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Dive Photo Guide


An Underwater Photographer's Guide To Lankayan
 May 25, 2009 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

By Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

Encompassing an area of roughly 460 square kilometers just off Northern Sabah's shores, right where Malaysian Borneo's landmass, small offshore islands and international waters intermingle with their Philippine counterparts in the Sulu Sea, lies the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area - SIMCA, for friends. The island of Lankayan and its two neighbouring sisters Billean and Tegaipil have been declared since the year 2000 part and parcel of the protected area in what has since proven - beyond any doubt - to be an extraordinary landmark in the history of eco-tourism. Destructive practices such as cyanide fishing, reef bombing and deep-water trawling - which had been regularly employed in the area for several years by local and Philippine fishermen - are today no more allowed in the surrounding waters, turtle eggs are regularly collected from nests dug in the sand and safely hatched under controlled conditions for reintroduction in the wild, and many other conservation programmes are now being - and will be in the future - vigorously implemented by SIMCA’s managing company Reef Guardian, a private venture working in strict accordance with the Sabah Wildlife Department.


Lankayan Island
The area within the borders of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area consists of a beautiful environment encompassing small uninhabited coral sand islands, patches of mangroves, huge seagrass beds, shallow sandy flats and an immense number of submerged coral reefs which host an enormous number of marine species, many of which are still waiting to be scientifically described. SIMCA’s main topside landmarks are the uninhabited and sun-scorched islands of Billean and Tegaipil and of course the fabled Lankayan, the only one with a human presence, seat of a world-famous, upper-class and most of all eco-friendly Dive Resort, sitting in splendid isolation on this tranquil little private island in the midst of the Sulu Sea.
Lankayan island

Since our first visit to Lankayan – more than twelve years ago - we immediately realized there was something special about the place. The island (or “Pulau” in Malay) is strategically situated between the coast of Sabah and the myriad of islands spreading from the Southern Philippines - its very name means in fact "the last outpost". This labyrinthine maze of shallow turquoise waters and jungle-clad sandy cays has hidden and protected for centuries the secret sea lanes used by pirates, poachers, smugglers, even assassins. Fish life is unbelievably abundant, luring in fleets of trawlers from both countries and the occasional big game fisherman. It was two of these - Ricky Chin and Kenneth Chung, two friends from the nearby coastal town of Sandakan - who discovered it several years ago during one of their big game fishing forays, and who made friends with Haji Bambi, the only man who back then was living there, after a life rich in adventures in the sea between Sabah and the Philippines. To make a long story short, their meeting was at the origin of Pulau Lankayan as we know it today - a small, pristine tropical island on which a quiet, elegant resort caters to the needs of discerning divers and vacationers from the world over.


Lankayan island

A perfect holiday destination, the place - a tiny dot in the Sulu Sea about one-and-a-half hours by speedboat from the coastal town of Sandakan in Malaysian Sabah, on the island of Borneo - is a gorgeous, picture-perfect cay, boasting pure white sandy beaches and a lovely, garden-like jungle interior, offering the exhilarating diving one has come to expect from Sabah’s dive sites (shallow coral reefs, unsurpassed macro life, undescribed new species waiting to be discovered, big fish action, enormous biodiversity, interesting wrecks). Add to the mixture an exquisitely styled, upscale resort, elegant and comfortable twin-sharing seafront chalets with private and well-appointed bathrooms, an open-air restaurant offering great food and a spectacular sundeck with an endless expanse of turquoise water just a few feet below, and you’ll see why we love the place. Here’s a private exotic island where even non-divers can enjoy the perfect holiday, relaxing on the beach or snorkelling in the crystal-clear shallow waters of the lagoon, while sea eagles fly over, their piercing screech tearing the sky in the distance, and the jungle-shrouded mountains of Sabah tower on the horizon, bathed in golden glorious sunsets. An informal, friendly, casual atmosphere adds to the pleasant feeling of “away-from-it-all” relaxation: everything is so well spaced out and cleverly planned you might sometime think you’re all alone by yourself on the island. The diving is at shallow to medium depths, always enjoyable, never risky or fatiguing. The dive center is well equipped and ideally situated at the end of the long jetty, while the island staff are - if possible - even more cheerful and willing to help than in the rest of Sabah, a country remarkable for its extraordinary tradition of hospitality.

