Polishing a coral reef

Finally, got to do something to actually care about coral reefs. Never thought that this would be exactly the same as gardening. Using a toothbrush. But let’s not run forward that much… During the stay we did a couple of activities.

Out of the water cleaning of beaches was the most prominent activity. This is typical, our beaches collect so much thrash from the oceans that it seems a neverending work. We have seen many bottles floating in the water, ending up washed ashore from all different parts of the world. At the Perhentians, the most prominent sources were the geografically close locations: Thailand and China. Not that others don’t pollute but the local currents brought most of the thrash from these countries. Most of the other thrash was plastic straws and bags, we should really avoid using these. It’s sad to know that these were mostly from local sources as the resorts and tourism tends to produce these in big amounts.

While we did some cleanup of random beaches (or actually Aaron did as we were too busy with diving training), the biggest cleanup was working on the beach of the village itself. This place is a more complex case as it is mostly local thrash from the village which also includes big and heavy items such as washing machines. It looked really sad as those probably repairable but repairing on an island which doesn’t have any proper transport to bring these heavy items back and forth is almost impossible. Though I’d say that technical knowledge may be available as they do repair the boat engines in place and those stand out from the environment in an unreal way: modern state-of-the-art Honda and Yamaha motors in front of basic cottages. The villagers collected everything on the beach as they did not have funding for an organized transport to take them away and they hoped for some solution. Unlike the resorts who have the possibility of renting boats for the occasion. Some of this thrash gets in the water when storms hit or gets burned away, polluting even more. But the hopes of the villagers were answered in the form of some volunteers: one weekend a pretty big group workers of American Express arrived from Kuala Lumpur. Being about 30 people together we could finally start cleaning up the local beach. But we wanted to involve the locals, too.

Involving them meant that they had to be made interested: the project organized some boats to take on the metal pieces (as they have recycling value). We lifted tons of metal into these boats and organized the rest of the plastic as well on the shore. But as more and more layers of thrash got uncovered one understood that placing thrash ashore and burning is a tradition dating back some time… and considering that this is a tourist area with more attention one can imagine how does that work in other, less fortunate parts of the world. At least we were enough to do a cleanup and even help with the removal of some storm-shattered wire fences around the local football “stadium” so they could reuse the area for activities.

And let’s go underwater: the most prominent activity was removing algae from our local artificial reef. The reef itself consists of glass bottles embedded in concrete slabs and placed at shallow depths of 3-6m. Then broken coral pieces are collected and attached to these bottles which corals particularly like for some reason: in a few months these pieces fix themselves and start growing. But there is a catch: small corals are fairly vulnerable to everything so they need proper care. Algae starts growing over these reefs and it can kill the small coral (even if corals themselves do contain algae). So the reef needs to be cleaned of the algae regularly (every 3-4 days) but by extreme care, touching the corals themselves should be avoided. So we actually felt like gardeners, taking (not) our toothbrushes and brushing the bottles while floating at shallow depth. Sounds easy, right?

Then there is the thing: you have to be upside down to make sure not hitting the reefs with your fins or other scuba equipment (during scuba diving people look like a tangled octopus). And don’t touch the sea anemones with your uncovered arms (water was warm so no extra layers needed). Learn from the pro, I learned from my own mistake, having an itching arm for the rest of the day. And then there comes the diving at shallow depth: the problems with buoyancy when waves are tossing you around (and we tended to carry less weights again for not bumping into corals). So the ideal pose is using one hand to get a grip on a bottle and the rest to clean the others… and then you meet the guardians: damselfish are not big but they are extremely territorial and fierce so had to use gloves to avoid their desperate attacks to drive us away from their territory. Lots of fun to experience during these dives but they were actually pretty tiring. On the other hand it was really interesting to see many other curious fish come over to feed on the algae we removed, an interesting example of adapting to the environment. But at this point I have to mention that the need of removing algae is there because there aren’t enough fish in the sea to eat it as normal. The reason is guess what? The usual overfishing which damages other species, too, not only the ones one actually fishing for. Even is fishing got reduced in this area and locals do pay attention to the reef now.

