Paradise (Almost) Lost

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Even after the damage, the reefs are beautiful and tourists keep coming.

By Craig Simons

Everything seemed perfect in paradise. I had just made a 41-mile boat trip from the northeastern coast of Malaysian Borneo to Lankayan Island, a seven-hectare hump of sand and jungle in the Sulu Sea, and I stepped off the boat onto white sand beaches ringed by towering palm trees and turquoise water.

The view was even better 20 meters underwater. Accompanied by a handful of divers from Europe and Southeast Asia, my father and I were awed by the diversity of marine life—some 2,000 species of fish, 600 kinds of coral, and six varieties of sea turtles. Floating over massive stacks of brain coral and sea fans, we were enveloped in clouds of fish that made Brazil’s Carnival look bland, and over three days of diving I spotted several leopard sharks, dozens of puffer fish, and scores of magnificent lion fish with red-and-white fins that flared like peacock tails. It was hard to imagine a place more alive.

That is, until I talked with Ken Chung, the 40-something-year-old owner of the resort. Over drinks on my last evening on the island, he said something that I hadn’t considered possible: The underwater heaven I’d found had been more beautiful a decade ago. In 1989 Chung opened one of the first resorts on neighboring Sipadan Island, long touted as a must-see by serious divers. In the early 1990s, giant schools of sharks, turtles, and barracuda raced through the waters. “In those days, everything was pristine,” he said. “The change is a long and very sad story.” Since the damage has happened slowly, only people who witnessed it firsthand can tell that tale. First, Chung said, big fish began disappearing, victims of fishermen who illegally used dynamite to blast them out of the water or cyanide to stun them and then scoop them off the bottom. Populations of sea turtles and dugong, a kind of sea cow, declined as trawlers ripped up huge beds of sea grasses. Reefs began to die as pollution from island resorts and mainland plantations seeped into the system. Global warming has also taken a toll. A water-temperature spike in 1998 caused coral bleaching in the area.

The problem, I decided, is that even after the damage, the reefs are beautiful and tourists keep coming. “If you didn’t see the reefs then,” explained Don Baker, a marine biologist working on Lankayan, “you don’t have a baseline to compare them against today.”

I was thinking about that a few days later in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. The newspapers were full of stories about the Kyoto Protocol, the global pact to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Only 35 countries signed; the United States—which produces one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases—wasn’t one of them. I started to wonder if the problem of global warming is like the one I saw at Lankayan. The environmental damage is happening too slowly for most people to realize what’s being lost. Coral reefs may be less beautiful, but they’re still beautiful. Bird species have shifted their migratory routes, but you can still hear them.

With the exception of residents on tiny Pacific islands imminently threatened by rising seas, most people don’t think things are so bad that they should give up comforts simply based on the warning of some scientists.

But then I started thinking about how I had wished I could have dived in the Sulu Sea 10 years ago, when there were so many fish that divers could sometimes see nothing but scales and fins. And I started to wonder what today’s kids will see when they visit Lankayan Island in 2015. Maybe they’ll see a few fish and some coral and think it’s paradise. But I’ll know better.

Craig Simons C’95 moved to China with the Peace Corps. He now works as a freelance journalist in Beijing.

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