling away, Wayne the Turtleman arrived and pointed his flashlight into the boat, expecting to see some fishermen. He was able to identify that the five men were armed with AK47s and a bazooka rocket launcher. They pointed a gun at him and he put his flashlight away, retreating into the darkness. These were not fishermen to toy with.
The whole operation was over in 5 minutes and they were gone.
At 8:06pm, having had breathing problems equalizing at depth (a dive term which means your ears won't pop), the night diving American couple emerged. All was black and they assumed that it was simply a normal island practice to retire early! As they were taking their equipment off in the dive shop, the receptionists ran to them shouting warnings. "Hide yourselves! There are pirates!!"
And so, just 50 meters down the beach, I looked on at the beautiful night sky, blissful in my ignorance.
With the exception that our island had became invaded by machine gun toting police and our jetty commandeered as their base camp, the rest of my stay remained pretty much on schedule. The dives continued and I put in seven more before my departure on Wednesday morning. Nevertheless, I felt very depressed and withdrawn. In a way, I was in part disappointed with myself for having been so contented with my idyllic vacation, as if it betrayed some naive optimism about the world. And I suppose there is also a sense of guilt that my good fortune should be someone else's bad luck.
No new divers were being allowed to the resort so with each passing day our numbers were less and less.
I did, however, get to know the interesting history of Wayne the Turtleman who's life as a conservationist started when one day he marched into the Ministry of Environment and asked for training because he could no longer bear how poorly the turtles in the region were being treated. "They would lay their eggs and then people would stand on them and take pictures. It was just ignorance." Wayne supplements his income by selling homemade rubber stamps carved from erasers. His original training for this art came in grammar school where he started with "potato carving." I have an original Wayne carving which must now be worth well more that the M$10 I paid for it.
Rasheid, my divemaster, I learned is originally from KK and his mother has been begging him to return home. Will this last event make the difference? It will be a shame to all future visitors if it does.
Another interesting character was a photographer / videographer in situe who was almost finished putting together a documentary on Sipadan for Malaysian Airlines. Originally from Kuching, he now lives in London... is he one and the same as this chap? Yes - Michael Patrick Wong. I hope that Malaysian Air is still interested in promoting tourism to the area with his video.
The Last Victim
My fear now is that Pulau Sipadan will ultimately be a victim of the kidnappers. While I was their, the explosions from Dynamite fishing was audible, even after the police had isolated the Island. If the island is closed, it will be lost to these fishing tactics. I have written letters to sever environmental agencies and the press about he matter, but it is simply not a priority at present. I am simply worried that their may be only a few weeks to prevent damage which could last generations and destroy the home of thousands of marine creatures. The fates of the hostages is now beyond the control of most of us, but we can still protect Sipadan. I hope that this message somehow gets through.