Underwater clean-up highlights marine threat


TRICKY TASK: Divers cutting through nets covering the wreck of the Hiyoshi Maru.


MARINE REFUGE: Divers removing a layer of nets covering the openings to nooks and crannies where smaller fish can shelter from bigger predators.

MORE TO GO: A diver holding a mesh bag containing some of the nets which the group managed to clear off the Hiyoshi Maru wreck.

GOOD HAUL: The MDD team managed to collect a total of 64.5kg of marine debris, including one anchor and a scoop net.

FOLLOWING months of careful planning and coordination, the Malaysia Day Dive 2013 (MDD) concluded on a high note with a total of 64.5kg of marine debris successfully collected from in and around the WWII shipwreck of the Hiyoshi Maru, about 30km off the Santubong coast.

A stinking mess of abandoned fishing nets piled high on the boat ramp may not be anyone’s idea of the catch of the day but for the 15 volunteer divers taking part, it was a beautiful sight because it meant these nets would no longer pose a danger to ocean life.

“We’re quite pleased with what we managed to accomplish today even though we could not reach our target of collecting 100kg of fishing nets,” said event organiser Ernest Teo, when met right after the team landed on shore.

Weak ocean currents also helped diving conditions at the wreck site despite continuous rain in Kuching for most of the previous night and early morning that day.

Nevertheless, the divers still found the task of removing the nets from the wreck rather tricky, having to rely on knives and scissors to cut through the worst bits entangled over the wreck’s structure and the coral growing on and around it.

The divers’ exuberance was also somewhat tempered by the knowledge that they had no choice but to leave behind a lot more debris due to the constraints of time and lack of manpower.

Nevertheless, the team took pleasure in doing their bit to protect one of Kuching’s most popular and well-known historical diving sites.

Once on shore, the divers measured the debris collected so that the data could be logged and sent to Project AWARE (www.projectaware.org) – a global environmental movement founded by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) – as part of Dive Against Debris (DAD).

DAD is a comprehensive, year-round data collection programme focused on the prevention of underwater debris.

This type of information is crucial for any effort to influence environmental protection policies as well as gather key data about the current states of our oceans.

For their efforts, the MDD divers also received Project AWARE certificates for their efforts to keep the ocean debris free.

“We hope that this (dive) will encourage and inspire other divers to get involved in cleaning marine debris,” Teo said.

Unseen menace

One of the aims of the Hiyoshi Maru wreck clean-up was to highlight the significant threat posed by marine debris on ocean environments and eco-systems.

Teo pointed out that one of most obvious difficulties with surveying the amount and impact of marine debris is that a lot of it is underwater – out of sight, out of mind.

“People won’t know it is there unless they look below the surface – like scuba divers who see first-hand the damage it can cause to the environment.”

Thousands of marine animals and seabirds are killed all over the world every year by marine debris – whether from ingesting trash, getting entangled in fishing nets or having their habitats and food sources depleted by rubbish.

For endangered populations such as certain species of sea turtles, even the loss of a handful of their kind can mean the difference between survival and extinction.

Underwater threat

Unfortunately, marine debris is not the only threat faced by dive sites in Kuching. The other is the pilfering of artifacts which, to a certain extent, has been facilitated by the lack of legal protection and oversight over historical marine sites (WWII shipwrecks stripped – The Borneo Post, Sept 14).

Both marine debris and the removal of artifacts are causing serious – even irreparable –

harm to Kuching’s burgeoning underwater tourism industry.

“I would say diving at the Japanese wrecks in Kuching is one of the best (wreck diving experiences) in the whole of Malaysia right now. It’s an asset we rarely promote but now (through MDD) we have a good opportunity to promote it,” said Teo.

According to Teo, wreck diving in Kuching has at least two big advantages compared with other wreck  sites in Malaysia.

Firstly, the historical value of three Japanese WWII shipwrecks which carries much significance not only for Malaysia, but Borneo as a whole. The Hiyoshi Maru, Katori Maru and destroyer Sagiri were actively used during the Japanese invasion of Borneo, and subsequently sunk by Dutch submarines as they were heading to Kuching.

War artifacts such as artillery shells and cannons can still be found at the sites although others, including anchors and sake (Japanese wine) bottles have been taken away by unscrupulous divers and  hunters.

The wrecks have also become a refuge and magnet for marine life as they are transformed into reefs by time and the forces of nature.

Barracuda, sharks, yellowtail snapper, teira batfish, moray eels and giant groupers are just a few of the different types of marine species which divers can find at these sites.

“It is a living museum down there,” Teo pointed out.

The wrecks’ second advantage is their depth which is considered quite shallow for wreck diving (Hiyoshi Maru – 21 meters; Katori Maru – 22 meters; Sagiri – 26 meters) meaning that they are more accessible to divers with less diving experience compared to other Malaysian wreck sites (note: an Advanced Open Water diver rating is required in order to dive at the Kuching WWII Japanese wreck sites).

Tourism potential

In May this year, Tourism Malaysia conducted a product introduction for dive operators, diving industry players, and tourism officers from all over Malaysia. The agency brought them to Kuching to check out the wrecks and according to Teo, the feedback received was that Kuching had one of the best wreck diving experiences.

The wrecks were also highlighted recently on RTM TV1’s X-Plorasi programme on August 25.

For the past nine years, Teo has been organising diving tours and trips for local and foreign divers, so he knows first-hand the tourism appeal of the Japanese wrecks.

“We have done a lot of dive at Hiyoshi Maru and we brought a lot of tourists. They just love the wreck and a lot of them are coming back,” he shared.

One of his recent customers from the Philippines has already made plans to return for the next diving season and to bring his technical divers from China with him.

Teo pointed out that if the sites’ strong tourism appeal was to be coupled with the healthy upsurge in number of locals taking up diving as a leisure activity, it would represent a potentially profitable market for Kuching dive operators, in addition to the spillover effects for the local economy as a whole.

However, all this would be meaningless if Kuching’s best diving sites are buried under a mound of marine debris and stripped of all their historical artifacts.

Teo emphasised the government, the diving community and the public at large needed to work together to protect the significance of the Japanese wrecks as historical and marine sites.

He hopes to be able to do the MDD annually and draw more involvement from all three segments to make it a bigger event next year.

For more information about wreck diving in Kuching or the MDD, please visit http://www.wetwolfdive.com or Premier Marine & Scuba Centre’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/divekuching.