Underwater activities continued with a few more: the first one was coral bleaching survey. Coral bleaching is the real nightmare for reefs and unfortunately is something we cannot to do too much about other than following up. It happens due to rise of water temperature, the algae in the corals die (hence the white color) and then the polips follow in a few weeks. There were 3 big bleaching events in the Perhentians in the last 8 years. We only experienced a few corals whitening out but it was a sad view. The bleaching survey itself is very well defined activity, even kids can do it. Or to rephrase: kids did it much better than we did. Period. It happens during snorkeling, we carried a slate where different color schemes are presented. We matched the color scheme against a coral, taking a note of the brightest and darkest color on it together with the coral type. Every person has to do around 20 of these and if this is done regularly every week for a few years, a useful scientific database is built up which can serve as the core of statistical analysis. The bleaching survey is standardized throughout the globe so results can be easily compared between coral reefs in different parts of the world. In the Perhentians local kids do it as part of their nature education which is a really nice forward thinking solution about involving the locals.

The next useful thing to do underwater was fish identification, this could serve as a base to survey propagation of different species between areas over the time. We only did a demo for this but it’s lots of fun by carrying another identification slate and practicing all the underwater signals for the different fish species. I successfully memorized about 5 signals and around just as many species (some pretty new to me), vigorously tried to use them and hoped for the best. Success rate was about 30% so I awarded some bad looks from our diver expert, Maddie. But I’ll never forget the most evil hand signal which is for tuna: a two-handed signal of imitating opening a can of tuna…

The last but not least introduction we got was about underwater measurements and survey skills. This happened training where we practiced precision swimming, handling measurement tape and able to control ourselves in those situations when proper buoyancy is needed. And we topped it off with the best activity coming from our fellow volunteer, Alex: underwater running competition. Have you ever tried to run into the water? Imagine doing that underwater, without fins (using arms is not allowed). Goal is simple: be the first to reach the finish line. Multiple theories were born, some tried to do ridiculous small jumps while others crawled the ocean floor like walking up a hill. Anyway, also learned that laughing is possible even with your regulator in your mouth!

Training days

In short these days proved that writing a blog while being on-site for a volunteering task is actually almost impossible. We never had to be warned twice to get to the bed at the end of the day. I’ve made the mistake of not taking notes so now I have to rely on my memories to share the experience. We started a little bit slow as our project dive instructors were also away for training.

Basically, we spent time on 3 different things during these days:

1. doing diving courses at different levels. We were three from Cisco, all different levels of diving experience so taking different courses. I chose to extend my knowledge from being an advanced open water diver to rescue diver. This was a very interesting but pretty exhausting choice. Started with two days of reading up the theory and then about 3 days of activities from emergency first responder course to actual surfacing with unconscious divers and doing surface rescue as well. My trainer was almost doing it marine style which served me well but was pretty tough. When I got my first time of relaxing in the hammock at the beach, I fell asleep in 5 minutes.
2. doing some training to understand what does the Perhentian Marine Research Station do and what kind of activities we can help out with. We also learned that normally this program was designed for at least 3 weeks and we understood why: for doing research we need practice and training before we can supply scientifically valuable data. It takes about 2 weeks to get a grip so our two week stay is useful to check upon how our support money is spent, not much more. Especially when also taking the diving courses. Probably reason to come back next year?
3. some programs to see how other projects are working and how do they fit into the life of the village.

Before all of these, we immediately took a water safety test to make our hosts sure about our skills in water. This was a unique thing to do at the village beach named Nemo beach which is one of the most beautiful reef areas close to the surface. As the test quickly turned into happy snorkeling in the tropical warm waters, we were greeted by insane amount of clownfish (hence the name of the beach), sea anemones and various coral formations so close to the surface that it took actual efforts to not to accidentally hit them: wearing fins for snorkeling is not allowed on the islands as they may damage the corals without the person noticing it. Well, yeah, hitting them with the toes is definitely noticable and painful. We also had our first view of the artificial reef built by the project (4-5 meters deep) using bottles enclosed in concrete, fixing broken coral pieces to them and hoping that they can attach and start growing, turning the artifical reef into a real one over many years. The initial impression was mindblowing, this was the first coral reef I saw in my life and the colors and marine life were really much more than I could expect. Good start!

