BY RODERICK EIME IN SABAH
Starting a world-standard eco-resort from scratch is no easy feat, but Mataking Island (Pulau Mataking) in the Celebes Sea to the East of Sabah is an example of how to go about it.
Ten years ago the palm oil tycoon, David Sie, identified a lonely, forlorn island as a potential site for a reef and dive resort. Only problem was the island was awash with garbage, the reefs were “bombed to hell” by illegal fishermen and the turtles had vanished because their nests were continually raided.
Mataking Island is located in an area of the world called the ‘Coral Triangle’ where fish and coral diversity outstrips both the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean put together.
“When the resort opened in 2004, it was just the beginning of the job,” General Manager Luke Cox told HM. “In ten years we are seeing a very healthy return of fish and turtle numbers, but the coral recovery is much slower.”
Luke goes on to tell me that 24 armed guards regularly patrol the waters off the island as part of their “enforcement” of fishing and dumping laws, but also stresses that “education” is their strongest weapon.
“Our 25 landscaping staff still collect over 50kg of plastic and rubbish off our beaches every day, but we are slowly educating the villages on neighbouring islands to stop throwing everything into the sea,” Cox said.
Every year the resort holds what it calls “reef day” and brings hundreds of local Bajau kids from the islands to the reef, gives them a T-shirt and a diving mask.
“The kids are amazed at what they see under the water,” Cox said. “They have only ever seen dead fish float to the surface, never the beautiful corals and sea life in its natural state. We hope this will help them understand the value of the reef and why we are trying so hard to preserve it.”
The resort also works with the WWF on a turtle breeding program. Freshly laid nests are relocated to a secure area at the resort to be allowed to hatch in safety. Hatchlings are then released by guests at 6.30pm and allowed to make their trademark frantic race to the surf unmolested by predators. The project is both an attraction and a tangible conservation effort.
Currently the resort has just 37 rooms with a plan to expand to a sustainable maximum of 50. Most guests arrive from the EU for peak season, although Australian and Asian markets are booming, particularly China (up 270%). Diving is offered to PADI 5-star standard at over 30 sites around the reef including a 52-foot steel cruiser sunk as an artificial reef.
Turtles, rays, reef fish and bright corals abound in this delicate ecosystem in a benchmark ecologically sustainable resort project that is part of a wider, growing consciousness in Malaysian Borneo.