A ticking time bomb at sea

Not your usual beverage: An unexploded fish bomb on the sea floor. — Photo courtesy of WWF Malaysia.

WITH Bohey Dulang island in the background, a 30-something divemaster checked his surroundings.

There was no other boat visible at the Tun Sakaran Marine Park.

It was a good day for diving in the east coast of Sabah, and he thought they had the sea all to themselves.

It was last October, and he was guiding two 30-something scuba divers from China for a 45-minute dive to spot hawksbill and greenback turtles as well as pygmy seahorses the size of a grain of rice.

They descended into the water about 25m deep.

Five minutes into their dive, the divemaster heard a loud blast – PAK!!!

“It was deafening. It felt like the blast happened next to my ears. My guests signalled to ask what it was. I signalled back to indicate it was a fish bomb blast,” said the dive­­master, who refused to be identified as he did not want any trouble with the authorities and fish bombers.

“I felt afraid because it was a dangerous act.”

The divemaster hand-signalled to his two guests to ascend as he was afraid another fish bomb might go off.

“Nanti kedua kali dia hentam (Later, he might hit a second time),” he said.

Once they surfaced, the Chinese tourists asked him about the loud sound. He answered: “Fish bomb.”

They were surprised, and asked “really, there is such a thing here? That is dangerous for us”.

He pacified them by saying that fish bombing did not take place that often.

But during the trip, the dive­master saw a 4.5m-long speedboat with a 15hp engine and three youths in it. He asked his boatman to approach the speedboat, which was 300m away.

He asked the three youths in Ba­­hasa Malaysia: “Do you know you can’t fish bomb in this area?”

“Really, we can’t do fish-bombing in this area?” one of them retorted.

Firstly, the use of a fish bomb is illegal in Malaysia. Secondly, the area is in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, which is a gazetted marine conservation park covering 340sq km of sea and coral reefs and 10sq km of land.

“You can’t use fish bombs in this area,” the divemaster repeated.

One of them took out a fish bomb and gestured as if he wanted to light it and throw it at him. Sensing that the situation had turned dangerous, the divemaster signalled to the boatman to return to Semporna town, about 35km away.

He reported the incident to the authorities but no action was taken against the three fish bombers till now.

Welcome to Semporna, where fish-bombing is almost a daily threat in the divers’ paradise.

On July 5, local divemaster Ab Zainal Abdu, 30, and China nationals Zhao Zhong, 26, and Xu Yingjie, 26, were killed while diving at a site off Pulau Kalapuan in Semporna waters.

The deaths of the three divers have been confirmed to be from a bomb blast following the completion of their post-mortem on Wed­nes­day.

Fish-bombing, according to the owner of the dive company which the divemaster worked for, is rampant in the waters off Semporna.

“Depending on which island you visit, you can hear fish-bombing almost every day.

“The joke among the dive operators here is that even with Esscom (Eastern Sabah Security Command), they dare to fish bomb in the day time. Almost every day we can hear it,” said the dive company owner.

A fish bomb blast, according to him, is so powerful that it can be felt one kilometre away.

“It also sends a shockwave where you are momentarily stunned un­der­­­­­water,” he said.

Many in the dive industry in Semporna scoffed at Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub’s statement that fish-bombing cases were rare in the country, feeling that the mi­nister was clueless about the severity of the situation.

If Salahuddin had read a four-month study conducted by WWF Malaysia in Semporna, he would have known that a total of 263 fish-­bombing incidents were recorded between June and September last year.

“It is shocking that within just a four-month study period, we re­corded an average of 65 fish­-bombing cases in 2018.

“Clearly, urgent action needs to be taken to combat fish-bombing,” said WWF Malaysia’s interim marine head Monique Sumam­pouw.

The statistics by WWF Malaysia are just the tip of the iceberg.

Since the fatal fish-bombing in­cident, the dive company owner has received WhatsApp and Facebook messages from the international diving community.

“Divers from all over the world sent their condolences, and also shared their fish-bombing experien­ces in Semporna waters,” he said.

“It is a rare incident. Around the world, we have divers who drown or who are hit by boat propellers.

“But to be fish bombed is very rare. That is why it has captured the attention of the international diving community.”

The international divers have asked him why such activities are allowed if it is illegal in Malaysia.

The only answer, said the dive company owner, is that there’s little enforcement.

The death of the three divers by fish-bombing was a tragedy waiting to happen.

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