As part of the greeting, we had a proper lunch in one of the village restaurants so we experienced some local cuisine. Turned out that there are many ways to eat rice as main dish and it was fun for the rest of the stay there. However, I was happy to eat something else than rice after we returned but that’s another story… Though would be unfair to state that we did not have the chance to eat anything else later: the grills of freshly caught fish (namely blue marlene and barracuda) were just simply awesome but we had to get these at the resorts, not in the village. Tells a lot where do most of the fishing industry work during the tourist season. Also, we all agreed on that squid prepared in malay style is definitely one of the best meals to try.

Oh, and the fruits: during the stay we practically lived on four different fruits. I had to have my everyday coconut which is a really refreshing experience. Deniz voted for the mango which had the season spot on. They serve it with chili sauce! And it works! And then we had the other two: the hairy one and the bald one. They both remind of lichi and very refreshing. I preferred … due to the lack of seeds. There was no durian on the islands which I consider lucky after tasting it later… not my cup of tea.

Still about food: during the first week we already had the chance to be part of a traditional malay dinner hosted by one of the families. This happened as a joint effort with our sister program, the Perhentian Turtle Project. We all received the traditional sarongs and visited the hosting family, sitting around on the floor and eating by hand. While it feels strange at first (especially eating by hand with all the sauces), it becomes fairly natural and it visibly brings people together: there is no way to rush when eating in this style. Our hosts were really good in serving local dishes and it was a very nice experience. The questions arose: how often can they have dinners like these within the family? And do they always serve so big variety of food? The latter was answered when we realized that the project pays for the dinner: of course we could not expect a local, simple family to suddenly host 10-15 guests to a full featured dinner.

After the first few days I finally got involved in the activities (I pushed for doing something before I started at the dive center as I already had the required certification). That’s for next post, stay tuned!

D-day

(16th September 2019) The day that we made landfall on the Perhentians… but we had to get there.

The morning surprise: it turned out we got a mosque next door to our hotel… and the speaker for calling to pray literally right in our window. So I got my most grumpy wakeup around 5:30. Good start, thanks… I think none of us was very tolerant in the morning. I think even the muezzin does it from recording and sleeps like a baby at home at this time. One more reason to choose the bus from Kuala Lumpur instead of the flight: it gets here in the morning so no need for accommodation, no call to pray early. Fortunately there was some chocolate left from the evening so the mood got fixed quickly.

We lined up for the offices at the jetty and it was pretty quick to get onto the boat (our tickets were organized by PMRS, the Perhentian Marine Research Station). In a quick turn we were already riding the waves towards the islands. Looking at fellow passengers one could immediately spot the divers wearing dive computers which made me feel good. Also an interesting observation (consistent with what I saw later): while expensive brands and style is not present or relevant, hairstyle seems to be important around this part of the world: all local guys coming back from the mainland seemed to be properly tuned. Even if an hour of waveriding may ruin it…

The ride wasn’t as choppy as expected so we were able to enjoy it. I’m always too worried as used to have some motion sickness during these. This became really irrational fear later during the stay as we traveled everywhere by boat during all the two weeks and really started to enjoy the choppy rides, too. After 40 minutes, the destination appeared on the horizon. The islands slowly emerged from from the all covering haze… the Indonesian fires still taking their toll (we are actually much closer to Borneo on this side of Malaysia). We finally rode to the bigger island to swap some passengers so getting close to the beach suddenly revealed the amazing tropical colors and the white sand: the sign of coral reefs under. It was an exciting moment, after being in transit for so long time: we started on a Friday afternoon from the office and it’s Monday morning when we arrived (dawn in European time). Finally.

We landed on the smaller island, at the jetty of the village. It immediately revealed that this was a village, not resort: locals went on their way at the jetty, boarding ships and taking motorbikes which look overpowered solution for a small village but carrying stuff around is much easier with them. We later noticed that some of them are already electric… the future slowly creeping in. Even if electricity is a precious asset on the islands, power cuts are supposed to be regular and expected. The electric network only covers the village and expected to serve at most fridges and lighting. No warm water and air conditioning (at least not at regular places, we could see air conditioning at the clinic and the police building). Even street lighting is served by solar charged LED lights. Resorts do cover their needs by running their own diesel generators 24/7… and this energy mostly goes for the comfort of tourists: air conditioning. One can feel that tourism (at least the more luxurious one) is really not good for the environment.

