Scuba resorts have to juggle guest expectations and ecological realities to create a satisfying vacation experience. For some resorts that means creating artificial “attractions,” and for others that means creating a program of larger-scale conservation efforts. There are hundreds of people diving Mabul every day, most of them waiting for their shot at Sipadan. When it comes to the artificial reefs they build, we choose how we weight the why and the how. The mob of dive resorts on Mabul, permitted to dive on Sipadan and only a short dive away, weight the why and how of conservation initiatives as best serves their business.
At Scuba Junkie on Mabul Island, they focus on visible, select conservation projects and programs. They’ll host different themed weeks over the year with lectures, themed dives, and projects. They have a successful turtle conservation program, have worked for several years on establishing a local shark sanctuary, and do Project Aware’s Dive Against Debris from time to time. They’ve established some sustainable systems within the resort from their waste and rainwater treatment to the long-term employment of divemasters who work as Environmental Officers and daily stewards of the local habitat to their refusal to serve unsustainably harvested fish. These officers are working on coral frames but are waiting on funding. Overall, one of the resort managers highlighted, Scuba Junkie’s programs don’t assume that their clients dive with conservation issues in mind when they arrive, but hope they do when they leave. (There’s a lot embedded in his comment and our conversation, for another time.) For these reasons, and I’m sure a few more, Scuba Junkie was Malaysia’s representative resort at a regional marine tourism conference. All the same, many of Scuba Junkie’s clients still request to dive local rig resort, Seaventures, for the large schools of fish artificially attracted to house reef.
Seaventures stands just off Scuba Junkie’s dock, a flamboyant middle finger to the resorts and local leaders who, rumor has it, refused to let them build on the island to prevent overcrowding. The resort is a repurposed rig where shipping boxes turn into dorm rooms and platforms into sundecks. Borneo from Below did a nice, shiny job illustrating the rig’s layout. The rig came from Brazil to Singapore for repair after decommissioning. I came to the rig because who the hell imagines that a rig is going to (somehow, accurately) imagine an oil rig could be a successful dive resort.
Every resort has a house reef, but it’s only at Seaventures where the resort is the house reefs. The house reefs off resort docks provide some relief for local reefs and a guaranteed attraction for visitors. At the Kapilai Resort, for example, Kaipalai’s “Mandarin Valley” site is a small underwater village built out of wood and wire with London Bridge-like structure, eerie alleyways, and abundant Macro marine life. In front of the cluster of resorts on Mabul, broken boats are discarded monuments among the muck used to evaluate diver buoyancy. The site, called “Paradise I & II” is “distinctly not paradise,” one of our divemasters teased. These artificial reefs are exactly not paradise. They are attractions that distract divers from imagining Sipadan’s paradise they’ve yet to dive, a novelty that makes these sites more than muck.
Seaventures, conversely, sacrifices little with its house reef. Seaventures capitalizes on the ecologies that develop under their rig-turned-resort. Massive schools of carnivorous fish and microscopic nudibranchs surround the pylons. So to do their “artificial structures,” which are truly horrifying, often unsecured scraps of metal and tire in small piles around the rig. Seaventures’ house reef is a financial convenience for the dive resort, where dinner scraps and grey water thrown overboard reduce waste management costs and attract fish for divers.
I went to Seaventures to understand why and how an oil rig became a dive resort specifically. To figure out why this clownish tower operated next to romantic water villages besides the opportunity to capitalize on the lucrative Sipadan dive industry. Why advertise these oil rig ecologies as an added benefit, a natural phenomenon, when a rig imported from Brazil is so clearly not a protected and preserved oceanic mount? Does novelty excuse authenticity?
If there is any anxiety vacationers at Mabul have, it’s whether or not they’ll see what they expect to see, especially whether they’ll get a permit to see Sipadan. Many dive resorts offer a Sipadan “guarantee” if you purchase a certain number of days to ensure a permit but in the end, as the rig resort manager described, “you see what you see.” His toughest clients are the ones who think money can buy a shark sighting or a pristine reef. He says he works with the environment he’s given, even when it comes to coral bleaching and climate change.
I don’t think that’s quite accurate.
Feeding fish, creating large scale structure and shelter – these ecologies were induced. These ecologies are simultaneously real and artificial, if not authentic. All of the resorts on Mabul have backup reefs for testing buoyancy and biding divers time as they wait for Sipadan. These dives are fine, and interesting, but make up the difference between a dive as an attraction or as exploration.