Clement Lee is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial dive industry pioneer. In this interview, we take a reminiscent look back at the challenges overcome and the awards won.
PS: When was the first time you saw and dived on Sipadan? Can you recall your first impressions and sentiments? Did you think that this could become one of the finest dive destinations on the planet?
CL: We started Borneo Divers in 1983, but it was in 1984 we went to do a survey of a freighter in Ligitan reef, and after the survey, we went straight to Sipadan to check it out, because we could tell from the depth charts that it had to be significantly different from the other islands that we knew.
And already from the first time we hit the water there, we saw that it was something special and that this was our future. What I saw was beyond description. It was a like a living aquarium. We thought it was an adventure area, but at the same time, we also asked ourselves how to protect this pristine environment and the marine life.
PS: What was there then? Was there any sort of tourist infrastructure in the area at all?
CL: Semporna (the bustling town which is a point of disembarkation for the resorts on Mabul, Kapalai and others –ed. ) was just a fishing village at the time, with no infrastructure and only very basic facilities. When we started off on Sipadan, we had to buy, hire and bring in everything from Semporna and Tawau (bigger towns some distance away –ed.) using chartered boats to bring it to the island. In a way, there was none at all. We had to start from zero.
PS: What made you decide to go into recreational diving and build a dive operation?
CL: There was no professional recreational dive industry at all at the time. So, we needed to start it, but at the same time, we also needed to start dive tourism in the area. We brought in the first guests in 1984 and never looked back.
PS: What obstacles did you have to overcome?
CL: Oh dear... There were just too many. Since we are talking about Sipadan, it was everything from permissions to logistical issues and setting up infrastructure. Because we were the pioneers, nobody knew about recreational scuba diving or what the dive industry was all about, so there was no help to get. We had to organise everything ourselves. And at that time, things like the airport were not as good as they are today, and transfers from the airport took 3-4 hours in contrast to the hour it takes today. It was a quite a challenge, but I am glad to say that over the years, things have smoothed out and better infrastructure has been built.
PS: What do you consider your biggest victories or achievements?
CL: When we started, we knew where we going. ...
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Sabah special - Reefs & Rainforests :: Pulau Lankayan - Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area - Sepilok Orangutans - Kinabatangan River - Danum Valley Conservation Area - Sipadan, Mabul & Kapalai - Interview with Clement Lee :: Kids Love to Dive :: Archaeology; Underwater settlements explored in the Yucatán jungle :: Axis Mundi, the making of a film :: Drysuits; What to purchase and taking a look at the recent models and latest trends :: Photography; Tony White explains how he took that macroshot :: Review of the Poseidon/CIS-Lunar Disvcovery Closed Circuit Rebreather :: Dreamy underwater world of American artist, Jude Cowell