But back onto our arrival: we were greeted by our project leader/host/divemaster lady, Hidaya. She greeted us with smile and immediately took us to the Blue Temple Conservation house which is the base of the dive project. It’s a simple local house, with all the basic community needs of having a kitchen and an area for briefings. We spent significant amount of time there in the coming days studying for our dive courses. The house really reminded me of the camps I’ve been to as a student in high school, especially that we were to take turns in cooking and doing the dishes and cleanup ourselves. Big contrast to the resorts in the other parts of the island. The place had a traditional malay squatting toilet which is something to get used to.

As part of the arrival we also unloaded our baggage at the volunteer house which is our home for the two weeks there: it’s an even simpler building with bunk beds covered in mosquito nets. And making life possible: fans. They had to be constantly on when people were around as humidity is really high, coupled up with 28-30 degrees means constant sweating even during the night. And we had one more luxury: european toilet which is shared with the geckos taking over the house during the night.

The village itself was a bit of cultural shock at first, with thrash lying all around the streets, pipes and sewage driven freely onto the streets and domestic animals walking around it. It took a couple of days to get used to the fact that they do have different priorities than us when thinking of keeping things in order. The water is not drinkable so we have water filters installed everywhere where we could refill our water bottles. Our project had policy of using reusable water bottles and even using reusable metallic straws. This was proven right later when during beach cleanup we found disappointing amounts of plastic bottles and straws in the thrash…

There were some “paved” areas around the jetty and leading up to the village mosque, of course. The further away you got from these, the less infrastructure was in place. But worth mentioning that apart from the mosque, the best and biggest building is the school which puts light on how they think about the education. Kids enjoy going there and they get educated in English for nature sciences. Very forward looking approach, we found kids speaking really good English!

I found the people to be very nice and open, everyone greeted us or was smiling upon greeting. And had eye contact when walking through, so was easy to make friends and greetings were always returned.

About the animals: as usual with islands, it was a cat paradise, lots of cats around which makes me smile most of the time. Even our project had its own cat mother, Bones, who always brought fun into the meetings proudly presenting her newborn kitties. Also had the chicken around the house carrying names even if they did not belong to the project but they wanted to get involved with the (free) cat food. They needed to be regularly relocated outside the house.

We also immediately bumped into the huge, wannabe dinosaurs, the 1-2m long monitor lizards. They are territorial and like scavenging through the thrash but they’re opportunists, eat whatever they find. According to the stories they have eaten small kittens just a week before. We better watch our steps during the evenings in the dark outside!

C-day

(15th September 2019) So we had a day in Kuala Lumpur. Or actually half a day. This is just a small teaser of what this city can give but it was good for our start.

We agreed on starting the day early but we tried to save the world the previous night. In a very similar way to most politicians: sitting in the high tower, drinking wine, telling what people should do …

… so started relaxed in the top infinity pool of the hotel. And realized that while the view was amazing, one could not go past the extreme haze caused by the fires in Indonesia. More precisely it’s the island of Borneo, shared among Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, causing some discussions about who should take care of the problem. But smoke and fire do not care about the borders.

We finally decided to make use of our short half day in Kuala Lumpur and visited Batu caves. It’s about 20 minutes drive from the center and was an interesting experience to suddenly see sharp tropical limestone peaks emerging from the all covering haze. The caves themselves contain hindu temples and accessible through steep stairs. It shows the interesting mix of cultures in Malaysia: this is one the most important hindu shrines outside India. The place is beautifully decorated and comes in package with the usual monkeys (long-tailed macaqs). However, reading after the history it looks like that the caves only became famous in the late 19th century. The most prominent installation of the 50 meter tall god statue just happened in 2006.

I realized that humidity, heat, hangover and jetlag can harm my photography skills, a note for the rest of the trip: focus (pun intended). At the end of the visit I had to try my first ever coconut. Better late than never, eh?

We went back to the city and took a look at Chinatown… which looks like Chinatowns in most part of the world, selling tons of things, branded and unbranded. Of course, original ones. The interesting thing was to see the different churches even in this part of the city: only a few steps away there was a chinese and a hindu temple, too.

