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Sipadan Employs Underwater Police Force

A new unit of underwater officers has been launched in Malaysia to protect the legendary dive site of Sipadan.


Ever wanted to spend your workday scuba diving and protecting coral reefs? Does the title of “underwater cop” sound appealing? In Sipadan, Malaysia, an underwater police force has become reality. The island is famous for its vast variety of coral and marine life, and is a legendary dive destination.

But, as with so many popular dive spots, Sipadan is suffering under its own popularity. The influx of divers has caused severe damage to corals, by divers who were either too careless or too inexperienced to avoid damaging the delicate animals. The local government, knowing full well that the health of the corals is key to the economically important dive-tourism industry, has now taken steps to ensure the protection of the dive site.

As part of a pilot program, four rangers will patrol the area in scuba gear, particularly near the most popular of the island’s dive sites. They will be tasked with intervening if divers are damaging corals. In time, the Malaysian government intends to train more dive marshals to join the task force.

Patrolling marine reserves has always been a challenge. In most places around the world, monitoring is done via boat, typically by park rangers or the nation’s coast guard. These vessels are able to spot illegal boat traffic, fishing and dive boats anchored in places where diving isn’t allowed. It is much harder for them to patrol other damaging behavior, though, such as improper anchoring (seeing as it’s hard to see from the surface if an anchor is on corals or not), or damaging behavior by divers who are in an approved spot.

In spite of the fact that all major dive organizations include training in environmental awareness and urge divers to help protect the marine environment, authorities and dive professionals around the world frequently report diver behavior that cripples corals, harms animals, or damages wrecks. Videos of this sort of behavior also find their way to social media from time to time. While it is a small minority of divers who can’t seem to act responsibly, the damage they do is significant, both to the marine environment and to the reputation of the sport.

However, dive professionals have limited sanctioning options. They can ban an individual from diving with them again if they observe unwanted behavior, but there’s nothing stopping that individual from going to a different dive operator the same day. And rarely does going to the authorities have much effect.

Malaysia’s new step, while it may seem extreme, may make a difference. With authorities routinely present in the area, divers might think twice before snapping off a piece of coral for a souvenir, or become more mindful about where they place their hands and fins as they stop to take a photo. It’s a sad statement that it’s necessary to take such a step, but positive nonetheless that the Malaysian government is willing to address it.