By THE BORNEOTODAY TEAM
KOTA KINABALU – Universiti Sabah Malaysia (UMS) had best come up with a credible explanation as to why the wrecks of three Japanese World War II cargo ships were removed from waters of Usukan Bay inKota Belud.
The State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun said he would be meeting UMS officials this week (Feb 16) over the issue and they had better be able to provide the answers.
“I want to know how the university could destroy such important artefacts,” he said after launching the office of a tour and travel company here on Sunday.
“This so-called salvage work gained a lot of attention from around the country (as well as internationally) and I want answers,” Masidi was quoted as saying in a news portal.
The wrecks, located in Usukan Bay, were a popular diving attraction for local and foreign tourists, and their removal has angered fishermen, diving enthusiasts and environmental groups.
The three wrecks were that of the Higane Maru, Hiyori Maru and Kokusei Maru that were en route to Manila when they were attacked and sunk by the US Navy.
Eighty-three sailors and 45 soldiers were said to have gone down with the three ships.
In earlier reports, UMS vice chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Harun Abdullah said the removal of the wrecks was due to fears of toxic contamination in the area.
He said the wrecks were removed because their metal bodies could contaminate and affect marine life in the bay.
Harun also said that UMS would be carrying out chemical research on the wrecks to prevent sea pollution, which would affect the livelihood of fishermen.
UMS claimed that it had obtained the Marine Department’s approval to salvage the wrecks.
The university had also explained that its research on the wrecks was funded by Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise, a Sabah-based company, which then commissioned a Chinese-registered vessel for the salvage operation within the area specified by the Department.
Prof Harun said conventional archaeological research would be dangerous due to the state of the wrecks.
He said discussions were being held with a company involved in the salvage work to conduct research on having a more environmentally friendly artificial reef.
Harun said the university’s archaeologists discovered that the bases of the wrecks were so badly damaged that they would completely disintegrate within the next decade.
Professional divers and those arranging dive tours to the site have criticised the wrecking of the wrecks, calling it a short-sighted exercise and one without any basis at all.
“Apart from the monetary benefits from one of our underwater attractions, we have lost a national treasure,” said a diver who asked not to be named.
“Some 72 years of history has just disappeared in a week. Our generation and the next have lost something wonderful, just when diving among ship wrecks was picking up, even among the growing number of local divers.”
Another diver said the wrecks have simply disappeared and what is left on the seabed are pieces of scrap metal, stressing whoever commissioned the so-called salvage operation as irresponsible and without an inkling of what goes down under.
“Many of those new divers start off by exploring the Usukan wrecks as many cannot go out to Sipadan and other famous dive sites,” said a promoter of diver tours.
“But what is frustrating is that my children and others will not be able to experience a little piece of history.”