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!

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