David McCann carrying out the beach clean on World Oceans Day | Photo: Cat McCann

Text: Cat McCann

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a direct effect on the tourism industry in Sabah, especially the dive industry, where many operators have been left with time on their hands as tourists come back slowly with the gradual easing of the MCO.

Staff at the award-winning 5* PADI dive operator Scuba Junkie are making the best use of this time by joining conservation organisation S.E.A.S, (Sea Education Awareness Sabah) in their activities.

This was particularly the case for World Oceans Day (June 8) and Coral Triangle Day (June 9), with beach and reef cleans carried out by the staff as part of their annual celebrations for the day – with a difference this year, due to fewer tourists to the island and social distancing measures.

“Usually for World Oceans Day, guests and staff work together to do large beach and reef cleans around the island, said Scuba Junkie Dive Manager and Chairman for S.E.A.S., M. Khairuddin Bin Riman. “This year, the beach and reef cleans were limited, but we still made a significant impact, including lifting discarded fishing gear from dive sites – including one 20m drift net.”

Single use coffee sachets – usually around 150-200 of these can be collected in one reef clean | Photo: Dave McCann

“Beach and reef cleans are the most straightforward way for dive operators to contribute to marine conservation. Plastic pollution is a major global problem, with an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans every year. But local efforts – such as the Sabah Bebas Sampah campaign – can have huge, positive benefits for the immediate environment. Thinking global, but acting local does make a difference.”

For Scuba Junkie, conservation efforts are ongoing – staff are being trained as Reef Check Ecodivers, which will enable them to take part in coral reef health assessments in the upcoming months.

David McCann carrying out the beach clean on World Oceans Day | Photo: Cat McCann

“Around the world, scientists have been documenting the effect of the pandemic lockdown and what it means for the natural world – hoping that the downturn in human movement gave ecosystems a well-needed break” said David McCann, Conservation Manager for S.E.A.S, “Reef health check assessments will allow us to document what has happened to our local reefs and identify whether or not the MCO has had a positive impact.”

“We are optimistic, said Mohd Khairul B. Hamsah, Instructor for Scuba Junkie. “We took our first guests after the MCO to Sipadan, and the very first things we saw in the water were two endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks and a spotted eagle ray. We also saw baby grey reef sharks on all dive sites around the island – even a school of about 50 of them on one site. This is as well as the schools of jackfish, barracuda, bumpheads and reef fish that Sipadan is world famous for. It was incredible!”

“I am very much looking forward to completing my EcoDiver course and participating in proper surveys on reefs in my hometown area, as well as continuing other projects with S.E.A.S.”

“We are looking forward to re-starting in-water projects again,” said McCann “We have been quite busy during the M.C.O – lockdown obviously affected our capacity to carry out some conservation project areas, but also provided us with unique opportunities to develop others, such as our outreach and supporter engagement programmes.”

“We released 966 green turtle hatchlings from our hatchery, which were livestreamed by popular demand to audiences worldwide, and also developed a series of online presentations for students abroad to learn about marine conservation in Sabah.”

“We look forward to continuing these programmes and interacting with guests coming back to Mabul over the next few months.”

To further interest in conservation work and support the local community, Scuba Junkie is offering a ‘Conservation Upgrade’ for bookings during June and July, where guests can ‘upgrade’ their stay and take part in conservation activities with S.E.A.S staff – including special workshops for younger students, and a goodie bag on arrival. The money raised from the upgrade goes back to community projects on the island.

The team of staff at Scuba Junkie, who conducted reef and beach cleans for World Oceans Day | Photo: Dave McCann

Khairuddin Bin Riman continued, “As a Sabahan, I consider myself very fortunate to be from one of the most biodiverse places on the planet – and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do my bit to protect these ecosystems for future generations.”

“Although it may be quiet from a tourism perspective at the moment, we urge everyone to make best use of this time and find ways to give back to the environment around them. Explore new ways to improve on existing eco-friendly practices and enable better protection for the natural world, engage in conservation projects, so that when tourism picks up again, it’s not back to normal – but back to better.”