What? Islands, Sea Gypsies
Where? Semporna, Sabah
Lost Ratings: ***** Less well-known than Sipadan, but has more biodiversity. Unique sea gypsy culture.
Gazetted in 2004 as Sabah’s seventh state park, Tun Sakaran Park encompasses 35,000 hectares, by far the largest marine park in Malaysia. Located within the park are 8 islands which make up only 954 hectares of the total area. The largest of these islands are Bodgaya and Boheydulang, both of which are the protruding parts of an extinct volcano. Other islands are Sebangkat, Selakan, Maiga, Sibuan, Mantabuan, Church Reef and Kapikan Reef.
Despite what is written in some publications, Sipadan (and Mabul) is not part of Tun Sakaran Park. Sipadan is located south of Semporna, whereas the marine park is towards the north-east, only 20 minutes offshore from Semporna, but near to the international maritime border with the Philippines.
The importance of this area was realized as far back as 30 years ago, and Sabah Parks and WWF have worked hard to safeguard its unique treasures. Tun Sakaran Park has higher species diversity than at any other site in Malaysia. This includes 544 species of coral reef fish, 255 species of hard coral and 70 species of soft coral. Some of the species have not been recorded elsewhere in Sabah, and some have only just been discovered. In simple terms, the biodiversity here is greater than at Sipadan.
And it is not just under the sea that biodiversity flourishes. Within minutes of landing at Boheydulang Island, the bird-watchers among us were visibly thrilled to have spotted the beautiful black-naped fruit-dove, a first for all of them. The fantastic seascape, and the many species of sea birds and rare forest birds, augurs well for plans to promote Semporna to non-divers.
What makes the Tun Sakaran Park truly unique though is the people who live in it. There are about 2000 people living on the 8 islands in the marine park. Locally, they are known as the Bajau Laut or Sea Bajaus. They are also called the Sea Gypsies for their nomadic, seafaring lifestyle. Many have settled down permanently on the islands. Instead of chasing them away, Sabah Parks has instead chosen to enlist their help in the conservation and protection of the marine park. Seaweed farming has been encouraged to prevent the people from over-exploiting the marine resources. In return, the fishermen turned “sea-farmers” who now earn more than before, act as the Park’s eyes and ears, as they realize that destruction of the coral reefs and its eco-system would also affect their seaweed farms.