Small species - many absolutely fascinating and quite a few still undescribed by science - here reign supreme: resplendent gobies, unbelievably colourful nudibranchs, dwarf cuttlefish, fluorescent fire urchins with attendant crabs and huge lobsters dot the sand and coral bottom of each and everyone of the thirty-plus dive spots Lankayan offers at the moment. The list of rare species regularly observed here includes robust and ornate ghost pipefish, frogfish, mandarinfish, blue-ringed octopus, wonder octopus and giant jawfish.


Neon Triplefin underwater photograph in Lankayan

Larger sightings along the reef include lots of harmless bamboo and coral cat sharks, blue-spotted rays, yellowtail and chevron barracudas, huge shoals of scads and robust fusiliers, giant bumphead parrotfish, a large variety of scorpionfish and lots of leopard (or zebra, as they are sometimes called) sharks. Chance encounters with bigger fish are not uncommon: very large adult blacktip sharks are commonly observed in several of Lankayan’s outer dive sites, whale sharks patrol in season the open water between the island and the mainland, while giant guitarfish – locally known as malu-malu - are a rarer sighting. During our most recent trip there we have bumped into a 3-meter long Galapagos shark leisurely cruising at a depth of 5 meters, and many of our Sabahan friends have told us about occasional tiger shark sightings. A fascinating array of spectacular species is also encountered by the two wrecks in the vicinity of Lankayan: the imposing remains of a huge Chinese wooden fishing vessel sunk on purpose, now home to giant groupers, giant marbled stingrays, frogfish, scorpionfish, lionfish and huge shoals of pelagics, and what is left (very little, alas!) of an historically significant armed barge belonging to the “Mosquito Fleet”, serving with the Japanese and sunk during World War II.

shark underwater photograph in Lankayan
One word of advice: due to its close proximity to the coast of Sabah with its attendant run-off from big muddy rivers and oil palm plantations, underwater visibility at Lankayan is usually far from perfect, even if there are unpredictable exceptions. While this is of no consequence at all for macro photographers and videographers, it may prove quite frustrating for wide angle lovers and big fish addicts, especially since it quite common encountering large animals during the course of a single dive (our record is five leopard sharks, one huge mangrove stingray, a whale shark and a roving pack of five adult blacktip sharks in one day!). Lankayan is a macro life paradise with few comparisons but no destination for wide angle photographers, and divers must think of it more in terms of a successful conservation story than as a gin-clear water destination. As a tropical island destination for honeymooners, snorkellers, diving families and macro researchers it has however very few equals anywhere.


Whale Shark  underwater photograph in Lankayan

But to Ken Chung - the Managing Director of PSR, tthe dive resort company which also owns and operates Kapalai, close to world-famous Sipadan, and the Jungle resort in Sepilok - there is more to Lankayan than just tourism. With the passing of time, Ken Chung realized the intricate environment of Pulau Lankayan and its surrounding coral reefs were going to be endangered soon. The very same marine life which attracted tourists and divers from all over the world was acting as a beacon for fishing boats, raiding these waters in always greater numbers. Local fishermen and their counterparts from the Philippines would not hesitate in resorting to highly destructive fishing methods, largely and since a long time in use on SE Asian coral reefs: fish bombing (in which home-made and quite dangerous bombs consisting of a bottle full of fertilizer are thrown in the water or on coral reefs), cyanide fishing (in which the noxious chemical is squirted using a spray bottle among the nooks and crannies of the reef to stun fish later sold to Chinese restaurants) and trawling (with weighted nets which scrape the sea bottom floor, destroying everything in their path) would soon take their toll if left unchecked. The first tentative conservation efforts soon paid off: feeding a resident population of baby and juvenile blacktip sharks encouraged the endangered predators to stick close to the island reefs, away from roving fishermen in the open sea; scores of hawksbill and green turtle eggs, laid in the sand by their mothers, would be dug out and hatched inside fences which protected them from predators, and hatchlings would be carefully released into the sea; the cutting of trees and shrubs on the island would be kept to a minimum, and all trash and refuse would be carefully disposed of. We were there all the time, twice a year, to see and follow the growth of an eco-friendly mentality on the island. Year after year, we noticed how the steps taken in the right direction would not interfere with the functioning of the resort, the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of which still unfailingly impresses first-time visitors. The place was good - but it was getting better. Big fish sightings became the norm - we missed the Giant guitarfish but many others did not, and we were the first ever to capture on film the incubation of eggs in the oral cavity by the endemic Giant jawfish.



