KOTA KINABALU: IN his 1989 film, Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle, renowned explorer the late Jacques Cousteau immortalised Sipadan island as an “untouched piece of art”.
Now, 28 years later, his grandson Fabien Cousteau has made an emotional first voyage to the idyllic island and is pleasantly surprised to find that not much has changed.
“Usually, when I hear stories of how beautiful a place is, they tend to be exaggerated. But I can confirm that the stories about Sipadan are accurate.
“My grandfather once described it as an art canvas of the ocean, but I would rather call it a fireworks display of life — with its reefs and rich, colourful and diverse marine animals,” said Fabien, who arrived here on Oct 21.
Fabien has fond memories of his grandfather, having spent his early years aboard the explorer’s ships, Calypso and Alcyone.
The Cousteaus were connected by a mutual love of the ocean. On his fourth birthday, Fabien was already learning how to scuba dive.
At 50, Fabien has continued his grandfather’s legacy and is now a famed aquanaut, ocean conservationist and filmmaker in his own right, with many of his documentaries centring around the importance of the marine ecosystem.
In 2014, he and five other scientists spent 31 days underwater aboard the Aquarius, an undersea research laboratory off the coast of Florida in the United States, streaming most of the fascinating process online.
More than just a publicity stunt, the “Mission 31” expedition was intended to spread public awareness and gain valuable scientific data regarding the ocean.
Similarly, in retracing his grandfather’s footsteps, Fabien’s visit to Sipadan has a more meaningful purpose.
Fabien is an Ocean Witness, one of many individuals under the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Marine Protected Area Action Agenda initiative who provide a voice to marine life and the communities that depend on them.
He has joined forces with WWF, which is making a series of environmental films to be presented next month during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Fabien said climate change had deep implications on the health of the marine ecosystem, and pushing nations to do something about it would be a step forward.
And Sipadan, with its enduring beauty and rich biodiversity, is a perfect embodiment of that message for hope and change.
“When I visit the beautiful places my grandfather had been to and spoken about, many are no longer the same, they have fallen into bad conditions.
“It’s depressing, but this is the truth... which is why seeing Sipadan, with its richness and biodiversity even 30 years later, is very encouraging.”
He added that the island was a good example of how proper management could allow humans to live alongside nature without damaging it.
WWF-Malaysia marine programme head Dr Robecca Jumin said the island’s pristine condition rested on a strategic development plan that kept the balance between sustainable development and conservation.
“For the past few years, WWF-Malaysia has been working with the Semporna district office and the town and regional planning department to establish a Marine Spatial Plan.
“There are already two marine corridors in the district, including Sipadan, and we are hoping to expand them.
“Currently, there is a tremendous push for tourism expansion in Semporna. If we don’t manage it well, other areas that are not yet protected as marine corridors may suffer from the pressure.”
However, she said Sabah, which recently gazetted its Tun Mustapha Marine Park, was driving ocean conservation for the rest of the country to follow.
Fabien admitted that it would not be always be smooth sailing. Sipidan, despite being a success story, has suffered the loss of several species through the years. A push for more marine protected areas (MPAs) is clearly needed.
He said many people, especially fishermen, often resist efforts by environmentalists to conserve the ocean on the basis that their rights and livelihood were at stake.
“What many of them fail to realise is that these efforts are aimed at giving, rather than taking. In New Zealand, for example, almost 30 years ago, fishermen were initially opposed to a new MPA being established. They complained that they would not be able to catch as much fish.
“When they eventually discovered that they were catching twice as much fish, they became the strongest proponents of MPAs, even petitioning the government to establish more MPAs,” he said, adding that MPAs provided a stable structure for marine life to thrive in, allowing a more a sustainable livelihood for the fishermen.
Fabien said such cases were the reason why at the end of the day, education and spreading awareness of the importance of a healthy marine ecosystem were paramount to making people love the ocean.
“People protect what they love. And people only love what they can understand.”
For more information on WWF and the Ocean Witness programme, visit https://www.oceanwitness.org.