We finished with a quick visit to the botanical gardens where we found most of the paths we planned to use closed so decided to finally close the visit and prepare to get our luggage from the hotel and leave for the airport. Just to eat the most spicy soup of my life so far… that fixed stomach for the day.

We flew over to Kota Bharu airport and during the flight I already spotted the lights of the Perhentians. We are getting closer! Our flight was Air Asia which someone classified as the Ryanair of Asia. Well, the price may be otherwise it’s way better, pretty clean and nice planes.

Looking back to these flights I feel a bit guilty, Aaron made some calculations on the CO2 and we realized that for this trip we could have chosen the overnight bus to there. More in line with the purpose of the trip. Of course, our arguments were the convenience of the short travel and the mild excitement of sitting in a bus during the night where nothing can be seen outside. But it was still a flight which could have been avoided…

Anyway, we arrived at Kuala Besut, in a budget hotel right at the jetty where they were supposed to pick us up the next day. The Perhentians were at arm’s length now, adventure awaited us!

But we were still unprepared for what was about to come…

Backlog of the days in Perhentian

Decided to post finally as we seem to have some time. I’m lacking lots of posts due to either not having enough time (late nights or studying) or just simply being dead tired. Nights here lack all the luxury so we have to fight our way through usually, there are some enemies:

1. mosquitoes who have real good ways to find (the always existing) holes in the mosquito nets.
2. occasional bedbugs who need to be cleared by some disinfection.
3. some detergents used for the cleaning of our sheets which trigger allergic reactions.
4. constant noise from our fans (the only way of air conditioning).
5. night showers/storms which mean immediate closing of some windows and retrieval of hanged clothes (as they tend to never dry in this climate)

So for the coming posts I try to write a mostly daily summary of what happened, focusing on the more interesting days. Stay tuned!

B-day

Well, arrived in Kuala Lumpur just like James Bond likes it: shaken, not stirred. The last few hours of the flight were a mere turbulence which didn’t help in reducing the coming jetlag. Even tht stewardess managed to spill the drinks on me. Worked as refreshment, though.

It turned out that the airport is pretty far out of the city so we had some long cab ride with the local GRAB driver (Uber substitute and cashless payment app). This is always a great opportunity to get some local insights and tips about how things are going. And while the country is immediately feeling more developed and organized than expected (blaming my superficial knowledge again), I had to come to some conclusions about a few things:

1. the religion is important here… and there are quite a few (among others): muslims, christians, hindus, buddhists and chinese. Almost all people who we talked to in informal situations have managed to state what do they believe in. With some remarks about the others. This shows a bit of cultural tensions here and there. However all people were kind, helpful and spoke English on adequate level to get us going further (another new thing for me).
2. There are obvious tensions between the neighboring countries, Indonesia being mentioned all the time as the bad neighbor.
3. Related to #2, there are (rain)forest fires in Indonesia, painting the malaysian skies grey and make people wear masks on the streets. There it goes, fires outside Brazil get much less exposure these days. This might be a temporary thing but very bad sign.

I owe an apology: earlier I wrote about this trip lacking luxury. We stay in Kuala Lumpur for a night for several reasons: working off jetlag, exploring a bit and stocking up in local, reef-friendly sunblock and mosquito repellent. We took a pretty central, not exactly cheap hotel with an infinity pool on top.

The view was amazing but shown that the combination of forest fire smoke and humidity can produce lots of haze. As part of exploring the inner city during the evening we also experienced a nice rooftop bar onlooking to the famous Petronas towers. At least we could take an even better view of the modern city which is an interesting mix of modern skyscrapers, highways, really lush rainforest-looking parks and modern transportation like a monorail system (there are definitely others, too, but was not really visible during our evening) together with asian style street markets. While spreading across quite big area, the city has about 3 millions of inhabitants so it’s far not as big as common counterparts. In overall, it feels like how the future was imagined in the 80s, could have filmed Blade Runner here.

We had a great seafood dinner in a typical hot and humid food market on the street. On the way going back to the hotel we also experienced unexpected things: saving a kitten from the middle of the road (he could hopefully get away after) and a muslim lady who told herself to be a single mom…. a combination that I thought didn’t exist.