Jawfish underwater photograph in Lankayan

We swam with huge Whale sharks, we witnessed the violent courtship ritual and subsequent mating of Leopard sharks, we found lovely Zebra crabs and Coleman’s shrimps tucked among the venomous spines of fire urchins. Marine life was improving, the unmistakable signs were everywhere. The hard and sometimes dangerous job of Resort Manager Ricky Chin - always ready to jump on a speedboat to chase away poaching fishermen - was giving welcome results. But then it became clear a single private operation would not be enough to properly patrol and manage such a huge area - more was needed.


Coleman Shrimp underwater photograph in Lankayan


Enter Reef Guardian, the private company which now works side-by-side with the Malaysian Government and the Wildlife Department of Sabah to manage and conserve the area. A lot of hard work, tireless lobbying and clever political maneuvering succeeds at last in transforming the dream in reality: in 2003 the Marine Protected Area (MCA) of the Sugud Islands is finally officially declared. The playground of a lucky few has become a winning example of ecological conservation through the cooperation between private enterprise and the State: PSR, through it subsidiary Reef Guardian, protects and conserves the natural resources of the area, reinvesting part of the profits into its management. Patrol boats have been bought and equipped, staff has been employed and well trained, marine biologists have been invited to conduct surveys and a census of the marine life. New methods of rubbish and non-solid waste disposal have been developed and researched, to first minimize and then completely avoid the seepage of nitrates (the bane of island resorts with no sewer systems) in the surrounding, pristine sea waters. The huge problem of phosphates coming from oil plantations on the coast and being flooded out to sea - where they lead to plankton and algal blooming, putting the survival of coral colonies at risk - by rains and rivers is going to be tackled soon. And many more steps will surely be taken in the future to preserve, defend and re-habilitate the splendid, fragile marine ecosystem of Lankayan for us all to enjoy. The story of Lankayan shows what can be done when an individual with a thinking brain, a clear vision (and admittedly a lot of capital) can do when he sets his mind on eco-tourism and marine environment protection. Its success has recently led to the creation of a second eco-friendly upscale dive resort, this time on the neighboring island of Billean: from what we have seen – it will probably open in 2010 - it promises to be even better than the original one on Lankayan.

We have travelled and dived the world far and wide, but the story of Pulau Lankayan and the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area is still quite unique in our experience. Most dive resort operators are not really willing to embark into such a far-reaching voyage, being contented to mind their own business, failing to realize the extent of consequences when the local government (and people) is not actively involved. How many private entrepreneurs have actually succeeded in having the government declare a protected area their own island or stretch of land? How many tourist and dive operators have actually tried and fought to do so? Protection of habitats as a whole is the first unavoidable step towards protection of single species, and habitat protection needs lots of money to be implemented correctly. The costs are high, but as the axiom says, "think globally, act locally". Patrols must be regularly mounted, staff must be properly trained in field procedures and regularly paid, expensive equipment must be acquired and mantained, research must be done and updated, data must be stored and analyzed. Without money, there's no protection, and without protection only destruction will follow. The proper management of a successful dive resort and operation such as Lankayan points the way in the right direction. The results are there for all to see.


Sunset in Lankayan


Clownfish underwater photograph in Lankayan



Clownfish underwater photograph in Lankayan



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