Coral bleaching is a big concern for the Malaysia’s dive destinations

Coral bleaching is a big concern for the country’s dive destinations right now, with 12 sites closed till October. How do we protect the reefs while making sure business is not badly affected?

The hot news recently has been the alarming rise of coral bleaching which led to the closure of 12 dive sites in the country. This move, by the order of the Marine Parks Department, will be enforced till the end of October.

If you are a diver, snorkeller or dive operator, this development may be cause for concern. But the concern is really on different levels.

For some, diving to see coral is just a past-time to enjoy whilst on holiday; for others, it’s their livelihood that is at stake. Whatever the impact may be, however, avid leisure diver Sukhdev Singh, 32, director of a pharmaceutical company, feels the government’s actions were necessary.

“We should do something now and reap the benefits later, rather than do nothing and see effects that are irreversible later,” he says.

Julia Tho, 31, senior copywriter, thinks that the duration of the closure for the sites is, in fact, too short.

“But at least it gives the reefs a chance to regenerate,” she concedes.

Tho disagrees with any complaint by the operators, saying that this is for the benefit of the industry and that “operators should take it in their stride.”

According to Aaron Kwok, a freelance dive instructor and underwater photographer, all the dive sites he has visited in Pulau Redang off Terengganu in the past four months have shown evidence of coral bleaching. Reef life has also been affected, but he feels that divers have reacted positively.

“I’m sure a lot of divers have been educated on the impact of humans on coral in such a way that they now know how to protect them,” says Kwok, rebuffing suggestions that there would be financial woes on the part of dive businesses.

“I just got a call today from a person who was concerned about coral bleaching and wanted to sign-up for an eco-diver certification,” he counters.

(Eco-diver courses run by Reef Check and PADI allow divers to monitor and do surveys of reefs for information gathering.)

Mohan Thanabalan, underwater photographer and instructor, has seen no impact on his business because he’s shifted focus to Mabul and Sipadan. Divers, according to him, have no issue paying a bit more to dive in these unaffected islands. He’s also done a recent trip to Tioman with no cancellations.

“They know the situation so they’re there for the dives and some want to see (the extent of) the bleaching for themselves,” he adds.

Pulau Tioman off the Pahang coast, is among the more badly affected islands, so there is no question that some of the bigger businesses have been affected.

According to Martin Ritter, marketing and sales director of B & J Diving Centre, misleading reports in the media have led to worried divers calling his centre up thinking that they could no longer dive in Tioman at all.

“Although there are only about six sites here that are temporarily closed, the divers’ perception is that all have been closed,” he complains.

The recent MIDE (Malaysia International Dive Expo) event was also an indicator of the reaction of the public to the news reports.

“We would normally sell between 20 and 30 dive packages a day. This time we signed up just nine for the whole duration,” he adds.

Berjaya Hotels and Resorts, which has a presence on both Tioman and Redang, issued a statement saying both resorts “will be running as usual” and that the resort had simply received “additional enquiries” from the guests and stakeholders.

In light of the government’s actions, one inevitable question is what additional steps are necessary to protect the reefs? Everyone has his or her own ideas.

Sukhdev thinks more monitoring is needed to evaluate the post-recovery progress of the reefs.

“For the long term, that is what we need for the benefit of the coral,” he says.

Tho suggests that it is essential for the government to extend the closure period of the reef sites. She also thinks the government should charge higher marine park fees in order to fund future efforts to remedy coral bleaching.

Kwok, on the other hand, says Malaysian dive sites should be closed periodically in rotation throughout the diving season.

Ritter agrees with the idea of rotation, saying, “The healthy dive sites should be closed partially but it has to be done with the input of the local dive operators.”

However, he cautions that a lot of dive operators would disagree with such a move.

“They don’t want any closure because they don’t see divers having an effect on coral. But I know that corals need to be left in peace so that they can spawn and fertilise the other reefs again.”

Ritters says it would be a good idea if emergency planning is executed in future in which comprehensive notification is given to the Malaysian public on which sites are to be closed and for how long. To him, this would prevent divers thinking entire islands were off-limits.

Another leisure diver and consultant, Arpad Vezer, 53, who has been diving in Redang since 1998, says he’s noticed coral bleaching. While he is in favour of the government’s action, he also feels for the dive operators who are likely to lose money. A compromise, he thinks, is in order.

“Maybe the government can impose a restriction like they do in Sipadan and limit the number of divers who can visit a site per day?” he ventures.

For Julian Hyde, general manager of Reef Check, actions taken (and those yet to be taken) are for the long-term benefit of the islands and the diving industry.

“We can’t do much about coral bleaching but we can stop the other things that contribute. Boat diesel pollutes the reefs. And there are other contributors that compound the effects of climate change.”

“Corals are living organisms, and I would compare them to a person who’s recovered from a disease. Rest is what’s needed to enable one to eventually regenerate and be healthy again,” he concludes.

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