Next day plans are visiting Batu Caves and departing towards the eastern coast so we can board the small ferry to the Perhentian islands.

A-day

So finally it’s official: we are en route to a remote but beautiful island in Malaysia to help with coral reef maintenance. The beginning is a long and boring set of flights and less boring transportation to get there. The route is Oslo-Doha-Kuala Lumpur-Kota Bharu-Kuala Besut-Perhentian Islands.  A couple of hours of great opportunity to think about the whole adventure: how did we start this?

First of all, started diving 2 years ago when finally realized that scuba diving will remain a childhood’s dream if I do not dedicate any time and money to actually get into and learn it. The opportunity showed itself when my friends invited me to visit Fuerteventura together. As I was there just a couple of months before thanks to my cousins, this time I could set some time aside for diving courses and experience the bubbling sound of my breathing. And the abyss pulled me in immediately.

I’ve met some great people there with lots of interesting stories and different backgrounds. Also probably due to diving being a slow-paced extreme sport, the people are even more listening, interested in hearing each others’ stories, being more observant of each other and the surrounding nature then many other places I went to. People have to work together in dive teams, life depends on that. The thought that while one is just a few meters away from the surface, everything reminds him to the fact the conditions for life only exist in a very narrow range: even a few meters deep physics are against you, your body behaves differently under the pressure and all the sea creatures are trying to kill you (well, they defend themselves). Facing this hostile environment makes one more humble and see his place in the environment.

Since then I had some chance to do diving around the Mediterranean and the Canary islands and observed how the nature evolves in different environments from volcanic lava bottoms to artificial shipwrecks. And also felt that human waste and exposure is really ruining them. Even if divers are educated to be nice guests and observers: you should never leave any thrash and on the way out collect whatever is possible to make leave the beaches cleaner than they were when going below.

But I always feel that going there to be part of a guided underwater safari is still way much less than a person could and should do to make the world cleaner.

One day in May, an opportunity came along.

It came in the form of one of my colleagues, Aaron. He asked me if I wanted to do some diving and work on a coral reef. He had found some programmes on goeco.org, organized by some local NGOs for research. He knew that I liked diving. Touched the right point!

This is an activity what I wanted to do since I started my diving “career”: do something useful while diving and efforts to understand how much can we do to help these basic environments. We are all dependent on them as the whole ecosystem of the globe is huge interconnected networks of dependent systems. If we ruin one, the effects will have a chain reaction of moving the system into different state (with or without mankind). The required work includes cleaning, re-planting the coral reef, surveying the different species living on site, also helping out to estimate the numbers of them. Including sharks which are always interesting to see as they’re the top of the food chain, being the early “canaries” of signaling problems in the ecosystem with their disappearance.

So we immediately jumped into understand the feasibility of the trip. Also managed to get one more colleague, Deniz, who is into doing this even if he’ll be new to diving.
Even better, our company, Cisco is officially supporting these activities by giving us 5 vacation days on top of the usual yearly vacations. It’s called time2give which is very well given naming. And a perfect motivation for people to do something good for their communities.

The location of the programme is a famous spot in Malaysia, famous for being a diving destination and being a bit remote: the Perhentian islands.

Honestly, this was the first time I heard of them but will also be the first time for me visiting the far east. This forced me into studying the maps in that part of the world to understand where do the borders lie between the different countries. And while I considered myself good in geography especially after being addicted to the history of the Pacific area in the second world war, I realized that I had (and still have) really superficial knowledge of the area. Well, back to drawing table…

So for the history I learned that these islands were used as stopover for shipping goods from the bay of Thailand. I’m curious to see if that has caused harm to the nature and whether it could recover from it.

Lots of thoughts but I think there was one very good question I got from a friend: will our activities compensate for the emissions of the trip?

The answer is definitely no. But at least, we do more good than a typical trip would do. And the whole program is set up with locals, staying in the villages, no luxuries at all. Also involving the local people, understanding their relation to the nature. The footprint is definitely set smaller than a typical tropical vacation and we will do actual work for 2 weeks on making things better.

But you shouldn’t feel sorry for us working in our spare time, we will be diving at a coral reef. Really looking forward to it.

Vivaldi