Green thumb in the dive business


By TAN JU-ENG

ROBERT Lo is proud of the garden that he has built in his backyard. A myriad of organisms has grown in and around the structures that he has put up, and other creatures have also made the garden their home. Lo calls these creatures “pets” and he is very animated when he talks about them. 

But unlike normal gardens, Lo’s is under the sea. It is behind his dive resort, the Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART), on Mabul Island across from Semporna in Sabah.  

And the “pets” that he so happily talks about are angelfish, rockfish, stonefish, octopus, snapper, and flamboyant cuttlefish. 

“Many of the fishes grew up there! We started with a few and now we have many permanent residents! There are three huge garoupa near the jetty. Occasionally they will come up and play.”  

The underwater garden is still being developed, he says, and when it is completed, there will certainly be more sea creatures there.  

By then, divers would not have to go far to see these creatures as they would virtually be at his doorstep, he adds. 

Lo, 45, is in the process of constructing an artificial reef. He has also built a kilometre-long jetty leading from the resort and alongside it he is building water bungalows as part of his resort expansion. 

To build his artificial reef, he has lowered 70 box structures, measuring two metres square and made from ironwood, into the sea. It’s been a month and a half since the structures were laid and many sea creatures have already made homes there. 

“I like sitting 20 to 30 feet under water and watch the fishes,” says Lo, who plans to allow people to view the reef.  

“If I could, I would like to eventually put up a rope and people could 'take a walk' in this reef to look at fishes.”  

A former banker, Lo began building this resort 10 years ago out of a love for diving and a fascination for the ocean.  

“I learned to dive in Hong Kong and I used to go diving in the Philippines and Indonesia. After snorkelling in Sipadan and seeing the spectrum of fishes and the beauty of the reef there, I knew there was potential for a dive resort here,” he says.  

“Many of my friends laughed at me when I first suggested building a dive resort in Mabul. At that time I was working as a banker in Hong Kong and that was a very secure job.”  

After doing a bit of calculation, he was convinced of the huge potential for this ocean island and with that, he left Hong Kong where he had been living for seven years.  

Together with his brothers, Lo began work on building SMART, which was the first resort to be built on Mabul Island. 

“SMART is about doing what I like, mixing work with business.” 

Always ready with a story or two to tell about his experiences both as a diver and as an entrepreneur, Lo draws a somewhat comical analogy between land and sea. 

“You see, you’ll never know what you will find in the ocean. It’s like if a being from beyond the sky were to scoop earth with a net, it will not know what it will find as there are so many things here!  

A seasoned traveller, Lo believes in personally marketing his resort to travel agents overseas. 

“There is a big market for divers in Europe, and especially in Germany. You just have to speak to the agents there and participate in tourism expos,” he says. 

There is also a huge diving interest among the Italians, and April to August would see many of them at his resort. 

He travelled to Thailand and Indonesia to get ideas on how to build his resort that now has 47 chalets.  

Apart from the artificial reef, Lo has also designed and constructed wave breakers to protect the beach fringing the resort. 

“I am studying the sea water movement and I think the wave breakers worked as the sand is beginning to settle back on the beaches,” he says. 

He has recently returned from a resort-hopping trip in Bali to pick up ideas for his water bungalows. 

His future plans for the resort include putting up conferencing facilities, a health spa and a research centre for reef life. 

“I will invite university undergrads to do their research here. It would be easy for them to do their work on the ocean from here.” 

The resort also helps to nurture his other interest, which is to meet people and share experiences whether about diving, fish or good food. 

For now, he spends a good bit of his time, when he is not travelling, on building and watching his artificial reef grow.  

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